Stage and screen: two nations divided by a common language

A new generation of theatre directors is moving into film, reports James Rampton
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A harassed-looking film director is attempting in vain to persuade 50 eight-year-olds to walk casually through a school gate in Poole without looking at the camera. As one boy passes, he turns and says directly into the lens, "I'm trying not to look." The long-suffering director takes another drag on his cigarette, sighs and mutters to his assistant: "Just kill that boy, will you?" With his very first film, Eight, Stephen Daldry, the director of the Royal Court, has broken the cardinal rule of film- making: never work with children.

On the evidence of the finished product, he seems to have made few other mistakes. Made from a script by 25-year-old Tim Clague which won the Jerwood Film Prize last year, this is as accomplished as any film debut could be. Released 22 January with Practical Magic, the new Nicole Kidman/Sandra Bullock vehicle, the short film Eight is an achingly sad tale told in voice-over by Jonathan, a boy fantasising about his father. He has yet to realise that his parent died in the Hillsborough disaster. "Mum don't like Dad very much," he observes. "She always cries when I ask about him."

In one particularly poignant scene, his grieving mother (Gina McKee) is framed in the kitchen-hatch holding her hand to her face in a losing battle against tears while Jonathan silently eats his dinner. The only sound is the ticking of a grandfather clock. It may be indebted to Ingmar Bergman, but the shot still has a power of its own.

Sadly, films made by theatre directors are not usually this impressive. Too often theatre directors trying their hands at cinema have proved tragic heroes, hubristically brought down by a fundamental flaw - the inability to translate their obvious talents into interesting films.

Sir Peter Hall, for many the doyen of theatre directors, was on the wrong end of flak for his 1968 foray into film, Work Is a Four-Letter Word. Halliwell's Film Guide calls it a "weakly futuristic industrial fantasy". Howard Davies, an award-winning theatre director, fared no better with his 1993 film, The Secret Rapture. Similarly, while Trevor Nunn has an almost unrivalled reputation as a stage director, his offerings on film - Lady Jane and Twelfth Night - have scarcely set the world alight.

The principal drawback affecting many directors who transfer from stage to screen is that they are unable to drop theatrical gesture and use the specific grammar of film. As one film-maker, who did not wish to be named, put it: "Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night and Adrian Noble's A Midsummer Night's Dream both failed because the directors just staged plays in front of the camera. Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing was much more successful because it had a more ballsy, filmic quality."

Paul Unwin moved from stage to television - he co-created Casualty - before becoming a film director. His most recent work, The American, an interpretation of the novel by Henry James starring Diana Rigg, was seen on BBC2 over Christmas. "Film and theatre are very different arts to master," he says. "When I first directed a film, I encountered a degree of scepticism. The crew knew that just because I could perform well under pressure at the Bristol Old Vic didn't necessarily mean I could make films. To have a theatre director's alchemical skill to pull actors together and produce good performances is one thing, but to see the shape of a film and to tell stories in a visual rather than an oral tradition requires quite different talents. I've seen experienced theatre directors come a cropper by not realising the power and the dynamism of film." The implication is that while actors are paramount in the theatre, in the cinema they are often, as Hitchcock remarked, mere cattle.

Daldry does not demur. "A lot of theatre is rooted in the re-creation of authentic experience, whereas a lot of great movies are not about authentic experience at all. Rather, they operate on a subconscious level, in the language of dreams. That's the vernacular of film. Movies work in an emotional rather than an intellectual landscape. You have to have a completely different head on."

Understandably, many young film-makers who have struggled to get projects off the ground feel miffed about grand theatre directors swanning in with little or no technical training to make well-financed movies. Alan Levy, whose film 1977 was shown at the London Film Festival last year, admits: "I have looked down my nose at theatre people trying to do our job. The Trevor Nunns and Adrian Nobles are always going to be old farts, they're never going to rock the kasbah. Making boring, wordy adaptations of Shakespeare is passe. Those directors are unable to feel the camera is part of the creative process - to them, it's just an observer. They have a theatrical way of approaching film - they just point the camera at a scene and shoot it. If you look at American directors like Scorsese or Minnelli, the camera will be emotionally part of the scene. Stilted British kitchen-sink or costume dramas are just flat observations of actors at work."

All that may now be changing as younger, hipper theatre directors such as Sam Mendes, Deborah Warner and Matthew Warchus switch to film. Like Daldry, they may be better versed than the older generation in the alphabet of film. The theatre director Nicholas Hytner has already made a smooth transition with such movies as The Madness of King George and The Crucible. Film is the happening place for young artists to be.

"Isn't film the medium of the century?" asks Unwin. "It's just very groovy. As an ambitious young director, film is what you want to do." Levy concurs: "Theatre has stagnated over the past 30 years. It's not pulse-of-the-nation stuff. At a party, you'd be much more interested in a film-maker than a theatre director. Students say `let's check out the new Scorsese', as opposed to `let's go and see the new version of Hamlet'. "

Back on the location of Eight, film-making doesn't seem that glamorous an option. Daldry is perched on a pavement in Poole grabbing a bowl of fruit salad and a fag in a hurried lunch break. His white jeans are torn and smeared with the camera grease that always seems to breed on film sets. He looks haggard. But, he maintains, it has been worthwhile. He reckons he can contribute something new to film-making. "From the theatre, I've brought skills in dealing with character, paradox and contradiction. A lot of film directors find the emotional language of characters monosyllabic."

But Daldry is also big enough to admit he still has a lot to learn. "Theatre credentials are not necessarily right for filmmaking. I might not have them. If I don't, I'll go and learn another language instead." I don't think that will be necessary.