The Northern Film School at Leeds Beckett University is one of the leading film schools in the UK and was recently named one of the top 5 film schools in the world to watch by the Hollywood Reporter.
Housed within the impressive new Leeds School of Arts building, the Film School delivers unrivalled undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in Filmmaking, Documentary Filmmaking, Film Curation and Exhibition and Screenwriting.
One of this year’s new Filmmaking graduates is John Miller. His final year project involved creating a hard-hitting, but ultimately heart-warming script, that in partnership with a small team of colleagues – each with a specific area of responsibility – is a socially important piece of film, that has already been submitted to over 20 film festivals around the UK: including the prestigious Leeds International Film Festival, which returns to the city this November.
The films, either Drama, Documentary, or Feature-Length, had to be under 15 minutes in length and after forming a crew consisting of Writer, Director, Sound Engineer, Production Designer, Make Up Artist, Producer and Editor, their proposal had to be pitched to a cinema of academics and fellow students. Of the 30 film treatments pitched – only half were selected.
Miller explained: “If you’re a Screen Writer – you can’t Direct. Each one of us had a specific role. I’d worked previously with some of the team. There’s often lots of stress in post-production – but we challenged each other without trouble. Leo the Director, liked the script and was also open to me explaining what I was trying to achieve.”
The other crew members then pitched to join the project. I wonder as the writer, do you then ‘hand over’ to the production team?
Miller: “I was a general ‘lacky’ on set. Which was great. I was involved.”
And what was the inspiration for the subject?
“It stems from second year, when we did a screen writing module. Ten years ago I went on holiday and had taken a self-help book. I read it on the beach. At the time I thought it was the best thing since sliced bread.
“During Covid, I was writing in a hovel of a bedroom – feeling terrible and thought: ‘where’s that self-help book’? I reread it – what a pile of shite!
“I then thought about ‘Snake Oil Salesmen’ trying to flog these books. I hit on the idea that Richard [the central character] tries to follow the steps in a book like this – as his life unravels.”
The reality of life for many people has been captured with an alarming accuracy in King Of Nowt. Is that a life you recognise?
“As I watch the film – it’s probably about me a bit.
“I grew up on a council estate in York, then Leeds. There’s a certain charm that although not everyone has jobs – everyone is a grafter. There’s a working-class ‘Yorkshire grit’ that we see every single day. The characters and dialogue I’ve heard a thousand times. I took everything that I’d been surrounded by for so long and got the script."
Originally going to be based in America, a suggestion that the film references life closer to home was taken onboard by Miller – and is why without a doubt, this powerful piece of work will resonate with northern audiences in these current times of austerity and crisis.
Miller is clear that screenwriting lecturers Anna Zaluczkowska, Julius Ayodeji and Dan Weldon at the Northern Film School have been responsible for ‘setting alight’ his passion for writing: “It’s the Tutors that are so invested – “You might think you’re just writing, but it’s coming from somewhere” – they told me. I fell in love with that.”
It’s impossible when talking to John Miller, not to make comparisons with early-career Barry Hines – or indeed Ken Loach or Jimmy McGovern. He explains: “I’ve got plans to elaborate and make King of Nowt into a series (with Richard as central character), but more about the family dynamic. All the characters have to have a sense of agency. Character development is very important.”
Miller, who returned to university aged 38 after working in Forensic Mental Health, knew he wanted to do script writing, but had never written anything. To gain a place [at the Film School] he needed a portfolio: including a piece of artwork and a Show Reel. “I hadn’t got either. I had five pages of a script. I typed what I thought was a script…sent it off – and got in.”
It would be quite wrong to talk about the film and not spend some time on Richard, the central character, played by Mag North favourite Mik Artistik. So, how did Mik get involved with the project?
“When I would meet up with Dan Weldon to discuss my course, he was always playing music. On one occasion it was Artistik’s ‘Little Plastic Fox’. I hadn’t heard the song or knew about Mik, but Dan said he’d be good for the film.
“I did some research – we approached him – and he said yes. The role was made for him.”
Miller is genuinely bashful and perhaps a little unaware of the cultural significance of what he and the team have produced.
“Everyone involved is from Leeds. That’s important. Is it an important piece of work? I’ve spent so much time with it, maybe I don’t see what other people see. A lot of it is in the delivery of the lines. Yorkshire lines…”
I didn’t see Richard as a salesman – I saw him as a desperate guy just trying his best. Is that accurate?
Miller: “He’s hopeless and useless – but he grafts. His wife’s kicked him out – he’s trying to make ends meet so he can prove people wrong. He’s an honest character.
“It’s not much – but its ‘our’ not much.”
Miller reads a lot on spirituality – and explains he’s trying to get across that it’s not our personal circumstances that make us feel bad –it’s our reaction to them: “Richard is no better off by the end of the film, but he has realised what’s important – the family dynamic.
“Northern grit: I took it for granted. I was always around it, but didn’t realise what it was. What your mam did for you. (Mum not eating, while you did). I’m learning how to use my experiences, the bad things are paying dividends now. There is a quote: ‘Time plus tragedy = comedy’. I’m an overthinker. It’s good for writing, not so good when you’re on your own in a room over Covid.”
Of the other projects this year, were any others as hard-hitting as ‘King of Nowt’?
“Yeah – ‘Mummy left me on Earlsfield Road’. Again, it was about council estate living. A Mum who was addicted to drugs. She left her little girl with a guy while she went off to score – but subsequently died behind some bins. The acting, aesthetic, the way it was shot…It was amazing.”
So what’s ahead for Miller?
“I’m starting a Screenwriting Masters…which is largely self-directed, so that’s the next two years at Beckett. Then hopefully Freelance – pushing the scripts I’ve written already. Progress King of Nowt – show what we’ve got as ‘proof of concept’. I’ll also hopefully do some ‘script supervising’. ‘No matter how you start – finish strong.” [Miller clearly lives his life by a particular code.]
If pressed…what’s your label. You’ve got a film out there already that this year will probably be in film festivals. Are you not a writer? A script writer?
“Once I’ve made a film free from the academic safety blanket – I might then class myself as a writer, but at the minute: I’m writer-ish.”
“In the meantime, I’m always looking out for ideas. I enjoy meeting and talking to people”
Miller has a clear philosophy around his direction of travel and is concentrating on what fills his tanks. When he is meeting people, he’s mining a rich seam, harvesting ‘script fodder’.
“I’m Constantly picking up material, dialogue and mannerisms [that are instantly noted in Miller’s phone.] I’m a people watcher.”
To end, we talk about the vital importance of access to the arts and creativity, for ‘working-class’ kids:
“If there’s anything I could advocate – it’s how important creativity is. Growing up on a council estate, you get into fights – you learn to handle yourself – but you don’t always know how to harness or access creativity. If I could encourage young lads and young women that if there is a creative spark – just to chase it.
“If you’ve got a kid that would rather write than get into a fight – let him or her write. If there’s anything that can come from that, it’s only going to be positive.
“Mental health too. [We must] Look after ourselves. Look after each other. Look after our Communities.
“If you need to reach out to someone: reach out. [That’s] especially important for men: we don’t talk about things enough. Again, depending on your socio-economic background, you’re often actively discouraged from talking. It’s about drink, drugs and violence – because there might not be a positive outlet. So any creative spark, whatever it is: chase it. Writing, painting, fishing – anything. Chase it.
“Use art as an outlet for your emotional wellbeing – nothing bad will come out of that. Let people take the piss – it doesn’t matter. If I can do it…anyone can do it. Take that step. I thought boxing was the way out – it wasn’t.”
Miller ends by repeating his view: “It’s our response to the things that happen – not the things that happen to us, that ultimately decides how happy we are.
“How can you treat others well if we don’t know how to treat ourselves well?”
John Miller will undoubtedly be involved in some socially-vital film projects as his career progresses, but in the interim, King of Nowt can be viewed by clicking on this link: