What a privilege it was to catch up with one of our most productive and impressive students, Finn Bruce, who in the nine years since he left us in 2010 has made really constructive inroads into the behemoth that is the film industry. With three feature films already to his name, and work beginning in the autumn on an even bigger project, credited with multifarious roles on top of Producer, I already know this is going to be one interesting catch up. To say that I am not disappointed is something of an understatement.
Even as we begin our chat Finn is generous in his profound acknowledgement of Hurtwood’s successful influence on him, always a comfort to a weary teacher, especially as it is neither sycophantic nor patronizing. Severely dyslexic, he tells me, he arrived ‘having largely failed’ his GCSEs, and confesses that he was starting seriously to have doubts: ‘I was beginning to see myself as a stupid kid.’ But he left us a mere two years later as an A* student with confidence, experience, and a number of irons already in the fire. So tell us the journey, how everything changed, how it unfolded, I ask.
First and fundamentally he changed course: advised to take on Media A level alongside his chosen Photography, Music Tech and Theatre Studies, he remains eternally grateful for Cosmo’s advice. It was Theatre, initially his favourite subject, that was dropped, as his creativity on film bounded ahead of the field. Very early in our chat he establishes a key maxim. ‘Make the most of your assets,’ he tells me. Quickly aware that he could tell a story – not on the stage, but rather on film, that is what he began to do. Finn uses a phrase that recurs over the course of our chat: he refers to ‘the power to portray a narrative’, and it becomes clear that he is blessed in this respect. He has a key understanding of what makes us tick, how we turn life into stories, stories into entertainment and history, stories into how we function daily. Narrative underpins our understanding of ourselves, ‘It’s what drives success,’ he tells me more than once, and it is clear that he has good reason to know this.
So back to the beginning. He was already lining up potential future projects at school, and was lucky enough to secure a fascinating internship with Mario Testino. Not content to ‘just work’ towards his A levels, he began accumulating work experience, network connections and even acquiring intellectual property rights before finishing his exams. With new-found confidence in himself and his abilities, he decided against further academic studies, and set about consolidation of his skills, through a specific and self-constructed course of training across the multifarious worlds of film production. ‘Everything is so vast in film with so many roles and disciplines,’ he tells me, so he began to narrow things down and seek knowledge through experience. Working as a runner, making teas and coffees, he watched and learned. From the start, ’I wanted to be a creative producer,’ but could see also that even to make the most beautiful film, the reality is everything begins – and ends – with money, and this was where he set about really understanding the underpinnings of film finance. He describes his methodology as a kind of ‘DIY working backwards.’ He set about mastering the full realms of film finance, not his natural milieu, and requiring, he admits, considerable discipline and focus. It was his work on ‘the packaging of film ideas,’ the sales, sets, ideas that led him finally to a hard-won, brief opening to meet with city whiz Nicola Horlick. A fifteen-minute meeting turned into a two-hour marathon job interview! Packed off to LA to work with two of her producers Shaun Redick and Ray Mansfield (both Oscar nominated who have recently produced ‘Get Out’ and ‘Blackkklansman’) – Finn could barely believe his luck, working at the highest levels and soaking up all the glamour and reality of high-octane film-making.
Back home in the UK, he worked as Horlick’s travel assistant then became development and investment executive for a couple of years. The job took him ‘everywhere’, including the most prestigious film festivals and meeting the movers and shakers of this esoteric world. He quickly realized that this world was full of people who worked in the hypothetical, with future promises, people who were ‘going to make a film’. He quickly decided that he was not going to be one of them.
His first film, ‘Tank 432’ grew out of circumstance, an understanding of sales and packaging that he needed to work through in reality rather than just in theory – and sheer bravery. A psychological thriller that was ultimately sold to Netflix and around the world, he laughs heartily about how much he learned in the process, the kind of learning that can surely only come from experience. He explains, in a wonderfully simplistic way, the convolutions of finance, the need to produce sales estimates based on projected casting potential, the absolute necessity of being able to structure finance in a way to offer potential investors the opportunity to make money through the project. His first attempt affirmed the need ‘to step up a budget level’ for his next project, to ‘build my narrative’, not just for a film, but for the financial outcome of that film. Early in our chat Finn acknowledged that what he lacked in his ability to communicate on paper due to his dyslexia, was more than compensated by the quality of his passion and enthusiasm. ‘Put me in a room,’ he tells me, ‘and I can convince’. I was not ‘in the room,’ but one half of a fascinating phone call, and yet I knew he was right. He convinced me with his talent and integrity from afar.
Two new feature films, ‘Tucked’ and ‘Tracks’, made back to back to save costs by amalgamating production finance, were made in astonishingly short measure: 12 and 15 days respectively. Finn describes a kind of guerilla-style production, with him racing ahead of shoots around Europe, employing a tiny team of actors and recruiting talent sometimes literally ‘on the street’, exhausting but ultimately rewarding. The first has been released to some good reviews, including the valuable approval of critic Mark Kermode. ‘Tracks’ will probably be released in the winter. Meanwhile, Finn’s profile has been raised enormously by successful production and minimal costs. The result is that this autumn he begins work on his first major production, with the tantalizing working title of ‘Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunchbreak’. In the mode of ‘Hot Fuzz’, he tells me, its focus is an aspiring wannabe who, when rejected, decides to take deadly revenge on those who have stood between him and success. Sounds like a riot to me.
As I said, this is one high-octane ex-Hurtwooder. Our chat could go on all day, I realise. Finn’s career journey is utterly fascinating, but the working day must resume for us both. Any more thoughts on Hurtwood’s input? A rare pause. ‘It provided a real platform to become myself’, he tells me with what I recognize now as his natural fluency. He felt that the ‘Teachers foster a burning passion’ for what they do, and encourage the same in those they teach. He describes himself as ‘crippled with self-doubt’ and yet the school was ‘insanely nurturing and supportive,’ giving him the belief in himself to get going in the massive and terrifying film business. His advice to others wanting, like him, a role within it? ‘Don’t be daunted by the challenge in front of you.’ He says this in a number of different ways over the course of our chat. ‘Find a few people who think like you and position them around you. Get rid of the white noise, don't be demoralized by the rejections… There is ALWAYS a way forward.’
Inspiring stuff. Finn has hooked me on his career narrative, telling his own story, and he is communicating both on an intimate level, person to person, and able to transfer those skills through the mass-media of film. Having increased his ‘budget levels’, he is now looking at the wider dissemination of his ideas, and clearly fired up with the freedom of the independent marketplace, ‘able to make stories that need to be shared, we can make these really emotive fables.’ With a little probing, he reveals that, yes, he embraces the responsibility of producers who shape and create the stories and narratives shared with millions around the world. He hopes eventually to make films with a mass-market appeal that fundamentally make a serious, positive contribution to society, and our understanding of ourselves, and our communities. I for one think it is highly likely that he will achieve just that, and in the not too distant future. It is, of course, also a joy to hear that the openness, the creative energy and encouragement from us Hurtwood folk have helped him on his path. Watch out world, here comes Finn Bruce, and he has lots and lots of stories to tell. Are you sitting comfortably?