So starts the emotional roller-coaster that is Stuart Hazeldine’s first full-length feature, Exam. Released this year, the film has earmarked the British writer/director as one to watch.
Exam’s claustrophobic setting is a sublime blend of psychology and mystery-thriller. Despite its original premise, its influences come from a variety of sources throughout writer Stuart’s career.
“Being born in 1971, I was 5 or 6 when Star Wars came out. It was the perfect age to get hooked into all that kind of film. As I got older, I got into films by Ridley Scott, Peter Weir and also Stanley Kubrick. They sparked me the most but there was also the Hollywood influence – Spike Lee, Oliver Stone and of course Scorsese. The British had their own way of doing things. David Lean influenced me from a distance – he was in a different generation to mine. But he was the big elephant in the room of British cinema.”
Those early seeds finally took root when Stuart was studying American History.
“I started out at university in Kent. I was making bigger and bigger films every year but by the time I got to 24, I had a script bought. So I had the choice of either staying on in uni or to finish my studies and get into a load of debt. There wasn’t too much thinking – I took the money and started making a career.”
In 1999, Stuart sold his horror treatment Rizen to Universal Pictures, and began one of many works in Hollywood.
“Writing for studios is different to writing for myself. Over the last 12 or 13 years, I have been honing the different skills needed to complete different drafts. With Exam, I was financing it myself so I wasn’t writing it to persuade a studio to buy it.”
Exam is Stuart’s first full-length feature and has drawn much acclaim, winning at the Santa Barbara Film Festival and a BAFTA nomination for ‘Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer”.
“Exam was received positively as it was made off the radar. We received no funding and we never even got a tax credit on it. We had a great premiere at the Edinburgh, and we won at Santa Barbara. We won The Panavision Spirit Award for Independent Cinema, which is given to a unique independent feature that has been made outside mainstream Hollywood. The film drew a lot more positive attention in the States than it did back home.
“The idea for the story came about during a phone call I was having with my friend Simon Garrity. He’d said that he’d had an idea about some kids going into an exam and finding a blank piece of paper. I thought it’d be interesting to raise the stakes, and to introduce these ‘A’ type characters into a life or death situation. There have been comparisons to the BBC’s top-rating TV show, The Apprentice, but in truth, The Apprentice wasn’t as big as it is now when I wrote it. It was just a happy coincidence that the movie came out around the same time as The Apprentice was top of the ratings.”
“The highlight of my career to date was finally sitting back in the Hi-Definition Suite and watching Exam from start to finish. Watching the audience reaction was just great. Of course, there was the BAFTA nomination this year, but another highlight is my adaption of Milton’s Paradise Lost, which is considered by many to be the greatest work of English literature.”
Stuart is ambitious too. Despite already having worked on many successful movies, (The Day the Earth Stood Still and the Nicholas Cage thriller Knowing), Stuart still has big plans.
“I aim to be one of the most proficient writer/directors to come out of Britain. There are many successful writer/directors in the US and also in France but not that many here in the UK. I want to create some classic films, to produce some original characters. To do that, my next film needs to be an improvement on Exam – it’s that ‘second album’ feeling!”
(Originally published online in 2010)