Anand Tucker has just returned to low-budget UK film-making after leaving The Golden Compass last year due to creative differences. He tells Star of Tomorrow Hope Dickson Leach about meeting Steve Martin, having a good time and why directing is overrated

Dickson Leach: How did you get into directing'

Anand Tucker: I had flunked my exams and hadn't got into university, so I applied to drama school. Within a week I realised I was the worst actor in the world but I also realised that the actors wanted to be told what to do by someone so I started directing there. Then I went to the Scala Cinema to see Taxi Driver and I thought, I want to do that. I left drama school and worked in various jobs including selling advertising which is very good training for directing because it's all about bullshitting and blagging and selling. Then I lied my way into the Harrow Film School. I was terrified that I'd be found out because I had no idea how to change a role of film. And I made a short, which was terrible.

Dickson Leach: But you wanted to keep doing it.

Tucker: Yes, of course! You're ego keeps you going. My degree film was invited to a festival at UCLA in Los Angeles and I got onto the plane with the can under my arm. I thought, The screening is going to be packed, there'd be a standing ovation, Steven Spielberg was going to come and see it, and immediately sign me up! Of course, I get to the festival by bus - a terrifying journey - and the festival had every single student film from all over the world and at the screening there were four people and me. And three of them walked out. I came home with my tail between my legs.

Dickson Leach: Did you want to give up'

Tucker: No. I thought, this is going to be a bit harder than I thought. But I was lucky because one of my tutors had a production company and it had a commission from Channel 4 to make a late night Asian chat show with Shekhar Kapur and I got a job as a researcher. And that was my first experience of working in TV. I wanted to direct films but at the time in the 1980s there was no industry in the UK - Goldcrest was collapsing, the apprenticeship system which was the old way to get into directing had died - so the only way was through television.

I got onto the trainee producer scheme at the BBC and I spent two years there learning everything. My first posting was The Late Show, which was a group of very talented people run by Michael Jackson but they didn't have many film skills so I got on quite quickly. Michael Jackson became one of my mentors and I don't think you get on without mentors. The lessons he gave me with the very first thing I directed for him have stood me in good stead throughout my career.

Dickson Leach: Did you at that stage think about becoming a producer rather than a director'

Tucker: I always wanted to be a director but what the BBC taught me was to produce all my own stuff. Especially when you make documentaries, you have to come up with idea, you have to set your team up, you have to run the budget, you have to carry the sound. So it was a great training because you learn to do everything. And also the BBC then was like a Hollywood studio, it had all these terrific people on salary, so I was working with the DoP who'd just shot a film with Stephen Frears. It meant you learnt a lot from some of the best behind-the-scenes people. Then, after 18 months there, I was approached by [producer] Andy Paterson and I started making documentaries for TV.

Dickson Leach: You've been with Andy since then. As a director, is it important to find a group of collaborators and stick with them'

Tucker: I love working with the same group of people because you build up a shorthand. Other directors like to move around but for me it's all about the conversations you have. If you find people you click with then it makes this job, which is hard, much easier. Your work also gets better because of the shorthand you build up.

Dickson Leach: Is it the same with actors' I ask because I've used the same actors in a couple of my shorts.

Tucker: No, it's different with actors because you have to cast the person you think who encapsulates the essence of the role.

Dickson Leach: How do you ensure the relationship with your actors will be a good one'

Tucker: Usually, I'll decide what the actor I want to cast should be like. Then I watch a lot of stuff and when I see that person on film or on stage, I think, there you are. At that point it becomes about getting them. That's the scary part, because you have cast that actor in your mind and you have to get them to join up. That's partly about seduction but ultimately you hope that the script will be good enough to make them want to do the film - and let's face it, it's all about the script - and that when you meet them you're an amenable enough host that they can imagine spending eight weeks with you and that they think you'll be a safe pair of hands.

Dickson Leach: What happens when you meet and work with someone like Steve Martin [on Shopgirl]'

Tucker: I'm a big fan of his and LA Stories is one of my favourite films and I loved the Shopgirl script. So when I flew out to meet him, it was very nerve-wracking - he's a very intelligent man, it's his script and it's from his book. But in the end you have to be honest. So I forgot about being nervous, and just said what I thought because it's going to come out sooner or later and it may as well be sooner. And we both thought we could work with each other.

I do think you might as well have as nice a time as possible making your films. I don't really subscribe to the notion that you have to have a miserable time. I'm on a quest for things to be nice! Life's too short to work with people who aren't going to be fun to work with. It doesn't mean there won't be disagreements and there won't be tension or complications but you can tell if a person is decent or not.

Dickson Leach: On the subject of complications, what do you do when you don't know what to do' One of my teachers at Columbia told me that Elia Kazan would say 'Put the camera over there' just to distract people and he'd go off and have a think. Then he'd come back and say 'No, actually, put the camera over there...'

Tucker: I'm a bit of a control freak in that I storyboard every last frame. But I'm happy to throw it all away on set. This isn't meant to sound arrogant but I don't know if I've ever had a moment when I don't know what to do, because I love it when you throw everything away and say, 'Hey! Let's just see what happens!' For me, that's the most exciting moment, when you trust each other enough to fall off the edge of the cliff together. If something's not working, that's different, and that's when you have to try something else. Nine times out of ten the result is just as good or better.

If something really isn't working, then that means there's something wrong with the scene and then you sit with actors and talk it through with the actors and figure something out. You've got to trust the moment, because out of whatever chaos is going on there's always something there you can go for. The only moment you do get into trouble is when you have two more scenes to shoot, it's 6.40pm, you have to wrap in 20 minutes, there's no overtime and you've got to get two shots that you can only put one light for. That's the tricky bit. For me, that's when my documentary experience comes in. I know that I can shoot something very simply if I have to.

Dickson Leach: On one of my shorts there was a gaffer from the BBC who was very strict about overtime. We were doing the last shot of the day which featured one of the actors, who's coincidentally quite photogenic, doing a sexy dance. Afterwards I thanked him profusely and he said: 'I would've stayed all night to watch her!'

Tucker: So if you have to stay late, just bring in the dancing girls! But everyone is different in how they deal with those things.

Dickson Leach: I once heard Sydney Pollack say that he liked acting because it gives him the chance to see other directors at work. Like Mike Nichols said, directing is like sex in that you never see any one else doing it.

Tucker: But unlike sex, I think directing is very overrated. There's a whole mystique built up around it - what's the method, what's the voodoo - and I think it's all bullshit. Because 90% of the job is casting both the actors and the crew and putting together a group of unbelievably talented people who can do the stuff you can't do. I think of directing as being a good bus driver who gets all the right people on the bus, makes sure the bus stops at the right stops, that everyone has a nice ride and we all get off at the other end.

The director's job is to know what the route is. There are some directors who do have the voodoo, like Martin Scorsese and Wong Kar-wai, but for the rest of us it's about the bus. It's about knowing where you're going and trusting the people around you.

Dickson Leach: One of the things I'm dealing with now is how to get my first feature and then my second. How did you get your first feature, Saint-Ex, which was released in 1996'

Tucker: All the time I was doing documentaries I wanted to make movies. I would go to BBC Drama and try to get work there and they would look at me as a documentary maker. There's still that attitude - you make docs, what do you know about making drama' And the same thing happens with drama directors - you get pigeonholed. I thought no one was going to help me do a drama except me.

I loved The Little Prince and I met [writer] Frank Cottrell Boyce and he wrote a script and I went to one of my mentors, Roly Keating, who was at the BBC suggesting I make a drama documentary about the Little Prince author Antoine de Saint-Exupery. He gave me some money and I decided to try and raise more money to make a movie. I sent the script to Bruno Ganz who said yes. Suddenly this small project was worth a bit more and we cobbled money together from various sources and with £400,000 we made the film. I nearly bankrupted the company, it wasn't nice but I made the film.

That's what you have to do:make the film myself. It didn't make me any more bankable because it wasn't really a movie movie. It still took three years before I made Hilary And Jackie. There are people out there who make their short and are suddenly making a big film at 25. I'm not one of those people. Things take time and I, like most directors, have to work really hard at it. It's a business and why should anyone give you any money unless they'll make some money out of you.

Dickson Leach: How did you stay afloat when you were in between directing projects'

Tucker: Commercials and bank loans and remortgaging my house. The usual stuff.

Dickson Leach: You're producing Sharon Maguire's Incendiary now through Archer Street Films, which you run with Andy Paterson and Frank Cottrell Boyce. How have your skills as a producer helped you as a director'

Tucker: It's helped me make my films and get the most out of the money I get because I know my way around a budget. I would recommend that all directors produce themselves because it's a good discipline.

Dickson Leach: How did you get your agent and is a good agent the secret to making it' I don't have an agent but I'm looking for one and it's the first question I'm asked.

Tucker: I got an agent when I was making Saint-Ex. He was a young English guy, Nick Reed, who had just gone to ICM in LA and was scouting for talent in the UK. He took me on and I was with him for ten years. But to be honest, having an agent isn't going to help you. What's going to help you is having a fantastic script and getting it cast and make your first movie. A good agent is only really useful if they have something they can work with in the marketplace. Particularly in the US, an agent needs something to work with. That might also be a brilliant script.

It's a myth that if you get an agent your career will happen. That's rubbish. Make a great film or write a great script and then get an agent that gets you and be prepared for it to be a long-term investment. A lot of people get frustrated that things don't happen immediately and blame their agent. That's not the case. The directors I admire, like Scorsese, didn't wait until they had an agent; they just went out and made a film however they could.

Dickson Leach: I suppose also technology has changed and has given us the opportunity to go out and make films cheaply and easily.

Tucker: Exactly. The world has changed. Paul Andrew Williams can make London To Brighton on a tiny budget. That's what people should be doing. That's how good film-makers rise up.

Dickson Leach: Why are there so few female directors'

Tucker: I think it's harder. It's difficult if a woman has a family, much more difficult to go away for two or three months. I know because Sharon is my partner and I've seen her experiences. Film crews are still predominantly male and there's a lot of sexism and there's no point pretending there isn't. I think that attitude is part of British film culture. It's different with an American crew. British crews are great but in different ways. In America, everyone is in it because they love movies, it's a passion. They go to see something every weekend and you have conversations on set about movies.

Dickson Leach: About good movies'

Tucker: About any kind of movie. Here, people feel a bit beleaguered.

Dickson Leach: Do you feel as though it's an industry here' I often don't.

Tucker: No. But that's also good. It's easy to bemoan that but we couldn't make the kind of films we make if Britain wasn't as fluid, complicated place, because in LA you can only really make a certain kind of film. We've got a rich cinematic history here and some fantastic directors; we just enjoy moaning about how crap we are. And there's still a hangover that we're a literary culture and the written word is pukka and cinema isn't really an art form. In the US, it is, and they don't have a problem with thinking of it as an art form and as commerce.

Dickson Leach: Do you read your reviews' And do you Google yourself' If so, do you get angry with some reviews'

Tucker: Of course I read my reviews. But I'd rather that two people really loved it and two people really hated it - and the remaining five were somewhere in the middle - than no one really cared. You're never going to please everyone so don't take them personally and keep it in proportion.

I remember the world premiere of Hilary And Jackie at the Venice film festival and the best review the next day started with the words:'This movie stinks worse that the Venice canals at the height of summer.' It hurt but I believed in the film and wanted to get it back to Britain where I thought people would appreciate it more.

Dickson Leach: Who do you go to for an honest opinion about the film you're making'

Tucker: Sharon is brutally honest. Then I have a series of screenings with different groups of people - the first group are the ones closest to me and I know they'll tell me the truth - and then I listen, because if your movie doesn't work for an audience, what are you doing it for'

Dickson Leach: How did The Golden Compass experience leave you'

Tucker: It was very hard. The Northern Lights was a passion of mine for a decade and I poured my heart and soul into the movie and it broke my heart. But if you can't stand the heat, don't get in the kitchen. This big movies are particular kind of juggernauts and I had a fantastic time and learned a lot while I was on it. It was Chris Weitz's to begin with and he wrote the script and I'm really pleased for Chris that he got it back. I'd like to have another go at a big movie.

Dickson Leach: Do you approach a film of that size in a different way to a smaller film'

Tucker: It's the same process except you've now got a bigger orchestra and you've got to learn how to conduct a bigger string section and a tuba section you never had before. What's bigger is the politics and the number of voices and the levels of Chinese whispers are bigger. Because with millions and millions of dollars people get very anxious, understandably.

Dickson Leach: What are the main differences between working in the UK and the US'

Tucker: With big films, the level of politics and the weight of the executive is enormous and you're really making the film by committee so you need different skills. Managing that level of executive weight is a whole different thing. But when I worked at Touchstone on Shopgirl I found them to be completely supportive and intelligent and great. You can't generalise. But there is a truth that if you make films at a certain budget level you can do your own thing.

On And When Did You Last See Your Father, I had a great team and a great experience. When you get involved with American money you're answering to people who are catering for a different market. But there's no point moaning about it:either take the money and don't complain about it, or don't take it.

Dickson Leach: What's the best piece of advice you were given and the best piece of advice you'd give a newcomer'

Tucker: When I was working on The Late Show, Michael Jackson said Kill your babies, which really means you have to try very hard not to let your ego intrude upon what you're doing. And my advice to newcomers would be, keep going, keep doing it.