Indie director Gerard Johnson’s latest movie is Muscle, a psychological thriller starring Cavan Clerkin and Craig Fairbrass. The plot follows out-of-shape salesman Simon who meets an intimidating personal trainer at his local gym. After its premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, I caught up with Gerard to discuss the film…
How did the London premiere go?
It was great! It was my first time having a film at London. I’m from London so it was nice that I finally got to play a film there. My previous two Tony and Hyena both premiered in Edinburgh, so it was lovely to premiere in London with Muscle. The three screenings went well and generated great word of mouth buzz, so it was everything I wanted from the festival really.
Where did the inspiration come from for Simon’s story?
Well I’ve been going to gyms all my life really, from the spit-and-sawdust ones to the more modern lifestyle ones. I’ve had this idea for a while of a personal trainer taking over someone’s life, and it remained a two-page treatment idea for years. Recently, in seeing how gym culture has exploded, it made me think that we’ve never really had a film about gym culture. Obviously, there was Pumping Iron, which is an amazing gym-based documentary but that’s more about Arnold Schwarzenegger himself. Nowadays, everyone is more health conscious and knows about nutrition, carbs, good fats etc. so it feels like a good time to shine a light on that world in the cinema.
I also did some telesales in the past and I actually sold the product that you see Simon selling in the beginning. The sales script he’s using on the phones is my old script, and I felt like there was potential to tell a story about the cut-throat sales world at the same time; the ringing of the bell when you get a sale, the characters I observed, the offices. Even though it’s quite a small part of Muscle, I wanted to recreate it as I remembered it. Between the call-centre and the gym, they can both be quite brutal testosterone-fuelled environments and they’re about the ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality in different ways.
There’s an artiness to your work that I really enjoy which seems to set it apart from a lot of British cinema. Is it a conscious effort to cross genres in the way that you do, or does it happen quite naturally?
In all of my films so far there are elements of black comedy, social-realism as well as that main crime/ thriller aspect. I’ve tried to always subvert genre, and some people might think of my approach as being quite an abrasive form of cinema. There’s no area of cinema I wouldn’t want to tackle.
We’re in a time when there’s a growing media focus on raising awareness of men’s mental health issues and tackling toxic masculinity. Even though you had the initial idea for a while, was this on your mind when finishing the film?
Like you say, it probably wasn’t on my mind so much when I came up with the initial idea but as it’s coming out now, it’s perfect timing. I hope it can be seen as something that will raise questions and throw some light on the subject. I use dark humour in the story but underneath that, it’s quite a chilling portrayal of heightened machismo. You’ve only got to spend a little bit of time in gyms to observe that sort of behaviour. Even a walk to the water fountain can appear to be almost animalistic and it can be like a mating ritual the way some men will throw the weights around…who can lift the most, who can grunt the loudest? A walk can be developed like they’re holding two TVs under their arms, and there’s something fascinating about the anthropology of that environment.
Because of the mysterious narrative, the music, and the fact that it’s filmed in black and white, I got some Hitchcockian vibes from the film. Was his work an influence on this particular piece? If not, which other filmmakers are you influenced by?
It’s lovely to be compared to Hitchcock because I’m a massive admirer of his work. I’d say for Muscle in particular, my biggest influence was the British new-wave movement; mainly films of Jack Clayton, Lindsey Anderson, Tony Richardson, although probably the most evident influence actually is The Servant by Joseph Losey. A lot of the new-wave stuff was set up north in working class towns, so the reason I filmed in Newcastle was to try and capture some of that atmosphere. I still wanted it to feel contemporary though. There’s also a hint of The Likely Lads in the relationship between Simon and his telesales colleague Ronnie in how they put the world to rights in the pub after a hard day in the office.
Did shooting in black and white present any challenges, perhaps in getting the film distributed?
In the early discussions a few years ago, we were told that nobody wants black and white films anymore. This was before Roma and recently films like The Lighthouse and Bait. Muscle was fully financed in France and they embraced the idea of a black and white film. It’s never going to go away and it’s short-sighted of people to think otherwise. For the visuals of Muscle, I was inspired by a lot of black and white gym photography, so in my head I always saw the finished film that way. I couldn’t picture in colour and I’m really pleased with how it’s turned out.
It was good to see Peter Ferdinando pop up in Muscle, maintaining his streak of appearing in every one of your films to date. I’ve recently discovered through my research that you are cousins, so wondered if you could tell me a bit about your working relationship and dynamic that you share.
Yes! He was there for me from the beginning when I was making my short films. He’s been an actor from a very early age and was the only actor I knew well enough to ask about being in my work. Our careers sort of took off at the same time and we made Tony as a short first of all, then developed it into a feature. In the three films he’s made with me, he’s been a completely different body type. He lost two stone for Tony, he gained two stone of fat for Hyena, and in Muscle he’s in the best shape of his life. We have a shorthand and we’re very close. We’ve got similar taste when it comes to films and I think he’s one of the best actors of his generation. He deserves a lot more recognition.
I fondly remember chatting with him briefly at the Edinburgh Filmhouse bar one night a few years ago. I think it was possibly a mini Hyena reunion during EIFF, and I’m not sure if you were around or not…?
Ahhh yes, I was there! I directed a play up there and EIFF put on a Johnson brothers ‘season’ about myself and my brother Matt who is a well-known musician (THE THE) and does all the music for my films. They screened my films and we did a play reading of ‘This Story of Yours’, which Peter and Cavan were in. That was actually when I first worked with Cavan!
I see you’ve got a new project on the horizon. What can you say about Three Rivers at this stage?
I can’t really say much at this stage, other than it’s a crime thriller set in Pittsburgh. We have an amazing lead actress attached, which I am very excited about…but other than that I can’t say too much!
You’ve always had fantastic actors in your movies. If you were to have your pick of three names from the past or present to be in your next crime thriller, who would you choose and why?
This is the hardest question and I could go on for bloody hours! I think I’ve had to narrow it down in a way by choosing three great performances from crime films of the past and would want to combine those in an ideal world! I’d go with Gena Rowlands in Gloria, Gene Hackman in The French Connection, and James Cagney in Angels With Dirty Faces. Gena was a powerhouse and is incredible in that film. The French Connection is a classic that still feels so contemporary today. I grew up with Cagney’s films and became obsessed with him as a kid. I had posters of him in my bedroom and he set the benchmark for everything that came afterwards really. He had so much natural aggression and gave such powerful performances.
What’s next for Muscle on the festival circuit?
The next one for us is the Tallinn Black Nights in Estonia. It’s quite a prestigious festival, and we’re in competition there. We’ll be showing my director’s cut at Tallinn, because the one shown in London was slightly shorter. They’re known as the Devil’s Cut and the Angel’s Cut and the difference comes from one particular scene. There’s a swingers party sequence and my director’s cut is a little more graphic. When filming, I went to a well known swingers club in Newcastle and I recruited real swingers, because I wanted to just let this house party evolve naturally as we were shooting. We let them have these two-day parties then we effectively gate-crashed them. I always feel that’s the best way of doing party scenes. It’s more hypnotic than pornographic and allows us to go on a journey with Simon as he loses control. We see him really get out of his comfort zone so to me, the Devil’s Cut feels more dangerous. I feel cinema should be dangerous.