cinema · Interviews · LFF19

Muscle Interview: Gerard Johnson – ‘There’s a swingers party sequence and my director’s cut is a little more graphic.’

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.

Muscle screens at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival on Friday 22nd November, Saturday 23rd November, and Thursday 28th November.

Check out my review of Muscle!

cinema · LFF19

Film review: The Irishman

The ninth collaboration between legendary pairing Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro and their first in over twenty years, mob drama The Irishman has been a long time coming. Based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses by true crime writer Charles Brandt, the plot centres around Frank Sheeran (De Niro), the eponymous WWII veteran turned hitman. From meeting mafia kingpin Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) to his complicated friendship with union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the sprawling epic tracks the life and times of the mercilessly loyal footsoldier.

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cinema · LFF19

Film review: Jojo Rabbit

 New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi has garnered cult status and critical acclaim with his distinctive style of madcap comedy. The controversial premise of his latest feature Jojo Rabbit has caused quite the stir as the Jewish auteur tackles the topic of Nazism. Based on the novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, the WWII story sees German boy Johannes (Roman Griffin Davis) enrol in a Hitler Youth training camp run by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) and his team of instructors. Meanwhile, Johannes’s mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is harbouring Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their house, presenting a moral dilemma for the young protagonist which he ponders with Adolf (Taika Waititi), his dictatorial imaginary friend.

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cinema · LFF19

Film review: Muscle

 Indie filmmaker Gerard Johnson isn’t content with making simple crime movies. His work to date has blended the genre with other elements, crossing into wider arthouse ideas. With psychological thriller Muscle, he casts his directorial gaze upon gym culture and the toxic masculinity that can come with it. The plot follows Simon (Cavan Clerkin), a schlubby call-centre worker stuck in a rut. In an attempt to better himself, he joins the local gym where he meets Terry (Craig Fairbrass), an intimidating personal trainer who offers Simon a helping hand. They strike up an unlikely friendship, but it soon becomes apparent that all is not what it seems.

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cinema · LFF19

Film review: Marriage Story

 Indie filmmaker Noah Baumbach explores love within the confines of separation with divorce drama Marriage Story. The plot follows actress Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and her theatre director husband Charlie (Adam Driver) as their relationship is falling apart. With their young son to consider, they want an amicable break-up, but once lawyers get involved, the situation becomes messy and emotionally charged.

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Interviews · LFF19

Hope Gap Interview: William Nicholson – ‘If I don’t do this, I’ll just be dead, so I might as well get on with it!’

William Nicholson is a respected and prolific screenwriter, having penned the scripts for Gladiator, Les Misérables, Shadowlands, and many others. His latest film is divorce drama Hope Gap which he has written and directed. It’s a very personal piece as it is based on his own life and adapted from his Tony award-nominated play Retreat from Moscow.

 The story tracks the separation of husband Edward (Bill Nighy) from wife Grace (Annette Bening) after almost thirty years of marriage. With their son Connor (Josh O’Connor) somewhat caught in the crossfire, the narrative illustrates how the split impacts on the family and explores the repercussions of the breakup. The film celebrated its UK Premiere at the London Film Festival, and I was fortunate enough to chat with Nicholson about the project…

What were the biggest challenges in adapting the theatrical dialogue in your play for the cinema?

 In an interesting way, the biggest challenge was to not ditch the dialogue! A lot of people think that you can’t have a film where people give long speeches. I don’t agree. A film is yet another form of exposing people to emotional drama. There are some films that are wall-to-wall talk and they’re amazing…films like Before Sunrise for example. The key thing for me was NOT to say, ‘I must open it up’. I should have faith in my words.

 Having said that, the film gave me so much opportunity to give echoes of other images which I put an awful lot of work into. It sounds silly but there’s a shot of a train going by and I spent about a day trying to find the angle for the train to cross. I wanted the screen to be a little bit empty, a little bit lonely, and to have a sense of ‘the end of the line’ because that was in this emotion of the story. I’ve been able to compose every frame! I can’t do that in the theatre because the audience composes the frame. For me, that was a gift.

With the story being autobiographical of your youth, how come it’s taken so long to make it to the big screen?

 I was waiting for my parents to die…I think in some ways it would’ve been hard for them to see the film. My mother certainly was very conflicted. Not that she wouldn’t have wanted me to do it, but she kept thinking that my version of what my father did was the truth. It might be the truth, but I don’t know! He didn’t talk too much, so I’ve invented my version of why he did what he did. Now that they’re not here anymore, I’m free to invent.

 The other reason it’s taken so long is that I’ve been afraid of directing for a long time. I finally thought ‘If I don’t do this, I’ll just be dead’ so I might as well get on with it. I realised that I’m surrounded by experts and my job as a director is to know what I want, but I don’t know how to get it. The cinematographer, the set designer, the editor. These people know how to get it, so I need to get them to make it for me…and they do! Here I am at my advanced age and I feel like I’m starting a new career. It’s amazing.

The original play was titled Retreat from Moscow. What was the story behind the name change to Hope Gap?

Retreat from Moscow was always problematic because everybody thought it was about Napoleon. It was a metaphorical title, but I thought for the film I had to do something else. Because I grew up in Seaford, I thought I’d make it there…so when I was visiting, I saw the Hope Gap which is a real place, and I thought that was perfect. Nobody else wanted Hope Gap actually. My production colleagues thought it was ugly and horrible. It might be puzzling but it’s memorable and I like it…so I hung on and now it just seems so natural. I’m thrilled with the title!

You have such wonderful actors for the film. Did you always have them in mind at the beginning of the project?

 Bill Nighy, yes! I didn’t even know Josh O’Connor existed! I was casting and meeting people and by golly, do I know he exists now! He is going to be a big star. He’s wonderful. Annette was much harder to cast. I was originally looking at English actors, but my production company were telling me I needed a big name. A name big enough to get the money…so we looked into the Americans! We approached Annette and it was quite a process. She wasn’t sure about me but then why would she be sure? I might be a well-known screenwriter but I’m not a famous director and actors care about that. Thankfully, she eventually said yes and here we are!

There’s currently no official UK release date for Hope Gap but it’s expected to be in cinemas some time in 2020.

See a clip below!

cinema · LFF19

Film review: The Lighthouse

Writer and director Robert Eggers caused a stir with his folktale debut The Witch back in 2015, and his sophomore effort is fantasy horror The Lighthouse. The 1890s plot follows experienced seafarer Thomas (Willem Dafoe) as he hires fresh new recruit Winslow (Robert Pattinson) to help him with the upkeep of a lighthouse off the coast of Maine. Working hard by day and drinking hard by night with only each other for company, the harsh conditions and isolation eventually takes its toll on them, and Winslow slowly descends into madness.

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