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Simon Read [Film Festival 04.05.10] movie interview

I met Gerard at the Filmhouse Cafe for a chat about his psychological, thriller, horror film, 'Tony', which debuted at this years EIFF. Our table got quite a lot of action as we'd sat next to a shelf of free books, you'll see. Check out Tony as soon as you can, it's a very weird and creepy film. You can read my review, which gave it 8/10, here on quietearth.

Simon: One of the first things I want to ask you is, how you would describe 'Tony' in your own words? It's written in the EIFF catalogue as being a horror comedy, but how'd you describe it?

Gerard Johnson: Yeah, I'd describe it more as a character study, but it's kind of about a lonely lost character. I'd describe it as a social-realist horror comedy, or I should say, a social-realist black horror comedy. It's hard to categorize really, which is a strong point. In the book they changed it to say it's a psychological thriller.

S: It is kind of like entering the head of a serial killer, seeing the world from his perspective.

GJ: Yeah, exactly, it is. It's a journey really, one character's journey. He's a bit lost and a bit lonely and he's kind of reaching out.

S: He kind of has an arc throughout the story, by the end he's changed but he still goes around killing people.

GJ: I think characters like that don't really change; serial killers don't really stop until they're caught really.

S: Or killed.

GJ: Yeah, or when they get sloppy and stop... clearing-up after themselves. Although there is that sense of hope at the end with him throwing out the bags and everything, the last shots of him are just wandering about London.

S: They were really good shots, I thought it was a very affecting ending.

GJ: There's a lot of this, with social-realist films, things tend to just get grimmer and grimmer, and darker and darker, and I wanted it to kind of have the opposite effect, and I wanted it to be a beautiful montage, it's kind of like a love letter to London really. He's kind of happy really, it's beautiful and the music is quite uplifting.

S: The end of the film is the only time you really get to see tourist London or postcard London. The rest of the film is really grim, I mean I've not been to London for a few years but it wasn't as bad as Tony's neighborhood... Did you deliberately set out to make his world look so unpleasant?

GJ: Not at all. No, I mean I lived there for a few years, that's the area I'm from so I lived around in those streets and know it really well. It depends... I mean I wouldn't say it was a lovely area, but it is like that... I didn't really set out to...

Waitress: Excuse me, can I just put some books here?

S: Uh, yeah sure.

GJ: I didn't really set out to... What was that?

S: That was a bit random. I think it's one of those things were you get a free book, read it, and then leave it in a public space for someone else.

GJ: She just put them on the self... Yeah, umm. I've lived on those kinds of estates where it is so oppressive; it is kind of a concrete jungle. It's very hard to escape, and that's the thing with Tony, everyone kind of knows who he is but nobody really knows what he's about, so people know where to go to find him. It's the thing about those estates; you know where to go to find people. Everyone knows everyone. People talk about what goes on behind closed doors, they like to imagine, and this is what can go on behind closed doors (laughs).

S: How did it all start? 'Tony' was also a short that you made?

GJ: Yeah, it was a short that we made. I wrote it in 2004, it's kind of taken that long really, I've-

Man Reaching For Books: Sorry!

GJ: It's alright... So, I've been living with Tony for all that time! It would be nice to move onto a nicer character, maybe a Rom-Com or something (laughs). Yeah, so it was a short first that we made in 2005, that we shot over a weekend and stuff, I had one screening for it and Paul Abbott, you know the guy who created Shameless and State of Play, he came to the screening and the next day he called me into his office, "How'd you like to turn it into a feature?"

S: That's incredible!

GJ: Yeah, at that point I hadn't thought of turning it into a feature, but as soon as he said it, I could see how we could really do it properly. When we release the DVD I'd really like to put the short on there as well, it's kind of like a dry run, like a rehearsal.

S: Peter Ferdinando (who plays Tony in the feature), was he Tony in the short as well?

GJ: Yeah, well... that's my cousin.

S: (laughing) No way!

GJ: Yeah, we're very close cousins so we like to work together. We've done about three shorts together. (Another man reaches for a book) I think I'd just better move over actually...

S: I looked Peter up and he's been in a lot, he's been in a few things.

GJ: He's been around, he's been acting since he was eleven, he's been in various pieces, mainly as 'Thug Number 2'. I mean it's very tough for actors... pretty much all the actors in the film I've known for quite a while, through Peter and a school they used to go to, the Anna Scher Theatre, in London it's quite a well known school, it was one the first to encourage working-class people to get into acting and it championed people like Kathy Burke and loads of people came through there. So all these guys had trained at Anna's and all kind of knew each other.

S: Is that how you got Ricky Grover into the film?

GJ: No, no, that's different; Ricky's actually a friend of the family. My Dad's someone who knows his Dad, stuff like that. 'Cos he's from the East End and stuff. But Ricky, I've always seen him in comedy, like stand-up.

S: And 'Black Books'.

GJ: Yeah, and that thing 'Orrible, I don't know if you saw that, the thing he did with Johnny Vaughn?

S: I didn't, but I did see him do stand-up once. He picked on me!

GJ: Really? When was that?

S: 2005, I was working at Greggs (a chain of bakers), doing part time work and he asked me, "You! What do you do?" and I told him I was a baker...

GJ: I bet it was like a horror seeing him up on the screen then, coming at Tony! (laughs) But yeah, but I'd seen him and thought, you know, he's good, he can be as good as Ray Winston. But he's never done anything... he's only done comedy roles, and I wanted to cast him against type as quite a threatening character, ‘cause he's very similar.

S: He's got a soft-spot though, he breaks down towards the end.

GJ: Exactly. Yeah. We kind of worked on that in different ways, and I was thinking of him going round there (to Tony's flat) and going ballistic, and we tried it out and it's... it's nice, it's nice. It's kind of like his last hope isn't it? He's in this despair and doesn't know what to do.

S: Especially as it came from something as random as spotting Tony in a pub and calling him a nonce.

GJ: Yeah and accusing him of carrying on with his girlfriend as well. Sorry, I keep tapping the thing (tape recorder).

S: It's okay, it's a powerful thing. How did you come-up with Tony in the first place? Is he based on somebody?

GJ: Yeah, it's a combination. A lot of it's a take on, I don't know if you know about Dennis Nilsen? I remember when Dennis Nilsen was arrested, when I was young and it was all over the news, and these images stayed with me for years, of him talking to corpses in his flat. He'd get them up, dress them up, sit around and have conversations with them in his flat. Of all the serial killers he was the one, and because he was a lot more intelligent... you know, because he was a policeman, he worked in the civil service, he worked in a job centre. In fact we tried to get the actual job centre that he worked in for filming for Tony. It's on Denmark Street, just off the Charing Cross Road, but there was so much red-tape. They agreed to it, but there was so much red-tape, we had to get somewhere else. So yeah, that's what interested me, he was quite socialist and he was very into his politics and yet he had this unbelievable dark side to him, killing for company, it was quiet amazing, he's quite an interesting character. It was that and a couple of other people I based him on, three people that were also psychopaths, not serial killers.

S: I was trying to describe Tony's character to a friend, and said he's a bit like the crazy guy who comes up to you while you're waiting for a bus and starts asking for a cigarette or something, tries to connect with you or something just because they're bored.

GJ: That's it! All he wants is love. He's just a guy who wants love, and you can see society's rejected him and that anger's coming through, that rage, it's just ‘cause he's so repressed and can't channel it in any other way. I mean if he was just shown love, he would be fine.

S His parents aren't mentioned in the film, did he have a childhood?

GJ: Yeah, well, there is one scene where, it's quite low in the mix, but there is one scene where you can hear his dad's voice. It plays when he's chopping-up the... uh...

S: Is it when he's chopping up the (Massive Spoiler)?

GJ: It might be him... or it might be someone else... In the first two rooms of the flat there's a collection of bodies. But... we've got some sort of sound design of Tony's dad, but I wanted to put it right at the end but it's so low on the mix, we may actually raise it a little.

S: I didn't hear it, I mean I heard voices but nothing specific.

GJ: There's a little bit, but I wanted it to be really subtle, it doesn't really need to be in there and if you miss it, it's not important, but if you do then it's, "Huh, okay". But most guys who... there's always something that's happened in their childhood, some kind of trauma or something that's happened to make them behave like that. But like I say; his character is based on a few people, there's always a mixture, you take different elements. The thing I took from Nilsen wasn't anything to do with his personality, it was the killing for company aspect, bringing back people and not wanting them to leave, you know, ‘cause he just wanted company, and that to me is just fantastic. And the appearance as well, we took a bit of that.

S: I was going to ask, who designed Tony's look?

GJ: It was Peter and me, in the short it's kind of similar but in the feature we really did it properly. In the short he still had the glasses and the moustache, but the clothes looked a bit wrong, but a lot of it was taken from Dennis, and other people, a mixture of people.

S: How did Peter Ferdinando find it getting into the role? Did he jump straight in?

GJ: Well no, we did a lot of research beforehand, I did a lot of research on serial killers and then he did a lot of research as well. He read everything about all the characteristics and everything else. I mean I used to get phone calls at one in the morning asking, "What would Tony do? What would Tony be listening to?" and you have to answer and you have to know it as well, so you both disagree and go, "Oh, no no!" By the time we shoot, we all know it, and that goes for all the other actors as well, I do a very long and intensive workshop period for about six months, and nobody else is allowed in, so we all go on a journey really. All of the actors know their parts and their character inside-out, so when we do come to shoot it they know exactly what they're doing. We were very lucky, we rented that flat for the whole duration of the shoot and he actually moved in there and he stayed there. The first two rooms were just for make-up and costumes, we kept those out because it's such a big flat and we had the whole run of it, and it's a very low budget film so people could keep their things in there. But he (Ferdinando) used to come to the door in the morning, with his dressing gown on and just say, "Come through", for Peter, he'd still be Peter, but he'd keep the voice of Tony. He'd be Tony, but he'd still be Peter really.

S: So he stayed in character a lot of the time?

GJ: Yeah, it's this thing, it's quite annoying this method thing, cause you get labeled, and then you get labeled 'difficult', but it's not like you stay in character. It's easier for him though with the voice, it's quite particular and he doesn't sound like that normally, and it's just easier for him to be like that. But we'd leave him in the evening and say good night, and he'd just be settling down watching his action films...

S: So he did actually watch action films, as the character?

GJ: We got a ton. We went through and we watched a hell of a lot, we'd known them from when we were young, you know?

S: You had Cocaine Wars in there, I thought I was the only person who had that film.

GJ: It's one of Tony's favorites. But yeah, we got a load of them and used to pick out 'Tony films' and think, "This is perfect! This is what Tony would watch", and anytime one would come on TV, like Roadhouse or Predator. Throughout the film there're snatches of dialogue from Predator and Rambo, Wanted Dead or Alive. Little things, quite a few bits. But again it's like... “There is life...” that's him, that's what he feels comfortable with. It was quite intense, but a great luxury for an actor, an amazing luxury to actually live in the place and to be Tony.

S: I don't think there's a scene without him in it.

GJ: Yeah.

S: I bet he didn't want to walk around looking like that.

GJ: Nah, it was kind of freaky as well when we were filming, I mean we were skimming 'round Soho and people wouldn't see us because we had the camera hidden, but they'd see Peter and be shouting comments at him, "Weirdo!" and things.

S: God, that's horrible, but then he is every bit the creepy, child snatcher type guy. Where did you get the idea for the blue plastic bags being dropped in rivers? Is that inspired from real events?

GJ: Yeah, doing research on killers and the methods of disposal, yeah. Nilson used to as well. With the Thames though, I think it's quite a powerful image, I think it works well. It's good, disposing of them bit by bit, and the smell in the house never really going away.

S: I liked that they were all in blue plastic bags. It's a good visual trick. Not just a Sainsbury's bag, but a nameless blue one.

GJ: Yeah, yeah, did you notice the cat litter too?

S: Yeah, to weigh it down.

GJ: No, no. It's for the smell, it deodorizes it. He's got little air-fresheners too.

S: Is Tony confused about his sexuality?

GJ: Yup, yes.

S: He goes to a gay club.

GJ: Yeah, for him he's going to a place where he feels like... well people are quite welcoming of him...

S: It's a room full of very friendly men...

GJ: Yeah, he's not looking for... well it's just that, he wants a cuddle.

S: That's what he asks for.

GJ: Well he's sitting over there and the guy says, 'Come and have a cuddle' and it's fine, but then he realizes it's going too far, but yeah. He's confused, he's not sure.

S: It's a really well played out scene, the actor who played the gay guy was great (Lorenzo Camporese). You really get the impression that Tony wants something, but he's not sure what.

GJ: Lorenzo, yeah. Have you ever seen Nighthawks? It's a classic of gay cinema, it's a shame it's seen as... Like, coming from a social realist background, everyone talks about Ken Loach, and Mike Leigh, and 'Nighthawks' is kind of like that, but seeing it, I wanted to create that kind of atmosphere in the club. It's great; it's very low budget and amateur and improvised. They rehearsed and they did workshops and he used all unknowns, and used very long takes. It was all filmed in London in the 70's, about the same time Nilson was operating. It's real, it's really creepy and awkward. So from seeing that film, this was kind of an homage to it, getting some of the awkwardness for that scene.

S: Tony does cover his bases quite well, he's certainly not sloppy.

GJ: I think the TV license was a bit sloppy, but the guy was about to take away his one possession and he couldn't let that happen.

S: Have you ever had a run-in with a TV license person?

GJ: Yeah, I was going through that at the time, they kept sending me offensive letters! I had a TV license, but I'd bought a Freeview Box from Argos, and they kept sending me these letters while I was writing the script, so it was just natural. But no, I've not had run-ins with license people, or DVD sellers, junkies or bruisers or any of those people. That was just a personal little thing that was going on.

S: I have to ask, what's in the future for Tony the film, and what's in your future, what's next?

GJ: Well, hopefully Edinburgh and a few more festivals and stuff, and hopefully get distribution and things, so try and get maximum exposure of the film as possible. I've got a few things in development, some stuff fairly similar. There's one thing I've got, 'Hyena', which I'm going to work on with Peter again, we're doing a completely different character too, different from Tony. It's kind of like an Irish Bad Lieutenant.

S: (laughing) That's far-out!

GJ: Well I should say, a British Bad Lieutenant, because I'm not sure if it's going to be in Ireland or London.

S: So, like a dirty cop?

GJ: Yeah, kind of a French Connection in London, but fast and handheld, something different to Tony. But, we'll see. There's another one as well, 'The Trainer', which is about a personal trainer who develops an attachment to one of his clients, and becomes quite, sort of... (laughs)

S: Oh God, it's all got quite intense... (laughs)

GJ: Yeah I know, they're very intense, very intense. So yeah, we'll see. Maybe I'll have to do some sort of comedy next, I dunno.

S: The comedy in Tony does work well. People were laughing throughout.

GJ: Great. I don't wanna... I mean, you kind of get labeled don't you? Another grim London writer, like writers in England are always grim. I want to make something that comes from... well, Alan Clarke (Director: 'Scum', 'Rita Sue and Bob Too!') is probably my hero, the guy who made Scum, he's probably my biggest inspiration. In fact, Vicky Murdoch, the girl who plays Dawn (in 'Tony') was the lead in Alan Clarke's 'Christine', she's actually retired from acting now, and I kind of coaxed her into coming back and playing Dawn. That whole scene is quite nice. Someone shows him a bit of love, and he's going down for a roast dinner.

S: She's very good at subtly looking down under the table.

GJ: And seeing all the porn, yeah.

S: And yet she still invites him down for dinner, she's a real angel.

GJ: I know, I know! I think she feels sorry for him, you get these people. She can see something in him, you know, he's not too bad. Would you say you were rooting for him in the end?

S: One-hundred percent.

GJ: It's a bit dangerous isn't it, ‘cause you don't want to... you kind of tread that line.

S: I was pretty much thinking, 'Go for it Tony!' by the end.

GJ: That's what I kind of set out to do, which is a bit dangerous because then you open yourself up to criticism that says; 'What are you doing? What are you advocating here?' I'm not into showing horror and violence just for the sake of it, that's not what I've tried to do, and I think you have to show it because it has to be there, it has to be out. I don't think it's gratuitous, I don't think it dwells on it. Sometimes you have to put that in.

S: Otherwise you're promising something, and not delivering it?

GJ: Exactly. And I hope it doesn't just come across as; 'We're just going to throw everything in, just to shock people.' Hopefully it's meant to sort of stay with you for a few days.

S: It has stayed with me.

GJ: Oh, good!

S: It's like... it's like being shaken up, grabbed by the collar. It's that great experience where you know you've seen something that's really 'out-there'.

GJ: Well, thankyou, that's brilliant. That's what I've always intended, when you go into the cinema and then you come out... that's the kind of film I like, whether you're happy, or you're depressed, you feel different! There's nothing worse than going to the cinema and you come out and it's like, "What shall we have to eat?" And you never talk about the film again.

S: Well, we've managed to sit and talk about 'Tony' for almost an hour! It does give you so much to dwell on.

GJ: Yeah. Well, I hope you've got enough.

S: I think I've got more than enough.

GJ: Good, good!

All our thanks to Gerard for his time! We'll keep you updated on distribution dates; this is one to look out for. As I wrote in the review: It's the real deal. Best wishes to Mr. Johnson and producer Dan Mcculloch, keep doing what you're doing, the future projects sound awesome!

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Jude (11 years ago) Reply

Great interview - very sensitive questions. I like the way you've included the distractions too. It makes the interview more edigy somehow.


Anonymous (11 years ago) Reply

Fantastic interview. Good read.


Chris R (11 years ago) Reply

Awesome stuff! Maudlin British social realisim meets intense horror and porn! Bob Sue and Rita too! Nice to read intereview sbetween intelligent people. Maybe a film where interveiwers like Johnathon Ross are ruthlessly beheaded...?


Anonymous (11 years ago) Reply

yea was fortunate to b able to attend a Q&A with him as well. great stuff. he didnt mention his hero was alan clarke (scum) though. thats brilliant. i love that film.


darkwater (11 years ago) Reply

Fascinating insights - Ken Loach meets Brett Easton Ellis for some fava beans and chianti in a greasy spoon.

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