Hi Film Folk!
So Jon, you directed SuperBob (as well as wrote/produced) but how did you start?
It actually all started with skateboarding. I used to make skate films and sell them in skate shops – very homemade stuff – and then I got a bit more serious with it and set up a little business making a regular skate video called UKVM and that ended up being, in the early 2000s, the most successful British skate film series of that time.
Then I sold that to another production company or kind of created a job for myself with them. I was about 23 and wrote a business proposal to them. I found it the other day and it was me explaining why he should give me a job and take over my business and I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written business plan-wise! It was like ‘either you take it on and do it or you’re a bit of an idiot’ [laughs] And he took it on.
So I’d created a job for myself in another production company and became their in-house TV director/producer. I worked there for about a year and then met my current business partner, Orlando von Einsiedel who was working there as well. We joined forces and left (I didn’t like having a boss) and we then pitched for a TV show. The stakes couldn’t have been higher, I’d put everything into this pitch, left my job, couldn’t afford rent and was hoping we’d win it. And we did win it and it was making a 14 part TV series all around the world.
We were 25 and totally in the deep end. That was 10 years ago and that’s what set up my production company, Grain Media, with Orlando and since then we moved into commercials and docs and Orlando wanted us to move into more serious documentary work and I wanted to move into scripted shows and comedy and we managed to achieve both of those things.
This year we brought out a documentary film called Virunga which Orlando directed and that ended up winning 50 awards and being Oscar and BAFTA-nominated and we won an Emmy a couple of weeks ago which has been great. So this year we’ve released an Oscar-nominated doc and a weird superhero movie about a bloke in Peckham…we’re quite diverse…
It’s all been about going out and making stuff happen. That’s always been the attitude of Grain.
So just to get a clearer picture, what was the specific learning curve from skate videos to today?
I always see making the skate videos as my film school. Without knowing it, I was producing, editing, shooting, directing and distributing all my own work. That was just so invaluable to be able to do that.
So by the time we were making TV, that was learning how to be a professional filmmaker – dealing with budgets and clients and schedules and deliveries. I’ve always learned on the job. If I didn’t know what something was, I’d always write it down and look it up later or work it out. I’ve never had any film school training.
Commercials is where I learned a lot of my filmmaking craft. Suddenly I was working with DPs and proper sound guys and I got proper post-prod experience. Everything scaled up quite naturally.
It went from me and Orlando shooting a thing to me and Orlando and another bloke and then me and Orlando and ten blokes and then a crew of thirty. It was very hands on and I think it’s important for a filmmaker to have experience and knowledge in all areas – everything from budgeting through to sound design. If you don’t know then you have to learn!
You have Executive Produced the Oscar-nominated documentary, “Virunga” – how did this project land on your table? What drew you to it?
We do quite a lot of work for Al Jazeera – factual TV, docs – and Orlando had gone out to the Virunga national park to make a show for them and he’d gone because he’d read about it, found it interesting and was quite keen to make a positive story in a place where you normally get negative stories.
Virunga national park seems to be this little beacon of hope in a troubled area. So we did the show and then Orlando went back and kept going back and we just decided we should look into a bigger story. And as he was there shooting a positive story, war broke out and he got wind of this plan from an oil company to explore for oil in the national park. He was right place, right time (or wrong place, wrong time, depending on how you look at it!) and then it was just Grain doing it – just me and him.
As the oil investigation got more and more serious, it became Grain up against this oil company. We had to do it the right way, make sure the journalism was intact. My partner was pregnant with out first child and we’d just bought a house and it was really, really stressful.
As the project grew and Orlando did more and more shooting, it was the same time that Superbob was getting close to shooting, so I actually stepped back from being a main producer with Orlando and after he finished filming we brought in another producer, Jo, who ended up being the main producer with Orlando in post-production.
“SuperBob” – could you tell us a bit more about the journey from short to feature?
Basically, I was asked to make a film about a local hero and I thought it’d be funny if my local hero was a superhero from Peckham, which is instantly a funny idea, and so I wrote this 3-4 page script and sent it to my mate Brett. We’ve known each other since we were kids, went to Uni together, go on holiday together, speak on the phone all the time – we’re proper old best friends. He really liked it. My pitch to him was ‘just because you’re the world’s best brain surgeon doesn’t make you any good at parties’. That’s what Bob is. He’s a brilliant superhero but he’s socially inept.
Anyway, Brett came and he was so good. We shot it in a day and improvised really heavily around my script and shot a few scenes for f*** all. For the price of a sandwich and the hire of a cape – like £30. Obviously I have Grain Media so we had a studio and we had kit, so it’s not £30 but it’s only £30 out of our pockets. I cut it for a week and I knew straight away we had something really nice on our hands and that was because of Brett‘s performance. It was really gentle and vulnerable but interesting and funny.
We got asked to write a feature length version and it was really hard. We got a bit excited and we’d write these big sequences and went through so many drafts of the script – we had ones with sidekicks and with arch-nemeses and one that was even more like a buddy movie. We went everywhere with it.
We realised that with a lot of the drafts we’d move away from the short and actually the short had all the heart and character and soul that we needed. So we stripped everything right back and the final feature, I think, retains the heart of the short. I’m really proud of that because we could have ended up getting carried away making a superhero movie but in the end what we made was about a lonely man, looking for love, who just happens to be the world’s only superhero.
It took 2 years to write the script on and off, 3 weeks to shoot and then another year to get the edit.
How did you end up meeting/working with esteemed Exec Producer Robert Jones?
We were looking for a producer as I didn’t want to direct and produce it all myself, so I’d had a few meetings with a few producers and I think coincidentally Robert had seen the short and as a good producer he had seen a good actor and a good writer in Brett and so he got in touch with Brett and we had a general meeting.
Robert said ‘what’s happening with this short?’ and we said ‘well actually we’re writing a feature version and we’re looking for a producer’. Then Robert got in touch with me and on our first meeting I kept thinking ‘f***ing hell, this guy’s won Oscars and been nominated for Oscars’ and I couldn’t get that out of my head and then he was like ‘yeah, I’m really interested in coming on board’ and I said ‘all right cool, I’ll think about it’ [laughs] I didn’t really mean it, I meant “Oh, yes please” [laughs] and we just got on and he came on board.
In the end, the film became a co-production between Grain Media and the Fyzz Facility. The Fyzz is the company he runs with Wayne Godfrey and Wayne is also a very good producer and is very bullish and gets things done and is especially good at finance.
So between Robert’s massive experience and Wayne’s finance head and my stupid dog-on-a-bone determination we got it made.
What was the financing model? How quickly did things accelerate from there?
They are traditionally a film financing company and have a network of investors that they pitch to and through the UK tax credit and the SEIS and EIS schemes that the government set up to encourage investment in small businesses (that’s what feature films are, an investment vehicle) we managed to get a few investors together and get it financed but it definitely wasn’t easy.
What kind of prep time did you get as a director and what were the most challenging aspects? Did you storyboard?
The development process of the film, in the way we wrote it, was really good. The three of us, me, Brett Goldstein and Will Bridges – who is another writer – would go into these cabins in the woods and write scenes, ideas and stories. I was fortunate to have Brett as the main writer and star, so I had a lot of access to our character and so when we got stuck I could just workshop stuff with Brett. We were workshopping with Brett from day one.
We also cast Doris (Natalia Tena) quite early – a year before we shot – so we’d write, workshop and then take that back into the writing room. So in terms of prep, I was prepping for years. I had to be prepared because we shot in 19 days (6 day weeks), which is f*** all. I had a brilliant storyboard artist who got what I wanted to do. We storyboarded the more actiony scenes. It’s important to collaborate though and we did.
We had a brilliant 1st AD who made sure we got everything done and on schedule.
What was your studio to location ratio?
There was one half of one fraction of a scene shot in a studio…It was 95% location. A lot of studio stuff was shot on location with a green screen chucked up behind them because of our mad schedule. The David Harewood and other newsreaders are in the studio. And a couple of pick ups 6 months later.
How was post? Did you do many test screenings?
We improvised heavily. It was really important to me to do improv, I’m a big fan. So that obviously pushes your edit time. The first cut we did, which I loved, was really dark. It was too dark. So we spent a long time getting it to hum and getting the pace right without jeopardising the character.
For me it was character first, then story, then jokes. Those 3 things can sometimes be in conflict. Sometimes you want a brilliant joke in there but it might be out of character so I’d fight against that. The jokes had to be right for that character.
Also tone. It’s a really upbeat movie and there’s nothing mean in the film. There are no mean jokes. There was one joke in it which was quite mean and I cut it because it felt like it wasn’t the tone of the film.
When you’re working with improv and with comedy, the edit is so important. You’re trying to get the rhythm of the jokes right and the scenes and the punchlines. Then you’ve got this romance arc that runs through it that you’ve got to do right as well.
We did a couple of test screenings which were helpful. It just helped to see what worked and what didn’t. Especially with jokes. Then it’s been on the festival circuit since LOCO (in January of this year). It’s done about 15-20 festivals since.
At what point did Goldcrest come on board?
They were on early doors. That was part of the deal that Fyzz put together. They were great because it meant that we had access to their post-production facility.
We never had to compromise on the sound or the grade. Sound is half the film. Goldcrest allowed us to push ourselves as far as we possibly could.
What else do you have coming up?
Obviously at Grain we’re very busy. I’m writing another script – a twist on a heist action comedy, a book I want to develop, a family action film I want to make. Me and Brett have got a couple of TV shows that we’re working on and another movie.
At Grain we have started up a development fund and we’re gonna be developing 10 films over the next 2 years, so that’s pretty busy.
A lot of writing and developing at the moment but I want to get stuck into the next feature as quick as I can.
As someone who’s been in both a Producer’s and a Director’s shoes, what might be one piece of advice you could give to an aspiring Producer/Director?
The advice I always give people is the advice which got me where I am – I don’t know where I am but wherever it is, I’m here [laughs] – there is no excuse to not make a film. Everybody has access to an HD camera in their pocket right now and they have access to editing material. So if you want to be a filmmaker then you must make films. Sure, you can get it more complicated and more people involved later on but there’s just no excuse any more to not do it.
Get your phone out your pocket and make a film. It’s that simple.
What films would you recommend all filmmakers watch?
I’m a populist. Anything by Spielberg. Anything by Zemeckis. Back to the Future is the perfect film. Just everything about that film is perfect. You’re in every moment. It is f***ing genius. It’s perfect entertainment. We are the court jesters of the modern world and you must entertain.
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