A conversation with Gerard Johnson the writer/director of the British serial killer film Tony.
A conversation with Gerard Johnson
By Nick Martin
Movies about serial killers have an odd niche in our cultural lexicon. A sub-genre that was first embraced by cult filmists now walks a fine line between obscurity and mainstream. Films such as Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs and David Fincher’s Se7en seem to strike an almost universal chord with the film-going public, but left in the background are the smaller, lower budget additions to the oeuvre. Gerard Johnson’s Tony is one such film. In telling the story of the titular character, Johnson manages to present an odd portrait of a man so consumed by loneliness that he is almost entirely out of touch with his external environment. He also happens to murder people. The film was a hit on the festival circuit and has led to a certain amount of buzz for the first-time writer/director. I had a chance to talk with Gerard Johnson about his film and the state of British cinema in general.
I’d like to ask you about your influences in making this film. It’s quite a bleak portrayal of loneliness and one film that you’ve had comparisons to is John McNaughton’s Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer .In addition to this, one can’t really think about cinema of loneliness without Scorsese’s Taxi Driver coming to mind. Like that film, you were very successful in isolating your main character from his external environment using Mise en scene. Did these films and directors have an overt impact on the creation of Tony? What were your main influences?
Ha, well to start I will say that Taxi Driver has been the film that has had the most influence on me ever. Henry was great as well but Tony is my way of saying we have serial killers in England too, come and have a look. I think the comparisons to Henry are lazy (Although I’m flattered). Both are realistic portraits of serial killers, that’s where it ends really. As films they both say very different things to me. Trouble is most people nowadays want serial killers to be super human costumed villains. Unfortunately they don’t exist in real life. I would say for Tony there was a documentary called Summer on The Estate also Ron Peck’s Nighthawks captured a certain atmosphere, Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Killing and also Alan Clarke whom I love.
The late 1950’s and 1960’s gave birth to Kitchen Sink dramas in Britain. This era is considered by many to be one of the most exciting in UK cinematic history. This excitement seemed to continue up until the 1980’s, with films like Bruce Robinson’s Withnail and I. Starting in the late 1990’s, however, filmmakers like Guy Ritchie and, to a lesser extent, Danny Boyle created a sort of Hollywood style of filmmaking in Britain that used a very MTV aesthetic. In a way, this led to a weird fractured identity in UK cinema that has lasted until recently. How do you feel about the current state of the British film industry?
I too love the kitchen sink films of the 50’s and Withnail and I. Both have been very influential to me. We have a lot of classic films that are very British and that’s the cinema that I’m proud of. I agree a lot of British directors want their films to look and feel like Hollywood films, that’s an agenda which is fine for them but if I want to make an American film I’ll get on a plane. I do find it a bit depressing that the US only knows us for Harry Potter and Four Weddings and a Funeral though, we do have some more interesting stuff but I don’t think that much of it makes it across the pond.
Is Tony at all based on an actual serial killer? Are you a serial killer buff?
From the amount of research I did become a bit of an expert. The idea of Tony came from me remembering a serial killer from the 80’s called Dennis Nilsen, who killed because he was lonely. He would keep the bodies around the house, get them out, dress them up, chat to them and then dispose of them when they became too rotten. Obviously as a small boy this created a strong impression, but the character of Tony is based on some other people that I know as well. I’m glad to leave a lot of that stuff behind now as you end up going to some very dark places.
Do you enjoy serial killer movies?
I wouldn’t say I’m a massive fan of a lot of that recent stuff, that’s why I wanted to approach it this way. I wanted to create a real person instead of a make believe bogeyman. Peeping Tom, 10 Rillington Place, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Psycho, Halloween and of course Henry are serial killer films I admire. Oh and I forgot to add Man Bites Dog among that lot
Tony isn’t an overt horror film, but it does have elements rooted in the horror genre. What do you think of the current state of the horror film? Are you a supporter of the over-the-top gore fests of filmmakers such as Eli Roth and James Wan? Who are some of your favorite contemporary directors, horror or otherwise?
Torture porn doesn’t really interest me, I prefer suggestion. I loved Paranormal Activity as I thought it was very effective as was Sluizer’s original The Vanishing. I think people like Gaspar Noe are doing really extreme stuff but at least it’s making you think a bit more. I have many favorite directors right now and the great thing about film is it’s constantly producing new and exciting talent.
On the Tony website, the film is sort of presented as a dark comedy (mostly due to the reference to his horrible moustache). There was some humour in your film, but I found the tone to be quite serious on the whole. Can you comment on the differences between UK and North American comedic sensibilities and why in your opinion there is such a divide?
The film is meant to be fairly serious. It’s a very real subject matter but I did inject some humour just to lighten it a tad which I think is vital with such a grim story. I’m not sure there is such a divide. We share a lot of the same references. Tony played at Slamdance and SXSW and the audiences were laughing quite a bit so I think only certain things maybe don’t travel but that’s fine as well. For your information I don’t think that’s a horrible moustache, the distributor put that on the website!!
How did you get interested in movies? Did you go to film school?
I am completely self -taught. I was brought up in a household where Film was always watched and talked about and I had a very strong passion for it from an early age. It has been a constant love of mine ever since.
What projects are you working on now? Are you going to stay in Britain, or given the opportunity would you consider moving to the States?
I am currently working on a new project set in London as we speak but I do have a US agent so we’ll see what comes up. I love a lot of US independent stuff. The Wrestler was one of my favorite films of the last couple of years, a real throwback to the 70’s heyday. I would love the chance to work with that sort of canvas.
What is your writing process like?
My process involves a lot of research, then I will work on structure and plot points and dialogue, then I will workshop and use techniques with the actors. Then I will write again.
How did Matt Johnson of The The get involved in Tony?
Matt is my older brother. He had scored my previous shorts as well, but this was the first time he actually did a complete score. I’ve always thought that he would move into soundtracks as his stuff really has a lot of mood and atmosphere, perfect for film. I think the soundtrack for Tony hits exactly the right balance.
Peter Ferdinando gives a really great performance in Tony. He also acted in a previous short film of yours: Mug. How did you make his acquaintance and is he going to be involved in your next project.
Peter is my cousin so you can see there is a pattern immerging here with family members. Peter has been an actor for as long as I can remember and when I wanted to do my first short, naturally I approached him as he was the only actor I really knew at the time. Because we are close anyway our partnership really works. We are working together on the next one and it’s going to be a very different character piece this time.