Exclusive Interview: Niall Johnson, Director of Keeping Mum
Niall Johnson is a sterling British filmmaker you may not have heard of, but you will certainly be aware of…
Niall Johnson is a sterling British filmmaker you may not have heard of, but you will certainly be aware of his work. Starting off with television dramas like The Ghost of Greville Lodge, then moving onto small indie pictures like The Big Swap, Johnson made waves in Hollywood when he wrote the script for the Michael Keaton-starring supernatural chiller White Noise, which shattered Box Office records at the time of its release. But the writer-director is perhaps best known for his wonderful black comedy Keeping Mum, now a staple on Film4, which tells the tale of Maggie Smith’s housekeeper, who hides a dark past, helping change a divided family for the better, even if she does so through rather unorthodox means…
Johnson did anything but keep mum in this exclusive interview where he very candidly discusses his career so far, his very busy upcoming slate, and his thoughts on the film industry today.
What were your inspirations and influences as an aspiring filmmaker?
Since the age of 8, I’d been making 8mm movies with my older brother and his friend- Versions of Doctor Who, Star Trek and Planet of The Apes where the most consistent feature seemed to be my mother’s laundry hanging on the line in the back garden! I wanted to be an actor at that point, so that was my focus at that time: as long as I was in front of the camera I was happy to help.
I can pinpoint precisely the point when I was inspired to be a Movie Director. 10 years old, at my cousin’s house in Cornwall over the summer of 1974… the BBC broadcast A Fistful of Dollars for the first time. I knew it was something I was being allowed to watch despite it being way over my head and out of my age-range. It was violent and dark, and Eastwood’s character was so enigmatic and charismatic, it really did change me overnight.
From then on, I became a fan of Eastwood, Morricone, and Leone. I was beginning to understand what Leone’s role in this was. And then, when I saw Once Upon A Time In The West at the age of 13 I was blown away. It was Leone through-and-through, and yet so different in tone and texture from the Dollar Trilogy. That’s when I realised just what a Director could do. It’s been my all-time favourite movie ever since. Pure cinema. I think a lot about Leone when working…
From then on, at the tender age of 14, I was sneaking into X-rated movies. I actually think today’s kids miss out because of DVDs and VOD—no nerves at walking brazenly past the people ripping your tickets up! Anyway, at the same time as seeing all the new releases, I was catching up at an arthouse cinema in Birmingham with the classics of the early and mid-70s: so I was seeing older movies like The Exorcist, Taxi Driver, The Godfather and Chinatown at the same time as Halloween, The Thing, The Elephant Man… All very vivid memories that still stick with me to this day.
Throughout this pre-University period, it was Leone that stayed with me, but he was swiftly joined by Francis Ford Coppola (his range- from Finian’s Rainbow to Rumblefish, with The Godfathers, Apocalypse Now and The Conversation inbetween, as well writing Patton and The Great Gatsby- was phenomenal and inspiring) and Nicolas Roeg. Looking back now, I’d say that obsessively watching the work of those three directors taught me most about cinema.
It was my during my university years in Bristol (83-86) that I then began a deep appreciation of more vintage movies and world cinema, and grew to particularly love Hitchcock, Renoir and Malick. (Always been a fan of Laurel and Hardy, too, which is important.)
How did you break into the industry? What advice, if any, would you give to young filmmakers looking to do the same?
I came into the world with no contacts to help me in the industry, so it was a combination of hard slog and bruised knuckles constantly knocking those doors down! And some luck- Although I do subscribe to the maxim that the harder you work, the luckier you get
Immediately after graduating I was lucky enough to find myself directing training films and corporate videos. I’d put all my spare cash from those into funding movie ventures. I funded and made a vampire thriller, Dawn, in 1991, (cost about £10k back then) which was seen and liked by Kim Newman and Jonathan Ross- in fact, at the time, Kim Newman called it the “best horror movie shot on video” that he’d seen…but this was before Blair Witch opened the floodgates.
In the 3-4 years after that, I was writing horror scripts, sending them out, getting some good responses from industry people willing enough to take a punt on an unknown newbie. It was clear, though, that my material was too ambitious for anyone to take a risk on me directing. So I began to write scaled-down material that I could make to prove my directing chops; and as part of that process, horror was left behind and I discovered the joy of writing full-on character pieces.
That lead directly to the mid-90s, when I again self-funded a movie: The Big Swap, a comedy-drama about the perils of wife-swapping—the financial risk was greater this time: me and my wife put in over £50k of our savings into it (total budget in the end was just under £100k). That made some waves here and there, and gained a theatrical release in the UK and across Europe in 1998, and won a healthy collection festival awards in Europe and the US. But it had no names in the cast, and was pretty edgy at the time in its depiction of the characters’ sexual adventures, so it was maybe tricky for producers to see where I might fit into their slate of movies.
That wasn’t too much of a concern to me, though, because I was about to get busy making a run of TV movies, the first of which was The Ghost of Greville Lodge. Trouble is, the slate of movies following it fell through, and then the sales agent representing The Big Swap went bust, and suddenly I was unable to track the financial progress of that movie during its release. I earned nothing from it—which doesn’t matter to me now- it served well as a calling card- but f**k me, it stung at the time!
So while I was making these movies, and proving myself, and winning supporters across the industry, I was never breaking through as much as I wanted. Looking back on it now, I can see that I was steadily making more progress and more contacts, and continually getting busier with more interesting writing assignments. At the time, though, it felt like treacle.
None of it was paying enough to make it viable, though, without the corporate video income. And while I’d made some contact with Managers in LA while out promoting The Big Swap at various festivals, they’d been supportive to a point, but said that they’d really only be in a position to help me when I had a piece of material they knew they could sell in Hollywood—something that was more commercial and mainstream than the material I’d been writing to date.
So I was still very much flying on my own, having sunk a lot of money into ventures over the previous ten years. By 2002, things were sluggish. Corporate videos were still supporting me. The project that eventually became Keeping Mum was bubbling away, and I was beginning to get involved in it as a writer, but my career wasn’t exactly stellar at this point!
The screenplay for White Noise was the one that proved to be my big break, but even the story behind that is pretty hair-raising…
Mid-way through 2002, feeling that my movie career was in some kind of limbo, I decided to take some time off from the corporates and knuckle down to writing up an idea I’d had for the last ten years. I promised my wife that, if by the end of the year, the script hadn’t found a home, I would look for proper paid work (outside of the movie industry, even!) I was really pleased with the screenplay, but was shocked when none of the UK contacts I had at the time really responded to it. I still believed in it, but it was a bitter pill to swallow.
We were down to our last £45 in savings by the Christmas week, and I was days away from making that leap to committing to a entirely different future than the one I’d strived for. But then a producer out in LA read the script on Christmas Day (his brother was his scout and had come across the script in the UK a few weeks before). The producer loved it, and called me midway through Boxing Day to promise me that he would be making the movie within a year.
He wasn’t lying.
My life changed the minute that deal was announced: my managers in LA were finally able to take me on and represent me, and suddenly I was taking meetings all across LA, getting writing assignments and all kinds of offers.
Throughout this period, Keeping Mum was beginning to really brew, first getting Kristin (Scott-Thomas) attached, and then Rowan (Atkinon)- it was becoming more and more of a viable production. It turned out that I was shooting the film in Cornwall when White Noise was released, and it actually broke box office records at the time. Keeping Mum was itself released just ten months later, so that was a very good year for putting me on the radar.
The industry is a rollercoaster, there’s no doubt about it. So this is what I’d say to the young filmmakers looking to break through- take advantage of every resource available to you these days to write scripts and make films. Keep doing the thing you want to do. Keeping making stuff, getting it on Vimeo or YouTube. The world is very different from when I was starting out—so much easily accessible equipment and resources, and so many readily available ways to host your material. So keep at it, because you will get better with each piece you write and make. Keep showing the players out there that you have what it takes. Anybody who expresses an interest in you, earn their continued support with a show of hard work and dedication.
Writers: find stories that move you that you simply have to write. Your passion will show through. But study screenplays in their proper format—the industry on both sides of the pond is very fussy about the document looking like it should.
Then, buckle in and get ready for a long ride. If you’re lucky, you’ll make living, supporting yourself and your family, doing what you love and always dreamed of doing. If you happen to hit big and ride a wave, enjoy it for every moment it lasts—it’s the icing on an already-very-tasty cake!
Some directors never write their own screenplays, but you do- is this to keep more creative control, or because you feel the roles come hand-in-hand?
The roles are hand-in-hand for me, but that’s because I enjoy both disciplines. And I’ve been lucky to work recently with producers and financiers who really like the idea of a Writer-Director….one less difficult creative person for them to deal with, I guess!
Having said that, I’ve really enjoyed a recent experience on a project which I’m attached to direct, with a writer whose work is strong, and whose voice is so distinctive and so right for the material, that during the Director’s Pass of the script (when the Execs give the Director his/her chance to put his ‘stamp’ on the material) I’ve stayed well away from being involved in any physical writing.
It’s certainly true, though, that as a writer you have to accept a complete lack of control once you hand the finished script over. You need a hyphen joining ‘Writer’ to ‘Producer’, or ‘Director’, to retain a hand on the steering wheel of something you’ve possibly toiled over for years!
How did you find the transition from the independent sector to Hollywood for White Noise?
White Noise was my first produced screenplay that I wasn’t directing, so that was the biggest difference for me compared to previous experience. I feel very at ease with the Hollywood way of doing things, whether that’s indie or studio: I wrote a couple of scripts for the studios in the period between White Noise being set up and being released.
That was a really invigorating period: the demands come thick and fast, and spending time there it’s really clear how much of an industry town it is. But that’s what’s exciting about the town. The thing about both the indie and studio worlds is that, no matter what the clichés might suggest, the people involved are all hard workers, dedicated to following a dream to be in the movie biz, who just want to do the best work they can.
Do you find it hard to separate your career- your passion- from your domestic life, as some filmmakers do? Being a director is such an intense job, it must be hard to switch off…
Yes, when physically directing during the shoot. It’s totally absorbing. It used to be the same with writing, actually, but I’ve been doing it long enough to be able to box it into the right shape and size, so that I have a life.
Do you have a particular method for directing your actors- I imagine on a film like Keeping Mum with veterans like Maggie Smith, there’s not much you’d need to tell them!
Well, they all need directing, but that doesn’t mean they need telling what to do. The different methods I had to employ for the four leads of Keeping Mum (Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, Rowan Atkinson and Patrick Swayze) kept me on my toes. But that was the challenge and the joy of the job–to find out what they need to make them work best.
Rowan liked to do lots of takes, to keep honing and perfecting- he studied engineering, and he approaches performance with the same precision mentality. Kristin was more instinctive, her performance choices being wildly different from one take to the next, which is a really great way of keeping up energy levels and retaining spontaneity. Maggie was very much a two- or three-take actor- once we’d agreed on characterisation, it was very much little details of direction, sometimes just two or three words (“a bit slower for more danger” or “just hold that beat before the next line”).
[Patrick] Swayze was a lot of fun: he wrote stream of consciousness stuff on the back of each script page, and sometimes, during rehearsal, he’d end up reciting those lines rather than the scripted ones. My job is to merge the different approaches so that everyone feels they’re getting from me what they need to deliver the goods. It’s the same for the crew as well: I’m orchestrating the skills being brought to me by each and every contributor. They expect the Director to have the road map, pointing the way home.
What is your opinion on the state of Hollywood at the moment- the death of film & The rise of Digital, the onslaught of 3D, the lack of investment in anything that isn’t a potential franchise-starter, etc?
I happen to think Hollywood, and the movie industry worldwide, is in a very robust state at the moment. I agree that the studios are pursuing franchises even more right now, but that’s what they’ve done more often than not for at least three decades.
Adventurous, leftfield, independently-minded movies have always been funded as well, and while I’d agree that the balance is less in their favour than previous years, nonetheless P.T. Anderson gets funding, Beasts of The Southern Wild gets made, as does Berberian Sound Studio and Kill List. I believe the variety is still there, and new release platforms gives audiences the chance to seek out these movies in a much easier way than ever before.
As far as film as a production medium… it won’t die out while filmmakers want to use it. The balance in the exhibition sector, however, is already tipping very much in favour of digital. But, in the end, as a production medium, I reckon there’s no difference- Roger Deakins’ recent embracing of digital, and his work on Skyfall, shows that.
I’m not a massive fan of 3D, although I thought that the use of it in Prometheus was amazing. But the movie industry will always look for ways to better what we can get in our own homes—that’s been a race ever since domestic TV sets first arrived: the movies swiftly responded with Cinemascope and the 2.35:1 aspect ratio! And it explains the recent move towards 48fps: movie bosses will forever be seeking the wow factor.
In the end, though, all that ultimately matters is the story and the characters
Do you ever get the time to watch films now? Do you believe it’s important to observe the competition, as it were? What films have you enjoyed this year?
I watch as many as I can, and as many of those in the theatre, yes. One, because you’re right—Seeing other movies is important to the craft, to never stop learning. But also because, Two, I remain a massive movie fan.
For me, this year has been bigger on mainstream studio movies (usually, in previous years, there’s a balance between studio and indie). [David] Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and [Gary] Ross’s The Hunger Game are the two that have stayed with me as fine examples of slick, mainstream entertainment, but with an edge.
I’m a big Batman fan, so I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Nolan’s trilogy and thought The Dark Knight Rises was a fitting end to his take on it. I’m intrigued to see how Warner Bros. will move on from the Nolan world in future iterations.
Is there any dream project you’d love to tackle- a certain genre, or a popular franchise you feel you could put an interesting spin on?
Too many to mention. I love the idea of dipping in and out of all genres, though: different lenses, in effect, through which to look at life experiences.
Can you tell us anything about your upcoming projects? Imdb lists The Called and The Stolen as your next films, and also mentions Treasure Island…
The Called is a horror film about fallen angels, looking for money—we’ve had some very serious interest recently, but turning that into spendable cash takes time.
The Stolen is a Western-styled adventure story set in the 1860s Gold Rush in New Zealand: we’ve just attached a fantastic British actress, and we’re aiming to shoot in the South Island in May 2013.
Treasure Island was a script I wrote for Ecosse Films. I’m very proud of that adaptation, very gritty and grown-up. It’s looking promising on the funding front, to be made out of Australia. The producers are on the hunt for a director right now.
Two projects that aren’t mentioned on IMDB but that are bubbling away with some vigour are:
Android, a character-led sci-fi thriller set on a ship orbiting Neptune- I rewrote an original script by Matt O’Reilly, and am attached to direct that in 2013 (we’re casting early in the new year)…and
Blind Spot, a low-budget neo-noir crime thriller written by Vince Keenan and set in the taxi driving world of New York City.
I’m hoping 2013 sees the beginning of a very busy 24 months!
The Ghost of Greville Lodge, The Big Swap, White Noise and Keeping Mum are all available on DVD.