Interview: Philip John
Family conflicts, love triangles, and musical passions combine in ‘Moon Dogs,’ a new coming-of-age comedy following a group of teens as they embark on a road trip from Shetland to Glasgow. Step-brothers Michael and Thor unite with aspiring singer Caitlin to navigate their way and seek out their futures in Scotland’s largest city.
Director Philip John is best known for his work on 'Downton Abbey' and 'Being Human.' Making his name in television production, he has earned multiple BAFTA nominations throughout his career. He chats to us about turning his hand to film, his musical obsessions, Brexit, and Irvine Welsh.
Q: This is your debut feature film after a number of television projects. What prompted a jump from the small screen to the big screen?
A: I’ve always wanted to do big screen but I’ve written a few projects and they tend to get bogged down in development and it just pissed me off. I would start the process and try to get a feature script made and financed and I just found along the way that people wanted to change it into something else. I don’t know whether it was just my lack of perseverance or a problem with authority, possibly, but I just ended up abandoning them. I had about three or four scripts, which I’ll no doubt in the future bring out again and try to get going, but it was just such a difficult process.
I think I found developing a script with two writers who had a track record much easier process. I felt much less precious about their script than I did about my own. So [Moon Dogs] felt partly like a collaboration rather than me getting pissed off with people telling me what I should be doing.
Q: The film is a coming-of-age film but it’s also a road trip film. Those are pretty much classic movie formats now and many have been made. Was there anything that you wanted to do to make ‘Moon Dogs’ stand out from the rest in those genres? Were there any clichés or stereotypes you were trying to avoid?
A: It’s really difficult because it’s very hard to get films made that funding bodies don’t recognise. They’re always looking for something that has previous history; which is to say that they can look at other world movies and coming-of-age movies and see that they’ve made money. Then they will support that idea. So, in a way, you start off with a cliché because funding bodies will say, “What is this film?” and then you say, “Oh, it’s like a genre you have never seen,” and they reply, “Well how are we going to sell that?” Whereas if you say, “Well, this is a road movie, comedy, coming-of-age story,” and already those things tick boxes that make projects easier to sell.
You know, film is a business and there’s a hard edged, ruthless quality to sales agents that is terrifying but if you have something that they can see they’ve sold in the past - like a comedy or a road movie or a coming-of-age story - then it makes it easier to finance. A cliché is imposed upon a film because they know they can sell a certain genre. It’s not you trying to create something unique and extraordinary. It goes against that because what they’re trying to sell is something that they’ve sold before.
Q: The cast is made up of new acting talent. Did you want to get fresh faces in there for audiences?
A: I remember ‘Trainspotting’ and I remember that whole new cast of people that we didn’t know and it gave the story a kind of energy and authenticity that I think wouldn’t have been there with the same old faces and usual suspects turning up on screen.
It was a long and turbulent road trying to get ‘Moon Dogs’ made. Our very first cast – who were also fantastic – we lost because we thought we had a green light and then we didn’t and the money went. Then by the time we got back to our cast they were busy doing other things. So the cast that we have currently is our second line-up which came about because we saw a window of opportunity to make the film and knew we had to cast quickly.
We had to go to Ireland, Scotland, and Wales because that’s where we got the money from to make the film. So, we had to cast one individual from each of those countries. But, having said that, I think we have an amazing cast and new faces. They gelled beautifully and I couldn’t be happier.
Q: There’s a wonderfully mad scene in which Thor experiences a trip on magic mushrooms featuring dancing puppets and an angry Viking. Was that as fun to film as it seemed?
A: It was amazing. I just wanted to do more stuff like that in the film but there wasn’t the time or the money. I had to fight to keep that scene in because a lot of people were wondering what everything was about. I just think films have to pose questions to an audience sometimes. Eventually you discover that he’s dreaming about what his mother might say to him when he meets her.
At the time it was just glorious to have this puppet made, a little replica of Thor, and then to have the Viking. The Viking was hilarious because we had one Viking helmet. It was like Cinderella – we had all these massive Viking blokes with beards turning up but their head had to be small enough to get into this Viking helmet. We went through about fifteen Vikings before one guy steps up with a petite head and we put a hat on and there it was. It was a riot.
I also love that we got to go to town on it and Anton [Newcombe] did some fantastic music for that scene. It’s one of my favourite bits of the film.
Q: Music is actually pretty central to the plot and the overall atmosphere of the film. I know you have a musical background so did that help when it came to organising that side of things?
A: I’m obsessed with music. I’m absolutely obsessed with music. I have a kind of beef with composers because many of the composers I’ve worked with, they can offer a kind of version of the music that I’m looking for. Really what I want is the substance, the real thing.
When I picked up the script and I knew that we had to come up with a sonic identity for Thor, I immediately thought of Anton Newcombe from The Brian Jonestown Massacre. I thought if he was going to say no, I was just going to walk away from the film because he was the only guy I could think of that could deliver what I was looking for. I emailed him and he was just on board straight away. He was very keen. He’s wanted to do a soundtrack for the longest time but it’s just that people seem to use his music but they don’t work with him. I think because he’s a bit of a rock ‘n’ roller and I think people are a bit afraid of his reputation. He was a dream. He was an absolute professional and wonderful. He’s a genius – a music genius - and that’s exactly the vibe I needed for Thor. I needed Thor’s music to be credible. When he plays in the club in Glasgow, that track is fantastic and you would never have got that from a composer. You’d have some kind of illusion of outsider music. Whereas, with Anton, that’s what he lives and breathes.
Music is central to everything I do. If I read a script, a piece of music will pop into my head and then that almost begins the theme of the film. Sometimes I use that music in the project. I respond to everything with music. I give actors direction with music. For example, when we did a film called ‘Wedding Bells’ with Irvine Welsh, I gave all the actors a little CD of music. I said, “Just choose a track and build some history around it and build that into your character.”
I’m currently doing a project in Port Talbot and we’ve got Alabama 3 doing the soundtrack. It’s quite extraordinary. The singer, Larry Love, is from Merthyr Tydfil and used to come to Port Talbot as a kid. He only knew he was on holiday when he could smell the sulphur from the steelworks. He’s done the music for this eight hour drama and it’s absolutely astonishing. He’s come up with stuff outside the box. It’s outside what you’re expecting and that’s always an exciting thing.
Q: The opening and closing shots of the film include footage from the Up Helly Aa fire festival in Lerwick. What was it like to film during such a famous visual spectacle?
A: We went up to recce the thing and talk to the Viking committee. I just find it extraordinary. It’s like a father and son tradition. If you want to be the head jarl on the boat which goes on to be burnt, you have to put your name down fifteen years before the possibility of you doing it. It’s a lifelong commitment and every year they do the same festival. It’s not for tourists - it’s for themselves. They don’t care if there are tourists and they don’t want tourists. They just want to be able to dress up for two days, burn the boat, make the torches, and make the costumes. It’s like a sort of Zen Buddhist thing in that they spend a lot of time making the boat and then they burn it. Then the next year they do the same. The father and son thing worked really well with Thor and his dad and the problems they were having in the film.
We sent about five or six cameras up and just shot the shit out of it. It was quite extraordinary. We were lucky in that we got one of the Vikings to shoot some stuff for us, but having said that, we didn’t use it in the end because he didn’t do what he said he was going to do. We had about four cameras up there anyway ourselves so we had the most amazing footage that we used. We have much more that we could have used but we ran out of time.
Q: ‘Moon Dogs’ received funding from film boards from across the home nations – Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. How important is it for homegrown projects to get this kind of backing, particularly as Brexit hits?
A: It’s interesting, isn’t it? In the States there isn’t that level of funding. It’s all entrepreneurial in the States. I think there’s something to be said for that but there isn’t that tradition in the UK so much - unless there’s some willing footballer and you try and get money off them.
I think it’s a two-edged sword, really. The funding is fantastic. I got my first short films made by the Film Agency for Wales and that got me my agent. I’m incredibly appreciative of the support I’ve had from the Welsh agencies but it’s a ball ache trying to please three lots of financers – the Irish, the Welsh, and the Scottish. They all wanted certain things and they all had opinions about the edit. You dance with the devil. We were very appreciative of getting the money but there was a fair amount of involvement from the various bodies that I could have done without. But without that we wouldn’t have got the film made. You have to knuckle down and get through it, I think.
The whole Brexit idea is so terrifying. There’s so much in terms of funding and infrastructure from Europe. You know, they support many cinemas and there are lots of film funds. To isolate ourselves like this... I just think it’s disastrous across the board. I hope Britain goes down the toilet because it’s such an ironic thing to have done and I want people to see the consequences of their nationalism.
Q: The film received some encouraging support from Irvine Welsh. How did that come about?
A: He came to see the film. He came up to the premier at the Edinburgh Film Festival, which was a surprise to me. He really liked it. I have worked with him and we are continuing to work together so I like to think it was a sincere complement and not one because he knows me. He’s been very kind about it. A lot of people have.
Q: You have your upcoming project in Port Talbot but are there any others in the pipeline? Another film?
A: Yes, I’ve got two films lined up. There’s a project written by Irvine Welsh and Dean Cavanagh which is set in Wales called ‘Let There Be Rock.’
Then there’s an Australian project about the sheep shearers’ strike of 1894. It’s called ‘Waltzing Matilda.’ I didn’t know that Waltzing Matilda was the anthem for the Australian Labour party when it started, which was a result of the sheep shearers’ strike. I love the idea because it’s a message that needs to be heard in this current horror show that we’re having. I think a story about unions and collective effort and the birth of the Labour movement is much needed in these dark times.
Those are the two films and they’ll probably happen next year.
‘Moon Dogs’ is released in UK cinemas on 1st September.