Filmmaker Interview: Jonathan Hawes

Wednesday 18 May 2016
reading time: min, words
We had a chat with the Notts bred filmmaker and his recent short film On the Wagon

What got you into filmmaking?
Well the official party line I go with is A Clockwork Orange. I watched that with my dad when I was quite young and I just fell in love with the whole idea of filmmaking. That’s when I started picking up cheap digital cameras and just started running around making films. My younger brother was sort of gently coerced into acting in them. And then it all kind of snowballed really. We remade all my favourite films at the time – films by Kubrick, Lynch and Scorsese – just odds scenes here and there. We even did Raging Bull at one point! But it gave me a good experience of shooting and editing. We had Windows Movie Maker - which was the Holy Grail for me at that point - and it gave me a chance to experiment with cutting things up and putting a film together. We used to make credits as well. They’d be really long and we used to fill them up with made-up names – because, in truth, it would just me doing everything.

But the first time I had to film somewhere where you’d need permission was when I was making one of my first short films, called Apex. I was at university and we used the campus library for some exterior shots. They were fine with it but I think that was my first taste of guerrilla filmmaking. I studied film at the University of Nottingham but it was very theory-based. In my final year, we got to make a short film so I wrote this black comedy script pretty early on. We each got to direct a film, but I wrote the first script and everyone liked it so we all based the characters off that and went from there.

Other than the ones you’ve already mentioned, are there any films or filmmakers that have had a particular impact on you?
It’s really difficult to answer that. I really like Mike Leigh’s film Naked. Some of Wes Anderson’s early stuff, Kubrick, David Fincher, the Coen brothers – I really like Blood Simple. It’s very unpolished and messy, but I really like it.

There’s so many more though, Charlie Kaufman, Richard Linklater, Alexander Payne. I quite like Woody Allen – even though he’s a bit strange! Irrational Man made me kind of uncomfortable because it’s yet another story about an older man falling for a younger woman, which is getting tiresome to say the least - Annie Hall is a masterpiece though. Shane Meadows, of course, just because he’s local so I have to say that. But I do love his films, especially A Room for Romeo Brass and Dead Man’s Shoes. I’ve got a real soft spot for Richard Ayoade’s Submarine. I could go on! 

What was the last film you saw in the cinema and was it good?
Batman vs Superman and no.

Are there any themes you like to use in your work and, if so, why?
I don’t know if there are themes as such but – if I can be really self-indulgent and analyse myself – one thing that I have noticed is that I tend to focus a film around specific objects, and how particular characters interact with them. So in Forbidden Fruit it’s the apple and in On the Wagon it’s the stuff they find in the driver’s cabin after the accident. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because with a low budget film you have to base things around props and be inventive. But I like the idea of the importance of objects and looking at an object now and in twenty years and thinking about how time and circumstance can skew your perspective of it. I’m also interested in the usual bigger themes. I’d say death and loss are probably the big ones, romantic or familial, but they’re represented almost exclusively in lots of art forms. Just the usual staples, really. I like to do something different with every film, though. It just keeps things interesting.

What can you tell us about On the Wagon? How does it compare with Forbidden Fruit?
On the Wagon is set in the seventies, and it’s about a group of people involved in a bus crash. The driver is presumably dead and they find a whiskey bottle and pills in his cabin, so one of them starts to blame him for the accident. There’s an older woman who’s particularly against him because she feels protective of a younger, pregnant woman who obviously could have been killed in the crash. She’s with her nephew and she starts snooping around the driver’s cabin and getting paranoid about what could have happened, but the pregnant woman is just grateful everyone’s ok and tries to stick up for the driver as none of them really knows what happened.

I came up with the idea a long time ago when I was on a coach that was weaving from side to side down a mountain road, and I was thinking ‘What if the driver just lost control and crashed?’ Then I thought about what our reactions would be as passengers. Some would blame him and others wouldn’t. I’m interested in the ethics of the situation but I don’t want it to come across as preachy, so I’ve tried to make the dialogue as natural as possible with straight-talking working-class characters so it seems more grounded. There is an element of social commentary to it and I like using public spaces as locations – I like the idea of strangers meeting and stuff happening. I suppose that’s a point of comparison with Forbidden Fruit. And the rhythm of the dialogue as well, maybe. On the Wagon was a good opportunity for me to write for women, though, which I enjoyed a lot. I don’t want to end up writing women like Tarantino does – where they’re basically just him.

What was the shoot like?
We were shooting on a hot day in a confined space, so there were some difficulties, but nothing we couldn’t handle. Moving a boom mike around on a bus is quite tricky, so I’ve got Liz Carlyon, the sound recordist, to thank for that. Other than that it went pretty smoothly. I scheduled heavily as well so that everything was organised. The DP [Director of Photography] Fatosh [Olgacher] likes to shoot fast, like me, so she was a really good person to have on board. We shot the film in 4K on her Sony A7S II camera, which was very exciting. The first AD [Assistant Director] Madz [Abbasi] was very, very helpful and she really kept things on track. And the stills photographer and clapper loader Sophie Butler helped out a lot also.

It’s tough, though, for the actors because they have to be ready when we are and I like to both shoot fast and get it perfect so it’s a bit of a tricky balance. I’d never tell an actor exactly how to perform or anything like that because I think when you’ve got people like Daniel [Hayes], Sarah [Wynne Kordas] and Katie [Richmond-Ward] working with you, you don’t need to. They just read the script and immediately got it. They got the tone as well, which is a bit of a mixture of drama and black comedy, weighted more towards a drama. Maybe a bit like This Is England or A Room for Romeo Brass in that it’s a serious film but also quite funny at times. I think the stress of the confined space on the bus definitely came across in their performances, though!

Would you say Nottingham is an important feature in your films?
I’m actually living down in London at the moment, but I really like Nottingham and the North. I prefer the accents and the humour – especially the humour. Being from Nottingham myself I want to take that sensibility with me and make sure it makes it into my future films. There’s a certain dialogue and performance that you get out of people that you can only get here.

What’s next for you?
I work in freelance video production at the moment, just to earn a bit of money really. But I want to start funding my own short film projects soon. I want to get On the Wagon seen at festivals. I’m entering it to London film festivals, such as Raindance and other ones local to Nottingham and the Midlands. Or anywhere I can get it in really!

I had an idea for a feature film about a 110 year-old man who never aged and so gets worshipped as a god by a cult. Unfortunately, there’s a similar premise to an American TV show called Forever with Ioan Gruffudd. They stole my idea! But from what I’ve heard, completely butchered it... it doesn’t have the cult element in it, though, so I may still want to do it some day. I also had an idea for a short set in the eighties where a guy working in a video store tries to organise an insurance scam that goes awry. I like doing period stuff – it’s always more fun.

What do you want people to take away from your films?
That’s a very tricky question! I want people to feel like they feel when they come out of a Woody Allen film – if that isn’t a massive cop out of an answer. He explores the chaos that comes out of a single event and the random nature of things, and I like doing that too.

Jonathan Hawes YouTube




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