The short film, 'Swinging With The Finkels' which led directly to the deal that ended with Jonny directing two multi million dollar features in 2010.
Q – You are working on your first big budget feature, tell us what has happened to you over the years.
Johnny – Many years ago I made my first feature film, called Being Considered, which was shot on Super16mm for £10k.
Like a lot of film makers, I expected the doors would then open for me, and when they didn’t, I realized I needed to be more in control of my own destiny. I thought long and hard, and chose to
make another film, something that would demonstrate other sides to what I am can do as a film maker.
I made a short film called Foster, about a young orphaned boy waiting for a family. My starting point was to make a film that was touching and heart warming. The film was shot on HDCam and completed on a budget of £1,000. I was amazed at the response it received, it won awards and was picked up by the BBC and HBO. And then I got a call from Pete Farrelly, one of the Farrelly brothers, who had seen it at the Rhode Island Film Festival. He said he loved it and asked if Ihad thought about developing it into a feature film. Truthfully, I hadn’t, but of course I said ‘Sure!’ Within days I was on a plane to LA to meet Pete, then I found myself at Fox pitching to execs, then DreamWorks where Steven Spielberg walked past me and said ‘hello!’ At that time, I couldn’t figure out a way to make Foster work as a feature, I couldn’t find a structure as my creative mojo had disappeared. And so that opportunity fizzled out. But we will come back to Foster later.
I then had an idea for another short called Swinging With The Finkels, about a bored couple who decide to spice up their sex life by swinging. We shot it on the Red camera and produced it for a few thousand. Then I entered it into a competition called Behind Closed Doors, run by a company called Filmaka, which in turn is run by Deepak Nayar, a prolific producer based in LA. The winner would have their idea turned into a show for the FX network. It was shortlisted to the final two, but ultimately it didn’t win. But it did catch Deepak’s eye, though he didn’t contact me then.
Soon after, there was another competition to make a Ford commercial, the winners being screened before each new episode of Knight Rider on US TV. There would be ten winners, each of whom would be given $5,000 to produce their film, based on their winning scripts. The ten films would air alongside Knight Rider, and there would be an overall winner selected. I wrote a script called Fathers Day, which was shortlisted, became a finalist, and then to my delight, won first prize. I was flown out to LA for the unveiling of the new Ford Mustang (which featured in Knight Rider), where they screened my film, and that’s when I met Deepak.
Deepak had then seen Foster, Fathers Day and Swinging With The Finkels, and he thought ‘clearly this guy is more than a one hit wonder’. He suggested developing The Finkels into a feature, which I was delighted with as I had always had that idea too. He said, ‘Go write the script, and in six months we will be on set…’ Having had a lot of carrots dangled in front of me before, I took it with a pinch of salt. But there was something interesting about Deepak, he was very charismatic and he had an amazing track record.
So I agreed, and true to my word, I wrote and delivered the script on schedule. Deepak had 100% faith in the film, went away, and amazingly, raised the entire budget in four months. Suddenly I found myself on set shooting a feature film based on my short film (the budget is approximately $3m). I am so used to guerilla film making that it was luxury (laughs!), though it was still very tight. It seems that no matter how much money you have, there is never enough of it, or enough time. We shot for 26 days, 6 day weeks, which was relatively tight.
Q – So you made three shorts beforehand. Do you think that was a good way to develop your skills and show different aspects to your abilities?
Johnny – When nothing was happening after Being Considered, it took me a while to realize I had to take action myself. I think a big mistake many film makers make is they expect people to come to them. What I chose to do was to continually generate my own work, and while I was doing that, I was getting better at my craft, and developing my own voice. With Foster I discovered I could tell a story that was both funny and heart warming, and that concept resonates throughout my work. It’s something I am interested in. I learned that if you approach a story in a way that is truthful, you can capture the full breath of human emotion, and that is a great place from which to tell a story.
Q – Anyone who knows you, will know you are a consummate networker and hustler. How important is that?
Johnny – Your work must speak for itself, and if it can’t speak for itself, no amount of networking or hustling will help. You could be the greatest talent on earth, but if no-one knows who you are, then you have no chance. So, yes hustling plays a part, as does chance and luck, but for me, it’s a chain of events – had I not got off my butt and made these short films, the chain of events that followed would not have happened. So taking action is by far the most important thing to do.
Q – So in the absence of a great opportunity, you can create your own great opportunities, and if you repeat that pattern, eventually something will happen?
Johnny – Yes. That’s why I love the expression, ‘You can’t wait for the cow to back into your hands so you can milk it’. You need to go into the field and get the cow! After The Finkels feature film I had an overwhelming feeling that I would never make a film again, and that got me to write another screenplay while I was in post production. I have a lot of friends who are successful, in that they have made great films, but they are still struggling, and that is the challenge we all face until we get into the studio system. And so I choose to take action and aggressively self generate my own opportunities.
Q – What doors has the Finkels opened?
Johnny – I now have an agent in LA at ICM. People no longer consider me a new film maker, even though before when I was thought of as a new film maker, I already had a feature film, several shorts and commercials under my belt. That was very frustrating. It’s an economic concept. Money attracts money. I had to make a fully budgeted film in order to be considered for a fully budgeted film. I am now perceived as a different commodity. I am now going up for open directing assignments in LA.
The other door that has opened is the relationship with Deepak. For years I have worked with other producers who have failed to deliver on promises. The relationship that we have cultivated is probably the biggest door that has opened, perhaps in my entire career. Deepak has the ability to make films happen, and he believes and commits 100%. Deepak and I are already working on the next film, even though we are still in post production on The Finkels. Extraordinarily, it could be in production within a few months.
Q – What is it?
Johnny – It’s Foster! With the break from the Farrelly brothers, and after The Finkels, I got my creative mojo back and I was able to crack the structure of it.
Q – What are the big lessons you have learned over the years?
Johnny – I was very prepared to make The Finkels, to bring it in on budget and on schedule, and that is important for studios and producers. Coming from a guerilla film making background I have learned to focus my resources on what is important, on the story. By making many mistakes on the shorts, when making the feature, I knew how to get the coverage, how many takes I needed, what I didn’t need etc. My goal was always to get what I needed and to stay on schedule. Here’s the thing. If I went past the wrap time by ten minutes, it would cost the production £5k per hour. If we went over by a day, it would cost the production tens of thousands. So I was conscious of the schedule at every moment. Many film makers do not act responsibly with regard to time and money, and unless your work is exceptional, you may not be invited back for the next one.
Q – What advice would you offer a new film maker?
Johnny – Short films are a great place to learn and to show off your skills. If you have had one success, don’t rest on your laurels, continue to generate more material and create relationships. If you can write your own material, that puts you in stronger position. In my experience, when you get an opportunity, when someone sees your film and they like it, they will say… ‘that’s great, so what have you got?’ And at that point you need a project. You need a script. The odds are very much stacked against you in regard to being hired to direct a feature off the back of a short. Producers are already looking at directors who have made several feature films, possibly very successful feature films. Why would they take a risk on a new and unproven short film maker when they don’t need to? So you need your own screenplay so that you become necessary.
Keep the dream alive. It’s taken me ten years between my last feature film and this one, and there were times I considered doing something else for the sake of a stable career, but if you believe in your ability, you will keep going. Every rejection makes you stronger and hope keeps you going.
Ultimately, be self generative. Go milk the cow!
UPDATE - As this book goes to press, so Johnny walks out onto set to shoot ‘Foster’! INCREDIBLE!