Jonathan Weissler is a highly experienced, versatile UK-based producer. After working his way up the ranks in the UK film industry and having success in the world of commercials, he began a fascinating career in international film production, working in Hong Kong, Japan, Israel and other locations. Jonathan then returned to his homeland to equal success. I spoke to him about his fascinating career and where it has brought him.

How did you fall in love with film?
I saw JAWS (1975) as a 5 year old. It was the summer of 1980 and I watched it on a pirate VHS at my best friend's house. The next day I watched it again just to deal with my fear. When Quint (Robert Shaw) fires the third barrel into the shark, the camera then cranes up to Richard Dreyfuss who's steering the ship, and he says "I'm coming around!!!". The moment John Williams' music peaks, it was then that I knew I wanted to make films.

What are some of the films that affected you growing up?
As a kid growing up it was Star Wars (1977-83) and the Indiana Jones movies (1981-89) and stuff like THE GOONIES (1985) and EXPLORERS (1985). Then as I got a little older I discovered filmmakers like Brian De Palma, Oliver Stone and James Cameron. I loved ALIENS (1986) and I knew every shot, camera move and line of dialogue from it. This was the age of VHS and I watched everything I could get my hands on.

How did you get involved in the film industry?
Growing up, I never had access to a Super 8 camera and I didn't know how to connect my love of film with making them. I was a smart pupil but I was not at all interested in school. I used to take a lot of time off and go to the cinema, sometimes three times a day. One day when I was 14 years old, I was walking along The Strand in Central London waiting for the cinemas to open when I spotted a film shoot. I had never seen one before and I was transfixed. This before DVD making of documentaries so I had no idea what an actual filmshoot was! I saw cameras and lights and a ton of busy people. It turned out they were shooting a commercial, and I decided to make myself useful. I was soon carrying boxes and doing small errands for them. I remember when the crew broke for lunch I stayed on set and simply stared at the camera on the dolly and said to myself "This is my future." At the end of the day, the producer came up to me and said "You should be in school. Obviously I can't hire you, but this is a call sheet. This is where we will be at 7.30 tomorrow morning." Even though it was at the other side of London, I managed to get there on time and spent the day helping them out. As everyone was packing up for the day, the producer came up to me and said "I obviously can't hire you but thank you for all your help", and handed me a fifty pound note. For a kid on £5 pocket money a week this was a lot of money! I was now hooked on the idea of somehow working in film. Continuing with school made no sense to me, despite me acing exams. Much to my parents shock, I drifted away from school and when I was 16 became a runner on movies.

What were some of the films you worked on?

I was quite lucky that I started on big movies. I was a runner on INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE (1994), a third assistant director on BRAVEHEART (1995) and I worked as the visual effects floor coordinator on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1996). In a completely optical workflow it was similar to a data wrangler today. I thought it was completely normal to work on massive films with big famous actors, 80 day shoots and massive cinema releases. I was also working as a production manager and location manager on short films, commercials and music videos and grabbing every experience I could get.

Was there a specific film that influenced you to become a producer?
I remember becoming very self aware that I could produce films after I saw RESERVOIR DOGS (1992). I was already in the industry but it was a total inspiration to me. It was a movie shot on 35mm in 4 weeks, with a brilliant script and brilliant actors. The film was so smartly made and Tarantino made it for the same money as a few days filming on some of bigger movies I was working on. It was a revelation as both a film and of what was possible as a producer.

What was your first producing experience?
After MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, I was offered a unit manager job on another big film which was a step up for me but also I was offered a producer role on a much smaller British film. I saw it as a choice between being a King in Hell or a Servant in Heaven! I chose the small film which was TIME ENOUGH (1997) with Dexter Fletcher. Foster Marks was the writer/director. The film ended up winning Best Film at the Houston International Film Festival and we made our money back! At the age of 21 I was a bona fide producer in the British film industry.

What did you learn on that film about your capabilities as a producer?
I found it easy to understand the business and logistics of producing. As a producer and line producer I was responsible for controlling the money all the way from sitting down with the script and director at the beginning and planning the movie, through to the end of post production and all the delivery elements. It was a tremendous experience.

How did you follow on from that movie?
I went on to do a lot of small British movies with a whole generation of young, up and coming directors and crews. This was before digital cameras so we shot on Super 16mm for three or four week shoots, a five week shoot was a biggie, and our most expensive line item in the budget was the blow up to a 35mm negative. To be honest, none of the films were amazing, but it was an exciting time and I worked all the time. It felt like we were the Young Turks akin to the 'Easy Riders, Raging Bulls' generation. There was a gang of us and we all had big dreams and big passions. However, looking back few of those people from that gang have actually gone the distance and many many fell away. One of the standout movies from that time was THE TRUTH GAME (2001), directed by Simon Rumley. We made a really good movie and we premiered in Cannes and played in cinemas all over the world. The only downside to that period was that the budgets were so low and my fees just as bad. So I decided to move into commercials where I thrived. I loved the travel and speed we worked. I was able to take a movie mindset and infrastructure and apply to that to commercials, which strangely few people were doing at the time as commercials tended to be more chaotic and wasteful than movies. I have now produced hundreds and hundreds of commercials, from noodles to cars to airlines and every other product and brand you can think of. From that, I ended up making films in Asia!

How did that happen?
One of the directors on my commercials was a guy called Jackson Pat. He was a Hong Kong filmmaker living in London, and we did tons of commercials together. Through commercials we did out there, I met a lot of Chinese and Japanese filmmakers. We did a commercial for Japan Airlines and the next thing I knew I was making a movie in Tokyo called KILLER IN ME (1999). It did well and then I did the movie JIANG HU: THE TRIAD ZONE (2000), which we filmed in London and Hong Kong. In 2001 I produced the Hong Kong movie THE BRASSERIE, with Louis Koo and Gigi Leung and the film ended up being a huge hit and one of the top five grossing films in Asia of that year. It even spawned three sequels. I was definitely Mr. Asia for a while!

How challenging was it working in Asia?
It was culturally very different, but I have the philosophy that there are a thousand ways to climb up a mountain. It's that kind of mindset that gets you through anything. The art of producing is getting a lot of temperamental ideologies, different perspectives and techniques lined up, pushing forward in the same direction.

Hong Kong was this busy insane circus.  Culturally very different from England or Europe but there was a massive contradiction between their drive for efficiency and a consistent inability to lock down a script. Without a locked script we were always in a state of flux and we spent a huge amount of effort and resources simply making each day of filming happen instead of using that time to enhance and better our shooting days and movie. I was working with the best cast and crews in Asia, and many of my team had worked with John Woo, Sammo Hung and all the other greats from that region. Despite working on the biggest and best films out there a lot of the stories we were telling were very simplistic comedies and action films. Although a ton of fun to make they were hardly the kind of films I would rush out and watch!

Shooting in Japan was hard for different reasons and Tokyo is probably one of the most unfriendly filmmaking locations I have been to. I had very good location and production managers out there and they dealt with a lot of the grass root issues like parking, permits etc but I remember those seemed unnecessarily hard compared to London. But it was a great life out there, living out a bag and always ready to jump on a plane.

Shanghai was a little more formal and probably a little more corrupt. I did a movie there in 2003, LIFE TRANSLATED and this was just before the whole Chinese film industry boomed. It took a lot of effort to get simple things done and you could definitely smell corruption in places that there shouldn't have been. Chinese crews, although hard working, lacked some of the refinement and skill sets I was used to working with in Europe and even Hong Kong. I remember Robert Richardson (the Oscar winning cinematographer), saying how on KILL BILL, which they shot in Shanghai, he saw how when they moved a piece of equipment, thirty people would swarm the set to do it in a really haphazard way. It sounded like he was describing some of my sets! But as I said, there are 1000 ways to climb a mountain!

But Asia was great. I had a great adventure there and I would go back there when I get the right script. I've got friends working on Michael Mann's CYBER and also on TRANSFORMERS 4 at the moment, and I know, ten years later and with the massive investment in infrastructure and far more experienced crews, they are going to have it a lot easier that we did back in the day.

How was your experience shooting the TV mini-series AGAINST ALL ODDS (2005) in Israel?
I spent most of 2004 shooting commercials, and at the end of the year I went to Israel to set up a movie, which unfortunately never got off the ground. As I was leaving for London, HBO were arriving to set up a miniseries. After getting a few friendly phone calls from them, I was suddenly flying back and spent seven months working on it. We were running around the Israeli desert with tanks and soldiers! It was such a memorable experience. It was big logistics in tough, hot places. We had 800 extras, six 35mm cameras, lots of stunts and lots of special effects. We rented 3000 costumes from London and Rome, and made another 4000 more. On a shoot like that you know how big you are by how many plates you go through at lunch. We were regularly feeding 1100 people a day. We had our own stables for 150 horses, our own power supply, air, carpool and a medical facility. We even had a helicopter pad! We took nearly every hotel room and guest house within 50km of our main location. It was a big show and we did all of this in the middle of the desert and in 120 degree heat!

Were there any particular problems on the shoot?

At one point we moved to a location about 20km north of the Egyptian border in the Negev Desert. After a few weeks of day shooting there we began two weeks of night shoots. On the second night I noticed a glow of light on the horizon that affected our ability to shoot in that direction. I asked the location manager what it was and he told me "It's the Egyptian Army doing a mirror. They've put spotlights in the air because they see Israel doing the same thing." When we finished filming in the morning, instead of going to sleep, I spent the next day on the phone to the English Ambassador in Israel asking him to tell the English Ambassador in Cairo to tell the Egyptian army that the lights in the sky were not part of a planned invasion but just a film shoot! I showed up on set the next night and there were no lights in Egypt. I managed to pull it off and no one on the crew even new what I did or why I was so tired!

Why did you decide to return to London to make films after that?
I realised that I was an English filmmaker living in London who was never in the country! I decided to be more UK-based and soon found myself shooting a film called IN YOUR DREAMS (2008) with Dexter Fletcher and Linda Hamilton. Working with Linda was fantastic. Everyone was a such a huge fan of THE TERMINATOR movies. Linda was fantastic and I remember one day we were three hours over schedule with another hour to go. The crew were tired and she could see it. So she came up to me and offered to pay for hotel rooms for the whole crew, which of course I couldn't accept. But it was lovely she asked in the first place. Such a sweet, classy lady.

Why do you think producing fits you so well?
Well, I'm obsessive and passionate about cinema. With my line producing background I have a really strong understanding of the physical filmmaking. I'm very driven. I love everything about the process of making films - from the developing of stories and scripts, through to financing, to the actual filming and post production, and I love the selling and marketing of films. I can walk onto any film set in the world and feel comfortable, and know instinctively what is going well and what isn't. I thrive on the adrenalin of having to constantly solve problems. I call it 'firefighting'. At this point, because I've worked my way up the ranks and have a lot of experience, I have a really good understanding of the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, and am able raise finance. Above all I recognise great storytelling. These are the skillsets all producers have.

What are some of the challenges of producing?

Getting great scripts and being able to pay for them at script stage is probably the greatest challenge I have. By the time a UK producer reads a script its already been turned down by the major studios in LA and a few other companies in London - because they have the money to buy. It doesn't matter how good your relationships are with the writers and agents, they will go where the money is.

Once actually filming, all kinds of challenges are thrown at you every day and you end up dealing with a massive gamut of problems and decisions. A single afternoon might involve sitting with an actor going over his concerns with the script, to trying to get sixteen trucks and six drivers to another location overnight, through to keeping a director or actor sane during or after a tough scene! You can be sitting with your accountant working on intricate cash-flow and cost reports, and the next minute planning complicated visual effects and special effects, and then auditioning an actor, and after that calming down a carpenter or driver because they feel hard done by. Its never the same day twice!

What is your favourite anecdote concerning challenges you have faced?
In 2009 I was producing RE-UNITING THE RUBINS with Timothy Spall and Rhona Mitra, and we were a week and a half before shooting when our financier got scared about bird flu, which had just started, and wanted to pull out! He wanted assurances, but no insurance or completion bond company in the world was going to insure us against bird flu, as no-one knew how big or bad this thing was going to get. I shot through the SARS crisis in Hong Kong in 2002, and told him life always carries on, but the financier had a genuine feeling the world could end! I thought the film was going to get cancelled. I found out that I could get us insured against bird flu under the clause 'Public Assembly'. This referred to a special clause when a government, to contain a virus, would shut down all public gatherings over fifty people, like sporting events, schools and in our case, film shoots. This would be covered by our Force Majeure clauses which meant my financiers could sleep at night knowing that if the world ended they would still be covered and I could make my movie! For 24 hours I was the world's leading expert on the bird flu experience. We were the first and I think only film in the world to have this specific cover. Although this has nothing to do with filmmaking, the fact that I had to do it and there was no Plan B is kinda representative of the kind of challenges we face on a daily basis.

What are some of your philosophies about filmmaking?
I always try to focus on the big picture: ''You can lose the battle. but win the war." I strongly believe that if the camera is not actually 'turning over' (filming), then we're not making the film. You would be amazed how much time is spent on unnecessary concerns when the clock is ticking and you have to shoot four pages of script that day! Of course you want your film to look and sound amazing, but with good planning, good art department, good locations and great lighting you can achieve a huge amount with very little. All we do on set is collect shots for the editing suite. That philosophy might not go down well with some people but that’s the cold harsh reality of grown up filmmaking. If you have the time then please explore your options or tinker with camera and lighting for days, but in the tough indie world where you have thirty to forty days to shoot a movie, you have to make it count. So if your doing a 35 day shoot with eleven hours on camera that’s 385 hours to shoot your movie. After all the years of developing and planning it all comes down to 385 hours - so SHOOT your movie!It's also important for me to have good relationships with all the key personnel, from the actors and the director, all the way through to the catering department and the transport co-ordinators, who in their own way hold the film together behind the scenes. I have to understand what everybody's job is and support them. I know a lot of producers that don’t even understand what half their crews do, let alone how to support them!

I think in the past I was more abrasive and blunt in terms of telling people how I wanted things to be done, but I've learned how to work better. The better I can communicate to people what I want to achieve, the easier problems can get solved. I always tell my crew "Don't tell me when you have a problem. Tell me when a problem is brewing and we can fix it before its a problem." There are always curveballs on film shoots: locations can fall through, weather changes everything and certain scenes take longer to film than we planned. It's how you handle the problems that's important. Filmmaking is controlled chaos but you have to create a kind of grounded environment that allows people to be comfortable and confident to work at their best.

What parts of your job might surprise people the most?
People think its a really glamourous job. And sometimes it is. I've been to two film premieres in the last week, and had a lunch with a world famous actor! But mostly I work 100 hour weeks, often late at night talking to people in other countries. And when your actually filming - there is nothing glamorous about getting up at 5am and working an 18 hour day. On a more serious note the public might be amazed by how many films we develop that don’t get made. My company tends to develop eight to ten movies at a time, and we have a batting average of one movie in six or seven that gets made. That’s a pretty good ratio in the industry!

How do you feel about the state of the film industry at the moment?
The biggest problem in England is that we don't have structured and financed development. A lot of movies in the independent world get made because they have to get made instead of because they should get made. You can spend two years developing a movie, and if it doesn't happen, you're out of pocket for all the time and work you've done. Because of that, a lot of not so good scripts are put into production. Only big American studios or Working Title in the UK can afford structured and regimented development. Starting a film without a script that's 100% never works, and it's always reflected by the fact taht not many people watch the film. I'm not going to make a film unless the script is right. I'm committed to making films as great as the ones that originally inspired me and that’s something I've neglected in the past as I've travelled the world having these great adventures.

I think we're in a very dangerous time now in the film industry where digital technology has really changed the way films are made. It's much easier to make a film now. You could buy a Canon 5D and make a movie. But because of that factor, there's a lack of film set etiquette and discipline because you're getting a lot of inexperienced filmmakers creating big job titles for themselves running around making movies. The scripts are rarely good enough. We have a lot of movies made in the UK for under a million pounds and always with the same familiar faces in them, usually ex-soap actors or ex-gangster types, and they are consistently unwatchable. How many gangster films and trashy horror films do we need?

The huge legacy of state-sponsored filmmaking doesn't really help because people are so busy making films that they don't stop to consider why they're making them, what the films will do for their career, or whether the film can realistically recoup on its cost. They're not looking at the big picture. The trick is to figure out the market value of your film and produce it for less money, thereby making a profit. But the real trick is to decide on what films you want to make and figure out the steps to get there. Chris Nolan went from FOLLOWING (1998) to MEMENTO (2000) to INSOMNIA (2002) to BATMAN BEGINS (2005) in seven years!

Another problem is that digital distribution is diluting the market. Quite a few films are now premiering now in very limited cinema releases and on video-on-demand simultaneously. It's very difficult to recoup with such a short theatrical windows, a diminishing DVD market and lower TV sales. It's affecting the budgets of films. Films are now made as big fx studio films with huge budgets or for under $1,000,000. The middle ground of $8m - $12m budgets is getting harder and harder to operate in.

Who are some producers that you respect and admire?
I admire and respect people like Kathleen Kennedy, Scott Rudin, Mike De Luca, and the guys and girls at Working Title. They all make fantastic movies but also run a fantastic pipeline of projects in development. Of course that costs money, but they have the support of big studios to pay for this. Recently Working Title shut down BRIDGET JONES 3 very close to shooting as they didn't think the project was good enough. Universal shut down Guillermo Del Toro's AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS which had Tom Cruise acting and James Cameron producing, because of the R Rated script and its massive budget! While it’s easy to have opinions on these films from our sofas, these companies are in the serious business of making money and if they think that’s in doubt they will abort. I admire that. I think the real trick is to make these films for the right money. THE LONE RANGER (2013) did not need to cost $280m, but it did. That was ludicrous and of course it’s a massive write off.

What excites you the most about your future?
I'm excited about the opportunities to tell fantastic stories. In the last year I have turned down pretty much every offer with the goal of not wanting to make anything mediocre or just for the money. I have really focused on developing great projects. I now have some amazing movies ready to go. I always believe there is money available for the right projects with the right actors at the right budget.

I have a movie called BENSON CHILD CLOWN which is about African child soldiers that we're shooting in South Africa next year. It could be another KILLING FIELDS (1984). I also have a cyberpunk thriller called COLD SEA RISING that will shoot in London, and a movie called BLUE MESSIAH which is a horror film about a sociopath who meets the Devil in Jerusalem. We are formally announcing these projects in the next few months, so you are getting an early scoop!

Jonathan can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

I spoke to Jonathan by phone on 14th July 2013 and would like to thank him for his time.

Thanks to Richard S. Barnett.

Paul Rowlands is a Japan-based writer. After completing a BA Humanities course (majoring in English and Science) at the University of Chester, he moved to Japan in 1999. He writes for the James Bond magazine, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, has had articles published on Press Play and has had an almost lifelong obsession with cinema, something the advent of DVD only increased. Paul is also a writer of so far unpublished short stories and novels, and is planning his first short film.


Tom DiCillo burst onto the indie scene in 1991 with the uniquely brilliant JOHNNY SUEDE, which featured Brad Pitt's first major lead role. Since then he's established himself as a filmmaker with a distinctive voice, capable of crafting intimate, truthful, hilarious comedy-dramas such as LIVING IN OBLIVION (1995), BOX OF MOON LIGHT (1996), THE REAL BLONDE (1997), DOUBLE WHAMMY (2001) and DELIRIOUS (2006); films that more often that not feature performances amongst the actors' best. Tom's latest film is the extraordinary documentary on The Doors, WHEN YOU'RE STRANGE (2009), which deservedly netted a Grammy Award. I spoke to him about his impressive career.    

Why did you decide to study acting before directing your first film, JOHNNY SUEDE? 
I was twenty years old before I fell in love with a different kind of filmmaking than would appear on traditional American screens. I was in college and I happened to see LA STRADA (1954). The film made me want to investigate that way of making films. I went to Film School in New York City, and I got my Master's Degree in Directing at NYU. After I graduated, I realized that the understanding of acting was one of the crucial elements of directing. I really felt like I had a block there. There were words that I thought I should be saying but I didn’t know what they were. At a friend’s gentle urging I started taking acting classes and the teacher told me ''You know you’ve got a little bit of a gift here. You should keep acting.'' That was an ego boost. At that time I was wondering how I was ever going to be able to direct a movie. Now I was thinking I might be an actor. But the original impulse was to help me work with actors as a director. And I can tell you the moment I stepped in front of an audience trying to bring some emotional truth to a scene changed forever how I talked to actors.

I think what happens between an actor and a director on set, or what potentially can happen, is one of the most abused and potentially destructive areas of the filmmaking process. The director’s job is to encourage the actor to do the best they can do, no matter what it takes, because ultimately it is the director who wins if he manages to do it successfully. Then the performance is on film and the film has more of a chance of bringing its ideas to life. Most directors are terrified of actors and never want to reveal it, so they tend to exert this exaggerated control over them, usually because they have no idea what to say or do with them. What I learned as an actor and from watching really good actors is that it's important to really give them the sense that you are really seeing what they’re doing. Because they look to you, and you have to let them know that if they try something in a scene that you have witnessed it, and that you’re able to identify it. It’s such an important knowledge. If you don’t know that language, or how to get a performance or how to help an actor, it’s like you’re going in with two hands tied behind your back. If you get them to trust you, you can actually get them to do anything and that’s where the joy is, where working with an actor like Steve Buscemi becomes so amazing.

How did JOHNNY SUEDE come into being?

Every day, for three years, I would walk up through the East Village to get to Film School. I would see these amazing characters with their hair up in pompadours, wearing sharkskin suits, sequinned jackets and pointy suede boots. They’d be making their way home after being up all night. Some of these people were junkies. An unforgettable image was this guy standing on a street corner for ten minutes and then suddenly falling down into the garbage. That, in a way, inspired Nick Cave’s character, Freak Storm, in JOHNNY SUEDE. I actually got the inspiration for Johnny’s hairdo when I was in Yoyogi Park in Tokyo and I saw a group of teddy boys with big pompadours standing around in a circle. The neo-rockabilly, punk aspect of what was happening with music at that time, and the costumes and imagery, really appealed to me. I don’t know why. I’m sort of an Elvis fan but definitely not much past 1956. I was never much of a Ricky Nelson fan because other than his sweet, homogenised voice, he was boring.

While I was taking acting classes, I began piecing together little sketches about a character called Johnny Suede. I would perform 15 minute pieces of stuff in front of everybody. Then I put all the short pieces together and made a one-man show out of it that was about an hour long. I still don’t believe I had the balls to do this, but I told a theatre what I wanted to do and they gave me the space for three weekends.I performed it as a one-man show. People came to see it and for the most part they responded to it, especially women. They appreciated the glimpse behind the surface into the male psyche. That was essentially what started my momentum again, after studying acting and performing in plays and in films for eight years, and working as a cinematographer.

How autobiographical is JOHNNY SUEDE?
Some things are very autobiographical, like the two relationships with Darlette and Yvonne. Other things I borrowed and exaggerated to serve the story. My intent with the character was to portray a guy who, like Ricky Nelson, worked very hard on the facade of looking cool and like he had it together in order to cover-up his confusion and the real chaos that was going on inside. That echoed some things that I was going through in my own life about who I was, and my understanding of how men and women related to each other. I knew nothing. The idea of emotional honesty and intimacy with another person terrified me. I decided to put some of my autobiographical material into the form of this kind of lost '50s troubadour wandering around this urban wasteland.

How close is Brad Pitt's portrayal of Johnny compared to your original conception?

It was close but with some significant differences. As the movie moved toward actual production I quickly came to see that my primary goal with the film was to be the writer and director because those were the engines that were really driving me the most. The acting one was a strong one, but I realised that if I wanted to focus on the film, I would probably have to let that one go. Once I made that decision, it was a little easier and I knew I needed to start and try to find this guy. Most of the guys we auditioned completely misunderstood what the character was about. They thought that he was some '50s greaseball like The Fonz on 'Happy Days'. It wasn’t until we saw Brad, who was like the 458th actor we looked at, that I saw an actor who had the kind of quality I was looking for in Johnny. There’s a certain kind of elegance and goofiness in Johnny, but at the same time he’s an interesting, complex character. I think Brad did really well with the part. If anything, it being my first film, I should have probably specified a little more what it was I wanted and what I was seeing. Brad certainly worked hard, but I think he made the choice to give a slightly infantile element to Johnny, and it made the character appear less intelligent. That was a mistake I felt that probably didn’t help the film. It makes you wonder why Catherine Keener's character is even with this guy if he is living in such a state of oblivion. Nonetheless, I still think Brad is amazing in the part and he brought something to it that I never could have. You know, it was my first film and learning those kinds of necessities when you’re directing like ''Oh my God, there’s something that needs to be changed'' was a really important lesson. No matter how big or drastic the change you have to just roll up your sleeves and change it. And not give up on it.

What are some of the film's cinematic influences?
LA STRADA was a huge influence, particularly the ending. The central story of that film, if you take away all the gritty neo-realism, was about a man who is brutal and alone but manages to stumble upon the only other human being on the planet who would ever care or have the time and patience for him. And he lets her go. He destroys the connection that they had and he ultimately winds up alone again. There’s an element of that in Johnny and Yvonne (Catherine Keener)’s relationship. The other huge influence was MIDNIGHT COWBOY. This wandering, naive kid ends up stumbling through the cold canyons of New York City. It’s an amazing film. Hard to understand how it got made in 1969. That whole sequence following Jon Voight walking through Times Square with the jump-cutting on his back. It pre-dated anything that happened on MTV. Really innovative.

Why do you think JOHNNY SUEDE was better received in Europe than the U.S.?
It did okay in Europe; very good in the UK. I suppose it touched upon more of a European sensibility where it’s fine to have a lead character who isn’t always a good guy. I’ve never been interested in characters who are simply heroic. It’s just incredibly boring to me.
I really don’t want to blame anybody but I don’t think the American release was helpful to the film. They didn’t put much into it. It was picked up by Miramax at the Locarno Film Festival, where it won Best Picture. At that time, Harvey Weinstein had never heard or seen Brad Pitt. His buyer suggested he obtain the film, and for one of the first times in his career he bought a film he hadn’t seen. Harvey didn’t quite know what to make of the film. Brad was becoming a star after playing the sexy, hitchhiking stud in THELMA AND LOUISE (1991) and Harvey decided to postpone the release of JOHNNY SUEDE until Brad became an even bigger star. By the time the film came out it was clear that nobody really understood why anybody would want to watch Brad with his hair up in a pompadour and acting like a fool. I still think that if JOHNNY SUEDE had been the first film that we had seen Brad in it would have been a different story. I think people would have been more open to his performance and impressed by it as I am. Also, it could be that it didn't have the stylistic reserve of a Jarmusch film or other established independent directors of the time. JOHNNY SUEDE has a kind of goofy sensibility and a sense of heart to it that threw people.

How proud do you remain of the film?
I still love the film like a difficult first child. I think there is a lot of original stuff in it. To this day I’ve never watched a scene in another American film like the one where Yvonne shows Johnny exactly where the clitoris is. The way the two actors handled that scene is just incredibly courageous and beautiful to me. It really surprised me that nobody found that scene as interesting or as intimate as I did. I think I made a film that has real honesty and a visual uniqueness to it. The world that it creates visually is quite beautiful and interesting and I like what the film is about. That said, I do take credit for some of the flaws of the movie - some of the pacing and some of the writing show signs of it being my first film. It could’ve been sharper, more reliant on just the magic of film to tell the story as opposed to just using dialogue all the time.

After making LIVING IN OBLIVION, are you now able to look back at the JOHNNY SUEDE experience in a more positive light?

Yes, I give myself a little more understanding and compassion now because making a film on a small budget is tough. Some people say that if you have only a little money it actually removes a lot of your variables and makes it easier. But on the other hand, it also imparts a pressure that is so intense. For example, if you have one day to shoot six scenes, and things start to go wrong - a camera starts to malfunction, a crew member doesn’t turn up or an actor starts getting weird on you - you start to worry about what’s going to happen to your film if the scenes don’t get done. If it was a Hollywood film, you could add a day to the schedule, do re-shoots or just throw money at the problem. You can’t do that on an independent production. That’s what the pressure was like on JOHNNY SUEDE. It was like going over Niagara Falls. Some of the adaptations or adjustments I made were smart and showed me that I had what it took to keep going. Some of them revealed other areas that I needed to work on.
I wasn't really prepared for what happens when you make a film and it doesn't really do anything for you, or even sets you back. Some people saw the film as a real accomplishment. That helped me in a certain way. It got me an agent and I became known as a director, which is what I wanted to be, and not as a cinematographer. I learned that to survive in the world of independent production you have to make films that are either incredibly critically acclaimed and/ or make money. Otherwise, people don't know what to do with you.

What emotions usually motivate you to write?
For me it is usually anger or hilarity. But sometimes the anger fuels the comedy. In any case, the motivation is usually pretty strong. It has to be, because the process of writing a screenplay is rather intense. A series of ideas that began on the corner of a napkin have to get to the point where it is enough to make you want to sit down for six or seven hours a day for a month to actually write an entire script. It has to be an impetus that really resonates with you because writing a script is hard. Sometimes it’s the humour that gives you that little hook to keep you going. Each script comes out of a different way. LIVING IN OBLIVION, though written quickly, took four years to sort of get into my brain and sit there. Frankly, I lived through all those nightmares with JOHNNY SUEDE. LIVING IN OBLIVION isn’t just really about being on the set. You could look at it as being about the entire independent production process. By the time I sat down to write it, everything was so rich and cooked inside of me that it just came out very easily. I think there’s a very interesting connection between humour and anger or rage. I think it’s important though that one tempers the other. If it’s just rage, I’ve noticed that it is boring and doesn’t have that extra edge that makes it understandable and interesting to other people.

Who is your biggest influence in terms of humour? I know you're a fan of Richard Lester's films. 
Richard Lester's A HARD DAY'S NIGHT (1964) is one of my favourite films. It is really a brilliant piece of filmmaking. Yes, it is with The Beatles but what Lester did with the storytelling, the camera and the editing is twenty years ahead of its time. I actually showed my Director of Photography the film before we made DELIRIOUS. It strongly affected the look and feel of the film. There is a real sense of joy, ebullience really, in Lester's film. The way he used the camera to relay the humour and magic in his film was really bold and inspiring.

Mark Twain is an inspiration, and so are the Marx Brothers. I like humour that has an edge of lunacy to it. I think there’s definitely a bit of Kafka in my work. I’m one of the few people who find his work bizarrely humorous. The humour of LIVING IN OBLIVION comes out of these desperate and horrific moments that filmmakers go through. I was aiming to show all the things that directors go through that make them want to commit suicide!

How did you first meet Steve Buscemi?
 moved to New York in 1976, which was a very cool time to be there. The punk scene was really just starting. That affected how people were doing theatre and how people were doing movies. Suddenly people were taking Super 8 cameras and making feature-length films with them. On the theatre side, Steve was going around the clubs with his writing partner, Mark Boone Jr. Steve also acted in a couple of films Eric Mitchell made. I met Steve in a club on the Lower East Side. He and Mark did a silent sketch where they both play men pretending to be dogs. I thought his acting and playwrighting were so amazing that I really wanted to work with him. At one point, Steve and I were going to play the leads in JOHNNY SUEDE, with me as Johnny, and he as Deke, Johnny’s best friend. Who’s to say what that would have been like? It certainly would have been interesting I think.
Why do you enjoy working with Steve? You've collaborated on three films.
To me Steve is the ideal kind of actor. He takes it very seriously but he’s also able to enjoy what he is doing. That’s such an important element. My preparational dialogue with him is very minimal. He’s such an intuitive actor and willing to go places. Most of the time when I’m on set with him what I'll do is take him aside at the beginning of a take and whisper a suggestion in his ear. I whisper because I don't want the other actor to know what is coming. Some actors resist this kind of directing. They don't like to be caught off guard or put off balance. But with Steve, you’d see his eyes light up very quietly and then 'Boom!', he just goes with it. It’s like he jumps off a balcony. It’s incredible. It's interesting that I first put Steve, Michael Pitt and Tom Aldredge together in DELIRIOUS and all three of them were cast in the HBO series 'Boardwalk Empire'!

How did you end up casting Catherine Keener in JOHNNY SUEDE? You have worked with her four times now.
The casting director and I exhausted all the actresses we knew in New York, so we scraped some money together and went out to California. We held auditions in this really cheap motel, which I later found out was the motel Janis Joplin overdosed in. The actors would come in and stand around waiting by this empty, deserted swimming pool, which always made me think of Wilder's SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950). I almost didn’t cast Catherine because she was so wacky in her audition. Then I realised she had exactly what I needed. For me, she has an element, a little like Buscemi, that once she gets going on something you can’t take your eyes off of her. She’s got a combination of humour and rage in her. You can see it in the scene in LIVING IN OBLIVION where she fights with James Le Gros. She's got a kind of devil quality in her, like a mischievous juvenile delinquent. For me, that is a great quality, especially from a woman. Women rarely get to play in that arena.

How did you first meet Jim Jarmusch? You photographed his early films.
Jim and I were in film school together. We were both directors in the same class. He and I quickly realised we shared a similar sensibility, although we're also very different. As a random student exercise, one teacher suggested that somebody should come up with a script, somebody should edit the film, and somebody should shoot it. A little five-minute exercise. I'd never shot anything before and I ended up shooting this film that Jim wrote the script for. Working with Jim on his early films was artistically and intellectually satisfying because I respected his ideas and at the same time he respected mine. He never forced me into a box the way a lot of directors do when you work for them. Specifically with STRANGER IN PARADISE (1984) he let me create the visual world of the film. That's one of the things that can be exciting about cinematography. On the other hand, I knew it wasn't what I wanted to do.

It troubles me that people don't put enough energy into looking at the great differences between the two of us. His films are brilliant, but they're different from mine. They're highly conceptual on a more abstract level. My films, although having a slight exaggeration and altered reality as well, tend to be much more focused on basic human emotion.

How helpful to your career have your various awards been?
I guess if it’s the right kind of award it can help you. An Academy Award has a great logistical value to a filmmaker. That means you can now possibly do something a bit different, and your career may be a little easier. That’s a highly valued and desperately sought after award for a filmmaker, even independent ones. I've never come close, nor do I expect to. LIVING IN OBLIVION won some nice awards, including Best Screenplay at Sundance. I was pleased with that but it didn't really help me make another movie. Winning Best Picture at Locarno with my first film JOHNNY SUEDE was a thrill. But immediately afterwards some US critics derided the decision, saying I'd only won because one of my producers was Swiss. To my great surprise DELIRIOUS won some awards at the San Sebastian Film Festival. But such prestigious awards did not stop all the independent distributors from turning their back on the movie. I think winning an award at Cannes can be very helpful to a filmmaker's career. Every one of my films has been rejected there.
You must have been very happy with the Grammy win for your documentary on The Doors, WHEN YOU'RE STRANGE'.
The Grammy win was actually very gratifying because the US release of the film was handled so poorly. I put so much work into the film. Originally, I'd been asked by the producers if I was interested in making a documentary about The Doors. I said yes immediately. They had access to every frame of footage in the Doors archive. It wasn't until I looked at all that footage that I finally came up with an idea of how to tell the Doors' story. All this original footage had such power and detail that I decided to only use that footage and no talking heads to tell the story. It was kind of a risky decision. Even The Doors were skeptical at first, but when they saw the first half hour they all loved it. It was real. It was their story, using the real images to tell it. My point is that I pieced the narrative and chronology from fragments of real footage. It took months. My goal was to tell the story of The Doors as truthfully as possible, using the original footage to give the viewer the idea they too were witnesing the birth of this utterly unique band, just as people did who were lucky enough to be there in that period.

So the Grammy win, especially coming from a musicians' organisation, meant a lot to me. But I'm more pleased with the way WHEN YOU'RE STRANGE turned out. It's kind of some strange hybrid of a documentary; an odd movie all of its own. At the last minute we got access to the original negative of Jim Morrison's film HWY: AN AMERICAN PASTORAL (1969). Prior to this, I'd had to be satisfied with using grainy, bleached out fragments of old prints of the film. Morrison had been so impressed by Dennis Hopper and EASY RIDER (1969) that he set out to make a similar kind of movie. He financed it himself and shot it on colour 35mm negative. Morrison was very proud of the movie. I decided to open the documentary with the footage of Jim wandering the desert and interweave other outtakes from his film throughout WHEN YOU'RE STRANGE. I thought it could be a unifying sub-theme to the documentary - Jim's spirit searching for the meaning of things: like his own life, the meaning of the band, of the turbulent times in which they came into being. I chose to use the original 35mm negative in its most pristine state, the state in which Jim shot it. But some people seing the footage, perhaps because it looks so beautiful mistakenly thought it was all recreated, that somehow I'd found an actor that looked just like Morrison and fakes all that. That is an incredibly destructive misconception that hurt the film. No one bothered to inquire where I got that footage. Any serious Doors fan knows of the film Morrison made. Most critics panned the film because they erroneously thought all the incredible footage from his film was faked.

How did you fall in love with the music of The Doors?
I was thirteen when 'Light My Fire' came out. Even at that age I preferred the long version because it had that incredible instrumental break in the middle. It was music like nothing I'd ever heard. I wouldn't have called myself a massive fan, but I knew I liked their music. It was very strange music, and when I was doing my movie I was able to take a step back and try to identify what that sound is. I think I came close to it. I do believe there's something about the music and about Morrison that makes people feel it's very private music. It's music for people that never quite felt included. Being included is a massive issue, especially for Americans. If you're not included growing up, it can be really brutal. I related to that. I must say that the writing of the film was a learning experience for me as I came to The Doors kind of brand new. It was a really great experience.

Has your JOHNNY SUEDE experience been the biggest struggle of your career so far?
Actually, no! The most painful experience for me was the release of DELIRIOUS in the US. I wrote DELIRIOUS for Steve Buscemi, but the backers wanted Billy Bob Thornton instead. Ultimately I won that battle but I had to compromise in other areas to do so. It's a jewel of a film but it got flushed down the toilet due to financial cowardice on the part of the financiers. That had serious effects on my career and I'm back at that place now where I've got to start again. It's OK. I've done it before. I'm writing something now that hopefully I can shoot in a few rooms with three or four people for maybe 3 weeks. I'll cast some actors that I think are perfect for the parts no matter what producers or Hollywood people would think. The opposite to making movies this way is what's been happening to three of my scripts over the last five years: submiting scripts to agents and waiting 3 months for a reply from actors only for them to say "It's not for me". You end up going after the same three or four actors everybody is going after in order to get their films financed. It is a merry-go-round that is impossible to get off of.

What has been the biggest joy of your career?
I think joy carries the most pleasure when it comes after moments of great tension, doubt and fear. After JOHNNY SUEDE came out and disappeared so quickly, I was stuck in a pit of quicksand. I wanted to make BOX OF MOON LIGHT but nobody would give me the money for it. By hitting up my family and friends, I got together enough money to shoot a half hour movie of LIVING IN OBLIVION. I thought ''I have to just stop and go back. Even if it means shooting it on 8mm,  that’s what I’ll do.'' We shot it in five days. At the end of the last day, everyone, including me, was walking around depressed because we realised it was going to end. I knew there was nothing I could really do with a half hour film. A short film needs to be a minute, four minutes or ten minutes. People like Catherine, kept telling me I had to turn it into a feature film. But how was I going to do that? I felt like I’d put some of the best scenes I’d ever done on film, with beautiful acting, and nobody’s going to see it. I don’t know how it happened but I just went ahead and wrote the second section. Then I had another idea and wrote the third section. When I realised that I had taken this one crazy little idea and turned it into a rather cohesive script, it was one of the most incredible moments of joy I’ve ever experienced. I’m really proud of that screenplay. I put so much into it and I love the form of it. Sometimes I can barely believe I wrote it. It was partly luck and blind belief in myself that it happened. It gave me the faith that if it had happened once, it can happen again.


I spoke with Tom by telephone on 7th October 2012, and corresponded by email during August 2013. I'd like to thank him for sparing his time.

Paul Rowlands is a Japan-based writer. After completing a BA Humanities course (majoring in English and Science) at the University of Chester, he moved to Japan in 1999. He writes for the James Bond magazine, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, has had articles published on Press Play and has had an almost lifelong obsession with cinema, something the advent of DVD only increased. Paul is also a writer of so far unpublished short stories and novels, and is planning his first short film.