John was, in many ways, an enigma to his brother Gerry (Aiden Gillen, HBO’s Game of Thrones). After John’s sudden (and somewhat mysterious) death, Gerry travels to Singapore to settle his brother’s shady business affairs and check on the man’s family. It’s also a convenient reason for Gerry to escape in the wake of his crumbling marriage. From its onset, Mister John dashes our dramatic expectations and—in the sure-footed hands of filmmakers Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy, and Gillen’s brilliant performance—remains consistently surprising as both a character study and a meditation on identity.
Please describe Mister John in your own words.
Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor: We see the film as being about a man in trouble. He has reached a certain point in his life where not many things are working—his marriage, nor his believe in himself. He is in a bad place, and so, when he is compelled to go to South East Asia to attend the funeral of his brother, this acts not as a further decline, but rather as the very beginning of some sort of healing process.
As the writer/directors, what inspired you to tell this particular story?
CM/JL: One thing that is important to us is to find personal relationships with the films we embark upon. Even in situations where it doesn’t seem obvious, there is always a personal connection—often a family connection. Mister John is no different. The original starting point was Joe’s [real-life] brother. His name is John. He also owns a bar—albeit in Phuket, Thailand—and is married to a local woman. Since our first visit to Phuket in 1997, we’ve always been fascinated by John’s life there and the world of his bar. Like many starting points, you find yourself running with the ball to see how far you get. Sometimes the idea doesn’t really sustain itself, but in this case it got stronger the more we developed the script. (We should point out though, in case anyone has seen the film and is wondering, Joe’s brother didn’t end up face down in a lake! He is very much alive and well and happily running his bar, Blarney Stone, with his wife, Kai.)
But aside from starting points, we are both very interested in telling stories about people at a certain time in their life when things are changing—when their sense of themselves is ebbing away, or when they are about to have an epiphany, when they entertain notions of escape, or submerging themselves in a journey. In many ways Mister John could be seen as the desire to tell a story of a man who is in the grip of a depression that he is fighting his way out of.
You’ve worked together—in theatre, film, and more—for over 20 years. As filmmaking partners, how do you divide up the work? Or is everything a total collaboration?
CM/JL: Tricky question. We don’t analyze too much how things work between us. Certainly we would feel it’s a total collaboration. We do everything together. Of course, we try to avoid basic errors such as not talking at the same time when directing actors, as clearly that’ll be somewhat confusing, but we overlap in all areas.
Our strategy for writing is a little more straightforward. We walk a lot (mainly in Epping Forest, which is just outside of London) and discuss ideas and develop them as we walk. Inevitably there will come a point when we have to stop walking and talking and get these ideas and structures down onto the page. Once this takes place, we bat the script back and forth to each other—each person adding to or indeed subtracting from what the other person has done. Back and forth the script goes until we either reach an impasse—in which it’s time for another walk—or we get to the finishing post.
How is Mister John different from your previous films? Did you learn anything new on this project?
CM/JL: To our eyes there are many differences to our previous films (and of course similarities). As for what we’ve learnt, I think answering this could take up a lot of space. For one thing, we approached the shooting of Mister John in a more conventional way, i.e. coverage. We worked in a much more regular film production way. This initially was a bit of a shock for us, but after a few days you get used to this way of working and the pace of it. Having not really worked in a continuity way before, it was very interesting, but you also have to be careful that you don’t film just to give yourself options in the edit suite; you also want to give yourself the right kind of options—filming with your signature approach but getting the coverage at the same time. In this way, our relationship with our regular DoP Ole Birkeland moved onto a new level.
One final thing we’ve learnt is not to work with snakes again.
What do you want audiences to take away from your film?
CM/JL: We’re very passionate about the storyline on offer in any cinematic experience, but we are equally passionate about how any story is being expressed. There are many prison break movies, for example, but clearly there’s a big difference between Bresson taking on that genre with A Man Escaped and Becker with Le Trou. For Mister John, we would like audiences to take away from this a meaningful engagement both in the journey our central character goes on and also in how this is expressed.
Do you have one piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?
CM/JL: Well, apart from being tenacious, we think it’s important you make the films you feel most passionately about and not get blown off course. That said, work hard to manage the tension between what you want and understanding the audience you film might ultimately reach.
What are you most looking forward to at this year’s Hamptons International Film Festival?
CM/JL: We haven’t been to the US for almost five years, so it will be nice to return. There are a number of films we’re keen to see but perhaps, more than anything, it’s meeting new people as passionate about cinema as we are.
Born in Dublin, Ireland, Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor studied theatre in the UK in the late 80s at Dartington College of Arts. From 1992 to 1999 they devised, directed and performed in several internationally acclaimed theatre shows before shifting their attention towards moving image-based work. Between 2000 and 2003 they directed a number of episodic, interactive works for the Internet, and large-scale community video projects for galleries. Between 2003 and 2010 Molloy and Lawlor produced, wrote and directed 10 acclaimed short films, including the award winning Who Killed Brown Owl and Joy. Helen, their award-winning debut feature film, premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in June 2008 before screening at over 50 film festivals worldwide. In 2009 Helen was nominated for an Evening Standard Film award and a Guardian First Film award. Molloy and Lawlor live in London, UK with their daughter.