Posted on Monday, February 8th, 2010 by Brendon Connelly
Below the break you can read what director Gerard Johnson and star Peter Ferdinando told me about their film Tony, aka Tony: London Serial Killer. This film is perhaps our first real candidate for bona fide cult status in 2010. There was a /film exclusive clip from the film in last Friday’s /film UK update.
Tony is due for US release in April, has been available in UK cinemas and via UK VOD services since Friday, and launches today on UK R2 DVD.
Here’s the director Gerard Johnson, first of all:
It runs in my family, this obsession with films. I was brought up in an environment where it was quite open to talk about films and directors and actors so from an early age, my first influences were Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy and James Cagney. I came across an old diary of mine from when I was thirteen and I had written in it I want to make films, I want to be a fillmmaker. It obviously took me around the houses quite a bit to get to where I am now.
In my 20s I started to run on set quite a bit as a runner but I got disillusioned quite quickly with how it all worked, there was a hierarchy system and it was quite hard. The only thing I gravitated towards was directing, but it was very hard to be close to the director. The director is quite holy on the set when they’re directing. So I got disillusioned and did other things for a few years but after talking to people and they’d say “Your knowledge is so much so why aren’t you…” so I went and worked in post production where I learnt how to edit and then after hours I used the facilities to make my short films.
I made my short films for like 200 pounds. I knew a bunch of actors, Peter’s my cousin, so I had the actors there and obviously the kit I could use, so I was able to do these films for such as small amount of money but obviously they looked like they cost a lot more money. The shorts from there, developed and I got to meet Paul Abbot who loved the shorts, and he offered me the chance to go to a bigger canvas.
Tony was a short film before it was a feature. It was just the first ten, fifteen minutes of the film. It was a different actor. It was Tony walking around, having a row in the pub, meeting the junkies, he took them back to his flat, he killed one and he let the other one go. It worked as a beginning. The marketing of the film, we all know he was a serial killer, but the short, and in an ideal world, I would like people now to know he was a serial killer. The first twenty minutes you wouldn’t know where it was going and then, bang, out of the blue, he suffocates one. I’ve spoken to people who came to see the film and knew nothing about it and had no idea it would turn this way.
I don’t mind the references to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer in the marketing actually, because I love that film and as long as they’re putting me in very good company mentioning Taxi Driver and Henry, I’m absolutely fine. Obviously, it’s a different take on it, but your influences, hopefully, you’re going to be compared to them. I don’t think you can make such a ‘genre’ film about serial killing and not expect that to be used in the marketing.
I didn’t want to make something with much narrative, I deliberately didn’t want much plot. What I wanted to make was a character study about this guy Tony, a week in the life, nothing much happens, and that’s it. I don’t believe that films should always have huge plot developments and be all resolved. I don’t think you need to spell everything out. You have to have a little bit of plot, and stuff, but my influences came a lot from European stuff. So, when I’m looking at stuff like Uzak, nothing much happens in that, but there’s an atmosphere, there’s a mood. When I go see the film I want at least leave the cinema feeling slightly different than when I went in.
The only victim that is going to be a problem for him is the TV license guy but he was left with no alternative. That guy wanted to take his one thing that means more to him, so he was left with no alternative. But the others, they can quite easily not be traced. Jeffrey Dahmer, Dennis Nielson, they got away with it for fifteen, twenty years before they were caught.
I think it’s a social realist take on a genre piece. I prefer thriller to horror, because people were calling it horror. But when I was making it I never used the word horror once. It’s a social realist thriller. I grew up on Alan Clark, I watched a lot of documentaries and I’m a big fan of social realists so those were my biggest influences.
Dawn, the neighbour was Vicky Murdock. She doesn’t act any more but she was the lead in Alan Clarke’s Christine. In my own little way I wanted to have her to say this is where I come from. You take your influences, but you don’t become obsessed by them. It’s not copying.
London’s my City, it’s where I’m from. One day I want to make the ultimate London film. I think London has been underused for so long in films, I never see it used as well as Paris or New York. You never really see London properly.
And now Peter Ferdinando, the film’s star:
I really tried to get as close as I possibly could to Tony, to identify with him, to relate to him and to find sides of myself that could relate to how he was feeling. I think it’s important as an actor that you can find parts of yourself to infuse into the character. I spent quite a bit of time preparing, researching and just to immerse myself in his world. One thing that was really helpful for me in cementing the character, I moved into the flat, the actual flat that Tony lives in for the duration of the shoot. That really helped me familiarise myself and personalise everything and become at one with his surroundings. That just helped me make the character believable for myself. It was import for me to sympathise with the character.
You have to sympathise with what has brought him to this point. Why is Tony killing? How do I justify that? He’s obviously come from a pretty troubled background and he’s suffered a lot of abuse. We don’t really touch on that in the film but it was important that you get a sense of that, that you can get a sense of his inner turmoil. When I was doing my research I was reading a lot about serial killers and looking into their backgrounds. 90 percent of them, I found, had really horrific childhoods and suffered a lot of abuse. Tony’s been isolated his whole life, he’s painfully lonely and he’s been starved of any form of love or affection and I think that’s a recipe for a disaster. Loneliness is such a powerful emotion, so I worked on that, that’s the area that I concentrated on. All logic goes out the window and he’s in this sort of fantasy world. Killing, from our perspective is wrong, and I think that Tony deep down inside knows that he’s doing something wrong but he just can’t help himself. It all stems from this loneliness and this isolation. Someone said to me the other day it’s kind of like being subhuman. He’s not even a fully fledged human being, he’s completely cut off from society. I had to look at all those factors and not be judgmental, and that helped me justify his emotions.
I’m a character actor and the next thing I’m going to do is going to be totally completely different to Tony. That will help me show there’s another side to what I do but I’m happy for me to know me as Tony because it was a labour of love for me and for Gerard and I’m proud of the film and I love the character of Tony.
I grew up in the east end of London and I know those areas quite well, Hackney and Dalston. I thinkt he way that the film is shot shows a part of London that you rarely see in films. You see certain films, like Richard Curtis movies, that show a more kind of glamorous part of London, but Tony does depict certain areas very well. And the end of the film, Gerard used the last section of the movie as a kind of love letter to London.
There were some things that were scripted and some things that we fleshed out in a workshop environment over a 6 month period. We got together once a week – it wasn’t every day for 6 months – we got together with the actors and we workshopped a lot of the scenes and developed the characters through that workshop. So, once we got on set there was very little time to rehearse so we just went for it. We were shooting on film so we had to think about how much stock we had, so we did a lot of prep before hand so once we were one set, we just went for it.
I find the film very funny, especially when I watch the other actors. A lot of the other actors are friends of mine and I find it quite humorous, and there is dialogue in the film that makes me laugh. Even though I played it straight, I played it serious, there are moments of humour and that just comes out naturally without us trying to work on it.
We look at serial killers as people that are psychopaths, they do something that’s completely immoral and wrong, but this film makes you look at serial killers in a different way – I’m going to go out on a limb here – and actually be able to sympathise with their actions. Murder is wrong, of course it is, and this is just a film, a comedy but when I read about serial killers I think I found out why they killed.