Mister John follows Gerry’s journey to Singapore following his brother’s sudden death. As he helps his sister-in-law sort out his brother’s business, Gerry ponders on the possibility of re-invention, a chance to start over. The film stars Aidan Gillen and is directed by Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy.
Matt Micucci sat down with Joe Lawlor to chat about the film.
Mister John is a film that explores masculinity. Is that something you wanted to do after Helen, your previous film, which was more focused on femininity?
The films do share certain themes, they share certain ideas. One comment when we were developing the script was that it would be exploring masculinity or as someone said “masculinity unzipped”. It is a slow peeling away of all things men are meant to be. This idea that we allow a man to be figuratively and literally impotent – the only time Gerry can actually get an erection is when he’s bitten by a snake.
Masculinity is an artifice. Men play out roles and women play out roles, and we play them out for each other and sometimes that can be quite a destructive thing if you’re not being honest.
Gerry is obviously not a very driven character.
He’s not a proactive protagonist. He’s not searching or looking for something. He’s running away from something. He’s hiding, if you will, behind something. It kind of demands that you hang out with someone who’s quite internalised; who’s quite bottled up. That can be a tall order for some people who want to see highly driven characters who are go-getters and who are out to sort out problems. But sometimes people in great moments of crisis are completely flummoxed by their dilemmas and are rendered totally immobile. Grief can do that very often. We felt that was a very valid way to portray that process, I mean, what would he be running around trying to solve? It would have been silly of us to make him highly proactive character. That’s just not in the DNA of the film.
I noticed a very theatrical style to the acting and performances.
In some respects. Our background is in theatre. I think some of the filmmakers that we like – Bresson, Maurice Pialat, Renoir, Max Ophuls – there is a certain theatricality about their worlds. I was watching Hitchcock’s Vertigo the other day and thinking what a strange thriller it is. The pacing of it; the style, the mood, the tone – it’s so slow. Wonderful. You can’t imagine that level of abstraction now in a film. It’s quite theatrical and we like that very much. Maybe it’s a performance thing? I think it’s also a sense of time.
You shot the film on 35mm…
There’s an odd tension between something looking striking or beautiful and looking quite disturbing or ugly or frightening at the same time. There’s some scenes – when he’s crossing the sea by boat – which would have been very hard to film on digital without lights. Whereas film naturally handles that without lights at all. That’s an issue you have to discuss and win over financiers – that shooting on 35mm actually can be cost-effective. We shot everything in camera, everything’s optical. We have low shooting ratios. You’ve got to be used to doing that. You’ve got to be quite disciplined. You know that you have this much time; we’ll do this many takes; we have this much stock that we’re buying and that we won’t be shooting everything, we’ll just be shooting what we need to shoot. Also budget-wise you’re doing everything as you’re filming and you know your costs in post-production will be very small, compared to shooting everything flat and you’re going to do a lot in post. We don’t like to do that; we like to get everything in camera. What we’re seeing in front of our eyes – that’s how it’ll look at the end.
What was the approach to directing the actors?
Never to rehearse was one approach. The other approach was to talk endlessly about the world and the character, so the actors understood not how we wanted them to do it but how we felt the character could be and how they felt the character could be. We asked the actors, particularly Aidan, to think about the character, about the mood and the tone. He felt very much connected to that character and understood how to play him. You hope that the groundwork you do together will see you through the entire process. Aidan got the character and knew exactly how to play him. Light or shade in these moments, he can bring it up or down. It’s really discussing the character with the actor and letting them do their work. They will ultimately make sense of that.
Mister John is in cinemas now