Interview: Joe Lawlor, co-director of ‘Mister John’



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


Cinema Review: Mister John


DIR: Joe Lawlor, Christine Molloy  • PRO: Fran Borgia, Alec Christie, Joe Lawlor • DOP: Ole Bratt Birkeland • ED: Joe Lawlor, Christine Molloy • DES: Steven Blundell, Daniel Lim • Cast: Aidan Gillen, Claire Keelan, Zoe Tay, Michael Thomas

This noirish drama from Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor (aka Desperate Optimists) is a UK, Irish and Singaporean co-production, and a beautifully made, compelling film that will quietly and steadily possess you. The stunning visuals, shot on 35mm by Ole Birkeland (a collaborator on almost all Desperate Optimists’ films), music from Stephen McKeon and a slowly developing narrative combine to provide the Molloy and Lawlor signature characteristics of their debut feature Helen (2008) and their Civic Life series of short films (2004-2010). Mister John, however, takes these filmmakers from artist cinema into more accessible mainstream territory without compromising any of the quality or complexity that they have been known for.

An apparently simple narrative belies a multifaceted treatment of big, universal ideas. It involves a fish-out-of-water story where London businessman Gerry Devine (played by Aidan Gillen) travels to Singapore on the sudden death of his brother John, which comes at a crisis in his own relationship back home. The plot provides an opportunity for the protagonist to either deal with this turning point, or to avoid it entirely. In Singapore the bereaved wife, Kim (played by Zoe Tay), and her daughter, look to him for solace and even as a replacement – a theme that plays out through the repetition of a Chinese myth that a water spirit holds the drowned soul in the water until another arrives to replace him.

At the same time Gerry is plagued by memories of the rupture in his own relationship so that the assumption of the mantle of his dead brother (literally by wearing his clothes) provides him with an escape route from the turmoil his wife’s infidelity has caused. This idea of a divided self, and “the double” as a solution, becomes sexually charged through varied suggestions of enhanced virility and sexual freedom throughout the film. Gerry seems poised to take on his brother’s business, “Mister John’s” – a hostess bar that offers sex to its clientele and is now bereft of a man at the helm. Kim’s steady and gentle seduction goes beyond the sexual, however, by providing a parallel but opposite family to the one Gerry has left in London, and by suggesting the possibility of redemption and the restoration of his fractured masculinity. None of the narrative strands are overworked or very obvious, all are open to individual interpretation, which makes for a very satisfying viewing experience, one that stays with you even after the film itself has faded.

The performances are uniformly excellent, although Gillen has to stand out as having crafted a remarkable and finely tuned character study that allows as much to be unsaid as is overtly stated in the film. This combination of narrative, visual style and performances creates a richly layered work that is distinctly contemporary in tone, while at the same time suggesting age-old archetypal themes of ritual catharsis, symbolic rebirth and mythical doubling that provide a compelling and nuanced study of fluid identity in a shifting, globalised world. See it for its beautifully lush photography, the quality of its production values and its very modern reworking of eternal themes.

Eileen Leahy

15A (See IFCO for details)

95 mins
Mister John is released on 27th September 2013


Report: Galway Film Fleadh 2013



Matt Miccuci looks back over his 7 days following Irish film in the sweltering heat of Galway for the Fleadh’s 25th anniversary.

“We borrowed the weather from Cannes,” was this year’s joke at the Fleadh.

Indeed, this could easily be remembered as the ‘hottest’  edition of the festival on account of the weather alone. It was hot, very hot, and the unventilated Town Hall Theatre often felt like one big oven. Yet, the programme was too stimulating to give into the call of the beach and strange urges to build a sand castle.

Of course, the people who decided to spend the hottest days Galway has possibly ever seen locked in a theatre were widely rewarded. Just like every year since its birth twenty-five years ago, the festival showcased some of the best home-grown productions today which in turn represented the good health and ambition of Irish cinema.

Things kicked off to a crowd pleasing start with Roger Gual’s Tasting Menu, a very charming comedy of errors telling the story of intertwining lives at the closing night of a Catalonian restaurant, regarded as the best restaurant in the world. Its theatrical approach aided by a good pace and great timing recalled the works of great names from Robert Altman to none other than William Shakespeare! Just as impressively, it closed with the introverted and reflective drama The Sea, in which director Stephen Brown skilfully made the task of turning the famous John Banville novel based on memory and regret look easy in a compact production complete with refined visual touches and compellingly withdrawn performances by Ciarán Hinds and Charlotte Rampling.

There were many different stories told and a wide assortment of styles and genres presented, but the recession inevitably came out as the prevailing theme. Two films in particular, though very different, represented it directly.

Lance Daly’s Life’s a Breeze, billed as a feelgood recession comedy, saw the return of the working class comedy à la Ealing Studios of Passport to Pimlico. This film is quite entertaining and commercially appealing – this is also the reason why it will probably be among the most successful films shown at the Fleadh during its domestic cinema run.

Alternatively, Out of Here used a much more direct and though-provoking approach to capture the essence of the everyday urban monotony and frustration of the life of a young Dubliner. Donal Foreman’s film is nothing short of praiseworthy for its passive anger and realist approach, as well as a visual style that is beautiful in its simplicity. Foreman also represented the kind of independent filmmaking that Irish cinema should thrive on for the way in which he brought Out of Here together through crowd-funding but also through determination, passion and a will to go out there and really make it happen.

The influence of the recession in the new Irish films could also be seen by the vulnerability of a lot of the lead characters, particularly the male characters. In fact, many aspects of masculinity were revealed in original ways. An excellent example is found in Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy’s hypnotic modern noir Mister John with its wonderfully unconventional character study of a man – played by Aiden Gillen in what is hands down one of this year’s most enchanting and haunting performances – whose troubled family life and misery lead him to re-invent himself as his dead brother’s alter ego in Singapore. The film is driven by a unique brand of mystery, with a hypnotic flow and stunning 35mm photography that enrich the experience and take full advantage of the naturally sinister beauty of a humid Singapore.

Similarly, in the documentary Coming Home, Viko Nikci captures the life of Angel Cordero, a man incarcerated for thirteen years for a crime he did not commit and chooses to examine the man rather than the case by focusing on his struggles as he reconnects with the outside world and his estranged daughter. Nikci’s use of narrative filmmaking photography and Angel’s own genuine magnetism as well as a desire to open up to the camera eye made this film very popular and without a doubt the most touching film of this year’s Fleadh. Indeed Nikci’s film was justly rewarded at Galway, picking up the Best Irish Documentary prize at Sunday’s award ceremony.

One could even read a specific viewpoint on masculine stubbornness and how it threatened to end the world in the gripping documentary, Here Was Cuba by John Murray and Emer Reynolds. Muldowney’s beautifully bizarre Love Eternal, on the other hand, is about a necrophiliac – in fact it may well be the sweetest film that could possibly ever be made about necrophilia.

The horror genre was well represented with Rossella de Ventuo’s Irish Italian production House of Shadows, a film which carries many new ideas and a genuine dramatic depth – both things lacking in the vast majority of today’s horror films – as well as an absorbing performance by Fiona Glascott.

My greatest personal regret is that I didn’t get to see the best Irish feature prize by Academy Award nominee Steph Green Run & Jump, though the positive feedback it received will have me rushing to the cinema as soon as it hits the screens. I also regret missing films like Discoverdale and Hill Street. Yet, in the end it didn’t matter that much, as I felt highly rewarded for the time I dedicated to following this year’s festival and highly rewarded by the quality of the many premieres I attended. So, I think it’s fair to congratulate everyone involved on the organising team who was responsible for yet another exciting Fleadh. But maybe let’s get some air conditioning for the Town Hall Theatre for next year, yeah?


Galway Film Fleadh: ‘Mister John’ review

Mr John 2804e

 The 25th Galway Film Fleadh (9 – 14 July, 2013)

Matt Micucci finds a lot to admire in Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy’s Mister John, which screened at the 25th Galway Film Fleadh.

The film starts with a beautiful shot of the water, and for a while we are lost in its complex but methodical pattern. Then suddenly, we see a corpse come floating into our frame, and the mystery is introduced. Cut to Jerry, a man who after discovering his wife’s infidelity travels to Singapore to look after the business of his dead brother. Once there, he experiences an awakening of sorts and starts warming up to the idea of leaving his old life behind and becoming his brother’s alter ego.

Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy’s follow up to their feature film debut Helen is once again about identity swap brought on by stationary unhappiness and dissatisfaction. However, while in Helen it was seen more from a feminine perspective, Mister John is seen from a masculine one; in fact masculinity is possibly the main theme of the film, particularly a man’s own unrealistic perceptions of masculinity in its most conventional form. Here, it is shown with a perfectly balanced brashness and delicacy, in an extremely compelling fashion and with great emotional depth which is the result of a unique kind of synergy that lies at the heart of the filmmaking style of Lawlor and Molloy.

One of the main features of this style is the pace. Mister John does not exactly qualify as a ‘slow cinema’ kind of film, yet there is no denying that it flows widely unhurried. However, its unhurried approach is greatly rewarding partly thanks to the wonderful connection between filmmakers and the beauty of their Singaporean surroundings, flattered by the choice of shooting it through 35 mm film which makes all the difference especially in the way in which the light is captured and heightens the poetic charge. Furthermore, the camera movements are remarkable; while they are complex and meticulous, they do not get in the way of the action – which is something that often happens in other films that use similar cinematographic techniques. In fact, they strengthen the emotional impact of the long silences and reveal Jerry’s personal struggles in a way in which pages of lines of dialogue could never have been able to.

Of course, much of the reason why this works on screen also goes to Aidan Gillen, who delivers a magnetic performance which is perhaps the kind of performance that Helen lacked and also the kind of performance that this film needed to work in such a powerful way. Gillen’s performance also reveals a perfect connection between character and actor which is quite rare; while Jerry has his moments of bravado, sometimes the situations he finds himself in cause reactions in him that are quite degrading. For instance, when Jerry is bitten by a snake as he visits the lake in which his brother was drowned, the bite causes a reaction which gives him a permanent erection. In another scene, he goes up to Lester, a man who owed his brother money and Jerry’s antagonist of sorts, and threatens him regardless of the fact that it’s easy to see he will be overpowered by Lester, who is twice his size. These two moments in the film are direct confrontations between Jerry and his internal struggles with masculinity. However, Jerry is not an alpha male – he is quite vulnerable and troubled, often getting lost in the meanders of his mind as he is particularly affected by his relationship with his cheating wife and his emasculating problem of impotence.

Gillen’s performance in turn is flattered by the photography which follows his movements faithfully and makes good use of close ups. Moments that are particularly fascinating are those when Jerry suddenly seems to blank as life catches up to him and he is brought back to his own home and a recent fight he had with his wife. His blank expressions in these instances reveal an emotional wall he is unable to break down. These moments are also increasingly rare in today’s cinema, but extremely rewarding.

Another interesting aspect of the narrative is his relationship with his dead brother’s wife, who takes him in her house. Kim is a strong and kind woman. The death of her husband has left her troubled, yet she refuses to let it show. At some point, soon after Jerry’s arrival, she tells him that she will open the bar – the bar which she owned with her husband. Her decision to do so reveals a strength and determination, the very same which Jerry lacks and often even looks to admire. The strong bond which creates between them is something they both need.

Mister John is not just a harrowing character study. Mystery flows naturally through the film and its outbursts feel sudden and sometimes unpredictable. Whether Jerry walks through the streets of Singapore or its forests, the setting too seems to contain a sinister and menacing beauty, the kind of beauty that affects Jerry and his awakening deeply – this damned beauty takes us back to the opening shot where the beauty of the lake is suddenly affected by the floating corpse. However, while the intensity and mystery are quite intense, the film does break it up with moments of comic relief which make it more accessible and contribute to a unique kind of film where mystery, tension and comedy seem to be a natural part of life in general.

Last year, Sight and Sound had its poll of the greatest films of all time. Vertigo came out as the number one film voted by a great number of filmmakers and critics. Yet, while its influence is seen in outbursts in a number of films, Lawlor and Molloy with their Mister John seem to have been part of a restricted group of filmmakers who actually took it in their stride to make a dreamlike and hypnotic modern noir which resembles it directly. Mister John is an incredibly brave and ambitious film for today’s cinematic landscape. It is a film of astounding visual beauty and harrowing character study, one with a unique hypnotic approach to grabbing the audience’s attention and a naturally hard hitting approach at grasping an audience emotionally. Admittedly, some may feel slightly alienated by its pace and Jerry’s passivity, but then again a lot of people find it incredibly hard to sit through a Steven Seagal vehicle as well.


Irish Film at the Galway Film Fleadh preview: Mister John


The 25th Galway Film Fleadh (9 – 14 July, 2013)

Mister John

Thursday, 11th July

Town Hall Theatre


Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones, The Dark Knight Rises) stars in Mister John, a story of belonging, loss and identity set in South East Asia. Directed by Irish husband-and-wife team, Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy, the couple build on a stimulating body of work with this, their new feature set to screen at the 25th Galway Film Fleadh.

Christine Molloy told Film Ireland, ‘We are delighted that the Irish premiere of Mister John will take place at the Galway Film Fleadh. This is our first visit to the festival and we are very much looking forward to presenting our new film to an Irish audience as part of the 25th Film Fleadh’.

Dealing with his wife’s infidelity and the loss of his brother, Gerry Devine (Aidan Gillen) travels to Singapore to discover the exotic life his brother had built for himself out there. He visits his brother’s bar, Mister John’s, and meets his brother’s widow. Discovering a foreign land of opportunity, will Gerry return home to his troubled life with his wife and daughter, or will he stay and slip into his brother’s persona?

Tickets are available to book from the Town Hall Theatre on 091 569777 or at