Yemenite-Antiguan Jonnie started by directing music videos, which have racked up over 50 million YouTube hits to date. His videos have screened at BUG, featured in SHOTS magazine and been selected as ‘Promos of the Month’ in Promonews.
His Straight 8 entry Pet Hate screened at the Curzon and was selected one of the ‘Best of Straight 8’.
His 2016 debut feature as writer/director, Breakdown was distributed by Soda Pictures/Thunderbird Releasing and purchased by Sky Movies.
Most recently he has directed commercials for agencies including M&C Saatchi, MullenLowe and Crispin Porter Bogusky for clients such as Pizza Hut, Hotels.com and Suzuki.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
I had no idea filmmaking was an option.
Dad was a driving instructor, mum was a doctor. At 13 she took me to the mortuary for ‘work experience’… fascinating as it was seeing all those tootsies pressed against the glass, I didn’t find my vocation.
I loved drawing, movies, music videos and had a potent imagination, but my art teachers turned off my inherent creativity.
I studied History at Leeds but by the second year felt the fear of impending ‘real life’ – I hadn’t passionately engaged with a potential career and was truly lost.
One afternoon, in a weedy haze, the TV reported Martha Lane-Fox had floated Lastminute.com making her a shit-ton of money. I had an epiphany – set up a student magazine/website and get rich. I designed crappy clipart posters, plastered them around uni, assembled a team of writers and photographers and created the first issue of JUMBA.
I borrowed a grand off mum to make the first issue. To make another I needed resources, expertise – a backer. I researched the name of the creative director of giant local newspaper group The Yorkshire Post, popped my first issue in an envelope with a cover letter explaining our USP was authenticity – we were written by students for students, and hand-delivered it to the front desk of their grand reception.
An hour later I got a call from creative director Rob Bullock, could I come to his office for a meeting? That afternoon I was back at reception, sweat trickling down my back. Rob greeted and walked me to his top floor office, a floor-to-ceiling glass window looked out over the giant print presses. He offered to print 10,000 full colour copies of the next issue (my chin’s still on his floor). After numerous issues and having given me a team of designers, Rob wanted me to leave uni and focus solely on JUMBA, but mum got cancer – I folded the magazine and finished my degree.
Founding the magazine was invaluable, showing me I could be passionate about a profitable business I’d set up and in hindsight set me on the path to directing. They share the same bones – have a strong vision and get the right team in place to bring it to life.
After uni, knowing I was lost but seeing my passion and drive, one of my web designers put me in touch with his brother – advertising legend Graham Fink. Graham was the sole Commercials Director at his production company thefinktank on Beak Street, Soho.
Graham asked what I wanted to do but I had no idea. He helped me find a partner and become an advertising creative. After three months in an agency I realised it wasn’t for me. I couldn’t switch off from the never-ending briefs, plus didn’t want to finally crack one and sell my ‘genius’ idea to the client only to have someone else swan in and direct. If I had imagined it, why wouldn’t I be the one to make it?
I went back to Graham saying I wanted more action and to be on sets – he took me on as his 3rd in-house runner. The other two runners had both been to prestigious film schools and knew they wanted to direct. Everyone thought I’d make a good producer for the runners as I was organised and a people-person, but I felt an intellectual arrogance from them – they didn’t consider me creative as I didn’t have the film school credentials and showreels. I was there to service their future visions.
After observing Graham’s highly creative working practices and watching him direct everything from falling washing machines smashing on a deserted runway, to a Japanese chocolate commercial featuring supermodel Devon Aioki, I was drawn to the ideas and creativity; the fun, glitz and glamour. I wanted to speak up on sets, not quietly bring everyone coffee. I wanted to have a vision and work with the actors. I had an ego and desire to get stuck in at the top of the decision-making tree. I didn’t want to produce, I wanted to direct. And I’d show them all…(mwa-ha-haaaaaaa).
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
I was lucky to have created the opportunity to be taken on by Graham. Having been one of London’s leading advertising creative directors, he was passionate about finding young talent and giving them opportunities. Mentors who believe in you are gold-dust, and hopefully you enrich them with youthful exuberant energy, knowledge of modern films, techniques and youth culture.
Three months into my running career, a music video came in for Graham. He didn’t want to direct it, but proposed his three runners pitch their concepts, the winner getting to direct (with everything overseen by Graham). My idea won and 2 weeks later I was onset directing a £20,000 music video, following my own hand-drawn storyboards, having never done anything remotely similar before. I felt nervous and exhilarated, but it felt natural and I loved it.
Graham had made one of the other runners ‘co-director’ as he had film school experience. I remember standing on-set discussing an early shot setup with the DoP, when my ‘co-director’ approached and started wading in with his opinion – I shot him a look and told him to sit back down by the monitor. This was my idea, my opportunity and I was taking it. It was selected ‘Promo of the Month’ in Promonews and gave me the confidence to kickstart my directing career.
I’ll never forget that morning on-set; the lights powered on, the camera started tracking, I stared at the monitor with the biggest rush of excitement and pride knowing this project and concept was all mine. That’s when I knew I wanted (and had the ability) to direct.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
Initially not many, as it all happened rather quickly and unexpectedly. I suppose feeling I wasn’t qualified or creative enough to direct was a psychological restriction, but I channeled that into a desire to prove I could. Once you’ve directed your first successful piece, in one fell swoop you’ve proved to others – and more importantly yourself – that you can do it, you are a director. My biggest obstacles came AFTER I’d started directing.
After my first music video which, was a comedic rock performance, I got the opportunity to direct three girl band videos which gave me valuable on-set experience and the chance to travel to Egypt. However, my early showreel wasn’t cohesive, and when I asked to stop running and direct full-time, thefinktank let me go. I was out in the cold.
I contacted a number of production companies to no avail. I felt I needed a more homogenous reel – to make another film with a distinctive voice – something closer to the dark comedy of my first music video. I found a great track by an unsigned band, wrote a treatment, presented it to the band & they agreed to let me use the song. Mum lent me some money, I pulled together a crew and we shot a crazy video about a fat bloke who wants to get laid but keeps getting rejected by weirder and weirder people. This got me signed to my first production company Cops and Robbers.
After signing, I lost out on countless music video pitches and started writing derivative concepts that were just like every other video on TV – trying to win jobs by giving the commissioner what I thought they wanted to hear. This was soul destroying as I’d lost my creativity and voice.
Eventually I pitched a strong concept for a great track. The idea was ‘Bling on a budget’: In the style of MTV Cribs, the rapper in mink and shiny pyjamas proudly shows us round his run-down council flat, but it’s filled with the finest china and cutlery, gold toilet paper, a diamond-encrusted throne, even a scene in a bubblebath with black rubber ducks wearing bling.
I’d now directed music videos in different genres but each with a darkly comedic bent – my reel was starting to reflect who I was and open doors.
Directing music videos doesn’t make you much money, and I would oftentimes put my miniscule fee into a set of anamorphic lenses or some other aspect I felt would make it better. I always viewed promos as my real-life film school, but planned to transition to commercials as a way of making real money and telling short-form narratives.
I always felt confident as a director, but was emotionally sensitive so the rejections were tough. People told me you need to demonstrate a clear singular voice with your reel, but then I felt pigeonholed as a comedy hip hop director – that they wanted me to make the same video again and again. I wanted to push creatively into other realms.
My last few music videos were essentially darkly comedic shorts: narrative-only with no band performance. I was desperate to use these to springboard into commercials but it wasn’t my time. I watched some of my more experienced contemporaries get opportunities and break into TVCs. I was angry, frustrated, broke and creatively burned out – I retired from directing at 30 years old. After three years working as a personal trainer and property developer (finally making good money) I realised nothing excited me as much as ideas and creativity. I met a film producer through friends, started reading screenplays he was thinking of optioning and began the process of writing and developing my own feature.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
Your voice and filmmaking style is the only thing setting you apart from everyone else. It’s imperative to engage with the material and write the treatment YOU want to make. It’s better to take longer making an excellent piece of work truly reflective of you. The faster you create a showreel with a distinctive voice, the faster you’ll be recognised and get opportunities to do the kind of work you love.
I was always interested in humour fused with a strong stylised aesthetic, and getting to direct the first music video concept I wrote ensured my idea was pure and strongly reflected me – a cinematic light-flaring club rock performance hijacked by embarrassing dancing dads.
I started writing short stories and screenplays, and took photographs of people and things that interested me, building a journal of what turned me on creatively, then fed those situations, characters and visuals into my work.
Early in my career, I did a ‘Straight 8’ – a fantastic experience of raw, one-chance purist filmmaking. My film Pet Hate featured a fat bloke in underwear on all fours (with soft fluffy ears and tail), behaving like an excitable puppy. His new owner loves him, but the dog starts an uncontrollable humping rampage, finally peeing on his sleeping owner who neuters him. Mum made the dog costume, Alan Parkers son wrote the (mental) score. It was a joyous lo-fi filmmaking experience and something creatives strongly responded to on my reel.
I found myself increasingly interested in the technical aspects of cinematography. I read American Cinematographer, listened to Cinematography podcasts, facilitating more technical discussions with my DoPs and getting me the visual results I wanted – making me a more confident director.
Obviously experience and time on set helps refine your craft, trying new things and pushing out of your comfort zone – on every job there’s something new to learn. The trick is saying yes to projects and figuring it out on the job (we’re not born with experience and all the answers), so you have to fake it ’til you make it. Wrap a great team with big brains around you and be polite, professional, switched on and open to the journey.
Firstly, you have to establish who you are and the kind of directing career you want, then you have to make it happen. Easier said than done! It was only after making my feature (at 34 years old) that I felt experienced. After spending 18 days shooting all manner of intense scenes I felt bruised, battered but proud of myself. I’d now shot hours of dialogue, fight sequences and drama – and got through it, making all the tough choices a tight schedule and no money calls for. This gave me the confidence and clarity to know what I wanted – to finally break into commercials. Having written and directed my feature I felt creatively vindicated – I didn’t have to own every project now, I felt ready to work on other peoples great ideas, that I had value and could use my experience and skillset to make them even better.
Looking back, my voice was clear from my first music video – cinematic comedy. But through the years I wanted to try other styles – nothing wrong with that, probably the right thing to do. But after many years and projects (including my brutal hitman feature) I came full circle back to my stylised comedic roots. I guess I needed to go round the houses to prove to myself where I felt best-suited as a director.
How did you get your first break?
My first break probably came with seizing the moment and writing the concept that enabled me to direct my first music video, which set me on my directorial path.
However, this ‘break’ was one I’d worked years to manufacture (without even consciously knowing directing was what I wanted to do).
As a creative, it’s vital to DO. It’s easy to talk endlessly about things, or talk yourself out of doing things – but MAKING things leads to other great things (which you may not have expected) and opens doors.
Being given the chance to write and direct a feature only came about as I took four months out to write my first screenplay, which I presented to a producer I knew. He sent it to an actor and at our first meeting, they optioned the script but told me I wouldn’t be able to direct as I only had music video experience. I was devastated but suspected this might be the case. After the meeting, the actor told me I was passionate, film-literate and should be directing my material – that if I could write another, more contained (cheaper) screenplay, he would produce and I would direct. True to his word, five months later I had hammered out another screenplay and we were in pre-production. My first day on the film was the first time I had shot dialogue, and hearing James Cosmo speak the words I had written was mind-blowing.
You have to create your opportunities, then seize them – they simply won’t come to you.
Photograph: Vladan Pavic