As a teenager, Johnny started making experimental films and shorts, before training as a David Lean Scholar at the NFTS, graduating in February 2018.
His graduation film Dead Birds won three RTS awards, Jury and best Director award at Poitiers and was selected by The Academy as a finalist for the Student Academy Awards. On graduating Johnny then went on to direct Pylon, an acclaimed feature length episode of Mammoth’s screen hit TV show Endeavour, which led to him being a Screen International Star of tomorrow as well as a BAFTA Scotland nomination for Best Fiction Director.
He has just completed lead directing forthcoming supernatural drama The Irregulars for Netflix and is developing his first feature with the BFI.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
Most Directors I know, have much better stories than me of the first time they knew they wanted to become a filmmaker. Some people I know describe it almost like a religious calling. I never had that.
There were no bright lights or BBQ’d donkeys. No clouds parted after seeing a particular film. I didn’t hear Spielberg ’s voice in my head saying “this is for you”.
I just started making films because it was fun and I liked it. I made films, sometimes almost compulsively, even if they were films that no one else saw, that I just shot on my mobile phone, just for me. And then very late in the day I realised that as I’d made some films… I guess technically I was a filmmaker.
My watershed moment was probably when I realised the films I imagined in my head before I had shot anything, were always so much better than the films I actually ended up with. So I put in some yards to try and learn a few things and see if I could get the two things closer together.
And this is still where I’m at. I am still learning, still trying to get better… still having a lot of fun doing it.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
made films on my phone or borrowed cameras, made films with friends and just made films with whatever I could get hold of. Early on, I was lucky enough to win a couple of small festival awards for some low budget short films – that didn’t give me any big career breaks but did give me some confidence to continue.
The more I shot, the more aware I became of how my films often weren’t living up to their potential. There was a clarity lacking in them. And I knew deep down the biggest reason that I wasn’t making better films, wasn’t my lack of budget but was because of my lack of skill. Initially, my biggest black hole of knowledge was around the camera.
So I washed floors in hire houses and made coffee, so that they would let me play with kit after hours. I started getting to know how different lenses and different exposures and focal lengths effected the mood and emotion of what I wanted to shoot. I experimented trying to do my own cheap in camera Gondry style in camera FX. And I just kept trying to learn how to use the camera more accurately to help me tell better stories. Knowing where to put a camera and with what lens is such a simple and fundamental part of our job, but also a surprisingly complex one – and it took me some time to even learn the basics. It’s something I’m still working on. But the more I understood about the geeky tech side of things, the better I felt I could express myself.
I also did some short courses. I made some music videos. I even did chores and odd jobs for an old DoP in exchange for having him teach me more about camera craft.
But by learning about camera, I began to notice how bad my blocking was and how imprecise I was at helping actors deliver performances.
So I started getting actors round my flat to act out scenes and let me direct them in return for booze and food. We acted out anything, scenes I’d written, scenes from famous plays, and we tried doing them in all sorts of different styles. Sometimes I would even try acting myself. My own acting was truly awful. But by really concentrating on the actors, I slowly started getting better at reading what they needed, started giving less ridiculous notes (though this still happens), and started to direct them better.
I also would download scripts at night of films I hadn’t seen and Imagine how I’d shoot them. Then I’d watch the actual film. The difference between how I’d shoot the film in my head and what the real directors actually chose was really illuminating. This is still something I do now, as often as I can, to keep learning from other directors past and present.
After all this, I finally felt like I was getting somewhere and wanted to take things up a level. I applied to the National Film and Television School and was lucky enough to be offered a place on their directing course. But I still didn’t know if I could go.
Two years felt like a big commitment and also the amount of money I would have to pay for this experience was frankly terrifying. I didn’t know how I could pay the fees. I didn’t know how I was going to look after my family. And even if somehow I found a way past these hurdles I didn’t know how I would then manage to eat and pay rent while studying.
But I was lucky and well looked after from the moment I was offered a place. I got a David Lean Scholarship for the fees, and I scrapped it out for everything else I needed. I borrowed what I could (which wasn’t a lot because my credit rating was already dire) I leant heavily on those I loved, and worked weekends and most nights after my studies.
Juggling the course and survival felt difficult at the time, but looking back now, this was all useful preparation for my career to come. An ability to survive off just a few hours sleep a night for weeks on end, and the ability to ask for help when you need it, are two great directing skills to have in the bag early.
I learnt a lot from some amazing tutors – particularly from Ian Sellar – and particularly improved how I used mis-en-scene for emotional resonance.
I learnt a tonne from the other students too. Having a host of filmmakers around you from different disciplines, who can speak truth into your failures and successes, was one of the things that helped me develop most, and was also the start of some great friendships.
I got to work with an amazingly talented team for my graduation film which was received well and led to me getting a fantastic agent – who I hope stays with me for life! I am also still working with the same writer and producer of my graduation film now, to try and develop a feature.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
I am a white, able bodied man, who grew up in a stable G7 country that has a strong film making infrastructure. I am surrounded by supportive friends and a lot of privilege. Because of this it needs said straight up that there are so many film makers out there who have already overcome way more than I will ever have to – and will have much more inspirational things to say than I do about overcoming adversity.
I have only faced the same run of the mill obstacles that every filmmaker I know in the UK has had to face at some point: lack of money, lack of skills and experience, and lack of confidence.
I’ve always had dependents, and have spent large chunks of my life not knowing if I’ll be able to pay my rent at the end of the month. To make ends meet I have worked a load of different jobs not related to film at all. I’ve worked in call centres, done nightshifts cleaning hotel rooms, worked in pubs etc. But for me, having a round-the-houses route to my career, and having a variety of experiences as I was beginning to make films proved helpful in the long run.
I met a lot of different people from different backgrounds who had different stories. I made ride-or-die friends, and grew a little bit tougher – which are all things I lean on in my career now. And although it’s often gone right to the wire, somehow I always made just about enough to keep going. But I have had large slices of luck and many hands helping me along the way. I’ve received scholarships, funding, great advice and generosity and I was incredibly lucky getting a paid job comparatively quickly out of film school. Any one of these moments going a different way might have significantly altered my progress.
My lack of skills and experience is probably the thing that held me back most initially and definitely was the thing that took the most time and work to make headway on. When I first started I often missed out on opportunities because I just wasn’t a good enough filmmaker yet, beaten to opportunities by better and more experienced people. Straight up, even years later this still happens! But I am now starting to get more yeses than no’s – partly because I now have an exceptionally brilliant agent, but partly just because I’ve kept going long enough that I’ve actually improved.
Even with all this training and good fortune, lack of confidence still comes and goes as an obstacle. But I know I’m not alone in this.
I’ve spoken to directors with cabinets heaving with BAFTAs, who have told me that sometimes they feel a bit scared by a project or even like a bit of a fraud on their first day on set. Even though I’ve tasted a little bit of success, been trained at the NFTS, and have worked on well budgeted tv shows, this wrestling with doubts is certainly still something I still contend with.
But I’ve also learnt that it’s probably healthier to have that fear than not to. It means you care about the project and the people you are working with. And also you should be scared! Whatever level you’re at, it’s not always going to be easy. Problems don’t go away with larger budgets: if anything the pressures get more intense, the stakes get higher, the problems get more difficult to solve, you have more conflicting voices in your ears, and you have to find the best way forward in less time. And that’s what makes it all so damn fun!
Nerves and excitement: they’re two sides of the same thing.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
Trying to get better at directing is like being on a sinking ship. I am always trying to plug holes in my directing knowledge and as soon as I feel I’ve plugged one hole, two more bigger ones springs up. I try and hone my craft by trying to learn about, and then relentlessly practicing whatever it is I feel I am weakest at, at any given time. It doesn’t look like I’ll be running out of things any time soon!
Probably the two things that have really helped me develop most is practicing really listening, and really watching. There’s a reason we have two ears, two eyes but only one gob!
I am not only talking about when you are looking at your monitor or your rushes – I mean really listening and watching in every interaction you have as a film maker, and beyond this watching a wide variety of the most varied work you can in every art form you can, and just paying attention and taking in what’s around you in general.
Part of this includes trying to work out where people are coming from, especially those you disagree with. This is often where the gold lies. I’ve learnt from experience that we miss chances to develop when we don’t shut up and properly listen in these moments.
Filmmaking is a team sport, so if you can pay ferocious attention to every person in every department and are fully engaged in every shot, in every take, in every scene – then your craft and voice can’t help but get stronger. No small task then. But if you want to make anything good, the minimum requirement is everything.
On the flip side of this, I also think it’s important to remember we’re only directors, doing our bit in the deeply silly team sport that is film making. We’re not heart surgeons, kindergarten teachers, climate scientists or people disarming mines in war zones. A lot of what we do every day is deeply ridiculous. And the more you know this, and the more of a life and the more interests you have outside film making, the stronger your voice as a film maker is going to become (and the more fun you’ll have doing it.)
There’s little point making films about a world you have no relation to or understanding of. And no matter how brilliant you get at the technical side of things, no one wants to work with a robotically joyless prick either!
How did you get your first break?
My career is still only at its start, but you could look at outward milestones like getting into the NFTS, making a well received graduation film, getting an agent or getting my first TV job as the big breaks.
But the real truth is every career is made up of many different fractals – breaks, breakthroughs, failures and set backs, kindness, good advice and fortuitous moments, and every film is made in a team – so the truly defining personal moments aren’t always easy to clearly label as they all bleed into each other.
What I do think is important and something that can occasionally be overlooked in how director’s journeys are presented, is that experimenting and failing are often inextricable from later success. Even though I’ve just started my career these two things have certainly been crucial for me in getting me to this stage. Whenever I’ve made a film that I’ve really felt doesn’t work – I will usually know very precisely what the wrong choices I made were, which has often led to breakthroughs in my understanding.
The other thing that people speak about less, because it’s something so hard to quantify is the role that sheer luck plays in getting breaks in a career. Yes, the truism, the harder you work the luckier you get, has truth in it.
But just being in the right place at the right time, and being hit by a sheer bolt from the blue, lightning strike, piece of snake eyes good luck, is often the difference between one filmmaker getting their break and others who need to wait a bit longer for theirs. I’ve been damn lucky so far, most of all by the people I’ve been surrounded by and have been allowed to learn from and just enjoy the ride with.
TV Credits: Endeavour (2019), The Irregulars (2021).