Interview with Jonathan Sothcott, one of the most prolific producers of British action movies
Interview by Jean Stanton
Jonathan Sothcott is one of the UK’s most successful independent film producers. His recent movie include the critically acclaimed Vendetta starring frequent collaborator Danny Dyer, which was the biggest-selling UK indie film on DVD in 2013. Jonathan is recognised as a dynamic entrepreneur within the film industry, as well as the wider business community.
He has produced some two-dozen movies and worked with a galaxy of stars including Ray Winstone, Kierston Wareing, Rik Mayall, Robert Englund, Mark Hamill, Jamie Winstone, and of course Danny Dyer, with whom he has made 7 films as well as the blockbuster special interest DVD, Danny Dyer’s Football Foul ups. In 2014, he was Executive Producer on the stage show How A middle Class Feminist Fell In Love With Danny Dyer.
Jonathan won Best Producer two years in a row at the British Horror Film Awards and the special British Lion Award at the British Independent Film Festival in 2012. He won Best Producer at the British Independent Film Festival again in 2014 for Top Dog, which swept the board.
When he isn’t making films he’s writing about them. His latest book, The Films Of Danny Dyer, was published at the end of 2013 and has been lauded as “strangely delightful” by The Telegraph.
Jonathan’s latest film ‘We Still Kill The Old Way‘ about retired East End villain Charlie Archer who is brutally murdered at the hands of a vicious mob of youths, his brother Ritchie (Ian Ogilvy – Return of the Saint) hits the savage streets of London, returning to his gangster roots on a violent quest for vengeance. He rounds up his old firmand leads a vigilante crusade to find and punish his brother’s killers, using every brutal method possible is out on DVD now.
what made you want to produce films – and keep on doing so! What lessons did you quickly learn about film production in the UK?
Well I always thought I wanted to be a writer but I lacked both discipline and talent. I worked a bit as a film journalist and even ran a TV channel in my 20s but couldn’t really find my niche. Then a wonderful, old school producer/director named David Wickes (he made the Emmy-winning Jack The Ripper with Michael Caine) took me under his wing and explained to me what a producer actually does… which is pretty much everything! But he gave me an insight into how films actually get made, it was a far more valuable education than, for example, going to film school. Not long after I met the actor Martin Kemp. Martin I owe so much to – he let me use his name to open all kinds of doors and we began a very successful collaboration which has involved him both directing and acting for me. In a business where names and reputations count I will always be grateful to Martin for taking a chance on me.
As to what you learn quickly? Everything takes twice as long and costs twice as much as you hope. Nobody has any money. People are ruthless like you’ve never seen before. Its a dog eat dog world but even the dogs don’t stop at cannibalism. Social media has made every nutcase out there a writer/director/producer/actor. Everyone has a facebook page for the movie they’re casting (in their imagination). I’ve met all these people on my way up and eventually reached the point where I can sniff out the bullshitters and the fantasists pretty early on. On the other hand, there’s about 30 films of mine on sale in HMV, I make a living doing something I absolutely love and am terribly proud of my last few films so I don’t really have anything to complain about.
‘Devil’s Playground’ won you best producer at the 2010 British Horror film Awards, and teamed Ray & Jaime Winstone for ‘Elfie Hopkins’. Serious accolades and casting to write home about, and yet they didn’t do well at the box office. Given the popularity of the horror genre and the cult following of lo-budget horror, there seems something wrong here. Would you like to give your views on the reasons why? How does PR and the distribution/exhibition systems affect that? And would you like to go back to horror at some point?
Elfie I think was an honourable failure: the director was a talented lad and I adore Jaime but too many creative cooks spoiled the broth on that one and it was a bit of a damp squib. I also think the release artwork on both was atrocious but they were beyond help really. Devil’s Playground wasn’t a bad film at all but it was totally mis-sold – if you look at the DVD cover it appears to be a film about Danny Dyer and Craig Fairbrass robbing a tool shed. There’s no reference to zombies. At that time distributors just thought slapping Dan’s face on a gangstery cover would guarantee huge DVD business but by 2010 his audience was already getting wise to the trick after Borstal Boy, City Rats etc.
So yes a combination of bad films and bad marketing rightly killed my career as a horror film producer. I think I was guilty of making films that I wanted to make rather than films that people wanted to see. So I stopped, reassessed and refocussed on the action/crime/thriller genres. I am going to be making another horror movie in 2015 – a vampire film. It is the best horror script I’ve read and I can’t wait to get stuck in and redeem myself with the genre audience!
With the lack of box office success for these films, you moved over to making true crime dramas. What made you think this would be more successful and has it been so? Are there any differences in the production processes between the different genres? Do you enjoy the challenge or do you have a love/hate relationship with it?
I’ve always loved British crime and action films – I grew up on stuff like The Long Good Friday and Who Dares Wins so it was an easy move forward. And in this country we love our homegrown crime movies! The production process is kind of the same though I can judge the crime stuff much more easily based on scripts. And trust me I get sent a lot of drivel. By the time I get out of any black cab its a fairly safe bet that the driver will have pitched me an idea for a film about a vigilante taxi driver – usually to be played by Ray Winstone, they all love Ray – if I answer the question about what I do truthfully. So I lie quite often now. But you know I love these movies, I’m very proud of stuff like Vendetta and We Still Kill The Old Way – I hate the snobbery there can be around the genre. And it seems to be working — Vendetta was the biggest UK indie on DVD this last year and hopefully WSKTOW will cover itself in glory too.
You clearly have the knack for attracting big names and interesting names to your projects. How does that happen? Particularly, Ian Ogilvy for ‘We Still Kill the Old Way’ – the last we saw him was a long time ago as ‘The Saint’. I also get the impression that the people you work with generally are very loyal and committed to what you’re trying to do for the industry. Could you tell me a bit more about this, please.
I am indeed very lucky to be surrounded by a group of loyal and talented people. Martin Kemp (and his brother), Craig Fairbrass, Vince Regan, Lysette Anthony, Steven Berkoff, Phil Davis, Alison Doody and of course Danny. They all come and do these movies and have a laugh. They’re short shoots and fun projects and word gets around — its a giggle, its a film people will actually watch (not that common in Britain), why not do a few days on one? As a producer the best skill you can have is people skills – I don’t know how to define them but I guess I have them. I like to have fun, I like to work in a fun environment. If you can’t have fun making films you might as well go and work in a morgue.
There have been big changes in distribution the past few years. ‘We Still Kill The Old Way’ had a short theatrical release and now, two weeks later, it’s released on DVD and online. How does this affect a film’s ultimate financial success & shelf life? Is it something you embrace?
There is NO theatrical market for independent UK genre films. The short window 6 screen release is purely a platform to get national press reviews and qualify for VOD platforms. Theatrical release is no longer part of any sensible film-maker’s business plan when it comes to this type of movie. I meet directors who talk about 150 screen releases and I’m still laughing long after I’ve shown them the door. In America Direct To Video isn’t something to be ashamed of. Its just a different option. Sometimes you want steak for dinner, sometimes you want fast food. Everyone has fast food sometimes (ok almost everyone) and there’s nothing wrong with that. But fillet steak isn’t cheap, so you don’t have it all the time. Same with movies – going to the cinema is expensive – it usually involves dinner, wine, popcorn, transport etc. If you’re shelling out all that money, you want bang for your buck. You want Guardians of the Galaxy or Transformers. You don’t want a low budget Brit indie. My films don’t work like that – they are £7 on DVD in Asda. They’re McDonalds. And – as far as I’m concerned – there’s no shame in that.
Could you tell me a little bit more about ‘We Still Kill The Old Way’, please. How hands on are you with the shoot? How was it funded and how long did each of the production stages take? How did you find the story and how was it developed? Were there any particular challenges in the actual shoot?
I have a producing partner, a Welshman by the name of Neil Jones and he’s more hands on than I am. He’s a vert talented chap – a good director too – and clearly completely insane for putting up with me. That said I was pretty hands on with WSKTOW – the cast and crew made it a pleasure to come to set every day. The idea came from the distributor, Anchor Bay – Rod Smith and Colin Lomax there had a title and a concept. I brought in a writer named Dougie Brimson, who along with his writing partner Gary Lawrence, moulded a solid draft. When Sacha Bennett came on board as director he steered the script to where it is now – lighter, more capery – not just another violent geezer movie. Anchor Bay financed the film entirely, which was absolutely lovely (although a bigger budget would have been nice!). The shoot was pretty smooth and easy and a lot of that was down to Sacha – not only is he a great guy on set but he genuinely understands the limitations of low budget film-making so his expectations were always realistic. I think from initial concept to release the whole thing came together in about a year… which is pretty amazing… but then we don’t mess around!
Danny Dyer is well on his way to becoming a national treasure. We all love him but he gets a lot of stick as well. You’ve been good friends a long time – even defended some of his more controversial comments – how did you meet and how has your relationship developed over the years, and what will you be doing next together? And what’s your funniest story??
He is a national treasure! Trust me it’ll be Sir Danny Dyer one day! I love Danny, like real proper love. He’s one of my best mates and there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for him or his family: the Dyers are my second family. One of the highlights of this last year has been bringing his daughter Dani through the ranks as an actress. She’s so talented, just a brilliant, beautiful actress in her own right. She has such a natural quality. I’m so proud of what she’s achieved in We Still Kill The Old Way.
Danny and I met many, many years ago in a club called The Embassy but I think details are a bit sketchy for both of us. We both ended up on a rotten job early in my career called The Rapture. It was supposed to be a promo to raise big money for a kind of British Da Vinci Code. Nobody knew what they were doing and it was all a bit of a disaster. Every few years someone says its going to be released on DVD and we all just cringe because it was only ever supposed to be a promo. Anyway, we hung out a bit then and started to see each other socially from time to time. One thing Danny’s always had, which the public are finally starting to see, is incredible, huge proper movie star charisma. Its very hard not to like him. At first it seemed like an odd friendship but it has grown into a very, very good one – when I see him I start laughing and he starts laughing. We don’t always know what about. But we both think we’re very funny. We are about the same age and although our backgrounds are different we like a lot of the same things. Obviously I’m so proud of his Eastenders success – I’ve always known how talented he was and it is fantastic that such a wide audience is seeing that now. There’s no other actor like Danny, he’s a genuine one-off like Oliver Reed or Michael Caine.
We have a couple of projects cooking away but the priority is Vendetta 2. The first film meant so much to both of us and there is an active and vocal demand for a sequel – but we don’t want to rush it, we want it to be better than the first one.
Funniest story… God… well he very kindly gave my mum a tour of the Eastenders set this Summer. I told him that under no circumstances could he say c*nt in front of her. He managed beautifully for hours: it was an amazing day for her and they were getting on like a house on fire. Just as we were leaving I asked him to sign some pictures for a friend of a friend. “what shall I write?” asked our hero. “oh just something horrible” said I. “To Tom,” he read aloud as he wrote, “you big c*nt…!!!* Red faces all round. Then there was the time in Manchester when a cab driver mistook us for politicians on the way to the Labour Party Conference. That was surreal (not to mention unlikely). But we always have a laugh. And usually a hangover. Seriously though I couldn’t ask for a better friend and I’m very lucky to have him and his amazing Mrs in my life.
Finally, what’s next for you, and is there anything else you would like to add?
I’ve just finished a kind of spy thriller called Age of Kill starring Martin Kemp, Nick Moran and Patrick Bergin. In January I’m doing another true crime film. And after that this vampire comedy which I’m really looking forward to. I’d love to do a TV show too. To Exec Eastenders or Doctor Who is a serious ambition of mine. Showrunning Doctor Who with Dyer as The Doctor – how’s that for an ambition? There’ s a ton more too – the future’s looking very bright at the moment.