|Raindance Interview: Johnny Daukes (Wonder)|
|Written by Ivan Radford|
|Monday, 08 October 2012 12:44|
Interviews with directors and actors can often be 15-minute, in-and-out, strictly controlled things. You get your slot, you’re chivvied along, you’re shipped out for the next set of identical questions.
So it’s always great when you have an interview that turns into a long, rambling conversation. I’ve had a lot of those recently – both over the phone (21 Jump Street) and in person (How Do You Write a Joe Schermann Song?) – but the latest was a chat with Johnny Daukes, the director and Elliott Smith-esque songwriter behind Wonder, a short which screened at the Raindance Film Festival last week.
The film, which is 26 minutes long, accompanies a short EP, which is out today in iTunes. Both are excellent, so I jumped at the chance to talk to him. Partly because he has a lovely voice (he is, I discovered, the voice of Nutri-Grain Breakfast Bars) and because we had a fun chinwag last year, when Acts of Godfrey premiered at Raindance.
The result? Another sprawling chat that covered everything from The Beatles and the critical response to Acts of Godfrey to Monsters vs Aliens, Special K and his new film with Tom Wilkinson.
Hello again. Have you had a nice 12 months?
I’ve had an interesting year… It’s been productive.
Productive is good. You’re back at Raindance again with a short film rather than a feature. How has your festival compared?
It’s different. Obviously, features are standalone and shorts get lumped together. Features tend to attraction more attention – particularly from the point of view of reviewers. As soon as you say short, people are slightly more dismissive.
I’ve definitely been guilty of that in the past.
Telling a story succinctly in 20 minutes is quite a job. I think there are a lot of flabby features out there! I’m hoping that Wonder’s going to get into quite a few festivals over the year. Because it’s not geared for theatrical release, I’m hoping it’s going to have a longer festival lifespan.
How does the impact of the film differ, professionally?
It’s very different, again. You’ve seen Acts of Godfrey [a film written entirely in rhyming verse] – that was just too weird for a lot of people! With a bit of distance, I look back at it now and think “Whoa, where did that come from?!” But Wonder, people think it reflects my voice more. You can look at it and say: “Oh, yeah, I get it.” This has already started to get me meetings and stuff. Godfrey, you see, just kind of came out. Wonder I actually sat down and said: “I’m going to write a screenplay.”
Is that harder when you’re faced with a blank page?
Godfrey came naturally; it was a poem that got out of hand. Wonder, in a way, was a music video that got out of hand. I wrote some songs and a friend said I should make a film to go with it. There’s a track called Looking Under Everything on the album and in the film, there’s a scene where a guy takes bits off a notice board and uncovers old pictures of him and his girlfriend – I started with that moment and fleshed it out from there. That’s the backbone of the film’s score, actually. It appears three times.
There’s a temptation to try and link up all the songs with the different storylines...
Well, fairly early on I had the idea of bringing the strands all together. This beach where the characters go to is a place where I have spent a lot of time in the last few years, you know. The whole album comes out of a very personal situation. There’s a line in the song Wonder that’s almost like a resignation. “You lay that soul to rest.” You know, you just finally give up on it. It was all very organic. Really enjoyable to make.
Wonder by johnnydaukes
Do you think of yourself as a filmmaker first or a musician?
I don’t really think of myself as anything! I suppose I’m a writer. I tell stories – and whether I pick a guitar up or a camera, that’s what I do. My songs don’t do the thing where you pick it up and think “Yeah, that has a nice groove…” My songs always tell stories. And that’s what I like in a band. A longstanding argument I’ve had with a lot of people is that I don’t like The Beatles. And I don’t like them because their lyrics are rubbish! They don’t tell stories!
[He gets quite worked up at this point.]
Take away the words and I love some of the Beatles production – they’re geniuses at work – but lyrically… if music is art, then The Beatles are greetings cards. I think that’s one of the reasons people like Radiohead. The lyrics. I think that’s why Bowie has been successful too.
[He keeps going.]
Michael Stipe of REM is one of the finest lyricists ever. It elevates them from what could have been a country rock band to something transcendental. As inscrutable as the words often are, he just writes great sounds.
So do you start with lyrics first when you write a song?
Sometimes, it’s just a little two-note thing. What makes a melody unique is there’s always something distinctive about the way you play it. If you don’t put it down or record it immediately, you never get it back! But the song Wonder, for example? That was just that lyric I sang to myself over and over again. Sometimes a line just has a certain resonance.
You’ve got a great cast together. Diana Hardcastle and Henry Goodman? They’re class acts.
Diana doesn’t really work for nothing. And Henry doesn’t either. But they both read the script and felt that they had to do it.
It is. Diana’s actually going to play the mother in this new film I’m writing, Goodbye Mother. And the husband is going to be played by Tom Wilkinson.
I spotted that and wanted to ask you how that happened. He’s a big deal these days. Well, he always has been.
Yeah, That’s the thing with Tom. You say his name and people say “Who?” and then you show them a picture and they say: “Oh, yes! Him!” He was just blown away by Wonder.
He’s like the British Phillip Seymour Hoffman…
Yeah, very much so. He’s stealth famous! He does such great work. So I’m really lucky that through Diana I’ve got to know Tom and he’s great. I’m just trying to work out the logistics of the film. I’ve got something else written that will probably come before it, but as with all this stuff, it’s about getting funding…
I remember you mentioning Goodbye Mother last year. It was going to be an opera?
Yeah, that changed. It’s now going to be a straight film. I just thought it was too much madness!
So we won’t get to see Tom Wilkinson sing?
No, that ain’t going to happen! Not in a million years!
I hear you went to a Guillermo Arriaga screenwriting course a while back. What was that like?
It had really a strong effect on me. Jesus. The guy’s very, very charismatic. Within two minutes of it starting, I got one line out of it that I’ve carried with me since. He thumped his chest and said: “If you’re not writing from here, if you’re not in your film, it’s worth shit.” So I went away and rewrote a draft of that other script I mentioned, The Records. It was at first a bit soulless, but I put myself into the female character and everything suddenly was so much better.
You mentioned The Records last year as well. That used to be called… Ghost of a Chance?
Yeah, it changed. There was a massive re-write. A lot of the score is still made up of Chaz [a fictional musician in the film]’s back catalogue.
Back to Arriaga. There’s a kind of a Guillermo stamp on the film: the bus ride at the end that joins everyone together is a bit like one of his car crashes…
Yeah, I wrote that before the course. But I always have a word when I’m writing: a central theme. And with Wonder, I had the word loss. Then Tom [Wilkinson] pointed out to me that the film is really about love. My favourite thing in the film is the gay couple, when the boyfriend thinks his partner’s having an affair, but we see him rejecting the other guy. Love is being with someone and going on the journey with them in spite of their foibles, I think. I don’t know. But yeah, the bus ride gives that relationship some kind of redemption… (He pauses) I don’t like that word! You think they’ve (does Sid James impression) sorted it aht.
[I point out his Sid James impression sounds like Barbara Windsor. He disagrees.]
It’s a very beautiful film, visually, but it’s also very succinct in the way you tell the story.
Yeah. You know one thing that pissed me off about Acts of Godfrey when it came out? People saying it was too wordy and reviewers saying that you had to show and not tell. But that’s a very prescriptive view: not all film has to be like that. But in Wonder, there’s very little dialogue – there’s only about four lines of dialogue in the second half! It’s really different.
How did you feel Acts of Godfrey did when it released at the start of the year?
It was a disaster for PR! It was promoted by the distributor as a “modern twist on Shakespeare” and it clearly wasn’t. I never described it like that. It was more like a Carry On film meets rap or something!
It has a lot to do with expectations of what you’re about to see.
I actually emailed some of the negative reviewers afterwards to point out that it wasn’t my idea to describe my own clunky verse as Shakespeare – he hardly ever wrote in rhyming couplets anyway – and they actually both wrote back and thanked me for writing and said that did affect what they thought of it.
You’ve got Jay Simpson back from Acts of Godfey for this.
Yep! And I’ve got him back again for another role in my next film too. He’s playing a really sniveling bastard. I think he’s brilliant, really versatile. In Wonder, when I wrote the part of the working class artist who’s suddenly getting a sniff of fame, I knew he would play it well. I asked him and he came back to me within a day and said yes. He’s great. He’s a lovely guy as well.
Wonder is, what, 26 minutes long? Is that aiming for a broadcast length?
I’d love it to go out on TV, but without some form of festival success, it’s very unlikely. We didn’t even get a nomination for Best Short at Raindance, which was a disappointment.
Are you planning to release the film alongside the album as a download?
Yeah, I’ve been doing a few submissions to festivals this week but I’m looking at the digital side of things. It’s not like the old days where you put out a whole album, it’s all downloads now, and I’m hoping that if you’ve seen the film, you put on the album and think “Hey, that’s familiar!”
[Somehow the conversation moves to watching films with children. I don’t know how, but it does.]
Hey have you seen Monsters vs Aliens?
Yes, I love that movie.
Jesus Christ, it’s hysterical! My oldest daughter has just turned 8 and they go through that thing where they watch things for seven days running. And you go “Ugh, Cars again.”
It just doesn’t have the depth after a few times – Lightning McQueen stops doing it for you. But Monsters vs Aliens! The dialogue is so clever! And my daughter laughs at some of the cleverer jokes and you think: “Wow, your sense of humour has elevated to that point.”
It’s weird, isn’t it? When you watch a film with a kid and they start to get things they didn’t get before…
She saw the poster for Ted the other day and said: “Dad! Can I see Ted?” And I said I had already seen it. And she said: “You went to see it without me?!”
How on earth did we get onto that? Anyway, back to Wonder. It’s a softer album than A False Parade [which came out last year – Spotify it here]. Were you aware of that when you were writing it?
Absolutely. I was very aware of it because I sat down and wrote 9 songs in 9 days. I’ve never written anything like it in my life! It was just this cathartic release and then I sat and played them for six months. But that’s the great thing about making the film, in a way: it took it away from the first person a bit.
Other than writing songs and making films, what do you do?
Well, making films like Wonder and making albums like Wonder don’t make one any money! Over the last year, I’ve actually made a bunch of shorts for Microsoft. A mate of mine came to me a year ago and we came up with the idea of going and talking to interesting people about what they’re passions are. And that’s it. I do everything on them: shoot, edit, sound design, music. It’s corporate filmmaking, but there’s no selling going on. It’s really enjoyable to do!
Cool. I write about houses for a living.
Well, hopefully, with the next film I’m doing, it’ll mean I’m able to get paid property, but until that time, I do a lot of voiceovers as well.
Yeah! I’ve always earned a living doing that. The most noticeable one is a campaign about to start for Nutri-Grain Breakfast Biscuits. That’s my voice!
You’re THE voice of Nutri-Grain?
Yep! And Virgin Mobile. If you have Virgin Mobile and ring up, I go: “Hello and welcome to Virgin Mobile.” It’s great! It used to be my full wage, but now it more kind of supplements it.
Wonder. Nutri-Grain. Tom Wilkinson. After a productive year, where do you see yourself in 12 months’ time?
I have no idea! I’d like to have made The Records or have shot Goodbye Mother, but who knows?
Maybe you’ll be the voice of Special K?
Oh, I’ve done them too!
Wonder is released on iTunes today. Go buy it. It’s a lovely little album.