Opening in UK cinemas today, Mister John is the second feature written and directed by Dublin-born, London-based husband and wife team Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy. This intricately layered drama follows Gerry (Aidan Gillen) through the early stages of bereavement following the death by drowning of his brother John, a bar owner in Singapore.
Gerry gradually gets subsumed by the mysteries and attractions of his dead brother’s life, and finds himself drifting out of his own identity and into John’s. In many ways, it’s a welcome escape from his life and marriage in London.
Christine and Joe kindly took the time to chat to Yasmeen Khan about their beautiful and surprising film…
BEV: Mister John draws on personal experience, from your family and your time working in Singapore. You describe the evolution of setting the film there as “organic and inevitable”. Could that also apply to the development of the narrative?
Joe Lawlor: It was complicated. We’ve always looked to our extended family for narrative starting points and gone off on a journey. This is not unusual. Some look to the New Yorker magazine, but we tend not to. This particular point is that in the film there’s a bar, owned by John. My brother’s called John, he owns a bar, but he lives in Phuket. We were writing it to be set there, but working in Singapore, and our producer wondered if it could be transposed. We weren’t sure, then when we embarked on that process we thought, Actually, it’s better. It’s much more of an unknown quantity as a city. Thailand comes with the sex tourism baggage.
Christine Molloy: It’d be hard not to do that with Phuket. I hadn’t been to Phuket since 1997, and it had a big impact on us. We weren’t there as tourists. We were visiting Joe’s brother, who ran a bar that women worked out of, and we got down to the nitty-gritty of the business – the cut that John took from any liaison between them and a customer. It was a challenging and fascinating world to be in as the only Western woman, often, in the bar. Surrounded by lots of very… interesting men and stuff going on. Actually, Patong was a lot sleazier then. It’s changed hugely, post-tsunami.
There’s different reasons men end up in Patong, as opposed to the ebb and flow of people in Singapore. People get drawn to Singapore to restart their lives. The transition from Thailand to Singapore pulled it into the world it needed to be in. It was a much freer, less encumbered world, and we could get on with it.
So Gerry’s story could be better told in that environment?
JL: Yeah, not under the weight of things you’d have had to filter it through. I don’t know if we would have broken through it. It was an accident, like many things, and it was quite fortuitous and right and natural. Had we been given the green light, we would have ended up in Thailand a year earlier. But that extra year meant something else took place and we ended up with a profoundly different film. Not in terms of the central narrative, but I think the engagement and the experience would have been. And that’s what it’s all about, ultimately.
CM: We would never have wanted to make a film about Phuket or about Singapore. We wanted to make a film about a particular kind of world and we could just define that a bit more carefully in Singapore.
JL: I don’t know what people think about Singapore after the film. Probably very little.
If asked where we were after the opening scenes, I would have guessed, “Erm, somewhere in Asia…”
CM: We say “somewhere in Southeast Asia”. We’ve also taken lots of liberties with Singapore and how it would normally be presented on screen.
It has this clean image.
JL: People say, “It’s super-clean.” The clean bits are!
CM: We brought our daughter, and she got really upset about this guy who made fruit juices in the plaza. He would break your heart. He’s really old, all bent over. They’ve got to keep working. There’s no safety net.
How old’s your daughter?
JL & CM: Ten.
It must have been an experience for her.
JL: It was. Filmmaking is pressurised, and certainly, parenting is. Put both together… oh, my God!
CM: She’s an only child and both parents had our heads up our arses. It was very, very challenging and we paid the price when we came back. But she also had an amazing life experience.
JL: But she lost us for a period of time, in her mind. That won’t happen again, and if it did, she’d be older and we’d have learnt a hell of a lot more. It’s just the husband-wife thing. We have a child, how stupid of us, we should never work together.
Chinese beliefs permeate the story, particularly the water ghost, which obviously seeps into Gerry’s thinking.
CM: That’s exactly what happened to us. There’s loads of superstitions there.
JL: They really believe them.
CM: No matter what age they are, they’re hugely superstitious. The water ghost, it’s fascinating. A spirit pulls someone into the lake so they effectively drown, but comes back in their body and their spirit then waits for the next person’s body. The same word in Chinese is used for a body double in a film. So the idea of replacement, of occupying someone else’s place, the separation of the spirit and the body… Kim [John’s widow, played by Zoe Tay] believes John will come back, so for her, Gerry could be John. Is he already inside Gerry? We don’t know.
Gerry’s sucked into the idea himself. It ties into your concerns about how grief and depression affect identity. It’s interesting that a local belief can mesh so nicely with what you’re trying to explore in the film.
CM: I think Gerry wants John to occupy him. Life would be so much easier. He’s charming, he’s successful. It’s the fantasy of what life was like for his brother.
He’s pushed into John’s place by Kim, both willingly and unwillingly. I expected Gerry’s journey to go along a trajectory of self-discovery, but it becomes very dreamlike and sexual and swerves away from that. Did you feel you had to live up to generic expectations, or did you deliberately step away from them?
JL: We had a very clear opening image and a clear closing image, and it’s just what happens in-between.
CM: It’s actually kind of small. So it’s about expanding it. He’s got his back to us at the beginning. He’s looking out of a window. It’s dark, it’s wintry, and he’s totally inaccessible.
He’s got his armour – the suit – that he puts on again at the end.
JL: That’s right.
CM: At the end, he’s facing us, his face bathed in sunlight. It’s a process: a subtle shift towards opening up, letting go and reconnecting with himself. And that is really what the film explores.
You didn’t think, He must make x discoveries so it’s satisfying as a story? You didn’t need to.
CM: We weren’t under any pressure to. Actually, there was a version of the film at one stage which was really loose, so it would have been more challenging for an audience. It’s got to work structurally on some level, even if you find your own and don’t necessarily conform to the accepted way. But you’re right, the issue is that an audience begins to read things early on, then if it doesn’t conform they might think, What’s that all about?
JL: It’s learned behaviour. Cinema audiences expect A, B and C. One thing you don’t expect, necessarily, is a protagonist appearing so passive. But you have to be honest to the material. There can be humour in it too, if his attempt to be the man is pathetic. You have to keep going, even if it’s slightly challenging that he’s not super-cool. I think it’s interesting to see Aidan Gillen not being super-cool.
I love Aidan Gillen. I think he’s brilliant.
CM: He’s got a lot more to offer than is necessarily on show in the way he regularly gets cast. We were really taken with his performance in The Low Down, Jamie Thraves’ film. It was that part of him as a performer we were really drawn to.
JL: More vulnerable, more volatile, not a sexual predator.
CM: I do find Aidan quite compelling, and wanted to focus on that, then allow him as a performer to go on a different journey.
I love how he looks young and old at the same time. You don’t shy away from his face – it’s always covered in sweat or tears, always changing. And his gaze, sometimes.
CM: Us looking at him, him looking… At what his eye’s drawn to. We use that as a way into the internal landscape.
You had a really good DP.
JL: He’s all right! No, we’ve worked with Ole [Birkeland] for ten years. He’s brilliant. He’s hugely experienced, much more than we are. We had a complicated debate about options. You’re shooting coverage to get options, but there aren’t that many options, and you’re only looking for one, so it would be much better if you just filmed that one. Of course, that’s very difficult!
You have to have it in your head before you start.
JL: Actually, usually, that’s how we’ve worked. Our shooting ratio’s usually two to one. This one, we had a much higher shooting ratio, But it’s better, you get better takes of the one thing. It’s not like David Fincher, shooting 37 takes: five where he’s angry, three where he’s not, 12 where she’s really upset… In 22 days’ shooting, you have no time. The thing we’ll fight for if there’s ever a third time is more time.
Birds Eye View celebrates female filmmakers. Do you have any advice for women working in film today, or wanting to?
CM: It’s a tough environment, but in my humble opinion the most exciting filmmakers in the UK and Ireland today are all women. The ones whose work I really want to see. Both coming up and already making work, like Lynne Ramsay, Joanna Hogg, Andrea Arnold, Clio Barnard. Brilliant. And if I ever thought there was a motivating factor for women to feel that they can give it a go… But also, most of them are writer-directors and possibly involved in editing and hands-on in producing, so they really own the projects. What’s really exciting about that is they’re telling stories that they want to tell, in their way. Not necessarily directors for hire.
JL: See yourself more as an author of your own work. The numbers do look bad, it’s true. It is shocking in a way. But it’s not abysmal, you can point to the evidence and say, Some of the finest filmmakers in the UK are women…
CM: The ones I’m personally most excited about. OK, Peter Strickland. I’m excited about what he’s going to do next, and he’s not a woman. But you can’t have it all.
Mister John goes on nationwide theatrical release from Friday September 27.