I recently got the chance to talk to Jonnie Hurn about his involvement in indie-thriller, ‘Monk3ys’. Here, Jonnie talks extensively about the film’s production and how he got into acting in the first place…
Hey Jonnie. Thanks for taking the time out to talk to me about your new film ‘Monk3ys’…
What’s the general plotline surrounding the film?
Three emotional archetypes are locked in a room for 48 hours as part of a social experiment into cognitive behaviour, each one representing one of the Id, Ego or Super Ego. With no outside help and no-one monitoring them they are left to establish their own rules. However, when the 48 hours is up and no-one comes to release them the darker side of their psychologies emerge and it descends into a three-way Darwinian scrap for survival before they can be destroyed by their own weaknesses.
Tell us a bit about the character you play in the movie…
I play the role of Dougie Brown, one of the three “Monk3ys” in the room and the representation of the Super Ego. He was born in Dundee and once tried out for Dundee United FC before falling into the rave culture and losing himself in the world of designer drugs and dance music. Since those early 90s highs he has been trying to recapture those moments through alcohol. His assumed profession as an actor may or may not be a front for his hedonistic lifestyle.
Dougie is based on a number of real people the director Drew and I have known. The character I portray and the way I play him is somewhat different to the one written in the script. His back story (as described above) was one that I developed with Drew after the script was written. Sometime before playing the role I was living with someone who had a drink problem and I was able to observe him and his mannerisms/physicality. Essentially, Dougie is a harmless if useless drunk. He is more annoying than threatening and needs alcohol to function. For this I showed him as being nervous and on edge in the first scene before he starts to drink and then pass through several phases of drunkenness and cognitive ability, from all out drunk, to being in his “comfort zone” and eventually ending up a useless wreck. With this I changed his accent from scene to scene from a clipped Edinburg accent when he is sober to a full on guttural Govanesque roar at the end.
How did you get involved in the project in the first place?
I have known Drew Cullingham (writer & director) for several years. We met at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008 where we were introduced to each other by James Fisher who plays Adam in ‘Monk3ys’. I had been in a film with James called ‘The Zombie Diaries’ and he had worked with Drew on a film called ‘Nightdragon’. At the time Drew casting his debut feature ‘Umbrage: The First Vampire’ and he cast me in one of the main roles. We immediately had a close working relationship and I helped develop the script for it with him. We had been developing another script of his (with James) all of 2010 and were let down by potential investors and so Drew decided to write a script that could be shot for practically nothing. It originally came from a hypothesis of what would happen if we put three people we knew in a room with a crate of whisky for 24 hours and no way out. The idea was to actually film these three people and make a documentary but when we worked through the likely scenarios of what would happen we realized they would probably end up killing each other so decided to make a drama from it. To be honest, when Drew first pitched the idea to me I thought it was terrible and I wasn’t interested. I agreed to read the script in January 2011 as Drew and I script-edit each other’s work and when I read it I instantly understood what he was trying to do. My wife then asked me what I was reading and when I told her the story she said two things, firstly that after 48 hours in the room no-one should come for them (this has since become one of the defining moments in the film) and that I had to play the role of Dougie. Having already turned it down twice I was a bit cautious about mentioning this to Drew but I agreed to produce it with him and then naturally fell into the role.
How would you say this film is different and unique?
‘Monk3ys’ was conceived as being a test film, a guinea pig for a new way of making films. Fed up with never finding finance to make films in the conventional way we decided to embrace new technology and try something different. Minimal cast, minimal crew, minimal kit and micro budget. That way we could have total control over what how we made the film and its content (without having to pass through financiers approval) and by keeping personnel and costs to a minimum we could all work on a percentage basis and have a reasonable chance of actually seeing a return further down the line. Conventional “deferred fee” films rarely pay out as they have a large investment to pay back before the deferments, usually meaning at best the financiers get paid and the cast/crew don’t. We shot on two Canon D5 stills cameras, with added cinematic lenses on them, plus an HD handicam. The whole film was lit with one central light in the room. The micro budget was spent on travel costs/per diems, costume and catering. The film itself story wise not entirely unique, however it has a unique property of being more realistic than soi-dissent reality TV which is usually defined by wannabe stars acting up in front of a camera, making ‘Monk3ys’ more akin to what ‘Big Brother’ wanted to be but ultimately could never achieve due to its showcase/public vote nature. The cast were give utter freedom to improvise around the script and there were very few instances of blocking of action, that coupled with long takes (8-10 minutes) allowed the cast in the room to have freedom that never occurs on a regular film set. There were no marks that needed to be hit, no timed scenes, no reverse angles to worry about, no “crossing the line” and no continuity, it was about as real as it could possibly be. The result is a very naturalistic film which is both voyeuristic in style and claustrophobic at times making it often uncomfortable to watch.
As the whole thing was a giant experiment in film-making there was no pressure and it proved to be successful, so much so that we are now, one month after completing ‘Monk3ys’, in production with our next film, ‘Black Smoke Rising’ being made in the same way.
What’s the reception to the film been like so far?
We screened the film to a select test audience in September 2011 just 4 months after wrapping on the shoot. The audience of 10 was made up of people we knew, some of whom were connected to the industry and some of whom were not. The reaction was universally positive with each one garnering their own individual thing from the experience. The ending of the film is very ambiguous, much more so than in regular films (it would never have passed a script editor or financier) and as such everyone can interpret the ending as they wish. We have our idea of what it means but that doesn’t mean it is the correct answer – there is no correct answer to what the ending represents and it was heartening that from the test audience of 10 there were 10 different views on what it meant. The one thing that they all agreed on was that they would like to see it again.
Following that the film was selected for the Raindance Film Festival in London in October 2011. This was a major coup for us as we had missed the submission deadline by two weeks and it was through a personal recommendation that we were selected. For us as a company Elephant Features Ltd it was the second year in a row we had been selected for Raindance for a UK premiere of a film (the previous being ‘Do Elephants Pray?’) In addition to being selected we were also nominated for “Best Microbudget Feature”. Despite the name we were up against films with budgets of 20, 30, 40 times ours. The screening of the film was nearly sold out and the reaction was excellent. The Q&A afterwards lasted about 40 minutes (20 of which are on YouTube). We even managed to persuade our co-executive producer Steve to dress up as a monkey and hand out bananas. We had several independent reviews of the film which were very complimentary. Perhaps the best indication of how well it has been received so far and the most surprising is that we won the award we were nominated for.
The film stars you, Rob Oldfield, Ian Virgo, Rosanna Hoult and James Fisher – with Drew Cullingham onboard as director – what was it like working with the cast and crew on-set?
The ‘Monk3ys’ set was pretty much unlike any other I have been on before. It was very low-key, there were a total of 18 people on set both cast and crew, including some who were only there for one day. At most there were only 12 people on set at anyone one time. Everyone was someone I knew or a friend of a friend so there was no time lost in getting to know people or how they worked. We slotted in as a team very quickly. It was the second film under Drew’s direction for me as an actor and the third film I had been in with James Fisher, although we had never had a scene together before. Rob Oldfield I had worked with on ‘World Of The Dead’ at the end of 2010, where I was a co-producer. Rosanna I met the day we shot our first scene, where my character is interviewed for the experiment. This was the first day of filming and due to availability was nearly a month before the rest of the shoot. For me the biggest revelation was working with Ian Virgo. I deliberately didn’t meet him until our first scene in the room together. We spoke briefly for about 30 minutes about the back history of our characters and that was it. No rehearsal, no official meet and greet, we simply started on the first take. Instantly there was a spark between us and we improvised around the script completely, challenging each other and pushing the characters and situation as far as we could even to the extent that Rob was sometimes left behind and, having come into the cast very late on, he was often lost and had no idea what was going on or where in the script we were, which for the first few scenes actually worked well for his character. We also shot the room scenes overnight, which added to the intensity of the scenes, everyone was a little on edge with tiredness and a little discombobulated, which comes across on-screen.
Drew as a director is very easy for me to work with as he understands that actors need freedom, both physically and verbally and he is willing to allow the actor to inhabit the space between “Action” and “Cut”, which for me is the golden time. All the preparation in the world can’t replace the magic that can occur during those two words.
Let’s talk a bit about you Jonnie. What made you want to get into acting in the first place?…
A fascinating question and almost impossible to answer. I know clearly the chronology of events that have led me to where I am now and the acting that I have done since childhood but the “why?” aspect is very hard to answer. I was always interested in films even at a very young age. Growing up in a remote village most of my primary school friends went to one secondary school and I went to another one meaning that I lost touch with practically everyone I knew up to the age of 11. All my friends after that were in a different town which I couldn’t get to (there were no buses) and so I never saw them after school or at the weekends. I would spend my holidays cycling into the local cinema and watching films or sitting at home watching classic movies on TV. Even now I love watching classic black and white films. At the age of 11 I was watching a local pantomime with my parents and I suddenly said that I could do that and my mother held me to it. A year later I was in the chorus line on stage. A year later again I had a supporting role and a year after that I was one of the principles. In between that I was cast in dramas and school plays. I found a home in the theatre, attended youth theatre in Bath and studied Shakespeare. At the same time I became a vociferous watcher of films, regularly spending my weekends watching a dozen movies at home. This coincided with the birth of home video and I hovered up as many as I could before the video censorship laws came in. At the age of 13 I was regularly watching horror films, many of which were subsequently banned. Even so I was still committed to the theatre. At 16 I was lent a copy of Woody Allen’s ‘Manhattan’. I watched it over and over again. Something about that film sparked a light in me and I realised that film was what I truly wanted to do. It remains my favourite film of all time. It was around that time that I started writing as well. I went the theatre school at the age of 21 but was still more interested in film. A small band of us set up a secret society who met in a café to talk about films! In my final year I risked being expelled by skipping two weeks of the course (rehearsals for a final year show) to go to Los Angeles to work as part of the Art Department on a 20 minute short film that was shot at Universal Studios. When I graduated in 1994 I spent 6 years travelling, getting drunk and playing in a band. In 2000 I decided that it was about time to do some work and I started writing again. I took a course with The Screenwriters Workshop and read the life-changing “Story” by Robert McKee.
You’ve been in a number of different films – who has been your favourite actor/actress to work with so far, and which project has been your favourite to be a part of?
Each project is different. As a film is a unique combination of cast, crew, location and script each one takes on its own persona and therefore each film is a different experience. ‘Do Elephants Pray?’ was amazing and very stressful as I was not only the lead actor but also the writer and producer. It was my first outing as such and the pressure was immense. It also coincided with learning that my wife was pregnant. ‘Umbrage: The First Vampire’ was a lot of fun, if very cold. The character was a real challenge to portray but we had long 5-6 minute takes. ‘The Power’, a film I have just wrapped on with director Paul Hills was a very intense experience as each scene was very emotional and at extremes – joy, sadness, fear etc. I like to take on roles that others don’t want! I like roles that mean I need to research the character or learn a new skill.
The same thing applies for different actors and actresses I have worked with. Julie was fantastic opposite me in ‘Do Elephants Pray?’ as we had a string connection from the start. James Fisher and I are friends off the screen so work very comfortably together on-screen. I learnt a lot from working with Marc Warren on ‘Do Elephants Pray?’ as he has a very energetic persona. On ‘The Power’ opposite Grace Vallorani, whom I worked with before on ‘Do Elephants Pray?’ and ‘Umbrage’, was wonderful as she is a very generous and engaging actress to work with and no two takes are the same, which for me is both challenging and stimulating. Each actor/actress offers a unique experience. What I don’t like are actors/actresses who don’t share, those who are unwilling or incapable of improvising. I had an actress once who complained that I was making her laugh by changing the text. Thankfully the director understood why I was doing it and backed me up.
If you were stuck on a desert island – what three things could you not live out?
Two of the three are easy to answer – my wife and daughter. They keep me sane, without them I would go off the rails pretty much as I did in the late 90s before I started making films. The third thing is harder to answer. I can happily live without most things: computers, TV. I guess it would have to be my guitar. I love writing and playing songs or acoustic music. If I had nothing else I could be content with a guitar.
What is currently on your I-Pod right now?
I don’t have an I-Pod, never had. In fact I have never owned any Apple product. I do have an MP3 player, though I tend to break them easily. Music is a very important part of my life, always has been. My older brother was into music at an early age and so I was exposed to great music from infancy. I was listening to The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned, The Stones, The Kinks, The Beatles, The Small Faces, Thin Lizzy, The Jam, Police, Pretenders, Blondie, Ramones, The Specials, all before I was 11. At school I was listening to Depeche Mode, The Cure, The Smiths, Simple Minds, Echo & The Bunnymen, Queen, Pink Floyd, Jesus & Mary Chain, Jesus Jones, Pop Will Eat Itself.
In the early 90s I fell into Carter USM, Stone Roses, The Primitives, The Cult, The Mission, Sisters of Mercy, The Wonderstuff, The Wedding Present, Janes Addiction, KLF, Pixies, as well as discovering The Doors, The Velvet Underground, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Bob Dylan. I was lucky enough to be in London during the “Cool Britannia” era of the mid-late 90s around the Brit-Pop age when I was working for BBC Radio. I was a gig reviewer for a while regularly at gigs and festivals watching the likes of Blur, Oasis, Supergrass, Radiohead, Chemical Brothers, Prodigy, James, Portishead, Bentley Rhythm Ace, The Sundays, REM, Moby and the genius that is The Manic Street Preachers. Recently I have enjoyed the new wave of independent music, The Strokes, The Kills, The Drums to name a few.
If I had to pick a Top 10 in a Hi-Fidelity way it would probably be this…
The Manic Street Preachers
The Velvet Underground
Red Hot Chilli Peppers
Mozart (the composer as opposed to a band with that name….)
I also like more diverse music, such as French new wave jazz singer Coralie Clement and modern classical music from Arvo Part. Mozart is something special, his music touches the soul in a way that no music before or since can do so.
I use music in preparation for a role. I work to music and research the character to music. The first thing I do having read a script is to decide what the character’s favourite band/artist/album is, I will then listen to that endlessly. Between scenes I will listen to that band/album and throughout every shoot have a song running through my head.
What’s the most interesting/funniest piece of news you’ve heard in the last month or so?
I recently learnt that the mountain of Bugarach in the South West of France is actually upside down. That is to say that the oldest rock formations are on the top and the youngest on the bottom, which doesn’t make any sense. It is as if the whole mountain was picked up and put upside down. It is the mountain that inspired Spielberg to write ‘Close Encounters Of The Third Kind’. The locals refer to it as UFO Mountain as there are so many sightings there. There is a theory that if the world ends on 21st December 2012, as according to the Mayan Calendar, then Bugarach will be the only safe place on earth, so much so that the Mayor of the small village there has asked the military to seal it off around that time to stop the expected mass influx of people.
What’s coming up for you in 2011/12?
The end of 2011 is taken up with completing the feature ‘Black Smoke Rising’, which I am producing for Monk3ys Ink Films with the same team that made ‘Monk3ys’ as well as developing the script ‘Rat Scabies And The Holy Grail’, which I am adapting from the book of the same name. The first few months of 2012 will see the DVD release of ‘Umbrage’ in the USA followed by the UK releases of ‘Do Elephants Pray?’ and ‘The Power’. At the same time I will be working on a Bollywood film shooting in London as Production Manager as well as producing a comedy called ‘Skinny Buddha’. We are also in development with a comedy I have written called ‘Abra-Ca-Debra’ starring Marc Warren and Andrew Lee-Potts, which we plan to shoot in 2012. I have been cast in all of the above as well as the thriller ‘Mind Heist’. I will also be working on a couple of screenplays.
More importantly I will be continuing with by far the most important thing in my life – watching my daughter grow up.
Thanks for the interview!