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Philip John • Director

“They reminded me of two versions of myself when I was that age”


- Welsh director Philip John, who made a name for himself for TV series, Downton Abbey and Outlander, presented his feature film debut Moon Dogs at the Warsaw Film Festival

Philip John • Director
(© WFF)

Moon Dogs [+see also:
interview: Philip John
film profile
is the first feature film by Welsh filmmaker Philip John, the award-winning television director of Downton Abbey and Outlander. The film was presented in the Special Screenings section of the 32nd Warsaw Film Festival. Set in the stunning landscapes of Scotland, this playful and sharp-witted coming-of-age comedy-drama tells the story of a rebellious young trio as they discover the world and themselves. Cineuropa sat down with John to discuss the creative processes behind this feature film debut.

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Cineuropa: After 20 years of success in television, what made you decide to make your first feature film, and to focus on three teenagers?
Philip John:
The producer called, asking me to read the script. It was fussy, and I hate fuss. But there was something great about the two characters – two step-brothers – who are in opposition. They reminded me of two versions of myself when I was that age. I responded to both Thor, who is really into his music, and Michael, who is just completely hopeless. The story was basically about the two of them going to Glasgow to win a girlfriend back, and that's a non-story. Then I realised that we needed a female protagonist who changes their lives. A lot of material came from my teenage years and the love triangle I was part of with my best mate and the girl we both fell in love with.

The main characters are charmingly portrayed by newcomers, alongside very memorable cameos from well-known actors. How did you approach the casting?
Casting is the key to everything! I have worked with almost everybody in the film before for TV. So I was able to call in some favours, which was good because we had no money. I figured Denis Lawson would be brilliant for that, as would Shauna Macdonald. Often actors are very busy, so I was just incredibly lucky that the people I wanted were available. I met Tara Lee in Ireland. When we were casting for the female lead, we were trying to find a person who could define that character, step up and be that character. And Tara was it. She came to the audition and was rather rude and insolent. That was exactly what we were looking for, someone who could come in and take control.

Tara ends up as an object of desire. But there seems to be a lot more to the character.
In the script she had a lot more to say, she was much more political. She was meant to be this three-dimensional person, who talks about capitalism, corruption and the way governments are failing citizens. She was fantastic and it's such a shame that stuff got cut out. So yes, in the end, she comes over more as a femme fatale. The producers said the script was naive, but I actually believed what she said. So maybe I am naive.

The film’s absorbing atmosphere is largely created by the score. Why did you choose Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Anton Newcombe as a composer?
Music makes an enormous difference; it breathes fire into the film. Thor as a character needed a scent, an actual identity. I didn't know how to get that unless I could find a proper genius. I had never met Anton Newcombe in person, but I was a massive fan of his work. I remember seeing him in this documentary Dig!. I’d always thought he was a bit of a genius. My mate had his email and I just wrote to him. People usually just used his music for soundtracks, but this was the first time anyone asked him to compose an entire film. I was just over the moon that this guy, who I am a huge fan of, was creating new music for my film.

The movie is framed by a Viking festival, which looks like a mass initiation ceremony…
Up Helly Aa is a real festival, which takes place during the last week of January and celebrates the end of winter. Every year, fathers and sons come together dressed up in Viking costumes, with massive torches, to build a galley. It's like occupational therapy, and it binds the community together. We shot this one particular festival and were trying to figure out how to build it into the story. It's a metaphor of the father-son relationship, this bond that is missing between Thor and his father, and how they establish it.

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