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BLACK NIGHTS 2019 Competition

Gerard Johnson • Director of Muscle

“Men have issues”


- Cineuropa talked to Gerard Johnson, the director of Muscle, screened in competition at Tallinn's Black Nights, about toxic masculinity and pumping iron

Gerard Johnson  • Director of Muscle
(© Conor Masterson)

Shown in the main competition of the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, Muscle [+see also:
film review
interview: Gerard Johnson
film profile
would make Arnold Schwarzenegger think twice about his fitness routine, as call-centre worker-turned-gym aficionado Simon (Cavan Clerkin) finds out the hard way. Especially after he meets Terry, who wants to help him out – even if it means moving into his house. We spoke to the director of the film, Gerard Johnson.

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Cineuropa: It feels like 2019 is the year of toxic masculinity: mellow characters gravitating towards stronger role models. Did you get an idea of what it means to be a real man nowadays?
Gerard Johnson:
Men have issues – there are lots of supressed emotions. So where do they go? It either bottles itself up or it turns into something else. I had this idea a long time ago, of a personal trainer trying to take over somebody’s life. This whole “gym culture” has really blown up in the last 15 years, and there are two different types: the “lifestyle” gyms and the spit-and-sawdust kind, which are a breeding ground for heightened machismo. It’s all about who can lift the heaviest weight or who can make the most noise – all this feral energy. There are lots of films about boxing, about sports, but other than Pumping Iron, there hasn’t been anything like it.

We see the gym as a positive thing: a New Year’s resolution, with people taking care of their health. But Terry goes: “Fuck fit; it’s about being bigger and stronger.”
That’s the thing – fitness has become so important. Everyone knows what “cardiovascular” means. But a lot of these guys are on steroids. To them, being fit symbolises a skinny marathon runner. It’s more important to look big, even if it means having a heart attack by the time you’re 45. It’s body armour, you know? It’s the same when you cover yourself with tattoos: it gives you protection and sends a message. If you are not in a relationship or it’s not going too well, or you hate your job, that’s your way in – it’s about belonging to a tribe and trying to be the best you can.

After shooting the first part, we took three months off so that Cavan could change. He had a personal trainer and six meals a day, and he completely transformed his body. It needed to feel like he had gone on a real journey, even though we didn’t know what he would look like. It’s two different performances: the timid guy at the beginning and the other man who fails to channel his aggression.

Your story takes a dark turn that brought to mind 1990s thrillers, like Single White Female – with someone who seems like a friend forcing his way into your life. But it’s also quite funny.
In the UK, it garnered quite a bit of laughter. It’s a black comedy. Terry is supposed to be a monster, but the way he slowly changes Simon’s life is also funny. Before he knows it, he’s throwing all of these parties in his house, and he is stuck. At the same time, he sees progress. His body has changed, even though this guy is bullying him. He is addicted to it, and he is addicted to Terry. At one point, he knows that Terry might not be the person he thinks he is, but there is something dragging him closer.

You don’t seem that interested in showing him resolve his issues with his wife, but he is still very sympathetic. He’s stuck in this job at the call centre – everyone’s idea of hell on Earth, surely?
I actually did that job, and it was pretty hellish. If you had a good week, it was great, but as soon as you were behind on sales, it could get very depressing. The speech that his boss is giving was all based on my personal experience. When I was working in that environment, I would think: “There’s a film here.” I know it’s only a small part of Muscle, but I wanted to show that atmosphere. When Simon met his wife, he was doing well, and then the wheels fell off. Suddenly, he wasn’t confident in any aspect of his life.

Why the black-and-white cinematography? It came in handy with the orgy scene alone – one can only imagine how that would have played out in colour.
The swinger’s party needed to feel like Simon had ventured out of his comfort zone, into something out of a David Lynch nightmare. How far removed is that from him and his partner sharing a bottle of wine in front of the TV? They were all real swingers, by the way – we threw this ten-hour-long party and then went in to film it. They didn’t even notice us.

I was looking at gym and boxing photography, and a lot of that is in black and white. Also – and that was why I shot it in Newcastle – I was drawn to the British New Wave from the 1960s: Taste of Honey, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, This Sporting Life. They were all set in these towns, in factory environments. Now, call centres represent the factories of yesteryear. They sell a certain lifestyle, and people are sipping on cappuccinos, but they are no different, really. When I first got this idea, it was before Roma, Bait [+see also:
film review
interview: Mark Jenkin
film profile
or The Lighthouse. It was always black and white in my head.

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