An Interview with Jonathan Sothcott, Film Producer and Writer
Writer/producer Jonathan Sothcott has been responsible for a string of British thrillers over the past few years, including We Still Kill the Old Way, The Krays: Dead Man Walking, and Eat Locals. He talks to @Roger Crow about his new movie Nemesis, working with the man who was almost Del Boy, and making a dark movie for dark times…
Hi Jonathan. Congratulations on your new movie, Nemesis. How tricky was it making it?
It was very challenging making it during the pandemic, there is no two ways about that.
The second half feels very relevant in these lockdown-related times. Was that intentional?
No, for years, Billy (Murray) and I have talked about a film we saw a long time ago called The Penthouse, directed by Peter Collinson, who did The Italian Job. As far as I’m aware it’s the first home invasion movie set in Britain. It’s one of those movies that despite the cast and despite the fact it’s quite good and it was directed by Peter Collinson, it just slipped through the cracks. It wasn’t a Hammer film, but it feels like one of their little thrillers. lt’s an interesting movie, and obviously it made an impression on us both. We thought, ‘Maybe we should should look at doing a home invasion movie’. Obviously The Purge changed the landscape of what home invasion movies were; it made them into this very specific genre. I thought, ‘If we could make another home invasion movie, it’s not going to be interesting. It’s hard to make waves in the market place, so I thought, ‘Let’s do what we always do with British films, is to transpose that theme on to a British crime film landscape’, because when that’s done well they’re evergreen and they work. So we cooked up the idea for a gangland home invasion movie, which I think is a first, certainly in Britain.
It’s interesting that Billy Murray’s character is such a psychopath, yet we side with him.
Well this was always the idea when Adam (Stephen Kelly) and I started working on the script. The term we use is “morally ambiguous”, because we don’t really know who to root for. Lucy (Aarden) should be the hero, but because Billy is so charismatic and charming, they look like such a nice family. You admire Jeanine (Nerissa Sothcott) because she’s strong as the wife, it’s very hard not to sympathise with them. When we were writing this in late 2019, early 2020 we were right in the middle of the Trump administration, and we just thought, ‘Actually, sometimes the bad guys win’. We live in a world now with a very different moral and political landscape to the one we lived in 10 or 20 years ago, and maybe we need to reflect that. The world is changing faster than we can respond to it, and in a world where Instagram sets the news agenda we thought, ‘Maybe that’s what we should do, is try and turn it on its head and make it as dark as we can’. It’s a dark movie for dark times.
It’s great to see an actor like Billy Murray, who has been part of the UK films and TV industry for decades in projects like Up the Junction, The Professionals and The Bill, still delivering the goods.
Billy is like family for us; I talk to him every day, and have done for 10 years; he’s kind of like a second father to me really. He’s a really good actor, but also he’s really famous. Everywhere I go with him, people stop for selfies, autographs, all that kind of stuff. He came down to visit me in Dorset a couple of years ago, and it was like being out with The Beatles; people rushing out of shops (to see him). It’s a shame because his huge success on TV possibly stopped him having the film career he deserved; he got close to being one of The Professionals. He got close to playing Del Boy; when he did get close to Del Boy, the concept for Only Fools and Horses was darker. It wasn’t as light as what eventually happened. It was more sort of wheeler dealer, drama-comedy, rather than the out and out sitcom. It’s easy to forget what a massive show The Bill was. Everywhere I go with Billy, people say: “When is The Bill coming back?” And obviously it’s repeated ad infinitum on TV. But it really did make an impact, and he was the greatest character in it. He was such a trooper on that movie (Nemesis). He was always first on set, he hung around, he never moaned.
What’s your biggest challenge as a producer?
To try and make as many people as possible happy, and everyone on the movie has different aspirations and different agendas, so it’s not the easiest thing. The biggest problem in this country is trying to make commercial movies in a very snobby climate; there is this huge snobbery in England towards the kind of movies that I make. And that’s fine; I make films that people want to see, and the audience with these films is huge… and it’s an intelligent audience that knows what they want, and they like certain actors, and they like certain tropes in the genre. It’s very rewarding making these films; I really like it. And I grew up in an age when going to the video shop and hiring a video was as big a treat as going to the cinema. When people used to call my films ‘Straight to DVD’, I was really proud of that. So the snobby climate is the hardest thing, but it’s not something that bothers me. I really don’t lose any sleep over it.
Do you think UK crime dramas get more credit overseas?
No, not really. It’s a weird thing. Someone once said to me years ago, “Have you ever thought how are you going to die?” I said, “Yeah. I’m going to wake up and get my first good review in The Guardian, and then have a heart attack” (laughs). I kind of collect Guardian one-star reviews. I’m a great believer as well that it’s better to have bad reviews everywhere and your film has a profile than try and protect it and not get it seen.
I don’t want to give too much away, but Nemesis has one of my favourite ‘justified’ screen punches of the year. What was your reaction when you saw that scene?
I’m not the biggest fan of female-driven action movies; I kind of think that’s in the realms of Marvel Comics, but I thought that scene was very, very well done. And I was very proud of everything that (Jonathan’s wife) Jeanine did in the film. I’m so proud.
What’s been your favourite film project?
Nemesis is my favourite; it’s a film I’m incredibly proud of, but We Still Kill the Old Way was incredible fun, and it’s the movie I’ve made that resonated the most. Every taxi driver has seen it, which is a good indication. I was really lucky with Ian Ogilvy as well; I had a terrific time working with him, and he is a great mate.
I love the opening titles of your films especially as they have a bit of a James Bond-style quality. Is that a key influence?
Bond is a huge influence in everything I do. I did this movie called Age of Kill, and the opening titles were like a B-movie Bond. And Deborah Moore, Roger’s daughter, was sat behind me at the premiere, and she leaned over and said, “Wow, it looks like a really low-rent The Spy Who Loved Me,” and I thought, ‘Maybe we should tone it back a bit,’ (laughs). But yeah I’m a great believer that things like the music, the songs, the opening credits, the titles, all those things, they add production value. I like big production value in movies. In Nemesis we’ve got the Rolls-Royce and the private jet, and I think the music really adds to the film.
So what’s next for you?
Well we’ve got two movies that are looming on the horizon. The first one is called Knifer, which is a juvenile prison offender drama in the style of Scum, which is based on the bestselling book by Ronnie Thompson, who did The Hatton Garden Job. And he’s also gonna be directing. We are looking to shoot that in Canterbury, so it’s a bit different to my usual stuff; it’s gritty and more drama and very commercial, but it really does have something to say. The state of this country with knife crime at the minute is a really bad thing. And then something which is more my usual kind of thing which is Renegades, a vigilante revenge thriller about a group of ex-special forces veterans that band together to avenge one of their own, with a remarkable cast. Ian Ogilvy again, Danny Trejo, Michael Paré, Tiny Lister, who sadly died a couple of months after we filmed… and Lee Majors.
You also have a new book out in the coming months, which is a bit of a departure from the movie industry.
Yes, it’s called The Jermyn Street Shirt Industry, which is a completely different interest of mine. It was a great deal of fun writing it, and at the end of the day I love these great old British institutions.
Thanks for your time, stay safe, and good luck with the movie(s).
‘Nemesis’ is available on DVD and digital download from March 29