London Screenwriters’ Festival ‘Beyond the Bio’: Jonathan Newman

Jonathan NewmanWelcome to the first in our London Screenwriters’ Festival Q&A series that will be running here in the build up to the festival. It’s your chance to find out a little bit more about the speakers who will be at LSWF and go deeper than just a regular bio.

First up it’s writer-director Jonathan Newman, who has become one of the UK’s most exciting filmmakers after twice turning his own short films into hugely successful features: “Swinging With The Finkels” starring Martin Freeman (The Office, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy) and Mandy Moore (Chasing Liberty, Southland Tales) and “Foster” with Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense), Ioan Gruffordd (Fantastic Four), Richard E Grant (Withnail & I, Jack and Sarah) and Hayley Mills (Pollyanna, The Parent Trap).

You can read his bio on the main site, but to delve a little deeper, click through to his Q&A:

Q: What was your favourite film as a kid?

A: I hate to be a cliche, but it was ET.   I was 10 when that came out and it had a profound effect on me.  Retrospectively, it was probably the first time I was genuinely moved to tears by a piece of cinema.  I could watch it today and still bawl my eyes out.  When the story, the image and the music all come together perfectly, magic happens.

Q: Who inspired you when you were starting out?

A: On a personal level, I always find the success of my friends inspirational.  Oscar WIlde famously said “Every time a friend of mine succeeds a little piece of me dies”.  While other’s success may be hard to stomach, I find it motivates me to work harder to reach my goals and be the best I can be.

On a professional level I have always found Spielberg to be my creative inspiration.  His capacity to tell a human story that carries the viewer on a rounded emotional journey that both moves you and makes you laugh is what filmmaking is all about for me – to really engage and make that journey along with the film’s hero. That’s the magic of film.  Along with Robert Zemekis, those two have made some of my favorite films

Q: What was your big break?

A: Probably meeting my current producing partner.  He had seen my body of work and was willing and committed to making the journey with me in the feature world.

Having said that, getting the break was really a culmination of my work to date.  An accumulation of short films, awards, commercials, and honing of my craft all contributed to the break.  You cannot have a break if you do not have substance to back up your style.

Q: What was the best day in your career?

The day that Peter Farrelly (director of “There’s Something About Mary”) called me up while I was walking in Cricklewood and told me he was profoundly moved by my short film FOSTER and would I like to discuss working with him!

It never happened with Pete but the film did get made, and I suppose the second best day is getting such an incredible cast for the feature film (Toni Collette, Ioan Gruffud, Richard E Grant and Hayley Mills).  I feel very lucky that I was able to make the film I wanted to make.

Q: What has been your most important lesson?

A: Two: Script and Cast.

Script… because you can’t go back and fix it when you realise it is broken (unless you have VERY deep pockets for reshoots).  I can’t emphasize enough the importance of script development.  Actively seek constructive criticism.  Listen when more than one person tells you the same thing about your script.

Cast… because getting it wrong can tell a different story than the one you intended to tell. 

Q: If a niece or nephew wanted to be in the business, what would you advise them?

A: Go to law school.

No seriously, if you really want to embark on the long hard road to filmmaking, know that it may never happen for you.  But if you are driven, and it is your dream, and you work hard and you are good, then dreams can come true.

I would advise that they make as many short films as they can as a means to learning the craft.  Work on a film set.  Start early. Oh… and just make sure you have a day job.

Q: What is the hardest part of your job and how do you overcome it?

A: As a writer… coming up with a great fresh story that doesn’t feel derivative of something else.

As a director, probably not having enough time or money and learning how to budget and schedule your time given the limitations of both.  On a properly structured film where everyone is getting paid, it is my job to balance the day and make sure I have the coverage I need for the scene, but not overdo it so that I don’t get something I was scheduled to shoot that day. So trying to maintain a very high standard while making those compromises is the challenge.

Q: What do you feel is a writer’s or filmmaker’s key responsibility?

A: A writer’s key responsibility is to the core creative team.  It is less important to win every battle but more important to win the war.  Work with your director and producer and be open minded to criticism and making the script the best it can be. That script should not enter production until you have rigorously put it through its paces. Your key responsibility it is to keep working at it, even when you don’t want to…

To the director, working with your producer and remaining open-minded to the creative process.  Test your film and listen to your audience.  If they all feel the same they are right.

Q: What mistakes do you see emerging writers or filmmakers making over and over?

A: You will notice a theme here… but the mistake is virtually always a lack of script development… poor and amateurish execution of a script no one wants to see in the first place.  Lack of character development, thought and originality.

Bad acting is always another one and the telltale sign of a low budget film.

Lack of coverage.

Bad music.

Not understanding the audience and therefore making a film no one wants to see because there is no market for it.

Q: What advice would you offer an emerging writer or filmmaker?

A: As a writer I would advise you to not put all your eggs into one basket.  Have multiple projects with different producers.  Do not get too emotionally attached to one project and you will not be so disappointed when it does not get made.

As a filmmaker, if nothing is happening for you, continue to generate your own work and your own opportunities. Make short films, enter festivals, and when it is done, do it again.  Do not wait for the world to come your way.  Go to the world.

NEXT TIME ON “BEYOND THE BIO”: writer Lisa Holdsworth who counts “Fat Friends”, “Emmerdale” and “New Tricks” among her many writing credits in the British TV Industry.  View her bio here.


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