Benjamin Johns – Talks Traveller

In Features by Janet Leigh

Since being cherry picked to produce a film straight out of university in ’97 director Benjamin Johns has gone on to bigger and better things. He’s worked with the likes of Hugh Bonneville and Robert Hardy. His short film Candy Bar Kid even earned him a BAFTA nomination, but how much do we really know about him? To celebrate the DVD release of his latest work, Traveller, Janet Leigh gets the skinny on Mr Johns.

There’s not much written about you online, can you tell FilmJuice readers a little about yourself?
Well, I’ve been making films pretty much since leaving university. My career really splits in to two – one half is producing. I’ve worked on documentaries, TV commercials and drama. I also produced some short films. The second half of the career focuses on directing. I’ve directed some documentaries. One in particular, Nuestro Abuelo, was really well received. That is the last big documentary I did and then of course short films.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the wonderful West Country in Wiltshire.

How did you get into film?
I started acting in plays at five and all throughout school. My degree was in theatre and performing arts. There was a filmmaking module in the last year of my course where you could make a film with a client. We made a documentary0based film and I was the producer. The clients were very, very pleased. Then they asked me if I wanted to make a film on a similar subject and that was well received too. It was my first commission. That then led to other films on a similar topic and then I moved more into television and documentaries.

So, has film always been something you were really into?
The plan had been to pursue acting and then later on move into filmmaking but it just so happened that it all switched round. I got the filmmaking bug.

Do you remember any of the plays you acted in as a youngster?
Yeah, George And the Dragon. (Laughs) I was George. That was probably the first one I remember.

Moving on to the Traveller, how did you get involved with the movie?
I got introduced to the writer, John McDonald, when the project was in the early stages. I read a draft of the script and I really liked it. It really resonated with me. In fact I’d been considering doing a documentary on Gypsies and Travellers and had already done some research into that. The project was looking for a director and they really liked my work so I was sort of in the frame for it. Then I got the job.

What was it about the script that drew you to it?
It was the story of McBride and his journey as someone being on the outside. Events around him unfold and he has to deal with the consequences of his actions.

So would you say it was compelling?
Yes. It’s a strong journey to go on.

What was it like working on the movie?
(Laughs) It was hard work and long hours. We were shooting for eight weeks and it was very intense but I really enjoyed it. I was in my element. I grew so much through that time.

In what way did you grow?
I learnt a lot in terms of my abilities as a director. Your first feature film is a huge learning curb and so you develop a lot – your skills and techniques of working with actors. You grow in confidence. Everyday is a learning experience.

What was the atmosphere like on set?
I always keep a very positive and upbeat atmosphere and I like my head of department to do the same. In that first week we particularly needed for our lead [Billy Cook] – because it was his first film, as you know – to step up to the mark and for everything to work and for him to be comfortable. Had that not happened at the end of the first week we’d have all had to pack up and go home. So it was ambitious but the atmosphere was very positive and at the end of the first week when we realised that we had something that was working everyone was really excited and inspired.

How did you find working with David Essex and Billy Cook?
Great. We had a very positive relationship. I had quite a lot of prep time with Billy on character development work. He just has this raw talent, which was great. David really got into the character of Blackberry and of course he brought to the table his experience – his Traveller family history … I think it was his grandmother or grandfather. We had a really good time. I can remember lots of light-hearted moments in between filming.

What was your most memorable on set experience?
There were quite a few. Probably, when we got the big horseracing scene in the can. We spent two days on it and it was very tricky to do. That was a great sense of achievement. It was very memorable.

Being such a sensitive subject were you worried about stereotyping?
I was very much aware of how Travellers are generally portrayed in the media and I didn’t want to just play to the stereotype. I had spent quite a bit of time in the development stage, immersing myself in a community of Travellers. Building relationships with them and them getting to know me, taking me to different events and experiencing the life. Hopefully that translated into the film.

And what was it like to experience the Travellers’ lifestyle?
It was fascinating. I really enjoyed it.

Did you take anything away from that experience?
Yeah. Overall Travellers are often misinterpreted and portrayed in a very general way but they’re so different. You have the English Travellers and the Irish Travellers and the Irish Travellers are quite different in the way they lead their lives to the English Travellers. You’ve got documentaries that are incredibly popular like My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding but that just shows some very specific facets of the Traveller life and it focuses much more on the Irish Travellers. There are aspects of their lives that they want to maintain and keep for future generations but they’re sort of under threat if you like. They’re still, in general, the part of society that’s on the outside. Which is sad to see in this day and age. In many ways they’re misunderstood.

In what way are the English Travellers different from the Irish Travellers?
There’s always an exception to the rule but generally, they have a code of conduct that the Irish Travellers don’t really live by. The English Travellers want to preserve some of the traditional ways of life, more than the Irish Travellers.

If you were going to try and persuade people to buy the Traveller DVD what would you say?
It’s a really exciting and interesting journey to go on. I think they’ll be entertained and moved by it.

What’s next for you?
Well I’m in the process of casting and finalising my next feature film, which will hopefully be shooting this summer in Canada.

What’s it called?
The Mud Hut. It’s a Comedy drama set in Detroit about a Nigerian woman who moves with her family to Detroit. They live in a mainly white area and she decides to build a full-scale traditional mud hut in her back garden, which is much to the dislike of her neighbours. They then start a campaign against her and try to get her to take down the mud hut but she stands up to everyone and is determined to build it. It’s a really strong piece.

And have you got your eye on anyone to cast?
Yeah, we’re in the throws of that at the moment. We should be announcing that in the press soon.

Traveller, an action-packed tale of violence, corruption and the little known world of the Traveller community starring David Essex and Billy Cook comes to DVD on 2th7 January from Metrodome Distibution.