Interview With Director / Producer Will Thorne, Part One: ‘One Man & His Shoes’
With the London Film Festival now over, there has been ample time to digest its slate of movies and consider which were the best and which might fade quickly into the ether. Although documentaries such as The Painter & the Thief and Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets might be considered the cream of the crop this year, it would be wise to pay attention to Yemi Bamiro’s One Man & His Shoes. The debut from Bamiro covers the incredible topic of the rise of the Air Jordan sneakers and the impact they had on culture and society. It’s a truly captivating story which inexplicably hasn’t had much attention until now.
While Bamiro was the director, he couldn’t have made One Man & His Shoes without Will Thorne. Thorne made his name in the British TV industry before founding Break Em Films in 2013; the intent was to create new content Thorne himself could be in control of. Projects are done his way. This lead to his involvement with Bamiro – a longtime friend – and One Man & His Shoes, which Thorne produced. He would later go on to make his directorial debut with Silent Night, a gangster movie starring Bradley Taylor, Frank Harper, and Joel Fry.
When I speak with Thorne over the phone from his home in Berlin, he is remarkably frank and affable, laidback and a pleasure to speak with. “I like to talk”, he laughs, and he proves it over the course of our conversation, which flows easily, covering his experiences of One Man & His Shoes as well as his friendship with Yemi Bamiro and his thoughts on the British film industry.
Daryl MacDonald For InSession Film: So how did you get involved with One Man & His Shoes?
Will Thorne: I knew Yemi from working in TV together. We were both producing and directing a music show for the BBC around 2010, and we got matey. We would chat films all the time, you know. We both just wanted to make films. Then I set up my company in 2013, which was around the same time Yemi made the short film for One Man & His Shoes. We would chat about it and so I said “I’d love to produce this for you”. I didn’t then know it was going to laugh six years to make! (laughs).
Wow, it took six years to make?
Will Thorne: Yeah! Well, I came on board in 2014 after he made the short in 2013. Cut forward to 2020 and it finally comes out!
Is it normal for projects to take that long to get made?
Will Thorne: Well, I think it was a few things. You know, Yemi being a first time director, me being a first time producer – you don’t have a trusty pair of hands there and I hadn’t directed my first feature yet -, and I think a lot of people loved the idea, but they looked at it and thought it was a bit too big, a bit too risky to get involved in making it with us. Also it was an expensive film. It was always going to be an expensive film because we knew it was going to be stuffed with archives, and originally we had this soundtrack that would’ve cost millions (laughs), so we worked with a composer to bring those costs down, but it was always going to be an expensive film and we were unknowns then, and so that didn’t help.
It’s a story that you hear over and over again in documentary filmmaking. In the UK it’s pretty bleak as far as funding and support goes, you know. Getting money to make a feature documentary is nigh on impossible basically. So you just have to make it, which is what we did. We would go off and shoot some interviews, come back and edit some material. We just kept building and building, just not giving up. Each year we just chipped away at it more and more. When we got to the final stretch we could show people a 60 minute film and say “we need some help to get the last 10 minutes” and that’s when people turned around and said “oh okay, we’ll help you now!” (laughs).
Why do you think it’s so difficult to get documentaries made in the UK?
Will Thorne: It’s a mixture of things. From a producer’s point of view, if you’re trying to make a narrative feature film you know what it’s going to be like from the start. I can say “I’ve got Brad Pitt and it’s a romantic comedy” and you know we can get the money, shoot it over two months, and at the end of it – whether it’s good or bad – we will have a romantic comedy with Brad Pitt. People can go and sell that product.
With a documentary, you don’t really know what you’re going to get. You have less control. You don’t have a solid script, necessarily. You can go do a bunch of interviews with people who might be a star name, and that could help you sell the film, but if they don’t give you a good interview or they don’t give you the right stuff then you’re back to square one. This is just what I think, but they’re so much more risky. If you want to come in at an earlier stage (of production) it’s harder to know what the final product will be.
Even if you get to the end, there’s less money to be made. It’s a hard business model, you know? So it’s hard to raise money for that because no one wants to lose their money on some documentary that can’t get sold. You wouldn’t believe how many times we got told this project was niche. And you’re thinking “niche? But it’s about Air Jordans! One of the biggest sporting brands in the world!”
So yeah, you hear all sorts of reasons why people don’t want to get involved and why you can’t get money.
So most projects need to be self-funded in that case? At least until you have enough footage to show people?
Will Thorne: Or private investors. We got told that. Yemi had a conversation with the people at Channel 4 and they were like “don’t you know any rich people?” It says a lot about the industry and about what sort of class and background you have to come from, because (you’re) expected to go and make it yourself using your own money or get a rich mate to fund it.
It falls to filmmakers to fund and make their own films and therefore it’s very hard for us to just turn up and make it for ourselves. So that’s why it took so long! (laughs).
There has been a lot of conversation over the last few years about class issues within the film industry. It feels like there’s a barrier for the working class to stop them getting into these fields.
Will Thorne: Yeah there used to be a lot more working class actors, but the industry is in London and if you have to sit on your arse and not get paid for 9 months of the year, then how are you paying your rent? It makes sense, right? Even if you look at the BFI (the British Film Institute, a charitable organization which funds film projects), it’s sort of an elitist system. They fund and support emerging filmmakers but route one to do that is (they look at) who’s coming out of NFTS (National Film & Television School, one of the top media schools in the UK), where you need to spend £30,000 just to attend that school.
Maybe I’m making generalizations. I don’t know all of those people who go through that system or that school and perhaps there’s grants, but it comes down to (the fact that) a lot of the time you’re out of work or to get into some of the higher institutions you need money to get you through and support you.
When me and Yemi met, we were jobbing. That’s how we made this film. We would work and then three or four months later we would’ve earned some money to take a month off and fly Yemi across to the US and stay in a shit motel, knock off a couple of interviews and then come back. Then we have to put the project down again because we have to go off and make money again. It’s not easy.
You’re very forthright about it. Usually, when I speak to people, they’re reluctant to discuss it. It feels like a very political thing, no one wants to touch it.
Will Thorne: It is. I go back to, say, the actor example. You have a lot of working class actors, people that are talented, getting squeezed out. You end up with just a hundred guys like Benedict Cumberbatch going “o, cor blimey guv!” or whatever (laughs).
I will caveat that I fully understand why the BFI would instantly go to the NFTS and cherry-pick these people to work with. It’s just the system, it’s a numbers game. But it’s a bit of rigged game because if you’re more financially secure you’re able to play the game and be on the field and if you’re not financially secure then you’re gonna have to take the long route.
In a way, that ties in with One Man & His Shoes. It talks of the cultural impact that these shoes had and how clever the marketing was. And then it pivots to discuss the darker aspects of Air Jordans. It was a class issue. I mean, people were dying for these shoes. How did Yemi manage to condense all of that?
Will Thorne: That’s a good question. As a producer the fact it took so long to get made was frustrating, but one of the natural positives from that was that Yemi and Michael (Marden, the film editor) had more time in the edit to play with this stuff. It was a bit of a tightrope walk to get everything in, tonally.
When it came to the end and we managed to find the money to get us over the line, that was when they really did the edit. By then it was very evident what was strong. With documentaries you have to listen to the material you have; you go off, you film some stuff, you come back and go “right, where’s the gold?”
Coming back to it after 6 months and taking a look at the project again, there was some stuff that was always just hitting. That probably helped us get so many stories – thirty years worth – across, and be able to put it in the right places, to make sure we’re saying enough about something before moving on and not getting too bogged down in it.
From my point of view, Yemi and Michael did an absolutely great job of bringing it together. They really pulled it off!
There was some controversy at the time over the deaths and Jordan’s lack of involvement. Did you guys find you had pushback from people when you tried to discuss this stuff?
Will Thorne: Well, we made the decision fairly early on that we’re not here to answer these questions because it’s not black and white. It’s a very complex thing. We would’ve sent ourselves under if we had tried to find an answer for these things. It was more about laying out the story and the facts.
Yemi always wanted to tell the story of this brand. Whether that meant warts-and-all, he just wanted to lay it all out. That was a good roadmap because nothing in the film is really a revelation. It’s all in the public domain. All of this stuff is out there. And yeah, MJ was criticised at the time and has been again over the years, but these sneakers still get released once or twice a year and you get the same furore. All of this stuff just keeps happening over and over again.
It’s a tricky subject because it’s not necessarily MJ’s fault. If you look below the surface, our film is about Capitalism, it’s about marketing. It’s about the way the world works. People will rob other stuff, other things.
We wanted to ask questions, let people discuss them, and see both sides of it. The brand has so many tentacles into cultural and social issues. There’s so much around it, so let’s go in and talk about it and not necessarily make our conclusions but allow the audience make their conclusions about whether more should be done.
Did Michael Jordan ever watch it? Did you ever hear anything from him?
Will Thorne: We did go to Jordan himself but we never got a response. Yemi said MJ’s son was Tweeting about it or something. I would be very surprised if someone somewhere hasn’t watched the film.
We came to this as fans of Air Jordans. That was our entry point: there’s this thing that has this magical aura to it, and isn’t it crazy that no one’s ever made a film about that? Isn’t it crazy that thirty years later it still has that aura, to the point where people do crazy stuff over it and it’s a billion-dollar industry?
So, yeah, I hope that they watch it and go “you know, actually it’s a pretty good movie!” (laughs). I mean, look, obviously we don’t shy away from any side of this story, but there’s a lot of celebration in there. These aren’t just brand names, these are people. Jordan was the first African-American to have done what he did, and that’s amazing.
The Last Dance came out on Netflix early this year. Did that have any kind of impact on One Man & His Shoes?
Will Thorne: Well, we were due to have a Saturday night world premiere at South By Southwest. Red carpet, the lot (laughs), we all had plane tickets, we were all going to Austin. It was like “okay guys, we did it!” Then the week we were about to fly out, Covid hit and like everyone else, we had the rug pulled. South by Southwest was cancelled. At that point we didn’t have anyone attached, we didn’t have anything. We were just a bunch of indie filmmakers who had made a film and managed to get it into a festival. That was our shop window.
And as I understand it The Last Dance was scheduled around now, later in the year, and then all these sports fans who had had their sports cancelled got on to ESPN and told them they needed to release it now. So they actually moved The Last Dance forward by about six months or something, and as we sat there with our last decade of work in complete tatters (laughs) all of a sudden The Last Dance was on Netflix! That was when Vice in the US caught wind of our film and were like “we want this to release after the last episode of The Last Dance“.
It was kind of funny because the film wasn’t completely polished, and then all of a sudden we had someone come in and say “we want this out immediately” so we had a crazy month where we polished everything up and then it went out on Vice. So The Last Dance a thousand percent helped us sell the film in the US off the back of that.
In way Covid completely hobbled us and then completely helped elevate us! (laughs)
Do you think the story of Air Jordans is something that translates to the UK? It feels like a very American thing, I wasn’t aware of it at all until I saw the movie. Is there an audience for it on this side of the pond?
Will Thorne: Well, how old are you?
Will Thorne: 31, okay. I just turned 40 and me, Yemi, and Michael were in the prime age for British people to have caught it. Brits are (soccer) fans, we don’t get basketball over here, but there was this moment where Michael Jordan was Pele, he was Maradona, you know what I mean? He was Usain Bolt. It’s like Messi now, you know, like “wow, this person is superhuman”.
We were at the right for that whole David Stern thing to happen, where he did for the NBA what Sky did for the Premiership and brand Jordan just went viral. There were these cultural things happening that got us at the right age, where we just knew “okay, that’s the coolest thing in America right now” and like any Brit if that’s the coolest thing in America right now, then that’s the coolest thing.
I think maybe that’s why we had trouble when we were pitching it in the UK. Like I said at the start, I didn’t understand why people weren’t jumping on this. It was so obvious. It was like saying “has anyone ever made a documentary about Ferrari? No? Well let’s do it then!” You know? It just seemed like a nailed on idea. If you could find more people like us, who knew its importance, then you knew you had an audience.
So there’s an audience in Britain for it. Are there cultural similarities between the UK and US which would’ve helped it along?
Will Thorne: 100% yeah. Funnily enough, a few years ago I was working a gig and I had a runner. He was about twenty or something and I was telling him about the project. He obviously knew about the sneakers but he had never made the connection between MJ and the Air Jordan brand because he just wasn’t from that time.
So that brand exists here – I mean, you walk into any Footlocker in the UK and you’ll see a massive Jordan section -, and we all know the brand. Whether you’re in the US, Europe, the UK, it’s exactly the same thing, it’s a status symbol. You’re walking around with the most expensive shoes on your feet, and that translates to every culture. And like that runner, they know enough about Air Jordans to want to watch the movie and it’s gonna blow their mind because they’re gonna be like “wow, this guy can fly through the air!”
We knew it had an audience in the UK because you’ve got people like (UK rapper) Tiny Tempah walking around in Air Jordans, you’ve got popstars wearing them. It’s in the cultural conversation, even if it’s not from our country.
The whole Air Jordans craze passed me by obviously, but I read One Man & His Shoes as a warning against the dangers of excess in Capitalism. It translates to lots of things beyond shoes.
Will Thorne: Yeah, exactly. It’s a way into looking at how we all live, and how the world works. I mean, my 75-year-old mother watched it – more out of duty than anything! – and stayed till the end because she thought it was fascinating. You don’t have to be into basketball or wear Air Jordans to appreciate it.