Interview With Director / Producer Will Thorne, Part Two: ‘Silent Night’.
Will Thorne’s directorial debut Silent Night is that most unusual of genre mixes: a Christmas gangster thriller. It is a typically wry effort which takes some unexpected twists and turns and keeps the viewer on edge throughout. While most British gangster films will suffer the inevitable comparisons to Guy Ritchie, Thorne’s influences seem to come from elsewhere. Silent Night is a dark, absurdist, psychological spin on a genre which has plenty of champions in Britain.
Mark (played by Bradley Taylor) is an ex-con recently released from prison who’s trying to go straight. He’s determined to be there for his daughter Daisy. Unfortunately, Mark has no money and is living out of his van. To try to earn a crust, he takes a job cutting down trees for Christmas. It’s in this job that he runs into his old cellmate Alan (Cary Crankson) who offers him the opportunity for one last job and revenge against the crime syndicate which put him behind bars in the first place. Mark reluctantly takes on the job, but nothing goes according to plan…
InSession Film recently sat down with Will Thorne to discuss Silent Night. Throughout our discussion, we chat about many things from the state of the British film industry, the popularity of gangster movies, and the importance of cranberry in a Christmas meal.
Daryl MacDonald for InSession Film: So Silent Night was produced by your own company Break Em Films, right? Is this the first movie for them?
Will Thorne: Yes, exactly. I started the company in 2013 and made one or two shorts, then I got commissioned to do a bunch of music videos for Universal. I always had the intention to do features – that was always the goal – but I believed that I had to have a bit of a portfolio to show people I’m competent.
I just wanted to learn, you know. I wanted to complete some stuff on a smaller basis and then move up a little bit. Sometimes I do look back and think perhaps I should’ve just gone straight after the features!
You wrote the script for Silent Night. How long did it take you from writing the script to rolling the cameras?
Will Thorne: Well, at the end of 2013 we got a feature script in development with Nat (actor Nathaniel Martello-White, who plays Pete in Silent Night) and Joel (actor Joel Frye, who plays Seamus) and that went on for about 18 months and in the end went into turnaround. I really wanted to direct a script and when something like that happens, you’re left with nothing. So I thought “okay, if I write something, then it’s in my control. I can see it through”.
At the time we were working on another project that was high concept, a bit of a high budget, and that maybe wasn’t good for a first feature. So I put that on the shelf to go write something that was super low-to-no budget that I could go and make myself. Like, if I have to put the camera on my shoulder and go film this thing, I’m going to do it.
Like real guerilla filmmaking sort of thing?
Will Thorne: Yeah, that’s where a lot of the white van stuff comes from you know? It’s just two guys in a white van. We can buy a white van and drive it around (laughs). I didn’t think through the fact they would have to drive to other locations though! There’s a lot of locations in the film which is a bit of a logistical nightmare and can actually push the budget up!
Was that the whole point of Break Em Films? To give you control over your own projects so you can see them through to the end?
Will Thorne: Yeah, basically. I started working in film and TV back in 2004, so I’ve been working in and around the industry for a long time. But you’re always working for someone else, and someone else always has final edit. You can have a producer above you, or an executive producer, you can have a TV Commissioner above you, and that means you can work on something really hard for a long time and what you see at the end of it isn’t something you want to stand by, to be honest! (laughs).
So Break Em Films was all about control and taking the bull by the horns and trusting our own instincts. That was part of the point of trying to do shorts and make a portfolio. I knew I’d have to find money and investors and I wanted to show that we had a body of work and that we could step up and do a feature.
So you finally got a chance to direct a feature with Silent Night. How different was that to everything you’d done before?
Will Thorne: It was great! I had dreamt of making a feature film since I was about 14, so it was a dream come true. I loved every moment of it. In TV I had done a lot of producing or directing work where I’m the cameraman, I’m the sound man, I’m the first AD. I do everything, basically. So to walk onto a set and have a cinematographer come up to me and go “how do you want that to look?” to be honest with you was a lot easier! (laughs). I had a team, you know. You need a team to make something look good, which is what I’m really happy about with Silent Night; we had a good team.
So yeah, it was an absolute joy. I just loved it. I called in every favor and every person I knew to make it! One of the locations is in my mate’s mum’s house, another location was my mate’s house. We shot in my mum’s house, we shot in my dad’s house, we shot at the local golf course where we used to get drunk as teenagers (laughs). We shot in the old library. It was all shot in and around Sutton, which is where I grew up. So I knew the locations and I could just drive around and knock on doors and say “hey I’m from around the corner, can we use your house”. There was some really weird meta moments where we’d have a really long day shooting and everyone would leave and I’d still be there mopping my dad’s floor because I was worried he’d be annoyed! (laughs).
Sounds like a really personal experience, having your family involved and the place you grew up. Did that have an influence on the movie, in the end?
Will Thorne: Yeah, I think so. The story isn’t necessarily personal, I don’t know that many hitmen (laughs), but how we actually made it was. I basically took 3 months off work and drove around finding locations. It was weird because I hadn’t lived in Sutton in a long time.
The end credits basically read like a who’s who of people I know and pulled a favour from! Brad’s older brother is my best mate, I’ve known him for a long time, and Brad went to the Brit School (a Performing Arts school in Croydon) when he was sixteen and met Cary (Crankson, who plays Alan) and Joel (Frye, who plays Seamus). And they’ve been mates ever since then. So I knew them by proxy. Angela (Terence, who plays Mark’s ex Julia) went to the Brit School as well, so they all knew her.
So it was like a real coming home experience.
Will Thorne: 100% yeah, and because I’d made a short film with Cary, and I’d made a short film with Bradley, and then again with Joel and Nat and they all knew each other from acting school, it felt a bit like the Avengers (laughs). We’re all in this one! I know for them it felt a bit of a trip to be on set working together on something.
Basically, if you’ve got no money and you’re just relying on a lot of goodwill and lot of favors, then the first place you go to is friends and family.
Originally in the script, Mark lived in somewhere like a garage, but I went past this location once and I could see rusted, burnt-out cars and pylons and I thought “wow, that looks epic”. So it took me a while to find out who owned it, and it turned out it was a landfill run by a garbage company. After a very long process I got through to the right guy on the phone and we agreed to meet and talk about it. So we meet him and do a site visit and I’m pitching the project to him and I tell him I lived in Sutton and he goes “yeah, me too. Where did you live?” I said, “I grew up in Belmont”. He goes “So did I! Whereabouts?”, I said “in the Crescent”, he goes “So did I!” (laughs). So he said I could have the location, didn’t have to pay for it, just to help me out. I think by doing local area stuff, things that came together and went in my favor.
Coming back to the cast, I was really impressed with who you got. Joel Fry, for instance, is up and coming now.
Will Thorne: Yeah, and Nat was in the Steve McQueen thing that was on the BBC recently.
Oh, yeah! Mangrove, right?
Will Thorne: I think so, yeah. I haven’t seen it but I was told there’s one he was a main character. And Joel, yeah, he’s doing great. Love Wedding Repeat was a big hit when we were all in lockdown and then he’s gonna be in Cruella, that big Disney prequel. When we were making Silent Night I lived about 50 yards from him so I’d sometimes drive him to set in the white van (laughs). He’s one of those people who’s just “got it”, you know? And I think his role in Silent Night was quite hard because he was doing comedy which he’s known for and good at but he also had to be a bit menacing. There had to be a kind of vibe to him, an undercurrent, which I think he pulled off.
Was it difficult to get him involved? I imagine he must have been really busy with all the stuff he was doing at the time.
Will Thorne: The thing was, we shot it in winter. Everyone’s basically out of work in December/January. A lot of shoots happen in the summer because of light, so because all the work dries up, everything shuts down and doesn’t really get going again until February.
The honest answer is we got lucky he wasn’t booked on other jobs. It wasn’t too bad. I think Joel and Nat probably only did about three days!
You also got Frank Harper. That guy’s kind of like British gangster royalty in a way. He’s been in tons of movies.
Will Thorne: Yeah! And actually, this was sort of his comeback movie. We were quite honored. I don’t know exactly how long he took a break for, but he hadn’t actually done anything in a good few years. I’d always had him in mind when I was writing the script, he was the reference point for Caddy, so I knew whenever we came to it we’d have to knock on his door.
I’d done a visual document where I referenced Shane Meadows, which Frank’s been in a few of his films. I think I even put a photo of him in a Shane Meadows film in the visual document (laughs), and we sent that off. When I met him for the first time I asked him what drew him to the project and he said the fact I mentioned Shane Meadows boded well!
So I take it you’re a big fan of Christmas movies?
Will Thorne: Yeah, I am! I’ve always liked the vibe. It’s a good month where people let their hair down and you get to see old mates, and naturally, you just click on a bunch of films every year to get into that Christmas feeling, and if you can make a little cult Christmas film that people can get that vibe from, then you could make something that people revisit and watch. It adds a bit of extra value.
I can’t remember when or why I made Silent Night a Christmas movie. I think it was probably the sheer desperation of knowing that I’m definitely making this one, so why not chuck everything and the kitchen sink into it? (laughs). Let’s make it a Christmas hitman movie!
I’ve watched a million gangster movies and I can’t remember one being set at Christmas. Was that something you were conscious of?
Will Thorne: There must be! Someone must have done it! I wasn’t trying to trailblaze that, but I always knew that I wanted to make something that was a bit tongue-in-cheek. There’s a sort of underlying wink at the audience a little bit. You have a get-out clause there. You can just sit back and be entertained by this, you know, don’t take it too seriously. I want you to buy into it, but you can also just enjoy this thing.
You know, when something dark’s happening in the film there’s a juxtaposition; you could be cutting someone’s hand off and then there’s a jolly Christmas situation happening. I think, tonally, for me, that seemed like it could be a good idea. Like the Christmas dinner scene, that was always supposed to be moody and dark, with shenanigans going on. And they’re sitting there and there’s a big turkey, you know? It’s ridiculous. Bradley used to call it absurd (laughs), and it is a bit absurd, which I think bleeds into finding interesting things to do with it.
You mentioned Shane Meadows earlier, who’s one of my favorite filmmakers. What kind of influences did you have when you were making Silent Night?
Will Thorne: Yeah, I’m actually really influenced by the Coen brothers. In their very first film Blood Simple there was a torture scene, and I just sort of nicked that (laughs). It was very inspired by that, although I don’t pull it off to the level that they did. It goes back to the absurd thing; I love it in Blood Simple where he’s got the gun and the broken finger, so he can’t shoot him. You take people really dark places and just went something’s about to happen there’s a little gag.
So yeah, I wanted to make something that was similar to them. There was stuff that didn’t make the cut because it was too long, which was more about social realism, but I did want it to be a bit more classical in the way we shot it. I wanted that gloss, I wanted it to really feel like a movie.
The thing about Shane Meadows is that I’d always recognize that UK look (in his films). It always looked a bit grim, a bit concrete, and even if it wasn’t where I was from, I’d recognize it. Sometimes when I watch other British films I don’t always recognize it. It seems too heightened. I wanted to make something that felt like, if you’re watching it in Sheffield you’re not just seeing people in old London or the East End, it could be anywhere. I wanted it to feel British in a way.
Yeah, I get what you mean. A lot of British movies I watch have elements that don’t exist in the world I live in. There aren’t many British movies that feel relatable on a working-class level, I think.
Will Thorne: Exactly. There’s almost a stigma against British gangster films. They’re sort of looked down upon by the establishment, and ironically they get some of the strongest audiences in the UK. I wanted to make sure I respected that and those audiences, and give them what they would want.
But I also wanted to make something that felt realistic and would be recognizable, even if we were shooting quite stylistically. I wanted it to feel like a real world. It was definitely a challenge getting the tone right, and deciding where we were pushing things too far or not enough, but for me the main thing was getting people that felt real, with dialogue that felt real. Where you could go “yeah, I know some guys like that”. They don’t have to be wearing suits, they could just be people that are on their arse who are maybe in the wrong situation.
It strikes me as a class thing. Those kind of crime movies have a lot of working-class actors, directors, producers, whereas on big-budget movies that’s not always the case.
Will Thorne: Yeah, and I feel like it’s an authenticity thing, you know? You write what you know – and again, I’m not a criminal (laughs) – but I could make these guys talk, and could you believe it. I could put a few mates together and those relationships are still the same.
You go back to what’s the easiest thing to achieve authentically. I’d love to make a sci-fi thriller, but I’m gonna have to go off and learn a bunch of space shit (laughs). This felt like, I can go buy a white transit van and we can go off and shoot around the corner. And as long as I put care and effort into how that’s done, then it’ll work. So maybe people from different classes shy away from that stuff because they aren’t authentic or perhaps they just never get the call.
You mentioned that crime movies have some of the strongest audiences in the UK. Why do you think that is?
Will Thorne: It’s a really good question. I think it’s to do with underdogs. In a weird way. We love an underdog and most of the time that’s how these people are positioned; they’ve got a big job they need to pull off. There’s something about that. My dad was a copper, and he always had crime books and I think I was naturally drawn to crime films and thrillers. I knew there was a massive audience for British gangster films, so if I make one I’m going to give myself a better opportunity to get distributed. It was a very tactical choice to do that.
There’s also inherent drama in crime. The stakes are high. That’s quite an easy thing to tap into, like “oh a big bag of money’s gone missing! Oh, fuck!”
I heard someone from Signature, who distribute a lot of stuff like this, say that it’s escapism. And I think If you’ve had a tough life and you’re from a lower class, and you see people pulling themselves out – like a sort of Robin Hood thing – then there’s escapism from that situation.
It is interesting. I don’t know the psychology or why there’s a huge audience for it, but it is there!
I want to come back to that high concept project you mentioned earlier. Can you tell me more about that?
Will Thorne: Well that kind of went to the wayside, but there is another film I wanted to do before this. I hope Silent Nights shows that I can do it and perhaps I can jump up and get a better budget. It’s about a guy who returns to London because his brother killed himself and he wants to find out what’s going on. I’m still working on it now.
Reminds me of Dead Man’s Shoes.
Will Thorne: Dead Man’s Shoes is a great revenge film! This is a kind of a London underground thriller, you know, someone going around being a detective. Bradley’s working on a script that’s about a murderer as well. It’s all these films about crime and murder!
Like you said, there’s a lot of tension! Like in Silent Night where the police officer approaches them in the van.
Will Thorne: Well for Silent Night I originally wanted to do something where it’s just these guys driving around with bodies stacking up in the van! (laughs). But it was all a bit one-note and didn’t quite work. It could’ve gone down a whole torture thing in the back of the van. But always it was going to be that they’ve got to get a knock on the window by a policeman!
Back to Silent Night, there’s a lot of interesting twists and turns. Did you know what you wanted to do from the outset?
Will Thorne: Well, there was always two guys in the van sort of bouncing off each other. A lot of the film is about their relationship, and how a lot of Mark’s character development comes from Alan in a way. It was always those two guys together.
I’ve got one last question: how important is cranberry sauce to a Christmas meal?
Will Thorne: (laughs). It’s funny because when he first did it Nat was like “this succulent line is a bit funny” but we had to have it in there! The whole thing would’ve fallen apart otherwise!
He made it work though!
Will Thorne: Yeah definitely, with Joel and Nat they had to play this kind of vibe where they’re mates but they could fuck you over. Perhaps you’ve come across this as well, but when you’re a teenager and you’re growing up you meet people who’re like mates, and then the next thing you know they switch, and you can’t quite trust them.
I know people like that, yeah. You’re not sure what they’ll do at any given moment.
Will Thorne: Exactly that. People who you think are your friends can also switch, and that’s really the vibe I wanted for the film.
Silent Night is out now on Digital and VOD.