An extraordinary drive

George Jaques and Ken Petrie on Black Dog

by Jennie Kermode

Black Dog
Black Dog

George Jaques is 23. Already a star, whom you may be familiar with from The Serpent Queen and A Town Called Malice, he’s now branching out into feature directing, and doing so with the kind of confidence most people don’t acquire until their forties. It’s a confidence that shows onscreen and in his writing, and it’s accompanied by shrewd insight into the experiences of his generation and the world at large.

Recently screened at the Glasgow Film Festival, his first feature film, Black Dog, follows two teenage boys from very different backgrounds who end up sharing a car on a journey from London to Scotlans. He co-wrote it with Jamie Flatters, who plays wayward foster kid Nathan, whilst Keenan Munn-Francis plays the withdrawn and secretly troubled Sam. During the festival, we met up, along with producer Ken Petrie, to discuss the film and how all this came about.

“I started my production company when I was 16, so I was always raring to go,” says George. “I've always been one of those people that knew opportunity never really would come to them, and said ‘You've got to go and find it and fight for it.’ I'd worked for a long time in theatre and then moved into film and started with short film, as a lot of filmmakers do. Ken and I made three short films together, and they were a way of me proving that I could make that jump to features.

“I’ve been lucky enough as an actor – I played three lead roles in TV shows – that I decided ‘Right, well, I feel like I've been on set for long enough.’ As much as I learned a lot at film school, actually being on the set and seeing people make mistakes or seeing people do their thing that they're so good at, you just absorb all of that. So I was just like, ‘Let's just do it.’ You’re never ready, truthfully, so I just thought, why not do it at 22?”

This is very much an actors’ film. How much was it informed by his experience as an actor?

“I think massively so. Me and Jamie, my co writer, there's a lot of stuff that we went through when we were growing up in there, but also, as a director, I really want to protect my actors and protect their performances. I’m probably an actor-led director. I really love performance and it’s not that everything else comes second, but that's the thing that people watch. People either believe the acting or they don't.

“You can make it pretty and you can make it beautiful and sound amazing and all of that, but people will watch something that's filmed in an iPhone if the performances are good enough. So I think as an actor, it's definitely impacted my process as a director.”

Did approaching this story whilst still young himself give him an angle on it that an older director might miss?

“I think so. I've always been fascinated by telling stories that resonate in a personal way for me because I feel like, you know, my USP is I'm young. I know it's like growing up today, but I also wanted to make sure that Black Dog felt accessible to everyone, whether they're young now and going through the same things that the characters are, or if they're in their fifties or their forties or their thirties, and it will remind them what it was like when they were younger. Or there's bits of that grief journey that they go, ‘Oh, well, I'm going through that, but I'm going through that at 40.’ Or there's bits of the sexuality journey, or there's bits of the physical journey itself, driving from London to Scotland. I was very excited about telling a story about two young boys and being a young man.”

“I think that's fascinating from my perspective as well, Jennie,” says Ken. “It came from a very truthful place, a very honest place. I think as younger writers, they were representing a younger moment in their lives. And for someone who's slightly older, like myself and our incredible executive producer, David Parfitt – I'm sure he won't mind me saying that he’s slightly older than me. It was so easy to get on board with the film because we could just feel that honesty and that truth in the script, and then in the voice and the vision of what George has and what our incredible cast brings to the screen.

“When I read Black Dog it was quite an early draft, but it was clear that there was a sort of potential working relationship together. It did just connect with me. It reminded me of what it was like when I was 17. I'm based in Edinburgh, but I spent quite a big part of my life in London. I remember the drives from Scotland to London and back again, and the things I thought about and kind of checking in with myself and thinking about some of the stuff that we explore in the movie. So it felt like reality.”

They’re also very different young people, the protagonists. Was that always the plan?

“I think it was,” says George. “I wanted to make them really different and have different journeys and different starts in life and different versions of what had happened. It wasn't necessarily about making them opposites. They just come from different ends of the spectrum, the way they approach things. And I think then, actually, there's a load of similarities between them. They're two boys running from what's happened to them in their past, and they're two boys that share a quite similar sense of humour in moments – and totally opposite in other moments.”

He references a scene which it would be a shame to spoil here but which, suffice to say, sees the boys respond in very different ways to an uncomfortable, highly emotional situation.

“Neither boy is wrong,” he says. “You know, it's sort of like, what would you do in that moment? I really was cautious when I was directing this. I didn't want either characters to be wrong or right or anything. I just wanted to show these two very different approaches to life and everything between.”

In some scenes, the camerawork used to depict them is very different. There’s a lot of rapid motion and fast cutting around Nathan, reflecting his chaotic character, and then a lot of stillness around Sam, perhaps connecting with his depression.

“When I was directing Nathan in London, we had a total different camera language,” he says. “With Sam we were doing a lot of still shots. We were a lot calmer. We were a lot more intimate, a lot quieter. I mean, it was very, like, still in his house because that was his truth in that moment. Whereas Nathan was a bit more chaotic, was a bit more wild. So the camera was doing similar things. We were constantly moving, were constantly flying with it. And then when they found their space together, it was sort of like, ‘Well, now we've got this new camera language that's going to develop.’

“We started on two ends of the spectrum, and it was then like, ‘Well, let's make them rub off on each other.’ So by the end of the film, Sam's confidence has grown and he's back flipping on the beach and he's becoming a bit more Nathan in some ways. And also Nathan's becoming a bit more Sam. He's becoming a bit more aware and understanding that it's not just his world and other people are living in it.”

Whilst Sam seems more grown up at first in some ways, and more in control of his life, and Nathan seems like somebody who perhaps has to be rehabilitated or go through a coming of age process, later it becomes apparent that Sam has a lot that he has to change about himself as well.

“I think it's just looking at two different sides of grief,” says George. “You can see one boy who's clearly running from his past and running from everything in his life, and the other boy – Sam – is hiding from a lot of things and covering it up pretty well. I think the thing with my generation and a lot of young people today is that parents don't understand what's going on with their children. They don't necessarily talk about it and the signs aren't obvious.

“It's not like they come home with marks where they had a fight at school and stuff like that, because a lot of it is online, a lot of it is kind of internal. And it's silent. That, I think, is one of the most hard things for young people to go through. And I think what Sam is going through is as hard as what Nathan's going through. And you just can't really compare them.”

We talk about the casting process.

“So Jamie, obviously, who plays Nathan, co wrote it with me and we knew from an early point that he was going to play Nathan,” says George. “And once you know what your Nathan looks like, and his sort of energy, it was then like, ‘Right, well let's find our Sam.’

“We were very lucky where Ken and the rest of the team, David Parfitt and the sales agents, Independent Entertainment, really trusted me and were like, ‘Well, you've just got to go find the person you want.’ It meant that we could look everywhere. So went on a UK-wide search for our Sam. We, the cast and director, did a TV show on Netflix called Heartstopper, so we had this huge social media reach. And then I remember seeing Keenan’s take, and I remember being like, ‘Wow, he's really special!’

“I was flying back to Tenerife two days later to go shoot some of A Town Called Malice, and I was like, ‘I’ve just got to meet him.’ So it was the next day, Ken and me went into the room with the casting directors, and we brought Keenan in, and we just knew that was our Sam. We could all see, sitting in that room, that he had the emotional capability to do the role, but he also would be able to play off Jamie and Jamie would be able to light some fire into him as a character as well.”

It was a joyful moment, he recalls, and Ken agrees.

“What was so noticeable when we did get into the room with Keenan was the kind of nuance he could bring, because some of the stuff that Sam's dealing with is quite internal to begin with. It's maybe less obvious. And we've worked with this amazing charity who were able to help us interact with people that had lived experience of some of themes that are in the movie, so there were all these layers that were already in the script, but then you need to find the actor that's capable of embodying all that and allowing the performance to release those bits when necessary. So it was great that we had that flexibility to get the absolutely right person for the job.”

We talk about the challenge of capturing those performances, and keeping the film visually interesting, when the boys spend a lot of their time in a car.

“I really wanted to make the car feel alive,” says George. “I wanted the car to be almost the third person in their duo. It meant that I had to approach it in a way that made the shots feel interesting. Because we didn't have a huge amount of money and we didn't have a huge amount of time, I couldn't do these massive shots of a crane diving in through a window and all this crazy stuff. So it was then just about keeping the camera nimble and keeping it intimate.

“There were moments where I thought ‘I want to be in the car with them. I want to feel every breath, I want to feel every laugh and be claustrophobic with them. There's also much of the film when I was like, ‘Right, let's actually shoot this from the outside looking in and just observing them.’ I was approaching a scene and going ‘What is at the heart of this scene? What's important? Is it important that we're seeing those two boys click and laugh and then we should be in there? Or do we just want to watch Sam crying alongside Nathan? Just take a moment of going, wow, these are two boys who are really struggling.’ We definitely approached a lot of it like that.

“The car, for me, was a moment of these two boys have to concentrate on what they're doing, but it also meant they talk about lots of things that they probably usually wouldn't talk about if they were sitting on a bus or sitting in a café or on their phones or whatever.”

Being so young, and having this great film in the bag now, where does he plan to go from here?

“I've been so lucky in my career that I've never had these ten year plans or five year plans,” he says. “I remember when I was 18, I was like, ‘I want to make a short film.’ And then we did that, and then I was like, ‘Well, I want to make some more short films, and I want to make a feature.’ The thing with me and my team is we just go out and try and make it happen. We were never really presented with, like, here's a load of money from Film Four or the BFI. We had to hustle for it, you know?

“I want to keep telling stories that make you laugh and make you cry. I want to make work that resonates with people, and I want to make work that is really entertaining, and work with great people.”

“Whatever George wants to do, I'm in,” says Ken. “I think he's a phenomenal filmmaker. It's such a competitive business making a movie, in terms of getting people to see the movie that you've made. You have to find exceptional talent, and I think they've got to have a bit of sparkle and X factor, and I think George has that in spades. I'm attracted to strong voices and people that want to tell stories that people are going to connect with. I think George does that. I think he's got a real way with words, writing, and then, as I hope everyone agrees, Black Dog is really executing that vision. So, yeah, I'm a George Jaques fan.”

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