The Story So Far... Josh Thornton-Allan
Ndella Longley - 8th July 2022
As his short film Fuck The Honeymoon triumphs on the festival circuit, we talk to Hello Love director Josh Thornton-Allan (above) about his career thus far - including videos for the likes of James Bay and Emir Taha - and how he's learned to focus on performance above everything else.
Josh Thornton-Allan was barely knocking on the door of teenhood when he started filming and editing his own films - with a little help from his family. “My dad had a leftover laptop from his office - an old Mac - and said 'Do you want to have it?'," Thornton-Allan remembers. "So I played around with the basic editing software on that. I have two brothers - which means I had two actors that I would cast in spy movies, and bootleg Star Wars films.”
A few years later, he was focussing on screenwriting. But his degree in English and Creative Writing at Kent University helped him realise his relative discomfort with “handing off something I'd worked on, for somebody else to make.” Thus inspiring him to pursue directing.
The release of his first short film Exit Chip shone a light on his talent, and led to commercial commissions for the likes of Expedia, Fabergé and Virgin Active, before taking him into the more “weird and wonderful” world of music videos.
Performance is an aspect I really like to focus on.
Thornton-Allan signed to Hello Love in 2021, with his first music video at the London-based production company, for Emily Burns' I'm So Happy, arriving shortly afterwards. His recent video for James Bay’s Give Me The Reason builds off the back of a portfolio of artistic, adventurous videos for indie artists like Red Moon and Emir Taha, cementing his skill and agility across numerous formats and projects.
More recently it’s the reach and exploration of his comedic abilities, evidenced in the success of his latest short film Fuck The Honeymoon, that has been an unexpected string added to his bow. FTH is coming to the end of a successful run on the festival circuit too, and will also be screening at the prestigious Aesthetica and Flickers Rhode Island festivals this year. So we asked Josh to talk us through his fascinating progress so far...
“Exit Chip was kind of the beginning of it all. That was the year after university, so I must have been about 21. It was not the first thing I had directed, but it was the first time I had been on a film set.
It was based on a short story that a friend of mine, who was in my writing class at university, had written [about a man who has an implant that limits his lifespan]. I thought it was a really cool idea, so I adapted it into the script. We raised a little bit of money by crowdfunding, and then the rest was achieved with a lot of favours. It took about a year to make.
I edited it with Phil Hignett over at Marshall Street Editors, who now has gone on to edit things like Sex Education. I had edited stuff myself before, but learning about editing in that way was really interesting. I learned very quickly about the 'kill your darlings' method to filmmaking. There was a lot left on the cutting room floor!
When you want to make your first film, you want it to be this opus. But Phil just said - 'No one's going to watch your 25 minute short film. Cut it down to fifteen.' Now I’m looking back… Thank God we did that.”
• Exit Chip full film here
“Off the back of the first short film, I was commissioned by Expedia to do a piece about London. That was basically me with a C300 camera, and it was all about sights unseen, hidden parts of the city. So I mainly focused on the Underground, how it's connected to the culture and the history of London.
I basically went to work during the day, and then every evening would go down on the Tube, just filming for like, four hours every night. And then I cut it together myself.
At this point, someone was actually paying me to do something, making something for a legitimate company. As a filmmaker you're like - right, I've made it, someone's giving me money to do this. Off the back of that I did a couple of things for Fabergé, the jewellery company, and also for Virgin Active. They were also really good fun.”
RED MOON - DOGMA
“I'd done some other music videos before, but they were for like, 500 quid, just filming some people, and half of them didn’t go out. But it became more interesting when you could start to explore weird techniques and really push the envelope in terms of directing. Dogma was my first big proper music video, where we had a proper budget and I was really loving the track and had a really good team. That felt like the first music video.
I wrote the pitch for it and despite the fact that I really didn't have anything that was relevant on my reel at that point, they really liked the idea. To sell it I did a load of test shots. The track ends with them being covered in this red dust which meant that my poor girlfriend had to sit there and allow me to pour copious amounts of dust on her to prove that the concept would work.
After that, I worked with the producer, Jake River Parker, who got a really good team together, including the choreographer. And the artist herself had a friend who was a Central St. Martin's graduate that designed all the costumes. So it was one of those things where the team came together and the sum of it ended up so much more than I would have expected.
Above: Josh Thornton-Allen with Red Moon on the set of the Dogma video: "She's quite an ethereal person and I think that came through really clearly".
One of the elements I enjoy the most is pulling performances out of people, whether they're actors or non-actors. Part of that is just creating a level of comfort and also understanding what people are capable of doing. And sometimes people surprise you. I think in Red Moon’s Dogma, her ability to pick up the choreography so quickly but also bring her own personality to it was important. She's quite an ethereal person and I think that came through really clearly.
Performance is an aspect I really like to focus on on-set. I think there are some directors that are just incredibly technical and they love to get involved in all the technical aspects. For me, I like to talk in grand, emotional terms and have my heads of department kind of translate that into the technical. I'll be saying 'We want them to feel strong here', or whatever it is. 'So what do we do to get that effect?' The performance angle is definitely my focus.”
EMIR TAHA - LADES
"Lades was one of those ones where they come to you with a really solid concept already. I think he's [Emir] got a really strong sense of his identity and what he wants to bring to his music. That was really clear when he came to me, and he had this idea for a male dancer - and a male belly dancer, in particular. When you've got that, you're thinking - this is already a really interesting concept to play around with.
But it's exceedingly hard in the UK to find male belly dancers! The one that we found actually lives in Portugal, and we flew him over. It is a big cultural thing, actually - a counter-culture movement that's going on, especially in places like Turkey. So it was really interesting learning about that as part of the research.
This was also my first time shooting on film, which was a great experience. It felt very necessary for something like this, because it was such a textural and visceral thing. It's about the exploration of the body and masculinity and subverting those things. So you want that to be very natural without any artifice, because that's kind of the whole point. We're stripping away things in this, so we didn't want this kind of glossy, digital texture to it.
I worked with Carmen Pellon as the DOP, she's done some really good work, and she's done a number of things with me now. She's fantastic. She also lives in my building, which is very helpful. Although I think she would disagree when I knock on her door and say: “I’ve just had another thought!”
JAMES BAY - GIVE ME THE REASON
“Give Me The Reason is about the sun setting on a relationship. James had this idea of having a warehouse where maybe we had like a door that was slowly coming down so that we could change the sunlight landing on him.
"So I was thinking about sunlight, and stuff like that, and it reminded me of the Olafur Eliasson exhibition at the Tate Modern, where he built the giant sun in the Turbine Hall. I had seen a documentary on Olafur Eliasson and I'm really fascinated by his work, particularly because he uses a lot of light and that's very helpful if you're working in film.
One of the interesting things that Eliasson uses is monochromatic light - which is what that orange sun is. Basically, monochromatic light just means that no other colours, apart from the colour that you're putting out, can be seen. So you have this giant orange sun and everything else is in black and white.
The way he achieves that is by using two very complicated, very expensive light bulbs which give out monochromatic light - but you can sort of do it, if you have any colour that's bright enough. So for example, in a red room used for photography, if you're wearing a bright pink shirt, it's just going to look black in that room. All other colours kind of get consumed by this one colour.
So that was the beginning of the idea, and it took a little bit of explaining to get them to understand the idea. But I think they just really liked my pitch. And especially having this sort of giant orange sun was a very cool visual for them.”
FUCK THE HONEYMOON
I found that my natural writing style is comedy. I thought - 'I'm just going to embrace it.'
“I was visiting my brother in New York - he's training to be an actor out there - and he told me this story of someone that actually did this [took a first date to see a marriage guidance counsellor]. We thought - what a hilarious concept, this would make a great film. So when I got back from New York, I started writing it.
I worked on the script for a couple of months. Again, the producer was Jake Parker, who I've done music videos with, and a lot of the music video gang came on board. A good thing about making music videos is that you make lots of friends. We shot it over two days, and it was a really good, fun experience.
I think Exit Chip is obviously quite bleak and sincere - and that's because it was based on someone else's story. When I started writing my own stuff, I found that I really like performance, and also that my natural writing style is comedy. So I thought - 'You know what, I'm just going to embrace it'. You also worry that festivals may not take comedy seriously, but I think maybe in the current climate, people really seem to enjoy it.
Above: Still from Fuck The Honeymoon. "You have to step away as a screenwriter once you're on set, and be a director."
The performance was the best part. There were bits where I really wanted them to stick to the script. Then there are bits where I allow improvisation to happen. But once you write the script, you have to step away as a screenwriter once you're on set, and be a director, and not be too precious about something that you spent six months working on. At the same time you think, 'Well, I know that there were certain beats and I know that I've written it this way for this exact reason. And so I need you to say it exactly like this.'
There were some bits, especially when you're writing jokes, where the best way of doing it is by bouncing ideas off people. At the table reading you can feel it out in a room. You've got all your heads of departments there and you're thinking, “Well, who's laughing? Why aren't they laughing at that joke? Alright, fine. Let's throw in another one.”
But on set, you're riffing, you're doing a lot of improv. Particularly the argument scene in that big montage. I was just stood behind the camera shouting things out like 'argue about Monopoly!' or 'complain about her sister!' - stuff that I'd written down when we were doing the table read that I thought 'This will be funny.' That on-the-fly [style] is very music video orientated, as on these videos, you're often not recording sound, so you can shout stuff out and you can get quite involved in it, which is nice.
When it came to editing that scene, there were maybe 30 or 40 other jokes that we cut out. We spent quite a lot of time going up to friends and saying, “is it funny if he says this or this? We have two different penis jokes, which one's funnier?” Often people would respond with - 'Why are you talking to me...?'
• Full film here
"With music videos and short films you always have about three days less than you'd actually want. So you have to eke out times where you can [rehearse]. I just trick my actors by taking them for a beer afterwards and then that's actually my practise time, they just don't know it yet.
The other short film that I did recently called June - which is just about to be released and go on the festival circuit - is also about a relationship between two people - a father and a daughter. I think I just like relationships where it's people that are avoiding talking about things. Maybe that's a sort of British sensibility. But it's always funny when you start to break down the divide of not wanting to talk about things because they're awkward. There's always a wealth of things in there.”
• Josh Thornton-Allan is with Hello Love for commercials and music videos, and represented for music videos by Mouthpiece. Check out more of his work here.
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Ndella Longley - 8th July 2022