The third feature from acclaimed writer-director Gerard Johnson following Tony (2009) and Hyena (2019) offers a timely and bruising portrait of amplified masculinity as it follows Simon (Cavan Clerkin) who falls under the spell of a personal trainer (Craig Fairbrass) who slowly instils himself in Simon’s life. An intense, provocative and necessarily unsettling work, the film, evocative of a British Fight Club in its look at excess testosterone, also offers an at times savagely funny and desperately accurate black and white snapshot of struggling figures lost, confused and adrift in an increasingly desperate and economically and spiritually bankrupt landscape. Written, directed and performed with a lean economy, the score is courtesy of Matt Johnson/TheThe.
Jason Wood: I believe this is your first feature shot outside London. Why did you move out of the capital and what did it contribute to the themes and the aesthetic?
Gerard Johnson: I always saw this story existing outside London, I think at the beginning I had a southern coastal town in mind but then I started to think about the British New Wave movement of the 60’s and was drawn to the North. I’d never been to Newcastle before but had a strong feeling that it would fit perfectly for the story. I fell in love with the city and spent a long time up there before the shoot to really get to know it inside out.
JW: The black and white photography by Stuart Bentley is stunning. How did you collaborate to achieve the look of the film and what were some of the thinking’s behind the decision to shoot in black and white? I felt that it spoke to the darkness that lies at the heart the film.
GJ: Originally my idea for black and white was boxing and gym photography. I felt the gyms we were visiting on recces looked so much more powerful and almost symbolic in monochrome and as I said before, I had in mind those films of the 60’s: This Sporting Life, Taste of Honey etc. As well as film we looked at a lot of photography, John Bulmer, Raymond Depardon and Tish Murtha mainly. I felt as well as a beauty to the imagery there should be a brutal, harsh, oppressive undercurrent that ripens as we go deeper into the worlds of Simon and Terry. Francis Bacon was also a reference point, that obsession of the body, plus the title Muscle is also a nod to Bacon.
JW: In terms of thematics, the film deals with a confused sense of masculinity and the fragile nature of the male ego. I sense elements of this also in Hyena, but it is very much to the forefront here. What is it about this subject that particularly interests you? It certainly gives Muscle a very contemporary and topical feel…
GJ: It does feel very contemporary. I guess men in general feel a bit lost at sea at the moment, unsure of where they fit anymore, also that sense of real masculinity has become threatened hasn’t it? Simon is looking to become something he isn’t, but does he enjoy it once he has achieved it? Terry is clinging on to that masculinity and a huge ego, when he warns Simon to “never stopping hitting people” it’s because he feels threatened, he has to protect it at all costs, underneath all this armour is a fragility that I’m really interested in.
JW: The transformation of Cavan Clerkin is sensational, but I think I am not alone in being a little surprised about the depth of the performance from Craig Fairbrass. Can you talk about the decision to cast Craig and how the on-screen chemistry between him and Cavan was achieved? It literally leaps off the screen.
GJ: I’d known of Craig and had met him socially once or twice and mentioned I may have something he’d be interested in. He is known for making a certain type of film and I wanted to turn that on its head completely. I am very happy that he is getting the best reviews of his career and some fantastic recognition at last.
Like on my previous films I have a long ‘workshop’ process with the actors before we shoot so that helps with us all being on the same page and in the case of Craig and Cavan they got on really well, so that chemistry is real.
JW: I am very much drawn to films like The Servant, Performance and Wake in Fright where one character insidiously inserts himself in the life of another and then slowly takes over. I also feel that there is a real class element too in these scenarios. As an ardent cinefile were these films – or any others – inspirations at all?
GJ: The Servant was probably the film that had the biggest influence, Muscle was actually called The Trainer in the early days of development. Performance as well was a reference point, as were Persona and Seconds, all dealing with this idea of duality, a mirror image, obsession and of a rebirth. The film deserves to be experienced multiple times.
JW: I wanted to ask about the orgy scene as it is so dark and disturbing. In a recent interview with Fairbrass he talks about the scene – and the filming of it – still giving him nightmares. What did you do to achieve it? The authenticity is really palpable.
GJ: I think it’s probably one of the best things I’ve shot. As this would be the centrepiece of the film it would need careful planning. When I see party scenes in films, I just don’t buy them a lot of the time. I knew we really couldn’t fake these parties so we made them real. We found a massive swingers club just outside of Newcastle and recruited about 30 of their top regulars. It was a very hypnotic experience filming it as once they all started getting ‘in the swing’ they didn’t stop, it got extremely Lord of the Flies in that house for a few days. The next challenge was editing down the hours of essentially pornographic footage we had from both parties.
JW: The film marks another significant collaboration with your brother Matt Johnson and TheThe. How does this working relationship work? Do you suggests the sounds, moods and textures that you are after and what suggestions and directions did you give in this instance?
GJ: We talk about what I’m thinking in my head with regards to sounds and moods and then Matt will normally go off to the studio and put a load of stuff down which I’ll listen to whilst I’m editing. Then I’ll maybe send scenes over for him to work on and he’ll send back etc. We have similar tastes and a shorthand which really helps. His music is the final ingredient, the magic fairy dust to cement the film. We’re already deep in discussion about the sound palette on the new one.
Muscle will either be available to watch in our cinemas soon, or on demand via our website.