AR: Good Afternoon Jonathan, it’s great to be able to chat with you. To kick start can we get a little background on yourself?
JS: Ever since I can remember I wanted to be a wise guy… oh no wait, work in films, I mean work in films! As a child I was fascinated by movies, I didn’t just enjoy them I wanted to know how they were made. I remember we recorded a TV special about the making of Return of the Jedi when I was about 4 and I was fascinated about how it all came together, the puppets, the story and so on. So film was always my thing. I grew up in the 80s an age of very macho-heavy toys so consumed Transformers, He Man, GI Joe and what have you. I was an outdoorsy boy, grew up in the country so climbing trees and getting muddy. Then when I was 7 or 8 I got hooked on old horror movies – the Hammer films and what have you. I really loved them. Horror was my genre of choice through until I was about 12 when I fell into all the big action movies – Arnie, Robocop, Stallone, Steven Seagal. I loved – and still love that stuff. Anyway, all of this balanced out with being a fairly unremarkable student who hated school and was only really good at English and art. Indeed, one particularly irritating teach chided on a school report that I needed “a little more science, a little less science fiction.” I particularly relished that when I was producing a film with Star Wars hero Mark Hamill 20 years later. Anyway, in my late teens I decided that the way into film was journalism – I was a decent writer. I sent off a load of articles on spec and quickly started selling them to magazines, particularly The DarkSide, which is the world’s longest-running horror movie magazine. As a result of this I met a remarkable young man from Nottingham called David Gregory who was charged with creating all of the ‘special features’ for the DVD releases of a tonne of British films by Anchor Bay. David – who is now the world’s leading distributor of cult movies through Severin Films in the US – and his partner Carl, really did give me a break – they had me moderating DVD commentaries, interviewing stars for ‘making of documentaries’ and paying me for it! So I had my foot in the door and I was absorbing anecdotal knowledge from real movie legends like a sponge. Between the ages of 18 and 25 I worked with Ken Russell, Sir Roger Moore, Bryan Forbes, John Glen, Peter Yates, Sir Christopher Lee and many more. I was still writing in parallel and eventually I began producing some of this stuff myself – so in my early 20s I was working for major Hollywood studios including MGM and Paramount. It was an exciting time. The two people I met through this who had the greatest influence were producer Euan Lloyd (The Wild Geese, Who Dares Wins) and producer/director David Wickes (The Sweeney, The Professionals). Wickes in particular was a huge influence on me, I learned so much from him – and indeed it was he who sowed the seed that I should be producing my own films rather than documenting other peoples. Before that, however, I had a spell as a television executive – aged just 24 – when I helped set up and launch The Horror Channel, for which I worked as Director of Programming. It was a real wild west spit and saw dust time, run out of a tiny office in Gateshead but it is still running today (and now they run my movies from time to time, which is lovely!). I must say I got into the horror channel through chutzpah alone – I’d never bought and sold films before or even worked in acquisitions but I was determined to get my foot in the door. Anyway, after my detour into TV I was at a bit of a cross roads. I was talking to different people about different things (including Noel Edmonds, who I greatly admired at the time and who gave me some sound advice) when David Wickes told me he had a development deal on a movie about the Siege of Mafeking and offered me an opportunity to work on it with him. We had a production office in Westminster and I was making my first steps towards becoming a film producer. David was a wonder to behold – he knew all the best restaurants, he was a member at the Athenaeum Club, he was stylish (I had never seen someone whose suit cuff buttons undid until I met him), incredibly well read and frighteningly intelligent. He was a force of nature and did not suffer fools. Anyway, during this time I started developing my own material and eventually made a short and then a feature and then suddenly I was a film producer. 40 or so movies later I’m still standing!
AR: You are a very well known producer in the UK and host a whole roster of movies, most famously thus far is your ‘Old Way’ trilogy, can you tell me what drew you to this franchise?
JS: I had sold my film Vendetta to Anchor Bay Entertainment for the UK and the MD Colin Lomax and his acquisitions guy Rod Smith had become fast friends. We had high hopes for Vendetta and we began to hatch what would become a huge production deal for me to make 4 movies per year for Starz, the huge American company who owned Anchor Bay. Rod and to a degree Colin had hatched the basic premise of old gangsters coming out of retirement to clean up the streets and had a title, We Still Kill The Old Way, purloined from a European film from the sixties. I loved the idea and put it together very quickly. Sadly Colin died just over a year ago – he was such a good guy and a very dear friend. He used to tell me off in a really charming manner. I did 6 films for them before Colin bought Anchor Bay from Starz and then they all got tied up in corporate stuff, and another with Rod, Eat Local.
AR: Was it always intended to be a franchise?
JS: Yes, I’d say so. I mean the ending was very much left open to a sequel though even then there was concern the cast might not be able to carry on forever, which is why the Archer gang can always have old members turning up to fill gaps in the ranks! It was my idea to do the sequel as a prison break movie but I thought it didn’t turn out as well as I’d have liked, despite a brilliant turn by Billy Murray as the villain.
AR: People are eagerly awaiting the Archer Gang to return for a third outing, can you tell us anything about it?
JS: It’s a tough nut to crack – as I say ‘Steal’ fell a little short of my expectations so I am determined that the third, We Still Die The Old Way has to be better than the original. We have been through at least 20 drafts of the script. I feel like we are getting there now and it should be in production before Christmas. People really do love these films though so I don’t want to let them down.
AR: Will it be the final outing?
JS: Never say never. I mean even if it was, the franchise lends itself to reboots and remakes. I have had discussions about US remakes with WWE (Hulk Hogan as Richie Archer maybe?!) and another big Hollywood producer who saw it as a vehicle for Stallone. Personally I think it would make a great TV show on Netfix.
AR: Danny Dyer featured in many of the movies your produced. Vendetta put Danny back in the action genre. What happened to the sequel? I recall Danny teasing it?
JS: He went and signed up for Eastenders, which I understand – you can’t run away from the big bucks. And the BBC are very protective of their ‘property’ – they wouldn’t want the star of their flagship family show pouring concrete down hoodies’ throats! It’s a shame and ultimately you never know what will happen. Although we haven’t worked together again, I have remained very good friends with the film’s writer/director Stephen Reynolds and we often talk about a sequel. But right now I can’t see it happening in the immediate future.
AR:Can you give us a taste of where the sequel would have went story wise?
JS:Yes – Jimmy Vickers in in New York killing muggers when his old SAS unit catch up with him and bring him in for questioning. The events of the original movie have brought a lot of unwanted attention and scrutiny to the SAS and questions are being asked about whether they are out of control. Eventually the unit is suspended. A big Albanian gang who were the power behind the baddies in the first film kidnap Vincent Regan’s character and with the SAS unable to act Rooker (Bruce Payne) springs Vickers and basically gives him the keys to the armoury. He tracks the Colonel down to an abandoned ship using his special powers of persuasion and gets into a huge firefight. Just when it looks as though he’s outnumbered, the SAS arrive in helicopters (cue the ‘Who Dares Wins’ heme tune) and the good guys save the day. Damn I wish we’d made it!
AR: The films you produce are usually gangster films. Would you say the Krays, The Essex Boys and the Football Firm World are some what interests of yours?
JS: In all honesty they weren’t at all. I mean, I hate football, it doesn’t interest me in the slightest. When I was a kid I remember the VHS of the Kemp Krays film being a playground sensation (mostly because of the Chelsea Smile scene) but then the genre sort of passed me by. I loved Get Carter and The Long Good Friday but it wasn’t really until I started working as a producer that I tuned into this genre properly. I guess I became a producer around the time Rise of the Foot soldier was being made – I remember going to a very early screening of it at the National Film Theatre before it was graded and finished. Not only did I think it was a very well made film (I remain a big fan of writer/director Julian Gilbey) but I saw the way the audience reacted to it, they LOVED it. So I thought this is the business to be in. Then I met all the core genre actors – Billy Murray, Tamer Hassan, Dyer, Craig Fairbrass. And Footsoldier taught me a valuable lesson which is that these films work as home entertainment – forget the cinema. When Optimum released Rise of the Footsoldier at the cinema it bombed and they had spent a lot of money promoting it on tubes, buses etc. Everyone was depressed. But then it sold a million DVDs and the rest is history.
In respect of the Krays and the Essex Boys and I guess to the hooligans, what I find interesting is how much people want to be affiliated with them. “My uncle’s cousin’s plumber worked for the Twins” etc I hear it all the time, I can only imagine how bad it is for the Kemp brothers. A chap moving furniture for me was at great pains to tell me he was in prison with Pat Tate (one of the Essex Boys) – although all that made me do was worry I’d never see my sofa again! And of course through making these films I have met all the real gangsters, and I don’t mean the ones who write books. It is not a world that interests me at all, but I have great access to it for films, especially through my best friend Billy Murray. I like a quiet life – I’m a homebody, there’s nothing I like more than being at home with my partner Janine and the kids. People always expect me to be a sort of cockney geezer and I’m really not!
AR: Word is you are not done with Reggie and Ronnie
JS: That’s very true. Look, I’m aware that The Krays – Dead Man Walking was not a great film. I’ll never forget Gary Kemp saying to me “there’s a new Krays film where they’re wearing modern clothes” at lunch and I sort of sheepishly muttered that it was mine! What it had was some fine performances (I particularly enjoyed working with Rita Simons and Guy Henry) and it was an experiment by me to see if these films still work in a climate where DVD is perceived as dead (which it definitely is not!). It was a low budget, low risk film and it was an interesting story that I had wanted to tell for some time. It was a big success, had the best first week of any British non-theatrical film on DVD last year and was out-selling Ready Player One and Black Panther. Initially I was going to make a straight sequel but now I’m inclined to start again from scratch. Either way, no – I’m definitely not done with Ronnie and Reggie – I just want the next one to be really good! I used to just crash through these films, sometimes knocking out 6 per year but now I am trying to focus on quality as well as quantity. We’re about to plunge into production on a substantial slate of genre movies but our quality control will be imperative.
AR: Speaking of Krays you did in-fact go into buissness with original ‘Kray’ actor Martin Kemp and also produced his actioner Age Of Kill. How did you guy’s cross paths?
JS: Back when I was working for David Wickes, the Mafeking film we were developing never came off but I started to develop my own stuff around this time too, and through this I met the actor Martin Kemp. I wanted him to star in a movie. The movie fell apart and I thought “fuck, I’ve blown it – Martin Kemp is a big star and he’ll never speak to me again.” How wrong I was – Martin called me up and said “hey these things happen, let’s have lunch!” We had lunch and hatched a plan to make a short film which Martin would direct and in which his brother would star. I cannot stress enough how brilliant Martin has been to me in the last decade. After the short we made a feature called Stalker and set up a production company together, Black and Blue Films. It was a massive, massive learning curve, the whole thing. Not long after Billy Murray joined us. We made quite a few films but none of them were hits and I have to take the blame for that – I was steering us more towards horror and Billy was pushing the crime/gangster stuff. Of course he was absolutely right. Anyway, the dynamic wasn’t working so we called it a day but the three of us are still the best of friends, in fact Billy and Martin are really my two closest friends: I love those two guys.
AR: Not all of your films are gangsters and guns. You have dabbled in some horror & horror comedy movies too. Do you have influences in the genre that drive you to produce these movies?
JS: Horror is a genre I’m always drawn to but one that is just so hard to crack because there is SO much competition. Every country in the world is making low budget, high concept horror. It’s a genre Hereford Films is definitely still open to but our focus is on the crime/action/gangster stuff. Comedy is a genre I’ve had zero success with because it’s the hardest to do – you know horror doesn’t have to be scary, but comedy has to be funny. I’ve worked with some amazing actors in my comedy films though – Rik Mayall, Peter Capaldi, Sheridan Smith, Richard E Grant. but the scripts need to be brilliant and they just weren’t.
AR :Do you have a favourite horror movie?
JS: That’s a hard one. If you count Jaws as a horror movie (I don’t) then Jaws. If not then I probably have to go with the 1958 Hammer Dracula starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Honourable mentions Poltergeist, The Monster Squad, American Werewolf In London, Return of the Living Dead, Pet Sematary, The Omen, The Wicker Man, The Howling.
AR: I see you have a great selection of movies in the pipeline, can you tell me about them? Two stand out upcoming projects for are Assault On Hazzard Rock and Witch House.
JS: Witch House is a horror we’re developing based on HP Lovecraft’s The Dreams In The Witch House, which was filmed in the sixties with Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee. I think it has real potential. I want to do a Lovecraft (big Stuart Gordon fan here) and a Bram Stoker, which will probably end up being Jewel of Seven Stars. We have a horror division, Hereford Horror and we are developing quite a bit of material but we’re not rushing – we want to make a splash, not just turn out cheap and cheerful fodder.
Our focus, however, is on our main Hereford slate, which is all action/crime/thriller based. We have some really strong London crime projects in development – Trappers, about a turf war between London drug dealers, Knifer, based on the brilliant book by Ronnie Thompson, which is essentially The Kid meets Starred Up. Carnage. Operation Tornado. Reckoning Day. There’s a gap in the market for proper high-end British crime thrillers and we are going to fill it. I’m working with quality film makers like Ronnie Thompson and Nick Moran, people who really deliver. We’re not messing around.
In parallel with these we are developing some bigger scale action movies for the international market of which Assault on Hazard Rock is a personal favourite. It’s the brainchild of David Gregory, who pitched the idea to me in LA a couple of years ago. So I bought it and we’ve been developing it. Basically Hazard Rock is a sleepy retirement home in California that is broken into by a Mexican gang looking to steal the drugs… but what they don’t know is that Hazard Rock is a retirement home for mercenaries… so all hell breaks loose. And each resident is going to be played by an iconic 80s/90s action star. I have been having a great time wooing all my childhood heroes and the cast is going to blow you away.
AR: I really am looking forward to the upcoming projects, and I hope that between You, myself and the rest of genre loving movie goers can keep these movies alive!! It’s been amazing getting the opportunity to chat with you Jonathan!!
JS: No thank you so much – I really appreciate the platform to talk about what we’re doing. I love these action movies and I’m glad you’ve started a new outlet to give them the coverage they so often don’t get in the mainstream press.