Interview with indie flim-maker Jon Spira re. ‘Elstree 1976’


“The film industry is horrible, it’s cynical and doesn’t care for passion or real creativity. It’s a business and nobody in it is happy. But when you choose the crowdfunding model, it’s like throwing a party.”

Film-maker Jon Spira graduated from the Scottish Film School (a part of Napier) in 1999. He started his career as a screenwriter on cult sci-fi TV series Lexx, before moving on to several other ground-breaking projects.

Disillusion with the industry drove him into (seriously) early retirement. In his native Oxford he opened Videosyncratic, a chain of two indie VHS rental stores. Despite being a hub for creatives everywhere, Videosyncratic could not swim against the digital tide forever. His letter on its passing partly inspired the creation of Edinburgh49 as a support for emerging artists struggling for recognition amid pinstriped indifference. As Joni Mitchell famously sang, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

In recent years Jon has emerged as a well-respected voice in the British film world. He is also an in-house film-maker at the British Film Institute on London’s Southbank, where he makes documentaries about film culture and interviews talent.

His first feature film was independent music documentary Anyone Can Play Guitar. It’s about the small-town scene which spawned Radiohead, Candyskins, Foals, Supergrass, Ride and Swervedriver and became an instant classic, rated as one of the top-20 must-see music films of all time by NME.

Jon is currently promoting Elstree 1976 via Kickstarter – check it out here. In this interview with Edinburgh49 Jon talks about his early start in Edinburgh, gives his views on the film industry, reflects on past success and looks forward to his latest challenge.

What made you pick Edinburgh as a place to study in?

Because there was a photo of a werewolf in the prospectus. Honestly. I just wanted to go to film school and it was really hard working out which one was going to be right for me and I saw the photo and thought ‘Wow, this place lets you make werewolf films!’ and that was enough for me. It was the right choice too.

You didn’t stay in the city long after graduating, was that a reflection on the state of Scottish filmmaking?

I stayed for 18 months or so. I was managing Box Office Video on Lothian Road (long gone now) I left because all the work I was getting was in London; it wasn’t a reflection on the Scottish film industry, it was just where life took me. To be honest, I don’t think I ever actually engaged with the industry in Scotland.

When you think of Edinburgh now, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

Just, you know, joyous nostalgia. I just remember Edinburgh as being an intensely creative place. I was surrounded by actors, musicians, poets, artists, comedians, photographers. I don’t think I even appreciated how special it was at the time. I was living with Roddy Woomble at the time he started Idlewild. So, yeah, when I think of Edinburgh I just think of constant creativity.

When people think of Oxford they might be more likely to think of college lawns than Radiohead et al. How did you approach chronicling a contemporary arts movement in an antiquarian setting?

Oxford is two cities. The university is very much a closed world. I grew up in Oxford and I don’t think I ever got behind those walls more than a handful of times. The Oxford I grew up in was much more like every other town. I was a suburban kid and hung out in the skeezier parts of town as I got older. One of the things that I like about ACPG is that it doesn’t even address the university. That’s just not a part of that story, none of the bands had any real ties to that world. It was definitely gratifying to show audiences ‘our’ Oxford, though.

Did the success of Anyone Can Play Guitar surprise you, or are you an arrogant git?

A bit of both. I couldn’t have made ACPG without a certain arrogance. It was made for no money and in a completely different way to how documentaries are usually made – I had a lot of cameramen quit on me. My producer quit four separate times and he’d probably be the first to call me arrogant because I was absolutely obsessed with that film.

I knew my own mind at every step of the process and had no interest in what other people thought. I made that film for me and I still don’t really care what people think about it because it’s 100% the film I wanted it to be. The success it had has been a really odd one – it’s not well known at all, it completely circumnavigated the traditional industry. We chose not to go with distributors, so we organised the cinema release ourselves and we self-released the DVD, but it found its audience.

The BBC told us the film was too niche to screen, that it was too demanding on the viewer.

We looked at the formulaic pop-culture docs they churn out endlessly and decided that actually we’d rather be niche. It’s a positive and now I aim my films squarely at the niche, at people who want thoughtful, but not inaccessible films. I love that people connected with it so strongly and that it still sells steadily but, yeah, it’s my arrogance that allowed that to happen.

Elstree 1976 explores the relationship between commerce and art, focusing on the later lives of Star Wars extras. Are the featured extras right to cash in on their relatively minor role in other people’s creations?

That’s not my call to make and I’m presenting both sides of that issue equally in the film. I will say that I’ve met a lot of these guys over the past couple of years and I can say hand on heart that, although they’re all doing it for different reasons, I’ve yet to meet one who I feel is doing it cynically or pretending to have had a bigger involvement in the films than their role as an extra. Some of them do a lot of appearances to raise money for charity and even when they’re not, they earn the money they make.

“I’ve sat with them at conventions where they literally spend a whole weekend being ignored and that doesn’t seem like cashing-in to me. Equally, I can see how frustrating it is to the professional actors who trained and played an active role in Star Wars to find themselves sharing billing with extras, it can be seen to cheapen their contribution. It’s a really interesting issue from a really interesting community.

Is there something wrong with a company such as Polygon making SO much more money from a film like Four Weddings and a Funeral than the creators?

No. Not really. It’s capitalism and we all play our role in that. If someone pays you £100,000 to make a film and that film goes on to make £100,000,000, that’s not your business. You were paid to do a job. That’s part of the reason I work outside the system.

I make no money upfront on my films. I self-fund on a shoestring budget and use crowdfunding to pay for post-production and at the end of the process I own the films outright. That’s unheard of in the industry – a director owning his own film but it’s going to become the norm. I think you’ll see a lot less millionaire directors but you’ll see film-makers who own and build their own body of work, offering it online to download and making respectable living wages from that.

Is the fall of Blockbuster a sign that film distribution is changing, that the distance between producer and consumer is shrinking, or are we simply changing formats?

Yeah, film distribution is in a constant state of flux. Despite what I just said, I don’t like where it’s heading. I don’t like the Netflix model of paying a monthly fee and streaming unlimited movies. People will get screwed in that model. Just as musicians are getting shafted by Spotify. It devalues the creative industry. It devalues film. A few years ago, you understood that a film was generally worth a tenner to you – as a cinema ticket or a dvd – now a lot of people think it’s outrageous to pay that much, if at all. It’s a shame.

Films are no longer treats or something special, they are content to be consumed. I particularly worry about Netflix and Amazon and streaming as when you have just one or two companies controlling all film consumption, it means they can act as censors. They can make films completely unavailable to the public [and] they can control and influence the market and the kind of films that get made.

I don’t like it. I still buy DVDs. I think we’ll miss video shops a lot in the next few years. Like everything else, we’ve thrown beautiful organic things under the bus in favour of wretched convenience. That experience of walking to a video shop, walking around the aisles and really browsing, chatting to the staff and other customers while you’re waiting for your takeaway is now gone forever. Replaced by an M&S £10 meal deal and a depressing flick though whatever Netflix has. Ah well.

How have you found using Kickstarter or is it too early to tell? What other projects should folks support after mortgaging their houses to support yours?

I used Indiegogo on my last film and that was a great experience. So far Kickstarter has been incredible. It’s really a gorgeous process. You get to stand infront of a global audience of people like you and say ‘Hey, I want to make this thing, I think it’ll be really good and I’m making it for the love of it. If you give me a hand, you can have a copy’ – it’s almost like bartering before money – ‘You help me do this, I’ll give you some of it’ and the wave of passion and enthusiasm and support that you get – from complete strangers – just fills your fucking heart with joy.

The film industry is horrible, it’s cynical and doesn’t care for passion or real creativity. It’s a business and nobody in it is happy. But when you choose the crowdfunding model, it’s like throwing a party. Everyone’s motives are pure, it’s all done for the sheer joy of doing it and the audience totally get that.

What projects should others support? Whatever they want.

The point is that people need to go to Kickstarter and Indiegogo and browse the things that interest them. Crowdfunding is still a young concept but it’s not as left-field as people might think. There’s a lot of business and technology choosing to fund that route now too. Just go and check it out. The last campaign that truly excited me was the Mini Museum on Kickstarter – I can’t WAIT to receive my Mini Museum!

[NB. Mini Museum by Hans Fex raised $1,226,811 from 5,030 backers.]

And finally… which character are you from Star Wars and why?

Oh, I’ve always been Chewbacca. I’m shaggy, loyal, dependable, mouthy and I’ll rip your arms out of their sockets if you don’t let me win.

Check out Jon’s first feature film Anyone Can Play Guitar here.

Note: The Kickstarter video embedded in this post don’t show up in the email notification sent out to those of you following us through WordPress (but they are on the website, promise).