Silent Night is a British Christmas film with a crime thriller twist. Last week I sat down with director Will Thorne, talking everything from getting Lenny Henry his jacket potatoes to going up against a Ryan Reynolds movie in the middle of a pandemic.
How would you describe Silent Night in three words?
I suppose the film is about redemption, so that’s one word, because that’s the story and the theme boiled down. Then I suppose, entertaining? I don’t know if redemption works – I’m not good at boiling these things down. Maybe dark, funny… Give me another word, how would you sum it up?
I like redemption, and maybe family would work?
Yes, family’s one of the big themes of the film. Obviously you’ve got Mark’s family, but then the gang as well – I think it’s described as a family business, with Toni as a surrogate mother and Caddy as a surrogate father.
How did you get into directing in the first place?
That’s funny, I feel like I’m still trying to work out how you get into directing to be honest. If you go on IMDB I’m listed more as a producer – I’ve actually produced everything I’ve done, kind of out of necessity to give myself opportunities. With all my indie and scripted stuff, most of that was me going and making something, but I’ve done quite a bit of TV directing. I started off as a tea boy, running around and getting Lenny Henry’s jacket potatoes! I realised quite quickly that even though I was paying rent it was still hard to see my route into directing from there. It’s hard to get opportunities, so I had to make them myself.
A lot of my shorts were about learning to direct, knowing that when I do this on a bigger scale, I’ve made my mistakes and I know what I’m comfortable with. Even silly things – in my very first short film I did my first over-the-shoulder shot. If you’ve literally never done it before, just go and do it and you learn what you like or don’t like, and what you’re comfortable with. You have to learn directing on the job really, it’s the only way. If you’re waiting for the BBC or Hollywood to tell you to come and direct this thing, you’ll probably be waiting a long time, so you should just grab a camera, grab some mates, and go and do something. There’s a great James Cameron quote where he says something like ‘grab your sister, grab your friend, shoot something and now you’re a director’. It’s true, that’s the most important thing you can do. It also really helped me to write my own scripts for me to direct.
On that subject, you’ve been involved in lots of different things across your career, especially in terms of entertainment shows and comedy, so what was it that made you choose a crime thriller for your debut feature?
I really love watching crime noir thrillers, that’s my go-to if I watch a film, and my inspirations are people like Scorsese, the Coen brothers, David Fincher and Hitchcock. Crime creates drama, and it felt like a good way to do something low budget but with high stakes. That was the idea with Silent Night, especially the policeman scene: all you need when you’ve got someone dead in the back of your van is for a policeman to knock on the window!
Secondly, it was pretty strategic – there is an audience for Brit gangster films, and I wanted to serve that audience by making a crime thriller set in London. I’m from here, so it was easier to make a crime film locally using local contacts. When you’re just desperate to get your first film ready, and to get it distributed, you have to look at the market and act cleverly. The first route is usually to make horror, and I do love horror, but not as much as I love those other ones.
Lastly, there’s a lot of humour in the film. In a similar way to the Coens, there’s this weird black comedic humour, and by doing that I knew I could still bring to the table a bit of my voice. I wanted to make an entertaining film, and I chucked everything in there, but something I realised when I was writing the script was that I really like twisty thrillers and comedy, and actually they’re sort of the same thing. A joke is a surprise, a twist; you set something up and then give a punchline they aren’t expecting. So as I wrote the script, I realised I was trying to do the same thing, to move people one way and then trying to show them something else. In that way a crime thriller can actually be similar to a comedy.
One of the reasons the film was so enjoyable is because of the mixture of both crime and comedy, but what made you choose to set such a dark story at Christmas time?
That’s kind of the joke – the whole film is kind of tongue-in-cheek. After coming to the screening Nathaniel Martello-White, who plays Pete, said it’s a really pulpy film and I hadn’t heard it described that way before. But actually, when thinking about it, that’s what we were trying to do, we were sort of winking at the audience a little bit. It was a balance though – you want it to be believable and engaging, but you’re watching a Christmas hitman movie, so what do you expect?
Working in the industry, I’ve spent many Decembers unemployed because most things are tied up by then. After a few years I stopped looking for work at this time and thought I’d just enjoy a few weeks off, so I watched Christmas movies, the same ones every year. I was speaking to my editor, who said he always kicks things off with Die Hard, and I think you have to get a few of these films under your belt for it to really feel like Christmas. If I could make a Christmas film that has that element to it, then people might put it on every year. The ideas were coming together and it just seemed natural to set it at Christmas. It gives it that wry humour, driving along in a white van with a body in the back through streets of twinkling Christmas lights. It really helped carry the story along too, with Mark making a Christmas present for his daughter – it made the story better completely by accident.
We could also use really recognisable Christmas music for free, because all it needs is for you to put your own spin on it. There’s a ska version of ‘We Three Kings’ for example – you know the tune, but you may not immediately recognise that you’re listening to that song.
When you were making the film, what was your favourite scene to shoot?
I really loved filming the single-take shot or the “one” shot as you might say; the 14 year old inside me always wanted to do that, and I think it came out pretty well. It was an absolute madness to film because it was the second half of a long day and there was so much to consider. Until you get somewhere and start figuring it out, there’s only so much preparation you can do. On the day, one of the cast members dropped out, half of the crowd extras we were supposed to have didn’t turn up, and we didn’t even have the car that was supposed to end the sequence. My whole idea was that the guy was supposed to get a flat tire, and that was going to be how he was caught. On the day we didn’t have a car but out of pure luck, Badr Luqman (who plays Hassan) turned up in a black Mercedes he had borrowed from a mate, which was perfect for the scene. Knowing how it could have gone all wrong, the fact that it all worked out as well as it did means I really enjoy it whenever I see it. The whole Christmas dinner sequence came out as expected as well so that was great too.
With this film being released during a very different kind of Christmas, has the COVID-19 pandemic had an impact on Silent Night?
I’ve had two films come out this year and I’ve seen how COVID-19 has, at times, completely ruined something, but then the following week has given it an opportunity. On 11th December I was gearing up for the big Silent Night premiere. Unfortunately, a week later that cinema had to close because of new tier restrictions, so we were lucky to have released the film on that date. On the 11th, Free Guy, the big Ryan Reynolds film, was meant to be released, so when I saw we were releasing on the same day I thought, ‘oh God, everyone will go and see that film’ – I really want to see it too! But it got delayed again, and because of that, we became a release to look at that week – the schedule was freed up and we were able to be reviewed by people like Mark Kermode. Now, we’ve released it on VOD across many digital platforms, and we’ve performed well on all of them. People haven’t got the chance to go to the cinema right now so they’re sat at home, and there’s a good chance that people might click on and watch it – in that way, there’s never been a better opportunity for a digital release.
It’s great that you’ve been able to make some good from this situation! In terms of what you’ve got lined up for the future, how are things looking at the moment?
There’s a couple of films, especially one documentary, that I’d really like to do. However, the interviewees are in their late 70s, so that doesn’t really feel appropriate right now; the other projects I’m working on I’m currently writing scripts for. So ,I’m not as affected as other people. I feel really bad for those with projects on the go right now.
I know a filmmaker in Canada who shot half of his film over the summer during the peak, because he felt it was the right time to make the film and put all the COVID measures in place to do it. As long as you’re working with all the measures and restrictions in place with the worst case scenario in mind, that’s all you can do and it is achievable. If you are shooting something right now, you must have the right conditions, whether it be filming outside with distancing and limited locations, or in a Big Brother style social bubble in a studio.
In terms of my projects, I’m looking at the end of Spring or Summer next year. I’ve not really had to dip my toe into it too much, so most things I’ve heard from other people. We’ve all got shackles on, it’s a risky business as it is so it’s hard. I’m very hopeful, but I’m not holding my breath and won’t take anything for granted.
Silent Night is available on Digital Download now and on DVD from 28th December. Watch the trailer below: