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"Roll With It": Reel Film Reviews interviews Jonny Owen

By Sayward Spooner

Jonny Owen might be one of those artists who could throw himself into any medium as long as he was able to tell stories. Currently he’s an actor, writer, and producer from Wales. He’s also a musician who played in an indie band for 10 years in the 1990s. When you put all that together, you get the 2013 UK film Svengali. Now being released in North America, Svengali is about a small town guy from Wales named Dixie who believes he’s discovered the next big band that will change rock and roll forever. But Dixie learns that the music, no matter how powerful, is only a small part of what it takes to manage a band in the music industry. It’s the rock and roll antics and crazy story around the music that people want and it’s the Svengali’s job to frame it just right.

REEL FILM REVIEWS: Where does the idea for Svengali come from? What inspired it?

JONNY OWEN: It's almost semi-autobiographical. I moved to London in 2007, 2008 and I didn't have any work. I was a jobbing actor and writer, and I had this idea of somebody similar who was there looking to get a band signed with this record label and the credit crunch just happened, so there's no money around. But this guy has this idea that he has this band that was fantastic, was going to save rock and roll. And so I filmed some stuff with my friends who are actors. It was a comedy about this guy that almost bungles his way along but actually he's got a great band. I did it online and it was very, very popular in the UK and across the world. A few what you would call "famous people" from the world of rock and roll, people like Alan McGee and Carl Barât from the Libertines, they liked it and thought it was very funny. They wanted to be part of it and it kind of grew from there, really.

So it initially started as an internet series?

That’s right, episodes. They got a cult following. Magazines like the NME and Rolling Stone picked it up and said this is good, it's very funny. That was over a period of two years, altogether. Some people got interested and said this is a great idea to make it into a film and that was it, really. It grew from there.

Was turning it into a film a lot more work? What did you have to do to do that?

Yeah, it was a lot more work in the sense that you had to write a script that was a narrative of a film. And obviously setting up the production; everything from finding the locations to getting the actors to putting the production team together. We managed to raise the money to do it, and what happened was, we made the film and Universal Films in the UK loved it and picked it up and put it out. That was the story, really.

Did you say that when you were making the episodes for the internet that people in the industry started taking notice, like Alan McGee? How did that contact come about?

Yeah, almost exactly as you said. I put the first episodes up and somebody gave a copy to Alan McGee and he loved it and we said, "well, do you want to be in it playing yourself?" He said, "I'd love to," and went down and got involved and a lot of different rock stars like people from Oasis and The Libertines saw it and they loved it, and it grew from there. I knew some well-known actors, people like Martin Freeman and those kinds of people. They loved it as well and they asked if they could be in it, so it ended up being a cool thing for people to be in. I was delighted to get them involved because it was a lot of fun. We filmed it in a very rock and roll kind of way; there was no script, it was all improvised. We had an idea of the storyline and you were free to do what you wanted, you could have a few cans of beer, so it was very rock and roll in that sense. They found that quite liberating to do and you've got to be relaxed when you do anything, really, especially comedy, and you've got to enjoy it. That's what I tried to encourage on the shoot. People really enjoyed it.

I looked up your bio and I noticed that you played in a band for years. I was wondering is working in film and television similar in any way to working in the music industry, do you think?

Yeah, there's a lot of similarities, I'd say. A lot of the training that I have in film and television I've got from working in rock and roll. I was very young when I started in bands and Britpop happened in the UK in the mid '90s. And that period was probably what you’d say was the last golden period for British guitar bands. I remember the world very well; a lot of money floating around, a lot of drugs, a lot of what you would consider to be all of the features of rock and roll. A lot of larger-than-life characters, and Alan McGee gave me a great line when he said "rock and roll is the only industry in the world where bad behavior is actively encouraged" and I thought that's a fantastic line for comedy. I think he's right; if you fall over in a bar and you're a rock-and-roll star and drunk, everybody goes "oh, he's a poet; it’s what he does." But if you do it and you're an electrician or a plumber, you get thrown out. So I thought there was a lot of room for comedy in that and that's what I started doing.

The antics of the band seem to always overshadow the music, and we never actually hear them play, but it's not even the point. It's just the band's story.

Absolutely. Some of the great seminal bands like The Beatles and The Sex Pistols, they were as much about image and behavior as they were about their music at the start. The Stones and The Pistols were the bad boys, The Beatles were witty and clever. Those things all added to them being fantastic musicians as well. Especially in the UK; people like their musicians to be bad boys.

Which do you find more creatively fulfilling: movies and television or music?

It's a really good question, actually. I think if I was really honest about it the best time you'll ever have as an artist is going live on stage to a packed, expectant audience. There's nothing that can top that, genuinely. It's an amazing feeling. Television and film come very close when you see people reacting to your work, clapping or cheering, but I'd say from an artistic sense nothing will ever beat the buzz of going on a stage and playing in a band. It's pretty special. I think it’s almost the highest art form because in popular culture, popular music has been so important in world history now, this last 50 years, and I think that's [because] it moves people in a very certain way. You'll never have a feeling like you have watching a band when you're 16 years of age, when you'd do anything to see that band. As human beings, we always carry that with us. If I was completely honest I'd say nothing tops being in a band on a stage.

I'm told it's more instant, too, whereas with a film you're making it and then you put it out...

Actually there's a great conversation between a very famous British filmmaker called Ken Loach, who did stuff like Kes, and Noel Gallagher. They're talking about their art forms and Noel says to Ken, "you've made some of the great British films of the last 30 years and I'm jealous of that." And then Ken Loach says, "yeah, but you've connected with people in an instant way that I could never do in filmmaking when you write a song." And I thought he was right when he said it is a bit more instant. I think it's because music, as human beings, when we take in music, it affects us in certain ways. It catches our soul in a certain way and I don't know why that is.

Svengali is available now through VOD in North America.

© David Nusair