Interview by Andreea Boyer // Edited by Chris Charles of Idol Features
Dan Tonkin’s latest film Jenna the Great, stars veteran actress Charlotte Dunnico and has been reviewed as a film that “gives an inspiring message for the modern day young audience.” Some of his earlier films that he wrote and directed include the shorts Survivor (2015), Last Light (2016), and Echo Screen (2016).
Andreea Boyer: Where are you from and what can you tell us about yourself?
Dan Tonkin: I am originally from Derby, the East Midlands. It’s not exactly renowned for its output of filmmakers. It was different for me being shot to London, to Switzerland, to Hong Kong, and then to return to the UK, as a stranger and outcast. Friends changed all the time, adaptability was difficult, and the instability didn’t leave me in good stride with education. I tried my hardest, but fell behind and soon got it into my head I was just never going to be good enough. Whilst everyone around me got all these amazing, impossible, grades, I just kept myself to myself.
Andreea Boyer: Have you been working in the film industry mainly in your country or also somewhere else around the globe?
Dan Tonkin: I have worked in the film industry mainly as an independent filmmaker. Occasionally, someone actually steps up to my freelance rates and I work, but my best contracts have always come from China where they’re more likely to pay for the value I bring. I have found work in the UK to be rather stingy and/or employers to have ridiculous expectations. Working with China, if they want an assistant producer, that’s what you’ll be expected to do. In the UK, they’d expect you to shoot, edit, design graphics, handle their clients, have previous experience coordinating animation teams, as well as act as their social media manager …all for £25,000. Just ridiculous.
Andreea Boyer: How did you start your career as a filmmaker and what has motivated and inspired you?
Dan Tonkin: Filmmaker life began for me with movies being the one constant comfort I had, wherever life threw me. Over such an erratic life, with no roots, I took comforts from watching inspirational fictional characters. I could take the punches in life with Rocky, laugh watching the Terminator adapt his social skills, check to make sure my mum was out when I mimicked Ellen Ripley, making a stand, exclaiming; “Get away from her, you bitch!” It was the movies themselves and I’m also a big fan of (the character) Solid Snake from the Metal Gear Solid video game series. That just because you’ve had it tough, it doesn’t shape you and it was up to me to find something to believe in then pass it on. My main role models were fictional, but coming from somewhat of an extraordinary path, I just didn’t have anyone in my own life that inspired the strength I wanted to stand on my own two feet one day.
Andreea Boyer: When did you start with your career as a filmmaker and has filmmaking always been your main focus?
Dan Tonkin: Carefully avoiding the word “career” to explain myself as part of the filmmaker world. That word is a thing that most filmmakers fight for. It wasn’t until I got my first A grade in film and a screening of my graduation film in London that asserted what I felt my destiny to be. I live as one of those; “why did I have to be a filmmaker?” folks who wish I could have a regular income in an agency or studio that paid me something respectable. When filmmaking becomes your only focus, you don’t go chasing riches …just the means to keep going. I brought dozens of projects from script to screen, worked with difficult people, and put together entire productions with no money and motivated teams in their dozens to reach a vision. So, I went a long way past applying for making cups of tea or coffee. For those who went through an education system with BA’s in television and the like, but couldn’t score above that, ironically I slowly found out that the same thing that made me feel inferior for most of my life was actually a major piece of the problem, not providing the adequate education and training for what certain employers were looking for.
Andreea Boyer: What can you tell us about the cast and story from your movie Jenna The Great?
Dan Tonkin: Essentially, Jenna The Great, comes from a very personal place that takes my time as an educator and filmmaker, passing on their knowledge to help others from getting into the same problems I had. I have worked with a great many cast and crew by this point. It’s about how one from a poor start in life can turn their life around and transcend the place that holds them …ironically being the education system. It was essential that my protagonist be played by an actress who was a devoted actress, preferably hit with similar experiences in their life. I just wasn’t buying into the auditions from those who seemingly were “trying too hard.” When I found Charlotte Dunnico, she not only had the attitude, but the whit and other things like the single-mothered childhood that came from a personal place that despite pressures through pre-production, I fought her corner saying; “Nope …she stays. It’s not up for negotiation.” For playing Jenna, she’s already got a couple of wins for Best Actress that made people eat their words.
Finding an Aristotle was a true challenge and auditions were just terrible until one of my actress friends led me to Felix Trench, with his own experience of living outside of the UK as an outcast and a desire to better himself whilst being able to deliver this comically was simply unmatched. I had to have him. Again, this decision resulted in another Best Actor award and watching them on camera was great. I built the supporting cast around them. Jamie Lee Hill, I had already worked with before, having been responsible for his first Best Actor award as his producer re-engaged both our interest to work with each other again, Gemma Wilks, is always “fully” prepared to bring out the character I want as her cinematographer, producer, and now director. It was great to be with her again. Olivia Stelling I have helped her acting career since the beginning and her energy and commitment is never in doubt. Hattie Gotobed is already a giant in her field, climbing from one thing to another. Snow White and The Huntsman, Game Of Thrones, she could play the goodies and be innocent, but I really loved turning her into a brat. The spiteful eye contact she could swing towards Jenna was too unpassable. As for Bhasker, I wanted someone with a good track record and supporter of mental health initiatives to come in, be an established already likeable face to act as the voice of authority that elevates Jenna’s position at the end of the story to a good place.
Andreea Boyer: Where did you film your movie?
Dan Tonkin: The movie was shot in Dorset, specifically Bournemouth and Poole. When I turned my own education life around, I had done so here. Becoming a mentor, helping out other filmmakers. The sense of community and creativity in Bournemouth really took me inside and have very fond memories of it that I wanted to help draw out.
Andreea Boyer: What can you tell us about your other films and work ?
Dan Tonkin: My other films, as of late have somehow always ended up with female leads. I think it helps keep me from writing myself into the story sometimes. I like to make sure all characters have a clear flaw I can relate to, such as my former anger issues, the feeling of displacement that makes their goals harder to reach as they feel they cannot rely on anyone else. Dealing with a sense of loss for not so much the better result but as being the right thing to do morally is a regular theme in my life so analyze away ….you’ll find those in there.
Andreea Boyer: What can you tell us about your best experiences and which moments in your career have been the most influential ones for you?
Dan Tonkin: My best experiences start from getting into my first interview with BBC when I developed a “Choose Your Own Adventure” interactive film when all I had was people doubting it could be done …once again, my teachers were amongst them. I made my best music composer friend from this experience from this pitch; Michael O’Neill, guitarist to George Benson, and had not a clue about his Hollywood successes until much later. We have stayed in contact and he happily followed me onto Jenna the Great too. One of my other best moments was when a comedy short I filmed with a local filmmaker group I was mentoring rose up and took a Royal Television Society nomination. Being with people that appreciate your skills and knowledge and bother to coordinate themselves, taking an impressive approach and attitude to work even when I was not around is something every mentor loves to have. Celebrating this win with them in Southwark, presented by comedian Katherine Ryan, whom I had a big crush on, was a pleasure.
Andreea Boyer: Which moments on the film set have been the most difficult ones for you?
Dan Tonkin: The most difficult film sets to be on have usually been with students, more concerned with achieving some magical grade score at the end of their semester, with someone dressed as a Harry Potter villain, they’ve never met before that doesn’t even write their own speeches. Many have a sense of entitlement or come across as know-it-all’s. I went onto an MA film set once and no one knew how a clapper board worked. Despite how well this part went, the edit for a period drama came out as something with a misguided score and something you wanted to turn off immediately. Another one was a full week of work; Fascinating cast, locations, production design, and my best cinematographer work, all fell apart with no sound design, badly recorded audio, and once again, a serious lack of communication. During the time I did a bit of acting there was also a journey where I got in a car with a student that claimed to be a producer, who’d just past their test. I was expected to guide them to their location and almost got killed three times as we drove there to a four-hour delayed shoot. Then, wanting to skip lunch, they refused to even apologize, so I did something I had never done before; walk off.
Andreea Boyer: What is your advice for all young independent filmmakers on how they should work on their goals and reach the best audience for their individual work?
Dan Tonkin: My advice for filmmakers is plentiful. Don’t rely on education to give you what you need …it won’t! Sign up to Raindance, Shooting People, and BAFTA networking and seminars. Engage with other people’s productions and help. Get yourself a driver’s license. It’s a great “in” to any runner/logger role out there as a freelancer. Get a second job as a graphics designer for posters, take up visual effects for animations so you can earn your money as well as a good showreel. And overall, don’t contribute to the pain and misguided advice out there. Help others, offer your own advice too. In time, this is what will improve this industry for more people and reach a place it should be. Educated and rife with opportunity for everyone.
Thank you, Mr. Tonkin. We wish you continued success.
See more of Dan’s works at his IMDb Page.