British writer-director Gerard Johnson earned rave reviews for his first feature films, serial killer drama Tony and crime thriller Hyena, begging the question of what would be next for one of the industry’s most daring, yet unpredictable voices?
The answer came in the form of Muscle, an acclaimed psychological thriller that largely takes place in and around a gym. It’s the story of Simon (Cavan Clerkin – The Last Kingdom, The Capture) an unhappy, unambitious office worker whose life is gradually taken over by Terry (Craig Fairbrass – Villain, Rise of the Footsoldier) his new, hands-on personal trainer, who reveals himself to be more committed, and more dangerous, than Simon could have ever imagined.
Simon isn’t living the life he wants. He’s tired of his dead-end job at a call centre – and he isn’t even any good at it. He and his girlfriend are painfully drifting apart, he’s sick of his life and it’s time to make a change and hit the gym. But everything spins out of control when he draws the attention of Terry, who offers to coach him, and quickly becomes his boss, friend and roommate. Soon, Simon finds himself trapped in a self-destructive spiral with every aspect of his life resting in Terry’s hands, and no way out.
Following stellar reviews in cinemas and on demand, Muscle is out now on digital download (and Blu-ray & DVD from 1st February), and Johnson reveals some of his biggest influences behind the film.
A Taste of Honey (1961)
“I was heavily inspired by the kitchen sink dramas of the 1960’s. I was enamored by the look and feel of those towns in the North of England, the surrounding atmosphere. There’s an undeniable aesthetic and it’s definitely something that helped inspire Muscle. I hope that when people see it, there’s no doubting we’re in the modern environment of a broken Britain, but you can also spot a subtle continuation of the kitchen sink dramas, or the ‘angry young men’ films of the 1960’s.”
The Servant (1963)
“This film was based more around class, but there’s a similar feel I wanted to adopt in Muscle, and the most obvious comparison is how it shows the takeover of somebody’s life. The characters and performances were a big factor too, the duality between the roles and blurring of the lines. It was such a big influence that I originally called the film The Trainer for a long period of time. I actually changed the name because that became the title of a Liam Neeson film being made. But I prefer Muscle now, I think it’s so much stronger.”
“Ingmar Bergman’s film was very influential for me. It’s surreal and strange, but the story about the merging of personas is fascinating, and something that definitely made an impact on me. With all these black and white films, while we all tip our hats to our influences, I feel you still need to do something contemporary and not just appropriate what you’ve seen before. I’ve never once copied a shot I liked from anything, it’s about creating a mood or an atmosphere for your own story. “
“I see Performance as being much like The Servant, it’s the ying and yang. James Fox is in both films and, although the characters are slightly different, there are similarities in the story. It’s always been influential for me, not just for the film itself but how they went about making it and growing it organically on set. They captured a lot of things by accident and they say James Fox suffered a breakdown after making it [also brought on by the death of his father and his drug use]. I think you can recognise that type of dangerous filmmaking, the risk taking.”
“This is a drama-documentary written and directed by Dan Reed about gangsters in Liverpool. They used real local guys who play themselves, not actors, so it’s got a great sense of authenticity as we see these men spending time together, driving around, going to the gym and I think it was a subconscious influence on Muscle. It’s a very interesting snapshot of the Liverpool gangster scene in the early 2000s.”
The Power of Music
“I love playing music loud on set because I find it helps me and the actors stay focused. There’s so much stuff that goes on in the middle of a shoot which you can’t control, so it can be hard to concentrate. It helps you stay in the film’s environment, the story you’re telling, rather than breaking the mood and chatting about other stuff. Obviously, everyone can still do their jobs, but I believe this approach helps everyone to focus solely on the world of the film for the duration we’re spending on set.
My brother Matt Johnson [of THE THE] work very closely on the scores for my films and we share a lot of ideas. There was a track “Mister You’re a Better Man Than I” by Manfred Mann Chapter Three, which I loved and had used during a play reading of (THIS STORY OF YOURS’s) I did up in Edinburgh, so I’d already tested it in a way and it was so effective. The lyrics fit Muscle very well, so much so I had to use it in the film. I’m glad we got the rights for it. I think Matt drew on certain elements of jazz for his Muscle score, even emulating sounds of the industrial environment. It’s a very subtle thing we do to find the palette, the DNA of the film. We did it on Tony and Hyena as well, and continued this collaboration on Muscle. I think his score really enhances the mood of the film.”