Film & TV interview

Interview & Review with Moon Dogs director Phillip John

There comes a point in our lives, sometimes on the verge of adulthood, and sometimes midway into a career as a solicitor, where we ask ourselves the following questions. What am I doing? And, upon realising that we are desperately unhappy and unsure of ourselves: What the hell am I going to do? Once we realise that we are failing to take control of our own lives, we scramble desperately to try and escape the despair that develops as a result.

This overwhelming desire to break free is the driving force behind ‘Moon Dogs’ and is conveyed brilliantly through the aimlessness of the film’s central characters, Michael, Thor, and Caitlin, as they stumble through the monotony of life and attempt to free themselves of it. A key part of what makes ‘Moon Dogs’ such a great piece of indie cinema is its ability to capture youthful rebellion, born out of the need to make more of oneself, and to find a way to shake off the dullness of real life.

The film opens with a bleak shot of the Shetlands, introducing our protagonist Michael and suggesting that his life is intertwined with the emptiness of rural life. There are no lengthy shots of towering skyscrapers, here. No glamour, no glossy images are shown. Instead, we are presented with the realism of life on a small island and, with it, of working-class existence. Michael’s story is so simple, so common, that it should be unremarkable. Yet, the commonness of it is exactly what separates ‘Moon Dogs’ from the crowd. When it comes to British media, we have grown used to seeing films and television programmes that consist largely of middle-class characters, settings, and actors, and I am thinking, here, of features that include Eddie Redmayne, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Tom Hiddleston. While each of these actors have previously delivered great performances in film and television, each has also benefitted from a prestigious education, be it at Eton or Harrow. What is so refreshing about ‘Moon Dogs’ is the fact that its protagonist’s story is so ordinary. During a time in which it feels the arts are being dominated by the privileged classes, this depiction of a normal, working-class life, ironically, feels pretty remarkable.

By exploring the limitations placed upon Michael, Caitlin, and Thor, Phillip John creates something beautiful, as, similarly to Andrea Arnold, he effectively conveys the need for youthful rebellion. John makes use of the mundane in order to create wonder, as our heroes’ journey, from a tiny island to the bustling surroundings of Glasgow and back again, evokes feelings of resistance, tenderness, and euphoria. No extended looks at winding streets are given here, there is no glossing of edges, no pretension. Rather, every emotion feels raw, and real. Teenage sexuality is treated exactly as it is: clumsy, awkward, and uncomfortable. Although it later develops in something more sensual later in the film, this only occurs after our protagonists have begun their journey, signalling the end of their adolescence. Discomfort is stripped away, alongside hesitation, as childhood transitions into the cusp of adult life, leading the film’s trio to their rebirth, where they can shed the scars of their pasts, and shape the world as they wish.

By having its principal characters rebel against that which binds them to their monotonous lives, ‘Moon Dogs’ suggests that resistance is not merely an option, but a necessity. In order to truly live, we must make a stand against the mundane and spit in the face of authority. Through its depiction of rebellion, ‘Moon Dogs’ calls out to the innate desire to break free of convention, of control, that stirs inside all of us. It is a well-crafted, intimate look at youth and all the glorious confusion that comes with it.

One of my favourite aspects of ‘Moon Dogs’ is its setting. In the indie genre, we often find films set in the rush of cities, so it felt very refreshing to see this one largely set in the ruralness of the Shetland Isles and other remote parts of Scotland. Why did you decide to do this, and were you aware of your setting being an anomaly?

Phillip John: One of the main reasons for the setting of ‘Moon Dogs’ was the fact that many of our financial backers were from Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, and there was a lot we felt we could do with Celtic characters in these Celtic settings. I grew up in the South Welsh valleys, where there could sometimes be a kind of intellectual isolation, and an upkeeping of tradition, not always seen in cities. As a teenager, I was very much into music, like Thor in the film, and this sometimes meant that said intellectual isolation occurred when living in the valleys, so a rural setting was important for the film. Also, I think the Shetland Isles are just beautiful, and it felt very exotic to film there!

Part of what this film does so well is the way in which it captures youthful disillusionment, and this certainly struck a chord with me. Was it reminiscent of your own adolescence at all?

John: In some ways, yes. I always wanted to be a director, but I didn’t really have the opportunity when I was younger. At one point, I was studying a course that I didn’t really want to, and I just thought to myself: ‘What the fuck?’ So, definitely, that desire to do something that you want to do is, rather than what you’re supposed to do, is quite clear in the film. I think there’s something really great about making your own noise, and in a way, this is a film for my children, because I know that they might not necessarily get the job they want, and that it’s possible they might not end up doing exactly what they want. With ‘Moon Dogs’, I wanted to show that university isn’t always the only path, and that there are other options out there, that it doesn’t have to be the be all and end all, as so many of us often feel like it is.

Another aspect of ‘Moon Dogs’ that I really enjoyed was the film’s inclusion of an enigmatic, independent female character. In a world of monotony, it was awesome to see Caitlin do whatever she pleased. Was there any inspiration for her character, and were you thinking about creating her with a feminist viewpoint in mind at all?

John: Caitlin’s character was crafted from what I would call a humanist viewpoint. She’s the kind of character that has lived a long life, one filled with difficulties, and despite that, she’s still a strong, hot-headed person that doesn’t take shit from anyone. Ultimately, while ‘Moon Dogs’ is essentially Michael’s movie, all three main characters definitely undergo some key changes, and Caitlin’s is an important one.

Finally, what are you hoping for people to take away from this film? What would you like to introduce to the conversation surrounding the coming-of-age indie genre?

John: I think what I would like ‘Moon Dogs’ to start is a conversation that is to do with rebellion, and authority, and how we should respond to those things. You know, I wish my own kids would stand up to authority, they’re a bit too good right now! I want to show people that there doesn’t always have to be a ‘plan B’, and, actually, there shouldn’t be a need for a ‘plan B’. I feel like sometimes we live in fear of the world, and we know that the news is there to keep us terrified, so I wanted to show how that can lead to a desire to get away from everything at the age of seventeen or eighteen.

And I wanted to ignite a conversation, too, about the lack of opportunities for many young people, particularly those that don’t have what we can call a middle-class safety net. The arts, as we all know, are currently being dominated by the middle-class, really, which means that there are less and less opportunities for young members of the working-class that really want to pursue artistic outlets. Maybe we should look to Germany, where allowances are offered for artists, so they can explore their opportunities. That’s what matters, pursuing something that you want. I think, really, ‘Moon Dogs’ is about the importance of doing what one loves, and that’s the kind of conversation it sparks.

MOON DOGS is in cinemas from 1st September

Check out the trailer here: Moon Dogs trailer

By Hannah Ryan