Interview Gerry Johnston

He’s worked with some of film’s greats – Kubrick, Boorman, Spielberg et al. – Now Irish special effects guru Gerry Johnston picks up a pen to document his 40 year experience in the movie biz. We chat to Gerry about working in the industry and his new book ‘Lights, Camera, Dynamite’.

As Ireland’s top special effects director, Gerry Johnston’s life is the stuff of boyish fantasy, from meeting childhood heroes to playing with blood and gore, his has been a rollercoaster career, mingling with the famous and flirting with the dangerous!

Now after 40 year’s in the industry, having worked with Kubrick, Boorman, Spielberg and many more, Gerry has written ‘Lights, Camera, Dynamite: The Adventures of a Special Effects Director’

The book reveals the secrets and occasional mishaps behind the visual effects and stunts performed to create the illusion for the viewer. With an extensive plate section of behind the scenes shots, as well as an introduction by James Morris, Chairman of the Irish Film Board, ‘Lights, Camera, Dynamite’  provides an intriguing look into the creation of the magic we see on screen – and the people who conjure it up.

Q:What prompted you to write the book now?
A:I’ve been working in the film industry for over forty years, based at Ardmore Studios and my career has more or less reflected the industry in Ireland. With Ardmore celebrating fifty years, the Irish film industry expanding and my career diversifying, and it seemed like a good time to put down my adventures on paper.

Q:How did you start out in the film business?
A:Actually, it was by accident. My father knew I wasn’t all that happy in my job at the time and he met an old friend of his who was involved with the film The Blue Max, which had just gone into pre-production at Ardmore Studios. My father learned that the film’s production people were looking for a couple of trainees and suggested I go out to Ardmore, where his friend had set up an interview for me. So out I went, not knowing what type of work was involved, and not all that sure about giving up my steady job – even if I didn’t like it all that much. I met three supervisors who seemed to be impressed by my work experience and a couple of days later I got a call to report for work! Little did I know then, that a life in film working with directors like Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg, would follow.

Q:You’ve spent 40 years in the business, what’s been your secret to success?

A:There’s really no secret. I loved the business from the day I started and I was determined to stay. You need to be creative, flexible and ever-ready, but although it’s been hard work and long hours, once I started, I never wanted to do anything else.

Q:Who did you have in mind when you wrote the book?
A:I didn’t write it for a specific audience. I reckon it will probably appeal to most people, hopefully to movie buffs, people starting out in the industry and the ordinary film-goer, who might like to get a little insight into the making of films. Most of all, I hope people will enjoy it – while sitting at home, waiting at the airport, or lying on a beach!

Q:Would you describe the book as an autobiography or a biography of a special effects director?
A:It’s neither and yet it’s both, full of anecdotes, as it revolves mainly around my career and the films I worked on.

Q:What’s changed about the Irish cinema industry since you began?
A:Today, Ireland’s film industry is more established. It’s bigger and better and a world player. The types of films made here have changed, there’s a much bigger skill-base here now. We also have film schools and film is now a recognised field of study. From my point of view, it’s great to see more Irish people involved in key positions and decision-making and the ever-increasing amount of creative talent coming to the fore.

Q:The book certainly sounds like it has its moments of comedy: care to tell our readers about the ‘condom’ incident?
A:As people may remember, condoms were illegal in Ireland in the 70s and very difficult to get. We use condoms for blood bags in bullet hits – and for other effects requiring latex. I was working on a film called Images, starring Susannah York, in which she has to blow out someone’s stomach with a double-barrel shotgun, so you can imagine what that’s supposed to look like! The problem was, I had only a very short time to create the blown-out stomach. I needed a huge amount of latex and didn’t have enough in stock. I ordered some from a colleague in the UK, but wasn’t sure if he could get it over to me in time, so I asked the production if there was anyone going to the UK for the weekend, who could bring me back some condoms! As it happened, the production accountant was going to London. He had also been asked by Wardrobe to pick up some fancy ladies underwear for the film! Unfortunately for the poor chap, on Monday morning, his luggage was searched at Dublin airport, which he wasn’t too pleased about, especially as, following a very public display of interesting lingerie, he was arrested for importing condoms!

Q:You’ve worked with some of the biggest names in national and international cinema alike; any memorable experiences?
A:I suppose one of the more unusual places to be working close to a famous actor was on the roof of a train, hurtling through the midlands at 55 miles an hour! The film was The First Great Train Robbery, starring Sean Connery. Sean did much of his own stunt work at the time and he and I, along with the director, Michael Crichton (Author of Jurassic Park), spent the time on the roof of the train, where it was my job to judge the amount of smoke my colleagues were generating from the engine compartment at the front of the train and to warn Connery and Crichton each time we were about to go under a bridge. On my call, we’d all lie on our backs, heads dangling out over the side, hanging on for dear life, until we’d cleared the bridge!

Q:After 40 years, you’ve built up quite a reputation and you must have got offers to work in other countries. Why did you decide to stay in Ireland?
A:I’ve often been tempted, and I talk about certain offers I got in the book. I have worked abroad on quite a few occasions, on different continents, sometimes for months at a time, but while I enjoyed the different cultural experiences and meeting new people, I’ve always liked coming home. Besides, I didn’t really want to uproot my family while my children were young and most of my close friends are still here.

Q:One key difference must be the advent of CGI effects. How do they compare to the simpler days of relying on wire and your wits to create the desired effects (which do you prefer)?

A:There’s a lot of hard work involved in CGI effects, but physical effects are often more difficult and trickier to create. CGI and physical effects both have a role to play and combined, they are often very effective. However, physical effects on screen are more impressive and indeed, directors are increasingly going back to physical effects as a means of achieving the desired result. Naturally, I agree!

Q:When can we expect to see you back bombing sets?
A:I’ve never stopped, but now that the book is finished, I can put the phone back on the hook!

Q:In your 40-year career, what has been your favourite project to work on?
A:I can honestly say that I’ve enjoyed most projects I’ve worked on. Of course I loved the big action productions like The Manions of America, which launched Pierce Brosnan to international stardom, Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan and there were numerous TV productions such as The Year of the French, in Killala and Strumpet City in Dublin. I also recall with fondness one TV commercial I did for Dublin Corporation (now Dublin City Council). It was a ‘Save Water’ campaign involving a goldfish in a tank of water. As the water drains away, the goldfish is left flapping at the bottom of the tank. The ad was a success, people became very conscious about saving water but the commercial was withdrawn. Several TV sets were destroyed around Dublin because young kids were pouring water down the back of their sets to save the fish!