For one of the island’s most successful movie directors – gaining commercial success with only his second film in ten years – film is all there ever was in his life. THEO PANAYIDES meets an unglamorous man focused on the end goal who has nonetheless enjoyed the journey
If you want a reminder of how punishingly hard it is to make it in the film industry, consider this. Johnny Kevorkian has wanted to make movies ever since he was a child; it’s all he’s ever done, a goal he’s spent his whole life pursuing – yet even now, at 43, his CV as director only runs to two feature films, plus a handful of shorts. His new film, Await Further Instructions, is his first in 10 years, since The Disappeared in 2008.
At the same time, however, London-based Johnny is among the most successful Cypriot-born directors in the world. The Disappeared, a spooky British thriller with a starry cast including Harry Treadaway (from Mr. Mercedes) and Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films), was successful enough – but Await Further Instructions has soared to a whole other level, not just released to cinemas in the US and UK but also included in the New York Times’ weekly critics’ picks, a rare accolade for any movie, let alone a genre movie. “A British family turns on itself when a mysterious substance seals its home in this genuinely upsetting horror-sci-fi hybrid,” wrote the Times – and, given the paper’s reach and influence, it’s not far-fetched to claim, as Johnny does, that any film included in its Picks automatically becomes “the film of the week in America”. The man sitting opposite me in a Costa Coffee in Nicosia is quite a heavy hitter.
Not that you’d know, necessarily. There’s no entourage, no publicist checking his watch in the background, nor is our setting especially glitzy. We opt to sit outside, where it’s quieter; it’s a wet and grey Thursday afternoon, the garden area rain-sodden and almost deserted. It’s so cold that my hand, holding up the tape recorder, goes numb within minutes, then the weather gets worse and rivulets of water start to drip through the awning. “I’m being rained on!” laughs Johnny good-naturedly, shifting in his chair and turning up the collar of his jacket. You have to say he cuts an unglamorous figure, a moon-faced 40-something huddled against the cold and taking little sips of a soya latte (he’s not vegan; he just likes the taste). Someone watching us might struggle to discern why exactly this person succeeded in an industry where thousands of others try, and fail, every year.
So why did he? Impossible to say, at least in a couple of sentences; still, a few hints emerge during the course of our conversation. ‘How would you describe your personality?’ I ask at one point – a question most people tend to sidestep or find bewildering, but Johnny has a ready answer. “Very stubborn,” he replies. “In terms of just getting something done, making sure it gets done. Which can sometimes be a problem, because you lose sight of everything else – but just, you know, seeing the end goal”.
His background includes a detail which he recounts quite casually but which seems, in retrospect, quite unusual. He was born in Cyprus, but the family emigrated to Australia when Johnny was three; they stayed for 12 years, then returned (‘they’ including his parents, brother and sister, all of whom are still living here) when the boy was in his mid-teens – but in fact Johnny only stayed for nine months before moving to England, where he completed his education (he ended up studying Film at the University of Westminster) and stayed on, trying to get a foothold in the film industry. Why did he move? “I couldn’t live here,” he replies. “Because I wanted to do film, from a very young age – and there was nothing here”. It’s true there wasn’t much of a film industry in Cyprus in the early 90s (some would say there still isn’t) – but it’s not like a 15-year-old would be making movies anyway; surely most kids would’ve stuck it out for a couple of years? I presume he was unhappy, for whatever reason (he didn’t speak Greek, for a start) – but perhaps it was also a case of being so stubbornly focused on his “end goal” that he couldn’t stand the thought of being sidetracked. His will must’ve been quite relentless.
He seems both intense and very pleasant, in the way of a naturally intense person who’s learned the importance of being pleasant. Once he gets going, he talks so fast he sometimes stumbles over his words. ‘Do you ever lose your temper?’ I ask, and am quite surprised when he answers with a firm “Yes!”.
I wouldn’t have thought so, I admit.
“I know, that’s the thing,” he replies with a shamefaced smile. “It flips, like that. On-set I don’t, but it does happen a few times, on the set I can really lose it”. But only for good reason, he adds quickly, “I wouldn’t be nasty to people” – and indeed he’s very careful when it comes to business relationships, making sure not to offend. He tells me of an agent he used to have in his 20s (a rare thing for a young filmmaker; apparently the agent approached him on the strength of some well-received early shorts); it didn’t work out, but there’s no hard feelings and “I still keep in touch with them”, he says, making sure to use the neutral pronoun so as to protect the agent’s identity. It’s the same with a production company he co-founded and eventually had to leave (production had stalled, which is partly why it took 10 years to make his second movie); he’s not really in touch with the other co-founders but it’s fine, “we didn’t fall out or anything”.
Relationships are everything in the film business – indeed, in any business. The secret of success, in any field, lies perhaps in getting what you want while making others feel that they too are getting what they want. But there’s something more in his case, another balance that demands to be struck.
Johnny’s a commercial filmmaker. Unlike many Cyprus-based auteurs (who tend to make dramas on social issues, including the much-maligned Cyprus problem), he makes genre movies, notably horror; Await Further Instructions starts as a family drama – it’s a bit like Get Out, last year’s American hit, with a young man bringing his British-Indian girlfriend to his crypto-racist family – then twists into something more fantastical. Being commercial means being pragmatic, and he’s very aware of “the audience side”, i.e. making films that distributors will buy – but being a filmmaker also means having a vision, and sticking to it even when everyone else is convinced it’ll fail. In a word, it means being stubborn.
Here, perhaps, is the biggest reason why Johnny Kevorkian succeeded where most people fail: he refuses to be ruled by self-doubt. “I just get on with it,” he tells me. “You kind of kick yourself and go ‘Stop feeling sorry. Just keep going. You know you can do it’. ’Cause, you know, there’s a lot of bad films getting made out there, and people are making them. You think ‘If they’re doing it, why can’t you?’. I think it’s all about being very resilient and bullish. I think that’s the key, really.”
He shakes his head, warming to his theme as the rain patters on the awning above us: “I’ve seen so many people in this business that start off and they – it’s not even, like, financial pressure, it’s about doubts! – and they – they just give up. Honestly, just give up. I’ve seen it happen so much. It’s almost like there’s a race and they’re, like, dropping off, and you just think ‘Wow’. You know, last person standing. It’s a fascinating thing.
“Again, a lot of it is about self-doubt – ’cause people always tell you, you can’t do it. That’s the common theme in this industry, ‘You can’t do it’… But if you listen to that, then I think you won’t do it. [Whereas] if you listen to your inner self and go ‘I can do it, I will do it. I’ll prove you wrong’ – then you do it. And that’s it. OK, it’s not always going to work,” he adds, as if wary of leaning too hard on a ‘Hollywood ending’ – but persistence is key, and would certainly be his main theme if he were giving advice to aspiring filmmakers. “If in three years’ time you’ll be like ‘Oh actually, I’m bored of this’, then don’t waste that three years,” he warns. “Because I’m telling you now, it’s not for everyone.”
For him, as already mentioned, it was always the main thing. It’s all there was, and all there ever has been. What would he have done, if the film career hadn’t panned out? “Maybe become a chef. I love cooking!” he replies unexpectedly – though of course cooking is a lot like making movies, “you gather the right ingredients and everything has to work together”. As to why the idea was so attractive to him as a young child… well, therein lies a year’s worth of therapy – but it may be significant that Johnny was intensely shy as a kid, and had real trouble speaking in public. “I wouldn’t get up and talk, I couldn’t even talk in class in front of people”; he had serious anxiety attacks, and would “throw a sickie” rather than speak a line in the school play. More importantly, the issues continued even into adulthood. Even as late as 10 years ago, when he made The Disappeared, it gave him panic attacks to get up and talk at festivals (“People said to me, ‘You’d better sort it out, you’re going to be doing a lot more of this’”). Even now, though he’s largely overcome his reluctance and can talk about films easily enough, he tends to demur when it’s anything more personal. “If somebody said to me ‘Can you do a speech at a wedding?’, that kind of stuff, I’d be really struggling with that.”
Armchair psychology is never the best idea – but the word ‘control’ comes up again and again in our conversation (“I had lost control,” he laments of that ill-fated production company; “I can control a bit more now,” he says, of how the success of Await Further Instructions has changed his life). Extroverts always imagine that shy people are shy because they’re timid, or fearful – but shyness often comes from the opposite impulse, a powerful need to control the world which, being unfeasible, curdles instead into withdrawing from it. Given Johnny’s assertive personality (and perhaps the secret confusion of being neither Aussie nor truly Cypriot), making films may have offered a way to gain the assurance he craved as a young man; a film, after all, is an ecosystem – its own little world – and the director is the one in control. He’s good with actors, but “you’ve also got to be firm,” he tells me; they can’t be allowed to take over. At one point, I ask what he’s like socially – and he cheerfully admits he’s “a bit dictator-ish”, tending to be the one who leads a group (suggesting they go inside if it gets too cold, say) rather than meekly follow the pack. “That’s the director in me. In a good way, not in a horrible way! I’m not a horrible person.”
So then why does he keep making horror films? But it’s probably not because of some deep-seated dark side, merely because they’re commercial. Johnny’s pragmatic, as already mentioned (his dad’s an accountant, which may have instilled a healthy respect for profit and loss), and he talks very pointedly of making successful films – not just adding to the multitude of movies that come out and “get washed away by the rain,” he says wistfully, his metaphor possibly inspired by the downpour that continues to drip on his jacket.
Meanwhile, he tries to enjoy life – because that’s the thing if you’re going to spend 43 years in pursuit of elusive success, you have to at least enjoy the journey. He works hard, 18-hour days in many cases (he’s one of the lucky few who can function on four hours of sleep) – but he also enjoys a drink, he’s a foodie as well as a chef, watches loads of films (being a BAFTA member, he can visit any UK cinema for free) and is also something of a cigar aficionado. Best of all, he knows it won’t take another 10 years to make his third movie; following the success of Await – especially in the all-important US market – he’s been inundated with scripts and will hopefully shoot something this year, not to mention a mooted venture into TV series. Things are looking good for Johnny Kevorkian – and it’s taken a while, but that’s the film industry for you. “I enjoyed the journey,” he shrugs. “I’ve had experiences… It’s a great thing to do, I think.” He sets off in the rain, the one thing even film directors have trouble controlling.