"Even after 30 years, I always learn something new"
Jon Conway is a UK based writer, producer and director who has been working in theatre for 30 years.
After his 20 year old son Jordan completed a course at London Met Film School, Jon decided to invest in a film project, in order to support his son's acting career.
He wrote and directed Grimaldi, a short film about an aging Joe Grimaldi, who builds up towards an ill advised final comeback, while his son struggles with living in his Father's shadow. The film won Best Picture award at Festigious (January 2018), receiving the highest rating from the jury.
In the following interview, Jon takes us on a journey from his childhood ("I was born on a circus") to the scariest and most bizarre productions he's been involved in, reveals what made him write Grimaldi ("the great clowns and comedians always seemed to have a troubled life") and admits that even after 30 years of work, he's often challenged ("But never intimidated. I always learn something new").
Jon and Jordan Conway
Can you share a bit about your background? How did you become a creative director and a filmmaker?
I had been a writer, producer, director in live theatre for 30 years, but recently started using animation and live action film as part of multi media theatrical experiences. My 20 year old son Jordan, did an intensive course at London Met Film school. Instead of spending on a three year university course for him, I invested the cash into a film project so he would have the best possible showreel as an actor and creative.
Jordan Conway in Grimaldi
When did you co-found QDOS Entertainment group and why?
I was 22 years old and living in the small seaside town of Scarborough, working as a stand up comedian and magician. I met another young local puppet act called Nick Thomas. We felt nobody was putting on the kind of shows we wanted to perform in so we started to put on shows ourselves. Sounds easy, but we were pushed out by established producers who made it difficult for us. However, perseverance, belief and a kind bank manager kept us going.
Jon staging a scene with Jordan and Chuckle Brothers in the 150 year old Blackpool Tower Circus
Tell us about your role as a creative director. What are some of the responsibilities?
My background is circus and vaudeville. I felt it had stood still for too long. So, my role was to develop new talent, many of the young guys we started to produce in the 1980’s are now established main stream UK stars. I restaged their acts and our productions routines into shorter sharper spots, using contemporary pop music rather than standards and introduced integrated costume and scenic design to enhance production values. I introduced new family show titles like Peter Pan and Snow White that had been rarely performed. I worked on new auditorium flying techniques for Pan, developed 3D live animation, whereby audiences wear glasses to see actors interact with 3D film backgrounds. Above all, I believe the best shows are the funniest, so was always looking for humor.
One of Jon's recent theatre productions. Peter Pan
You've produced over 400 pantomimes and devised shows for BBC TV, Celebrity cruise lines, Las Vegas showrooms, and concert tours around the world. What are some of the highlights of your career so far? What were some of your favorite productions?
The most bizarre was writing Aladdin in Mandarin and working with a dual nationality cast to tour China. Jimmy Osmond co produced with me and his nephew Stephen, played the lead speaking fluent Mandarin.
My ambition fulfilled was to have my own shows in Vegas and I created two new shows for the re opening of the Golden Nugget a few years ago.
The scariest was recently playing the lead role in my own play off Broadway and in the West End, in the controversial 'Truth, Lies, Diana' about the inquest into the death of Princess Diana.
The show closest to my heart was ‘Boogie Nights-The 70's Musical’, (named before, and nothing to do with the movie). It was the first ‘jukebox musical’ and became a cult in the UK clocking up over 1,500 performances.
One of Jon's recent theatre productions. ELF
Tell us about your experience working with David Hasselhoff on the musical "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life". What did you take away from this experience?
The biggest stars that I have worked with, like Debbie Reynolds, Henry Winkler and the Hoff, were all childhood heroes of mine. Great pros who still wanted to work, especially with emerging talent and were incredibly humble. One day on set of a made for TV movie I did last year called 'Last Night A DJ Saved My Life', Hoff said to the cast…. ’There’s only one way…. the Conway!” Because of him, I named our film company ‘oneway films'
Jordan getting ready for a take with Jon
What are the challenges involved in producing the world's biggest pantomime - Cinderella- starring Bradley Walsh and Paul O'Grady with a cast of no less than 100 performers? This must be somewhat intense…
It’s all in the preparation. Incredibly, I only have the cast together for about a week to rehearse on a replica set in a huge convention centre, before we transfer to open in the arenas. You can’t have 100 people standing around waiting for a few weeks to do their bit, so I pre rehearse the cirque and stunt sections, the dance routines and the actors individually over a period of time before we start. When they all come together they know their bits. I literally start planning the day we close for the next year. Xmas 2018 will see us supersize the Broadway and movie hit ‘Elf' into arenas. I’m already doing 40 hour week on this in March. The actors and technicians think I’m mad but seem to trust me. I love being surrounded 150 cast and crew and seeing the idea in my head come to life out of the chaos.
There's no doubt that you're a pro in what you do, and top notch in your field... Do you ever feel intimated by an upcoming project? How do you approach such project?
Another producer saw my Peter Pan arena show this year and said ‘This took 40 years to put on”. He was right, because I’ve done this all my life, born on a circus, worked stand up live, acted on tv and have directed and produced on every continent in the world. I am fascinated by every job on set or stage and have never forgotten being a runner myself or stage hand. Although I bring experience, every gig I do I learn something new. I’m often challenged, but never intimidated. That indicates fear and our work should be fun, filled with enthusiasm and energy.
Congratulations again on winning Best Picture at Festigious! We absolutely adore Grimaldi and as our lead judge, Anup Kulkarni mentioned- Grimaldi was a visual treat to watch! Let's talk about the production process... first, why did you decide to write the screenplay of Grimaldi and brings this story to life? What were some of your inspirations?
I am fascinated that the great clowns and comedians always seemed to have a troubled life. The film was set in the year 1806, when Grimaldi was proclaimed the funniest man in the world, yet the issues for him and his son dealing with fame were the same as if it were today. I loved the challenge of making a period drama using comedic sequences to tell the narrative, especially since the script was based on a biography by Charles Dickens. There is a certain majesty to the battered dignity that a clown uniquely endures. Here in the UK, we refer to anything funny, and nowadays a bit naff, as ‘Joey’, derived from Joey Grimaldi. He also created modern theatrical satire, Chaplin said that without Grimaldi there would never have been ‘The Tramp’.
Tell us about your collaboration with Steve Quirke and Adam Spinks, the producers? When did they come on board, and what was your collaboration like? What were they in charge of?
I’m a bit of a one man band, but realised I needed more experience and industry craft to temper my enthusiasm. Adam is a gifted young film maker, who supplied the crew and whispered in my ear at every stage of the shoot as assistant director. In particular, he helped with the framing and composition, he’s also the fastest editor on Premier Pro I have ever seen! Steve Sheen is an experienced tv producer in the UK. A great partner, who encourages and is able to stand back with an objective view.
You did a wonderful job assembling a wonderful cast! What was your casting process?
The Chuckle Brothers are legends of BBC Children’s TV. I have known them just about all my life, creating many of their tv shows. They are the last of the great vaudeville acts still working. David Essex as Dickens, was a massive UK film and pop star, being the original Che in Evita. But it’s actually Robin Colville as the doctor and Peter Piper as the policeman that really give the film gravitas with, in my opinion, superb supporting performances. Of course, my son Jordan, plays the errant, epileptic, hedonistic son who abuses his father’s generosity because he feels trapped. Oh my, let’s hope this doesn’t turn out to be autobiographical! I'm proud of his performance, but more so the way he approached preparing for the part, looking for direction in motivation and questioning the text, not looking for acting notes as such. The entire cast are all well known UK stars, who I have worked with for years on stage and TV and they are all friends.
What is your favorite scene and why?
The final confrontation between crippled father and emotionally deranged son at the end. It was a measured performance by Jordan as his built up anger lets rip, beautifully balanced by Barry Chuckle who cannot stand the idea of confrontation. It was the very last scene we shot and I remained emotionally unattached directing my son in such a dramatic scene, but was moved when I saw the make up artiste shed a tear.
How did you interact with the different departments during post-production? For example, with Adam Spinks, the Editor, Jamie Gamache (Supervising Sound Editor) and Composer Olly Ashmore? Did you use any cinematic/ theatrical references when communicating your directorial vision?
I chose the music early on, all composed in the 1800’s and left it to Olly, who I have collaborated with for so long. Adam really took charge of the post production. He is very focused, intense and can do everything. He’s better than me, so I let him get on with it!
What's next for you?
I’m going to do a similar short about Benny Hill and his unlikely friendship with Michael Jackson.
Is there anything you wish to add?
Jordan keeps showing me clips of other people's work and I am astonished how many talented people there are out there. It makes us want to be better.
My inspiration to believe I could make a film, was given to me by UK producer Paul Hendy, who made a great short called ‘The Last Laugh’.
Jon Conway- website: www.jonconwayproductions.com