Storied London: The Making of a British Gangster Christmas Film

Interview with writer/director/producer Will Thorne

What does it actually take to get a film made? The answer – a lot of hard work, getting your hands dirty and genuine passion for the industry. With independent filmmakers, most of the time it’s a struggle to get some kind of financial backing and if they do manage to receive some, there’s always the uncertainty of whether or not an audience will actually have the chance to watch it. 

Writer/director and producer, Will Thorne was born and raised in the London Borough of Sutton. Will naturally embeds the UK film culture in his work including his most recent film Silent Night. After being in the industry for 15+ years, Storied wanted to find out why he got into film, the challenges he’s faced as a young filmmaker and how London inspires his craft to this day. 

Starting out in the film industry working on features, commercials and music promos, he fell into a career in comedy/entertainment television, after getting a job on a Lenny Henry sketch show. Working for UK Independents such as Tiger Aspect, Endemol and Avalon, he has spent time in development and worked on production for primetime shows for BBC1, ITV1, CH4 and MTV.

In 2015, Will began writing Silent Night a crime thriller set in London during Christmas. It follows a low end hit man recently released from prison, who tries to turn his life around for his daughter but gets drawn back by a former cellmate to do one last job. Not only did Will write the script, but this marks his directorial feature debut.

Silent Night is your first directorial feature film and you’re also the screenwriter behind it. How did this project come to life and why did you choose South London as the film location?

Will: I had some other projects and scripts around but after 2-3 years they just weren’t going anywhere and because I didn’t own the scripts, the projects hit a wall. I realized I just need to write something so it’s in my control. The other thing I needed to figure out is what can I just get made. I had to think of the most low budget thing I can do just outside of my house basically. The idea was to make a genre film that I knew had an audience, and I knew there was an audience for British crime/gangster films. In the end, I just wanted to get the film distributed and released even if it was on DVD [laughs]. The Christmas element of the film just came from the idea that I love watching loads of films on Christmas. So naturally that’s why I chose to do a British gangster Christmas movie [laughs].

I grew up in the suburbs of South London, so the film was destined to be filmed around those areas, and that’s how I found all the locations. I knew that if I had to put a camera on my shoulder to make this film, I could do it because I knew the areas and I was confident of knowing how to tap into these people and to this audience.

Silent Night Trailer

Will went on to become an integral member of Lemonade Money, directing all their BBC entertainment and comedy strands, as well as Music content for C4. He also directed music promos and content for the likes of Universal Music and Sony’s video departments as well as 4Play short documentary on DJ Shadow, before returning to scripted comedy on BBC3’s Live At The Electric. As he started to develop more shorts and feature ideas, he set up Break Em Films in 2013, a London based production company that creates, develops and produces content for film, TV and online. Break Em’s goal is to work with new writers and other directors.

Did you already have an idea of where to shoot specific scenes, or did it happen naturally once you began shooting?

Will: That kind of came from pre production. I just thought let’s buy a white van and shoot most of the scenes in the van to make it easy. But because of the driving element, we actually had to find loads of additional locations so the idea of making it in a van with less locations just backfired [laughs]. 

Still from Silent Night in the white van

The characters were quite specific – I knew the worlds they lived in. There was an estate where my mates lived, so I spent most of my youth around there. It is a bit of a character as you can see in the film from the walkways, little stairs, wraparounds and alleyways, so I felt like it would be perfect for the film. There were scenes filmed in my dad’s flat too – he used to be a copper in South London for 30 years. We basically kicked him out for two weeks and turned his flat into a drug dealer’s flat, which he found quite funny when he dropped by one day [laughs]. I also tried to be logistical because we didn’t have much money. Google maps is a dream for finding locations using street views. So it was basically just visiting the location and knocking on people’s doors asking if we can film there

What attracted you to some of the film locations?

Will: There’s an area in Mitcham which is pretty rough, and I would just be driving around it. Then I saw this old burnout rusty car right next to these massive pylons, and I just thought this looks so fucking cool. My friend and I just went there and took some photos. I became obsessed with this place. Then I thought this is definitely where the main character should be living as he’s trying to lay low. So I did loads of digging and found out it’s basically a landfill that’s owned by a landfill garbage company and big corporations. I tried to get in touch with various people to pitch the film, and I finally got through to this guy on the phone that said, “So you’re telling me that you’ve been trespassing on our landfill site?” The blood just ran out of my face and I thought, pull back, Will [laughs]. But he was pretty much just winding me up and suggested we meet at the site and do a walkthrough.

Still from Silent Night featuring the famous rusty car

So he let us in, and we walked around. Then I played the local boy card to him saying I’m from this area and grew up here, and he said ‘“So did I”. After chatting we found he’d grown up on the same street, he knew my dad and probably saw me as a kid. It was crazy, and I was just so relieved because I knew I got the location now and he didn’t even charge us. No one’s ever shot there, so it was really cool we got this secret location in.

In 2014 he began developing and producing the feature documentary One Man and His Shoes directed by Yemi Bamiro. The documentary follows the rise of the brand Air Jordan and a single mother from Texas whose son was killed for a pair. This film is a parable of America’s love affair with consumer capitalism and celebrity culture, highlighting Air Jordan’s social, cultural and racial significance. After six long years, the film was released theatrically in 2020 and was featured at SXSW and the London Film Festival. Will is on the 2020 longlist for the BIFA Breakthrough Producer and Discovery awards.

How did you get involved with One Man and His Shoes? 

Will: Yemi and I are friends, both in the industry and from South London. We went for a beer and said how we wanted to make a film together. Yemi wanted to make this feature documentary and I wanted to help him using Break Em Films because I knew he was just as passionate as I am and willing to do whatever it takes to get this film made. I didn’t realize in 2014 that it would take six years to make though [laughs] – I was a bit naive. But most of the connections that I shared the documentary with thought it was a great idea, and Yemi’s very talented. It’s been a joy to see the success of that because of the hard work. Michael Marden, another friend from the industry, was also the film editor so it was essentially the three of us making this thing together for six years. 

One Man and His Shoes Trailer

Why are you fascinated in the thriller/crime genre? Are there any key filmmakers that influenced your career?

Will: I suppose psychologically, my dad being a copper has probably fed into that. Filmmaking wise, the film that really got me into film for the first time at 14 was Goodfellas. That was a lightbulb moment because it’s so stylish and the music is incredible. Then I thought, who selected this great music – someone had to specifically choose it. And that’s when I found out about Martin Scorsese.

Also Shane Meadows is someone that I reference a lot in this film production like A Room for Romeo Brass and Twenty Four Seven – he also did some short films. It was all very British, grey, and concrete but green, which is something I wanted to do with Silent Night. South London is green, a big wide expanse, so I wanted to make something genuine. Also I recognized the films he made in Nottingham and Sheffield – I liked seeing that. With my film, I wanted to show where I come from just like Shane Meadows does with his films.

‘Silent Night’ is set for a theatrical release on 11 December 2020 followed by a digital release on 14 December in the UK. Follow the links below to learn more about the film and the digital release. // Silent Film Digital //  Vimeo // Twitter // Instagram // Facebook