Comedy blog

Robert Johnson and the Devil Man interview

robert johnson and the devil man hackney

In mid-2016 the world changed. Amidst the celebrity deaths and the long shadow of a drastic global political shift, something was brewing.  Joz Norris (writer, ideas man, hygiene specialist) and Matthew Highton (director, imagination machine, heart throb) decided to collaborate on a couple of small film projects that would change the lives of dozens, if not millions of people.

Having only ever worked together for a brief four years in collaborative projects such as Weirdos and Comedians Cinema Club, it was surprising, miraculous even, these two found and chose to work with one another. But found each other they did and in collaboration with Turtle Canyon Comedy they produced the short film Double Act starring Ed Aczel, Michael Brunstrom and Gabby Best, about an ageing TV double act forced to continue to work together and whose misfortunes lead them down a dark road.

It was a triumph. So much so, they decided to collaborate again for a second short, Robert Johnson and the Devil Man, starring David Mills and Joz himself, as a modern retelling of one of the greatest myths in the history of music. With both projects complete and reuniting both casts they will be premiering both films alongside these wonderful comedians sets at the Hackney Picturehouse on Friday March 3rd

Because of the enormity of this event Laugh Out London agreed to interview them. However LOL’s Jack stated they were ‘very busy’ and so ‘encouraged’ them to ask each other a series of questions. Here are those questions.

Matthew Highton to Joz Norris

Joz you’re an incredible writer and ideas man, there are few people in history that have as many great ideas and writing as yourself. Where were you when you had the idea for Robert Johnson and the Devil Man and what was it about the idea that stood out above all the other no doubt wonderful ideas that could potentially be?

I can’t really remember, I’m afraid, Matt because, as you well know from having to direct the film, we had to surgically remove all my memories pertaining to the film prior to the shoot. Not many people will know this but, much like those Doctor Who monsters, the angel ones, I can only act when I don’t know anybody is filming me or watching me, so playing one of the lead roles in the film was proving a real headache. As soon as I’m aware there’s a camera rolling I become a terrible, attention-seeking mug incapable of delivering a single line in a remotely convincing way.

As such, once I’d written the script we had to take me to one of the top brain surgeons to delete all my memories of writing it, then disguise the camera as a bush and just dress me up in the right costume and throw me into the scenarios and hope I said the right words. It was the only way of getting a sincere performance out of me. It’s only this morning that I’ve been informed that this entire odd process was part of a film shoot, which makes sense as it was a deeply surreal experience. I’m surprised you’re asking me these questions, actually, considering you know all this already and I can’t remember a single thing.

Joz Norris Robert Johnson and the Devil man hackney

Our hero Joz Norris

Joz Norris to Matthew Highton

Matthew, the late, great Terry Gilliam (woops, just looked him up and he’s not actually dead, sorry about that, my delete key is broken so it has to stay) once said that the role of a director is that their mind is the filter through which all the other filmmaking decisions are processed – the DoP may set up the shot, and the actors may give the performances, but it’s the director who says “Yes” or “No” to all these things, so what the audience sees is the consciousness of the director weaving itself into the very fabric of the film in minute ways beyond what we can comprehend. What would be your ideal first date?

My ideal first date would be live comedy and a couple of short films. Ideally in Hackney on the 3rd of March. Ideally films I’ve heavily been involved in, I’m an egomaniac like that, it’d be very awkward for my date at first, that is until they see how great our work is… I can’t wait to show this to the world, so date or not it would be a special evening. You know that’s a very long winded way to ask what my ideal first date is and now I’m very worried about Terry Gilliam.

Matthew Highton to Joz Norris

Joz as well as an incredible writer and ideas man, you’re an incredible performer, especially when you’ve written the lines for yourself. How do you prepare for a role such as this and is it hard to separate man from character?

Well, as you’ll see above, the extreme lengths we had to go to in order to get a decent performance out of me mean my memories of my preparation are hazy, but now I really try to focus on them, they’re beginning to come back.

I believe I initially did a huge amount of research on the real Robert Johnson – I visited the real Mississippi crossroads where he supposedly met the Devil, I listened to all his recordings, I read countless books about him and interviewed a number of music historians about his life and legacy. Then I remembered that the role I’d written wasn’t actually the role of the real Robert Johnson, just some random millennial with the same name who wants to learn guitar, so I just sort of sacked off the research project and thought “Hey, I’m a random millennial, I’ll just learn one guitar chord and then play the role as a sort of more passive version of me. That’ll do.” I think it was a really good decision.

David Mill Robert Johnson and the Devil Man

The ‘Oscar-nominated’ David Mills

Matthew Highton to Joz Norris

Joz, we know that you’re an incredible writer, ideas man and performer, but although you can write great characters and dialogue you can’t perform it all. How do you feel seeing other people bring the page to life?

Ah, I assume you’re talking here about the amazing, Oscar-nominated David Mills (are we allowed to call him that, for publicity purposes? It looks great. I mean, I know it was Meryl Streep that got nominated, not David, but he was still in the film and, you know, I’m forever using those award nominations that Weirdos and Cinema Club got as if they’re my own, so I reckon we can probably say David’s been nominated for an Oscar, right? I think that also means this film’s been nominated for an Oscar too, by proxy, so well done us).

I wrote the role specifically for David, so it was a real shame when it turned out he was too busy to play the role, a massive, massive letdown. Still, he was kind enough to grant us permission to edit together a performance using archive footage from David’s previous acting work and filmed clips of his stand-up routines. It was a long, long job going through all those showreels and live videos trying to find examples of him using every single word in the script, I don’t know how Cassette Boy has the patience for it. But it’s resulted in a truly great performance, exactly the level of charisma and talent I was hoping for from him.

It looks a little odd that every single word is delivered in a different location, and that his character and my character never actually share the screen and seem to always be in different places even when talking to one another, but then he’s playing the Devil, and I reckon if you met the Devil it’d be pretty surreal anyway, so I think it works.

Joz Norris to Matthew Highton

You’re renowned as a filmmaker whose work explores with humour and heart the gruesome, the grisly, the fantastic and the supernatural. What are some of the key influences on your work, and what is it about these Gothic, fanciful tales, both in our work together, and in your other films, that attracts your eye as a director?

Thanks Joz, as a big fan of your work as a writer and performer it’s lovely to hear this question come from you. Horror and comedy are like two siblings who look very different but don’t realise their behaviour is almost identical. It’s about build and release and whether that’s a scare or a laugh the mechanisms are so similar. Personally though I no longer view the genres as different, horror can be very funny, that clown in IT boy could he tell a joke just as comedy can be terrifying, most Adam Sandler films, for example.

Mysterious robert johnson and the devil man


Joz Norris to Matthew Highton

Finally, a huge number of enormously talented people helped us on these two films, from the incredible actors to a bevy of wonderful production crew. What was your experience like working with this talented team, and how do you go about organising a group of other people to help enable your vision onscreen?

Working with people you trust and respect makes any project go a lot smoother, people who have your back and you don’t have to worry about what they’re doing. People who will do what’s needed for the project. People who don’t mind waking with you sat on their bed in the nigh,t crying and asking if you were a good man… If we had that crew this would have been a lot easier as a project…

Ahhhh just kidding, everyone was great and I hope they are as proud of the final product as I am and show it to people for years to come, until the memories fade into a beautiful haze and as their sit in their twilight years in hovering rocking chairs a pang of fear prickles upon their nck as they worry if, in their youth, they did in fact meet the devil at a crossroad or if it was all play in making of this film.

Robert Johnson and the Devil Man premieres at Hackney Picturehouse on Friday March 3rd

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