Meet The Writer/Director of Jenna Coleman's New Movie Filmed in North East
Jackdaw, a new action thriller starring Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Jenna Coleman is now in cinemas
Jamie grew up in the ex-pit village of Shotton Colliery and studied sound engineering in London. ‘Whilst I was on that course I found a love for filmmaking. There’s a certain type of cinema I’m into. Hollywood cinema and Spielberg’s work was a huge part of my life when I was growing up but there wasn’t really much of that style of filming in England. We’re really famous for our dramas and I’ve always had the ambition to try and tell “bigger stories” in the UK. I’ve been fortunate enough to work on some of the biggest genre of shows that we’re making in England and I’m trying to apply that to filmmaking in general. I want to bring a bigger storytelling style to this smaller country.’
Jamie’s career in directing began with commercials and then short films, but he’s worked on an impressive list of popular TV shows since. He puts that down to ‘a bit of lucky timing, a bit of skill and a bit of naivety’. The first TV drama he directed was Vera, with his first episode shot in Shotton Colliery, Wheatley Hill and across County Durham. ‘That was an amazing experience for me,’ he says. ‘Especially getting to work with Brenda Blethyn on my first drama. She taught me so much, with some tough love too. I’ve been fortunate with the industry growing in the UK in terms of the scale of the shows we were doing. I turned down a couple of cop dramas and held out and worked on Stan Lee's Lucky Man for Sky One with James Nesbitt, which was a bit more in the fantasy genre.
‘That led me onto other shows including Doctor Who, which was great timing because I got to direct Jodie Whittaker’s first episode – I’m really proud of that. As the first female Doctor we had a lot on our plate to try to figure out what that would involve. That was a really amazing experience. Timing again worked out really well. I’d just finished Doctor Who and a commissioning editor from the BBC loved what I’d done and asked me to interview for His Dark Materials, and it turns out the studios were right next to each other. Somehow I managed to convince them to give me that job,’ Jamie laughs. ‘Then The Sandman came along, I did a show called Willow for Disney+, and now I’m working on season two of The Sandman and I’ll be working on that for the next eight months.’
During the short gap in between these projects, Jamie was offered the opportunity to make his own feature film – but time was limited. ‘I spoke to a producer friend of mine who works for the production company Anton and he asked me if I had any film ideas. They were looking for action thrillers and I’ve always had the idea, for some reason, of Jackdaw in my head. I knew it involved a character called Jack Dawson, the Jackdaw. I could see him as a motocross rider, kind of based off people I knew growing up in the late ‘90s North East rave scene. I’ve got a house on the Headland at Hartlepool, right on the seafront, and I looked out at the wind turbines at Redcar and the demolished steelworks across the coastline and started piecing sequences together. As I was doing that I was working out the filming locations that I knew had high production value but without us needing to do too much. I knew we wouldn’t have lots of money, or lots of time, but I wanted to make it look as “blockbustery” as we could, without making a super gritty crime thriller. I wanted it to look more like an American piece of cinema.’
An action thriller set over a single night, Jackdaw sees Jack Dawson, a former motocross champion and army veteran, return to his hometown to care for his brother after the death of his mother. Hoping to start a new life, he takes on a job for an old school friend turned criminal. He’s double-crossed, his brother is kidnapped and while he fights for survival, he searches for answers. The film’s soundtrack features classic dance music tracks from The Prodigy and Aphex Twin as well as new wave music from Adam and the Ants and a new exclusive track from local star Sam Fender. ‘The soundtrack has a nod back to the ‘90s – music I heard a lot in the North East growing up,’ Jamie adds. ‘It’s definitely rooted in the region in that sense but it’s a fictional North East. There’s some Geordies, people from Middlesbrough, North Yorkshire accents and characters with London accents. It’s a story that could really have been set anywhere, but I wanted to show off my hometown.’
Jackdaw was shot on location in and around Hartlepool and the Tees Valley, including Seal Sands, Nunthorpe, Redcar and the North Sea, and it utilised The Northern Film and TV Studios, the North East’s only large-scale film and TV production facility. Jamie is passionate about showcasing where he’s from, and Jackdaw is allowing him do that.
‘A big part of that is to inspire another generation of filmmakers, but also inspire myself,’ he explains. ‘This is my first feature [film] and I had to prove to myself that I can use where I come from to make a film like this. It was sort of a test for myself and also to prove to other filmmakers in the region (and other filmmakers who aren’t from the region) that they can come here and use it – it’s like an advertisement for the North East in that sense. If we had more time and more money we could even take that to the next level, and I know that we can now. My goal is always to try and bring things back home and hopefully this’ll be like planting the seed for that.’
Having limited time and budget came with its challenges, but Jamie and his cast and crew rose to them. ‘The big shows I’ve worked on have their own challenges, they’re not more or less challenging, it’s just like playing a different instrument,’ Jamie explains. ‘I wrote the first draft of Jackdaw in a week. That’s quite quick and they responded really positively to that draft. I wrote it in August last year, and we finished filming it by December, which is kind of ridiculous to put a feature film together. That obviously came with loads of challenges. But we needed to be adaptable to change and that was really fun. With these big shows I work on, so much planning goes into them you can’t really change things last minute, I mean you might have 20 lorries parked up on a hill and if you want to shoot on the hill, you can’t. Whereas with Jackdaw we could move around quicker, give a character new lines – we were just having fun with it and everyone working on it was up for it.
‘It would’ve been way more of a challenge to make this film in the time period we had if we didn’t have such great support and help from the local authority, North East Screen and the Tees Valley Mayor too. They helped us close roads at really short notice and helped us find locations that we might not have necessarily got access to. We couldn’t have made this film anywhere else in that sense. I’ve been working in the South a lot and it’s such a different experience. Getting locations can be so tricky and you often end up not getting your first or even second choices. In the North East, people were wanting us to film at their locations. They were excited about it. I just hope one day a kid from the North East who wants to be a filmmaker sees this film and thinks “I can do that”. Because they can, I did it. Jackdaw is another example of people saying it can’t be done. It can’t be shot in the winter, it can’t be made in that time – and I thought “right, we’re going to do it, watch this!”.’
Jackdaw’s talented cast includes Wilderness’ Oliver Jackson-Cohen, who plays Jack, and TV favourite Jenna Coleman, with This Is England’s Thomas Turgoose and Game of Thrones’ Rory McCann. ‘Oli is so humble and he was great fun and really willing to get involved – he never complained about a thing,’ Jamie says. ‘Every one of those scenes, whether it was the car chase or the kayak scene – all these sequences were done in a day and his attitude was just “let’s do it”. Of course he’s a brilliant actor but a lot of people we could’ve got for this action role might not have necessarily brought the emotion that was needed, but he did. Joe Blakemore who plays the antagonist Silas is from Newcastle. I’ve known him for ages and actually put him in one of my first episodes of Vera, and have featured him in lots of work since. He’s just brilliant and such a memorable antagonist. I was referencing Gary Oldman in True Romance – he’s definitely got that kind of vibe to him. Having a local actor involved was great.
‘Jenna [Coleman] was great too. We only worked together for a few days on this film, with the scenes with her gang, and she brought such gravitas to the role with not a lot of time to just turn up and deliver great drama. I didn’t know Thomas Turgoose but I’ve wanted to work with him since seeing This Is England, and when I sent the script off to his agent to see if he had any ideas, he read the part of Craig and said “what about Thomas?”. I thought, “that’s genius”. As soon as I found out he was up for it, I rewrote the draft with his voice in mind. That character was always going to be from London, as the odd one out, but changing that character was so much fun. There’s a lovely cameo from Rory McCann too and hopefully Game of Thrones fans will enjoy seeing him.’
Jamie hopes he’s made something that could appeal to international audiences, while showcasing what the North East can offer filmmakers. His message to audiences is ‘go and enjoy being taken on a ride for an hour and a half’. ‘I used to watch films like this in the '90s and early 2000s. The kind you might never have heard of but you go and watch it on a whim – a lot of those movies inspired this one. Right now it seems like the cinema is filled with dramas or really high end blockbusters and I hope we can bring back some of these mid-range, fun action/drama narratives.’