Director. Actor. Writer. Producer. Twenty. Three. Years. Old. If George Jaques wasn’t such a sweetheart you’d probably have to hate him – especially if you find yourself on the wrong side of 30. But Jaques is a sweetheart, if that isn’t too patronising a description to ascribe to one of the finest young filmmakers in the country. (And actor, writer, etc.) His directorial debut Black Dog announces the arrival of a talent whose work, on both sides of the camera, should be enthralling us for decades to come.
We meet at the Ham Yard Hotel, three days before Black Dog premieres at the London Film Festival. Jaques co-wrote the film aged 18 with his friend Jamie Flatters, shot it last summer; now it’s up for BFI’s Sutherland Award, which recognises the most original and imaginative directorial debut. His week is a haze of interviews, meetings, organisation of after-parties – as well as more domestic matters.
“When you go to a festival abroad, you are working. Life stops,” says Jaques. “When you do the London Film Festival, you’re here but life still happens. Your family are like, ‘hey, are you around this weekend for a cup of tea?’”
The tea at the Ham Yard Hotel is served in beautiful china painted with pastoral scenes. We consider doing the interview in the library – the library is proper Agatha Christie, lacking only a butler and a murdered lord – but ultimately opt for the restaurant as there seems less chance of getting kicked out for talking. “Would make a nice bit for the article,” notes Jaques. The teenage protagonists of Black Dog seemingly do a runner from a motorway hotel; being booted from the Ham Yard library would offer a nice little echo of that scene but my teenage years are well in the rearview mirror. Jaques might still be able to get away with it.
He’d texted me a few seconds earlier: ‘Just walking in now. I’m short and blonde’. A solid description; factor in the glasses, pinkie ring, backpack, and Jaques could pass for a diligent fresher searching for a lecture hall rather than one of the hottest properties in British film. He’s so slight you feel a strong breeze could send him cartwheeling off into the sky; yet irresistible forces flow through George Jaques. Soon, the sky will come to him.
He wasn’t born into the arts. His dad James was a builder, now semi-retired, and his mum Rebecca works in property. Jaques describes his route into the industry as “bizarre”. Aged 16, he wrote a play about the teenage drug culture of South London. His physics teacher knew a script editor named Billy Cook who agreed to meet with Jaques. Cook read the script, then asked Jaques a simple question. “Are you writing this to be good? Or are you writing it for your mates?”
“To be good,” said Jaques.
“Right,” said Cook. “I suggest you rewrite the whole fucking thing.”
“That felt brilliant,” Jaques grins. “It was an amazing way to learn because it gave me that resilience. But also, he really helped me know how to write. I went away and rewrote it.”
He did more than that. He set up a production company, Athenaeum Productions. “I was too young to open a business bank account but I was old enough to have a limited company, which makes no sense.” He recruited a group of teenage actors from across London – one of whom, Jamie Flatters, became his close friend and writing partner. He raised four grand and staged the play, first at The King & Co pub in Clapham and then an abandoned railway arch in London Bridge.
For the latter, Jaques and his mate constructed a makeshift theatre in 24 hours. Except there was an issue: the raked seating – “a knobby term for tiered seating,” explains Jaques – kept swaying in a rather alarming manner. A sellout audience was shortly expected to sit on it. So Jaques called his dad and a team of builders duly rocked up armed with scaffolding and cigarettes. When Jaques tried to mention the venue’s non-smoking policy, his dad supplied some paternal wisdom. “George, do you want a show tonight? Let the men smoke.”
Dilate explored the aftermath of a drug overdose. “I didn’t really want to concentrate on the young man that overdosed,” says Jaques. “I wanted to concentrate on what happens to his girlfriend, what happens to his best mate, to his mum.” It was an immersive production, opening with a live rave, the dying kid stretchered through the bar at the interval.
Jaques played the deceased. A less idealistic director might have taken the opportunity to remain in the bar post-demise; he spent the whole second half lying on a hospital bed on stage, trying not to breathe too conspicuously. During one performance – the filmed performance, naturally – his reverie was interrupted by a massive crash.
Christ, thought Jaques, eyes screwed shut. Has the raked seating finally collapsed? Should I sit up and inspect the damage? The play’s continuation suggested disaster hadn’t occurred; he resisted the urge to go full zombie. (It turned out the lighting guy’s seat had collapsed. Must have been a very big seat.)
Thus the adolescence of George Jaques. Today he sounds a little surprised by his youthful passion and drive. “I look back now – I was 16, that’s a really weird thing to do. But it felt so normal.” Later, he makes another observation: “Until I set up the company, I didn’t really know where I fit into the world.”
The harder Jaques worked, the more the world seemed to fit around him. A week after Dilate, he got a phone call from Gary Davey, the CEO of Sky – the daughter of Sky’s COO had watched the play, loved it, and now Davey wanted to read it. Sky sponsored Athenaeum's second sellout show, Breathe, an exploration of mental health and suicide.
Another sponsor was the actor Jason Flemyng, who went on to produce several of Jaques’ short films. A friend of his mum, an estate agent of all things, set up a phone call and within minutes Flemyng was committed. “He’s become a lifelong friend, mentor,” says Jaques. “I love that man with all my heart.” Rather neatly, Jaques would later portray Flemyng’s grandson in Sky Max gangster show A Town Called Malice.
His success convinced Jaques to turn down a business management scholarship at Bristol University and devote himself to his company and his chosen career. He’d landed the lead role in a major Amazon show, the type of project that changes your life. Fame and fortune awaited! He could move out at 18! He was looking at flats! And then the show was unexpectedly cancelled and the gleaming gold arc of his future dissolved and scattered like confetti in the wind. “It was devastating,” says Jaques. “You start again.”
In his case, you keep going. “I’ve just got to return to my desk and keep making work.” He made several short films. He acted alongside Jude Law in The Third Day: Autumn, a 12-hour live TV show that you better Google, and landed a recurring role in American period drama The Serpent Queen. In 2022, Jaques won Breakthrough Filmmaker at the Soho House Awards and was named a Screen Star of Tomorrow for Acting, Directing, Writing and Producing by Screen Daily (the only winner to date awarded for all four categories).
“There were a lot of amazing boujee things going on,” notes Jaques. He kept repeating his priorities: “The goal was never to be famous. The goal was to make good work and be in good work.” These words are literally inscribed by his door at home.
Work doesn’t come much better than Black Dog. The film tells the story of a road trip taken by two relative strangers. Sam is a sheltered middle-class kid travelling north for his mother (I’ll say no more); Nathan is a charismatic tearaway fleeing his foster home to track down his older sister. The teenagers vaguely know each other from school; a knowledge that will deepen during their drive up the country and the events that befall them.
Sam is played by the excellent debutant Keenan Munn-Francis, while Flatters brings blockbuster star quality to the role of Nathan. And I do mean blockbuster: the filming of Black Dog had to be delayed when Flatters went off to play the oldest son in Avatar: The Way of Water. (This casting happened around the time that Jaques’ Amazon show fell through; “He was doing all these amazing big things and I had just had a TV show cancelled,” recalls Jaques with a wry smile. “I felt like I was working so hard with the company. It was a really tough time when I look back at it.”)
Nathan and Sam are echoes of their creators yet Jaques never intended to portray Sam; he wanted to flip the stereotypes and have the middle class kid come from “the global majority”. Directing his first feature was work enough. “We made the decision pretty early on that Sam should be from the global majority because it was exciting and I wanted to flip the stereotypes entirely – where you see a young black character who’s from a middle-class family.”
The film is haunted by death, most heartbreakingly in the perfect memory of Nathan’s long-departed mother. Jaques’ mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when he was 15. Looking back, he wonders if he used the plays and the production company as a means to distract himself from his mother’s illness and his own unhappiness. His childhood wasn’t the easiest: “My mum came out as gay when I was quite young and the homophobia I experienced at school was horrific.” A close friend later overdosed. Writing Black Dog, “I wanted to honour the characters’ journeys and struggles but also honour my own journeys and struggles.
“Black Dog is a film about the fragility of young minds and moments but also the bravery of young minds, too. It’s a film about grief and it’s a film about what it’s like being 17 – on the cusp of the security of childhood and the independence of adulthood.”
His mother beat her cancer and today lives happily by the coast. Her son recently became an ambassador for Teenage Cancer Trust. A happy resolution – yet for Jaques, adolescence and grief will always be linked. How could they not? “Grief is more than just death,” he notes. “You grieve ideas, you grieve moments, you grieve memories. When I look at my teenage years, I always say that the moment you grow up for the first time is the moment you first experience grief.” Jaques experienced grief earlier than many. Maybe the film is a lament for a childhood that was snatched away too soon. Maybe it’s a love letter.
Towards the end of our interview, I ask about his tattoos. There’s a black dog, inked the day he finished the final edit. Commemorations for his grandmas, both now passed on. The name of his elder sister Hannah, who he described as his best mate. “We went through a lot together when we were growing up. My parents divorced when we were super young. We were each other’s rock throughout life.”
(In Black Dog, Nathan abandons London to track down an elder sister he hopes will become the rock his life is sorely lacking. “I’ve never really thought of it like that,” says Jaques when I make this connection. Critical overreach on my part or subconscious creation on his? Watch the film and decide.)
Jaques is both self-effacing and generous; throughout our conversation he namechecks numerous people who have helped or collaborated with him, far too many for me to include here. (Sorry, guys.) At one point, I ask about cinematic influences that may have informed Black Dog; “I watched loads!” he tells me, reeling off Paddy Consadine’s Tyrannosaur, Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird.
The film he first cites is Fish Tank, Arnold’s 2009 feature about an isolated teenager. “This is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever watched in my life,” says Jaques of his initial reaction to it. “That’s where my love for British independent cinema really came from. It’s not too glossy, it’s gritty, it’s got heart, it makes you laugh, it makes you cry.”
In 15 years, I can easily imagine a young filmmaker telling an interviewer something similar about the work of George Jaques.
Black Dog’s LFF debut is sold out but I go along to the afterparty. Jaques is wearing an open tuxedo; no longer a student, more of a star. He had to introduce the film onstage, and he cried during his speech – 23 years young at last. He was too nervous to watch the thing live and retired to a pub round the cover, but he returned for the standing ovations.
Good. I expect Jaques will experience many more standing ovations over the years but it would be a shame to take any for granted. We shouldn’t take him for granted, either.
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