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Jon Ronson interview: ‘My thing is about trying to work out why people behave the way they do’

We talk to the journalist and documentary filmmaker about his (fictional) directorial debut, ‘The Dog Thrower’

© Gaelen Casey Photography

How did ‘The Dog Thrower’ come about?
‘This time last year I was going through a very dark period while writing a book about public shaming. Everyone I met was so crushed. It’s the horror of being told you’re not part of society – I met people who were destroyed by that in real life. Then I got a call from a producer asking if I had any ideas for a silent comedy. In a flash, I had a thought about how I could de-horror it, turn it into something sweet and funny. I knew I needed a really good physical comedian, and I thought of Matthew [Perry].’

What can you say about Matthew’s character?
‘I imagined a Derren Brown sort or a mysterious trickster. Someone with white magician gloves and a house full of Houdini-type things. In the film the character throws dogs, but he could have been doing magic or whatever. I was essentially looking for something that could first be adored and then redefined as a shameful act as things get out of hand. When I pitched it to Stuart from Belle and Sebastian [who provided the soundtrack], I explained how it was a horror story about happily going about you business then realising it’s been redefined as a shameful act and there’s nothing you can do about it.’

If you were going to make a documentary about Matthew Perry, where would you start?
‘Argh! I’ve always found fame really interesting. I was going to write about the arc of celebrity life, so starting with people making it, reaching unbelievable levels of fame, then sliding. I know I’m avoiding the question…’

Have you had similar experiences to Matthew of gratuitous criticism?
‘I’ve got “Frank” coming out, and you’ve got the hardcore Frank Sidebottom fans tweeting how terrible it is that Frank’s a composite character. There’s nothing I can do. Their perception is more powerful than the reality. [Comedian] Hattie Hayridge once told me about a gig she did in east London where the audience just yelled “Cunt! Cunt!” So she came off stage and someone apologised about how rude the crowd were. Hattie said, “So you weren’t one of the people yelling ‘Cunt!’?”, and this person said, “No, I shouted ‘Burn the witch!’”

What would you be if you weren’t a journalist and filmmaker?
‘A psychologist. My thing is about trying to work out why people behave the way they do.’

Is the analytical side of what you do useful, or can you overthink things?
‘If my stuff starts to read too much like a psychology book, an alarm bell goes off and I make it funnier again. I’m always aware of that. [Filmmaker] Adam Curtis said to me, “Think about how you spend your life – 16 hours sitting in someone’s house waiting for them to say something you can write down.” What we do is mad.’

What’s next for you?
‘I’d love to direct [a feature] again. But I don’t see the point of writing a screenplay and not directing. It’s like being a party planner and not going to the party. Writing screenplays for other people is a road to heartbreak. So that, and more books.’

‘Playhouse Presents: The Dog Thrower’, Sky Arts 1. Thursday May 1 2014, 9pm.

Read our interviews with ‘The Dog Thrower’ stars Matthew Perry and Tim Key

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