Sitting in the HQ of Unified Media at 7 Beach Road, South Shields I’m talking with Jon, Phil and Ryan about how I had an office downstairs in this building over 10 years ago. The stairs didn’t seem as steep then.
I first met Unified Media two years ago when I was looking for a team to help produce a DVD of folk musician Benny Graham and friends singing old Northumbrian songs. The DVD was screened in The Word, South Shields, as is their latest project about the author Catherine Cookson…
Ryan: ‘South Tyneside Council commissioned ‘Our Catherine’. They wanted a film to showcase as part of their new exhibition to commemorate the death of Catherine Cookson, which is twenty years ago this year. We didn’t want to make a piece with just historical images in a sort of documentary style – instead, we wanted something that was more dramatic, and moving’.
Phil: ‘Yeah, we wanted to make something that would really pull people in. We worked with playwright Tom Kelly, which he ended up co-writing with Jon in order to adapt his writing for the screen’.
Jon: ‘The intention was to inform people about Catherine but also take them on a journey that as emotional as well as educational. It was important to us that even if you didn’t know who she was, or even if you weren’t from the North East, you could watch the film and still be moved and entertained’.
Ryan: ‘We knew that if we made a historical, documentary piece it may well only appeal to people who knew her, or her existing audience. None of us had any connection to Catherine Cookson and her work when we were commissioned to make the film. We had to discover her for ourselves when we began pre-production, because up until then we only knew her as someone our Mam’s read when we were kids.
When researching, we were taken on a journey of discovery about a very talented and resilient individual. I think we wanted to take the audience on that same journey of discovery, whilst still appealing to her fans and readers’.
The film has a fairly young cast….
Phil: ‘It does. Catherine left South Shields in her 20’s, and and so we wanted the film to focus on her coming back at that age and seeing her home from a different perspective’.
Ryan: ‘Fortunately, we found the extremely talented actress and Catherine Cookson fan, Kerry Browne, who did a phenomenal job. It was really important to her that she got it right’.
Phil: ‘She’s from Glasgow, but understands how important Catherine is to the people of Tyneside. She wanted to get it right and gave 110%. It was wonderful working with her’.
Jon: ‘We also had Rachel Adamson, who provided Catherine’s voice. She was brilliant, to. It was a labour of love for everyone. An experience none of us will forget, to be honest’.
Phil: ‘It seems to have struck a chord with a lot of people’.
Jon: ‘The response to the film has been overwhelming. I think that’s a testament to everyone involved, and how much they gave for us’.
How long did the whole process take?
Ryan: ‘We did script amendments and voice overs right up to the wire. It took probably three weeks in total, if you tallied everything together. Filmmaking is something we’re still working out, as this is the first drama we’ve done together. It’s very much a learning process’.
You had great weather for the shoot…
Phil: We certainly did. We had scheduled those 3 days for filming a few weeks beforehand, and were blessed with perfect weather conditions. We were very fortunate with that’.
Jon: The blue skies, the sun, swans, insects, mist, you name it – nature was working with us on those days. Nature was working in conjunction with South Shields and Jarrow on those days, and showed up for us in a very big way’.
Have you got a family background in creative work?
Ryan: ‘Not that I know of’.
Phil: ‘I’ve never been asked that question before, but no don’t think so. Maybe I’m the first’.
Jon: ‘There is a John Burton in the family actually, late 1800 to early 1900’s, and he was a Poet. He was local, didn’t sell millions of copies of his books, but he was certainly creative. That’s the only connection I can go back to’.
Why in one of the most deprived areas of the UK for employment, education etc did you choose a creative job which is way down the list of priority for funding ?
Jon: ‘We didn’t think too much about that. You can make excuses for not taking action, and I certainly have done that before in my life. We just thought maybe if we do what we love to do, as good as we can, it’ll work out. You could say that was naive, but the proof is in the pudding. I think we just believed in our ability to make it work, if that doesn’t sound too twee’.
Phil: ‘I think we thought that we might as well risk failing doing the thing we love than carry on doing something we don’t enjoy for the rest of our lives. Sometimes you can’t help what location you’re in for jobs unless you decide to move, which we couldn’t do. We just let ourselves gravitate to what we love doing and give it our all. We still are. It seems to be working’.
Ryan: ‘I think we had faith and belief that we could do what we wanted to do. There wasn’t a job out there that fit what we wanted, so we just created that job. We started the kind of business we would want to work for. We were coming across a lot of the advice of successful entrepreneurs and business-owners who suggested as much, and it made a lot of sense’.
Phil: ‘If it doesn’t work, I can always get a normal job and know that at least I’ve had a good go. Or maybe I’d try creating a different business. At least then I’d know for sure, and know that I tried, instead of it always being a pipe dream I could never quite bring myself to make a real go of. It could have went that way, but it didn’t, and I like myself a lot for having the balls to do that’.
Jon: ‘It helps we didn’t have kids when we started and nobody was financially depending on us. I felt it was my responsibility to try it for that reason among others. I guess also that starting the business wasn’t based too much on blind faith as we observed that despite where you live, it’s a good time to be a filmmaker or a creator of video content because of the absolute surgence of social media. There’s a huge desire for video content as a result of that. We’re riding a wave it would seem, that you don’t need to move to London to take advantage of’.
Tell me what Unified Media is, and what the name means?
Jon: ‘Unified Media was about coming together and doing something that would be the combined, unified vision of all of us. We’d already been creative with each other for years prior. Phil and I made films together at University and Ryan and I were in a band together for a long time. We were always at our best and most fulfilled when creating stuff together. We wanted to do that as a way of life instead of just something we did on a weekend, or whenever we could get away from our day jobs’.
Phil: ‘Unified isn’t so much a job in that respect. It’s living your life the way you want to, and being supported for that, financially and otherwise, because you’re good at what you do, and you love it. You take your work home with you because it isn’t work, it’s just what you do. It can be challenging, but the challenges are always making you better. They’re the kind of challenges that help you learn and improve, in a rapid way’.
Jon: ‘It’s not like, ‘there’s my job over here and my life over there’ in separate places. It’s broken down the barriers between those things. It’s made them one and the same. That feels more organic and right for us’.
Ryan: ‘It’s not a cakewalk by any means, if this all sounds a little too good to be true. It’s not handed to you. You have to say yes to the responsibility of making something like that work and doing what it takes to make it work. The challenges come thick and fast, and you’ve got to meet them head on. We’ve realised from that just how much we can take.
Starting a business like this teaches you a lot about what you can handle, what you can endure. There were months where we had no idea were the rent was coming from. We know we can handle that now. We can take the uncertainty. It certainly chips away at how fearful you are, because you know what you can handle. We stuck together and faced it together. The name Unified came from that, too. We supported each other through those times, which were tricky, to say the least’.
Phil: ‘We’ve also got amazing partners and family who’ve always supported what we’re doing. Choosing an adventurous, risky lifestyle like this shone a light on those things and made me more grateful in general. People seemed to believe in what we were doing, and that was amazing. The Unified name then seems to stretch beyond the three of us’.
Jon: ‘Yeah. There’s a Terence McKenna quote that says “hurl yourself into the abyss and discover it’s a feather bed”. It’s been something like that’.
Ryan: ‘And we’ve just built on top of that since the start. Initially it was all about the passion and creativity, all the gooey stuff – but there’s structure now, which is implied in ‘building’ a business. You can build on that passion, on that principle, on that idea’.
Jon: ‘We’re still building, and the structure is getting stronger. It makes us very proud and fulfills us more than we could have imagined. Unified Media is a dream that is becoming a reality. Let’s say that as a roundup to your question’.
Is it not crowded when you are editing a project?
Ryan: ‘I prefer when we edit together. That’s what makes something a Unified film. It’s all very dynamic. Editing is never the same process from one job to the next, which I like because it keeps things fresh. It’s not like a factory line thing’.
Jon: ‘Yeah, it’s very dynamic. You can’t box the process up. For example, if we’re working on something sports-related, Phil will have the initial drive to get it going, because he was inspired to and is the more sport-centric one of us, so we let him go as far as that inspiration took him, then we started co-editing together. But it’s different for every project.
Each of us is good at different things, and interested more or less in different areas. The set up helps everyone play to their strengths. Though that’s not to say we never have creative differences, or even… ‘debates’.
Ryan: ‘Learning how to disagree and negotiate in a civil way is a constant challenge’.
Phil: ‘I can get protective over my work, and I’ve had to let go of that and realise it’s not ‘my’ work, it’s our work. The lads challenge me to be better, and always push me to do the right thing for the project. Jon and I can be pretty stubborn’.
Jon: ‘No I can’t! Haha. Yeah, I absolutely can. We’re always all just trying to do the right thing, though, what the ‘right’ thing is isn’t always obvious, and you get in to the whole subjective/objective thing. Editing is a philosophical quagmire. Think about it too much and you’ll have a brain-burnout. There’s infinite variables, so you often have to learn to balance your intellect with your intuition.
Though of course, you’re balancing all those things with that of two other people! It can get tricky, so it demands that we all be our best and learn how to be more civil’.
Ryan: ‘We’re reading some books about editing now and it turns out they’re as much about philosophy as the technicalities of editing. In terms of our process, we’ve all got to be happy with something to sign off for the customer to see it, so getting there can be a challenge. You don’t want a ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ situation, but you don’t want anyone being dictatorial either. It’s a balancing act, and judging from the response to our work so far, we’re managing well enough! ‘
Phil: ‘We haven’t killed each other yet, so’.
What has been your most challenging project?
Phil: ‘It hasn’t been released just yet, but maybe the project for England Rugby?’
Ryan: ‘Yeah, they hired us after we made a women’s rugby promo video for the Durham County RFU. It did really well, so they approached us to make one for them, but, with a much more specific aim and outcome’.
Jon: ‘The brief was ‘make a film that makes refereeing rugby appealing to women, and it has to be very emotionally engaging’. That’s the most specific brief we’ve had yet, and it was definitely challenging. England Rugby wanted to use it for an event in which it had to convince women that authority and rule-keeping was not only appealing, but something they should want to involve themselves in. In the end, it surpassed the brief and was a massive success for the client’.
Ryan: ‘One of the most fulfilling things yet was getting that right. It might have closed a lot of doors for us if we’d messed it up’.
Jon: ‘I honestly feel like if we succeeded at that, we can succeed at anything’.
Within the 3 years of Unified Media, have there been any memorable moments?
Phil: ‘Too many to name. Though, perhaps the Home Alone music video for Boy Jumps Ship? We were tasked with recreating entire scenes from the Home Alone films using the band members all within like, two weeks’.
Jon: ‘Yeah, everything miraculously fell into place for that one in such a scant timeframe. We had two weeks to plan, shoot and edit the film, and the prop/location list was massive, and the set ups were elaborate. We accepted the job with a ‘we’ll make it work’ attitude, but really had no idea how we would. At the time, we needed a music video on our portfolio, so just bit that particular bullet’.
Ryan: ‘Somehow, one by one, everything we needed just presented itself to us. The two weeks were an absolute whirlwind, and the universe just seemed to let us ride that wave, with each ambitious prop and location serendipitously revealed to us. It was an absolute adventure from start to finish. People talk about the ‘flow state’, and that’s really what that was’.
Jon: ‘It was in many a ways the embodiment of why we started Unified in the first place. It was us throwing caution to the wind, doing what we love together and having a great time creating stuff as a team. Challenging, yes, but extremely rewarding, too’.
Ryan: ‘Maybe we could also mention your involvement, Gary, if we’re talking about notable people as well as moments?’
Jon: ‘Yes! It was because of your support and help that we got our first office, and one of our first jobs, and whatever led on from there’.
Phil: ‘Get in, Gary, lad’.
Jon: ‘Gazza, what a legend’.
Ryan: ‘That was notable for lots of reasons, but it’s worth mentioning that all of us have worked in the industry before, and encountered a lot of ego, and vibes that almost put us off this work altogether’.
Jon: ‘Yeah, but when we started Unified, we met people like you Gary, who showed nothing but enthusiasm, support and all round good vibes’.
Phil: ‘And here he is again, writing a blog about us and getting us out there!’
Jon: ‘You’d think he was on the payroll’.
Ryan: ‘Nah, just a class lad with a heart of gold’.
Jon: ‘What a belter’.
To find out more go to the official website : https://www.unifiedmedia.org.uk
Interview by Gary Alikivi August 2018.