STONE TO THE BONE
The death of Rolling Stone Brian Jones is a tale of crime, drugs and rock ‘n’roll. Stoned director Stephen Woolley uncovered new evidence and explains how, 35 years on, some questions remain unanswered. By Leigh Singer
It was surely the forerunner to the demise of the hippie dream: In July 1969, weeks before the gruesome Manson family murders, months before the Rolling Stones own fatal Altamont gig, their former guitarist Brian Jones was discovered dead, drowned in the swimming pool at his Sussex farmhouse. A verdict of Accidental Death was recorded; The Stones released a flock of doves at a free Hyde Park concert, simultaneously announcing Jones’ replacement, Mick Taylor. Business as usual, then.
Yet the mystery surrounding Jones’s untimely demise never quite faded away, not least for Stephen Woolley, arguably Britain’s most successful film producer – Mona Lisa, The Crying Game, Interview with the Vampire - of the past twenty years.
“About ten years ago I came across a book Paint It Black: The Story of the Murder of Brian Jones,” Woolley recounts. “Like most people I just assumed Brian Jones had fallen in his pool, drunk and stoned. So I was fascinated by this book and commissioned two writers [and eventual James Bond scribes] Rob Wade and Neal Purvis, to do an adaptation. They called me a couple of weeks later and said there was actually another book, Who Killed Christopher Robin?, which was actually much more factually correct. So I bought the rights to that as well.”
Thus began Woolley’s meticulous investigation to uncover the truth about the night Jones died, tracking down those actually there, including Jones’ Swedish girlfriend and, through a private detective, nurse Janet Lawson, who according to police had “walked off the face of the earth”. “I was the first person to speak to her since 1969,” he divulges. “She’s now disappeared back into the ether, never to be seen again, probably. But now I felt I could make the film. We combined what happened on that night from the two girls’ [accounts] and everything seemed to fit.”
At this point Woolley still assumed he’d produce as normal and recruit a director to shoot the film. But after years of research, rewrites, directors he felt “were taking the script backwards” and the pleas of his writers, he finally bit the bullet. The shift from producer to director is potentially a massive one but for a man who’d begun his film industry career tearing tickets in Islington’s Screen on the Green, not unlike previous jumps he’d attempted. After setting up distributor Palacc Pictures in the early ‘80s, it wasn’t long before Woolley made the move to making movies. “I thought I don’t know exactly what producing means, but I’ll give it a go,” he recalls. “I learnt that it’s a balancing act between the fiscal aspects of a movie but also being able to massage the creative side.”
Having notched up forty-five producer or executive producer credits, Woolley, 49, was hardly your typical on-set neophyte. “As a first time director I was coming in with such a great contact list of people I’d worked with,” he admits. “The easiest way to direct this was to throw myself into it with people I trust, like my 1st A.D and my production designer, who I made Absolute Beginners with all those years ago.”
Woolley blitzed his way through a tight two-month shoot, including a week in Morocco. “Those eight weeks were the most enjoyable time of my career,” he beams. “I was surprised at how energising it was. I really loved it.” Unsurprisingly he cites Neil Jordan, whose films he’s produced since The Company of Wolves in 1984, as his biggest directing influence.
“His relationship with actors is what I really admire,” he enthuses. “The respect and time you give an actor on set is very important. I realise so much that they are what people come to see. If you’ve got bad actors you’ve got a bad film.”
Happily, Woolley secured two of Britain’s most impressive actors, David Morrissey and Paddy Considine, for the key roles of road manager Tom Keylock and builder Frank Thorogood, the man at the centre of the mystery, with rising star Leo Gregory as Jones. The antagonistic relationship between Thorogood and Jones is the heart of Stoned, the film ambitiously positing a spiritual tussle for the decade between traditional post-war working-class values and the anti-establishment rebels of the Swingin’ Sixties.
“My uncles were Franks,” affirms Woolley. “They’d come back from the War, lived through the 50s and the black market and rationing, they weren’t old men – and suddenly all these young kids were taking over.” Their sparring is reminiscent of Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter’s The Servant, one of several filmic touchstones the cine-literate Woolley references. Another is Nic Roeg and Donald Cammell’s iconic Performance, ironically starring Mick Jagger (along with Jones’ – and Keith Richards’ - ex Anita Pallenberg), whose reclusive, androgynous, strung-out rock star Turner is practically an homage to Jones.
“In a sense, Brian was a martyr for the 60s,” Woolley suggests. “He did all the drugs and the wild things so we could know they were bad. He was obviously mentally ill with severe drug problems, the most hedonistic person I’ve ever come across. My theory on why Keith was so much healthier when Brian was alive,” he grins, “was because he couldn’t get the drugs – Brian had taken them all.”
Stones fans will be fascinated by recreations of the band’s much-documented history, from their early blues-based gigs, to the famous trip to Morocco where Richards whisked Pallenberg away from his dangerously drug-addled mate. Still, as Woolley insists, “I deliberately didn’t want to make a biopic of The Rolling Stones.” Instead the focus is squarely on Jones, Thorogood and Woolley’s conclusions on what transpired that fateful night, rejecting outright any conspiracy theories that the Stones themselves played any part in Jones’s death.
“It’s rubbish,” he states frankly. “Brian was dwindling. I think if he hadn’t died that night in the pool he would’ve met an untimely death somewhere else. He was really hell-bent. But having said that, looking back you might have said the same about Keith or Pete Townshend. Who knows how they survived…”
Stoned is released on November 18th