Sarah Gavron, the British film director behind ‘Brick Lane’ and ‘Suffragette’, returns with ‘Rocks’, the story of the eponymous young London teenage girl (Bukky Bakray) and her younger brother (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu) who are abandoned by their fragile single mother. Gavron and her co-director Anu Henriques tell ASFF about the unique way this film was put together.
ASFF: How did this project start?
SG: We wanted to make a film about young people. But with them. Because that felt like the exciting way to make a contemporary film, and build it with them. We set about finding the cast – we sat in schools and worked with young people, got them into workshops. So we found the cast before the script was written by Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson, who were in those workshops, interacting with the girls, befriending them. Everybody was getting each other’s trust. And then eventually out of that came the script. And the narrative of the script was devised by Theresa, who had been working on it independently – what she called ‘a love letter to her sister’, because it was about her experiences growing up and particularly black girls having to be grown-up beyond their years. Then she offered that story up to the group and all the young people contributed and it evolved into the film it is.
ASFF: How did that translate once you got on set?
AH: By the time we got on set, we had this backbone. We knew what scenes we wanted, we knew the story arc, we knew the narrative. But because we had this confidence, because of the strength of the story and the script, we were able to be on set and use that as a launch pad and were able to give ourselves and the cast the freedom to improvise dialogue, to run with a scene for much longer than you would usually. Some takes were up to 45 minutes and then we’d refine it over time, which was a ball-ache for everyone on set! But it was definitely worth it, because it would give the film natural rhythms and pace – which comes from the dialogue – but also the authenticity you see on screen.
ASFF: Sarah, have you worked in this way before?
SG: It was new. Here and there, I’ve worked with first-time actors but it was really new. So we all developed the process in tandem together. Those workshops were so vital, not only for getting to know one another, for gaining trust, but also for evolving a technique. And then we were learning from previous filmmakers. We were shooting chronologically, so the actors and storytellers could hold on to how the story was evolving. We weren’t saying ‘action’, for example, so we were giving a lot of space for spontaneity.
ASFF: Were the girls able to concentrate and stay involved?
SG: Yes! Bukky [Bakray] who plays Rocks always talks about how adults typically don’t listen to young people, and we were listening to them – it was a utopia! They’re interesting when you do give them space, they come up with amazing ideas! They’re full of creativity – they’re bold and they’re brave. For me, it was creatively energising. They were challenging every cliché. They were really engaged.
ASFF: D’angelou Osei Kissiedu, who plays Rocks’ little brother Emmanuel, is amazing. How did you find him?
AH: I was lucky enough to be at the auditions, and I was playing an older sister character for D’angelou and he was given the task of cheering me up. And he has one of the most vivid imaginations I’ve ever seen in a 7 year-old. He asked me what was wrong but then he took me through this guided meditation! Breathe in, breathe out. And that’s in the scene in the B&B – inspired by that audition process. That’s what he does for Rocks, getting her to breathe to calm down. He’s a magical young man!
Rocks is in cinemas from 18 September. For more details, click here.
Sarah Gavron is speaking at ASFF 2020 on Wednesday 4 November. Book your ticket.