In Rob Brown’s debut feature Sixteen, when a former child soldier witnesses a stabbing he’s forced to confront his violent past with repercussions which threaten to derail the promising future he’s built for himself in London. With Sixteen hitting VOD platforms this week – and also cracking the iTunes Top 20 Indie chart – DN revisits our podcast interview recorded with Brown ahead of Sixteen’s world premiere at the London Film Festival.
Sixteen is a story you’ve been wanting to tell for many years, did it spring from a particular child soldier story which had grabbed your attention?
I think with each of the films that I’ve made, my interest in a particular story always starts with the character rather than a particular plot and I knew that I had to find a character that would keep me interested for the years that it was going to take. I think about different characters for films quite a lot but not all of them stick with me, and this was a character that for some reason stuck with me.
I’d say there wasn’t one particular real life story or memoir that is the inspiration for the story. There were a couple that I looked at during development, although I know that my actors Roger Jean Nsengiyumva and Rachel Stirling both found War Child: A Child Soldier’s Story by Emmanuel Jal to be a real influence. I also read Ishmael Beah’s book A Long Way Gone. There are quite a few stories that I looked at but there isn’t one that I would say is the dominant influence.
At what point did the idea of the story taking place in London as oppose to Africa cement itself?
Well firstly it’s already been done in film’s like Johnny Mad Dog and War Witch. Also, I think audiences can have a certain amount of emotional distance when they’re watching something that’s taking place far away. But if you then take this character and the kind of traumas that he has to a western country it’s much harder for an audience to keep that emotional distance when it’s something that’s happening in a part of London they recognise. So it’s really people that aren’t necessarily thinking about this as an issue and trying to make them experience this character’s story. It’s also the idea that somebody can travel away from a war zone but take their problems with them. It’s not something that you can leave behind.
As a character Jumah has an extremely short fuse which directly leads to some of the trouble he encounters. How did you and Roger find the balance of Jumah’s actions being a reflection of his violent past while at the same time not having the audience lose sympathy with him?
If it’s the case that your becoming frustrated with him at times and you want him to do the right thing, that’s what I intended. For example, when Jumah and Chloe become intimate but he becomes rough with her, I felt that if I didn’t include stuff like that, it would be a bit of a cop out and that I would be presenting a kind of Hollywood studio version of a child soldier without presenting the problems that he would have. I realise that by doing that you’re risking losing empathy for the main character.
It was a difficult balancing act in the script. I didn’t try to make Roger think about that in anyway as a problem that he had to deal with, he just had to play the situations truthfully. There’s just something about Roger, the presence that he has on screen as Jumah, that makes you care even when his behaviour is very challenging. I’m pretty sure it does work but it is a very fine balance and very difficult to push the audience too far at times.
Jumah’s relationship with his surrogate mother Laura is one of the things that helps keep us onside as we see him through her eyes. What did Roger and Rachael do to forge that bond between their characters?
I’d love to take credit for this but I can’t. Roger and Rachael decided to live together for a month. So they lived together for a week before the shoot and we did lots of prep during that week, and they also lived together for the whole three weeks of the shoot as well – the idea being that it would help them to have a more authentic bond on screen. I think that’s something that really helped both their performances, especial certain scenes, for example when she’s confronting him after they’ve been at the police station. I think it really helped Roger’s performance in that scene when Rachael completely lets rip. Roger in real life had formed quite a strong bond with Rachael so I’m pretty certain that that helped in some of the more emotional scenes between them.
Originally you were pursuing a budget of around £250K, but the final film was completed way under that. Did you have to scale the original script back dramatically for your new budget level?
Actually, I don’t feel in the end that we had to scale back too much. Initially, we were chasing industry money, trying to attach actors. I think the script was at too much of an early stage at that point for us to do that and then as the script developed we submitted for things like iFeatures, which we were long listed for, and got to the interview stage with Microwave but didn’t get any further. So then we were at a bit of a loss about how to move forward with the project.
There’s a Producer called Nic Jeune who I do some lecturing with at Bath Spa University – as well as working there he has decades of experience as a 1st AD in really high-end television and feature films. I told him about Sixteen and he thought that it would be a really good project to actually present to the uni where we work because we were setting up a masters degree in feature filmmaking. He thought it would be a good way of the university forging links with the industry and give students that opportunity to help out in junior roles on the film. So he proposed to myself and Jake Hume that the three of us should work together and pitch it to the university and they very kindly funded the film.
We got £40k which was enough to get the film in the can. Alongside the money we got from the university, I’m represented by an agency called United Agents and they helped me attached actors to the project, and then people at Arri also got onboard and Panalux and Pinewood Studios. So actually we ended up shooting with really good actors and we shot on the same camera lenses as Skyfall. Money was very tight because we didn’t have much cash but we had lots of in-kind support, so I don’t think what we ended up making is hugely different to if we’d had £250K other than the fact that we weren’t able to pay ourselves.
You also ran a successful Kickstarter campaign for Sixteen. Once you knew you had the University’s support for the bulk of the budget, was Kickstarter always in your minds as the place to raise completion funds?
It’s something that we thought about and it’s also something that when we pitched it to the university almost became a condition. Because we were setting up this MA where people were going to make micro-budget feature films, the experience of having run a successful Kickstarter campaign was incredibly valuable, not just to us, but also to the university. It was always an integral aspect of the process, we always knew that post production would have to be funded that way.
How did you go about planning the Kickstarter to maximise the chances of success?
I kind of wish we did more planning in a way because although we ended up going several thousand pounds over in the end, for the first 20 days we were really struggling. We knew the first week would mainly be when we focussed on people we knew, family and friends. The second week we’d focus more on websites and industry blogs to get the word out there and then local press and trades, and try to keep it snowballing. But along the way when certain things aren’t working you have to restrategise. So I wouldn’t say it was just a case of smoothly implementing a plan, it had to be adapted a lot along the way.
Also, I think there are some real problems with Kickstarter and how it’s run. For example, we had somebody that we didn’t know put in £1250 and on the platform someone can put money in and then take it out again without any warning. We were about to hit £10K and this person withdrew the whole £1250 with about 4 or 5 days to go, and we had somebody else do the same thing, going from £500 down to £20. We really had to dig deep to make it work, but actually there were quite a few people who we know that were so annoyed at what had happened they then reached out to everyone they knew on Facebook to tell them about the project, so actually in a way it helped build support, even if it did cause a couple of sleepless nights.
It’s really nice when people support your project just when you’re getting to a point that you’re thinking “Why am I even trying, we’re not going to succeed with this!” Also our friends The Blaine Brothers had recently completed a successful campaign, so they gave us advice on things we maybe hadn’t considered. One of the main things I found is that you need to be at your desk pretty much for the whole campaign duration in order to stand any chance of getting the money. I didn’t realise as well that the emails you send to people that you know are probably the most effective, then Facebook, and then Twitter in that order. I’d seen that theory on a couple of blogs and it proved to be quite true. My Producer Nick sent out a lot of emails and that’s when we got most of our money.
You’ve referenced films such as Ballast and Fish Tank as visual touchstones of what you wanted to achieve on Sixteen. How did you approach reaching your desired look shooting on the Arri Alexa?
Those were influences initially but I think we moved away from them. I like the intimacy of the camera work in Fish Tank and I like the colour palette of Ballast, although it’s not really what we ended up doing with Sixteen. In the end we wanted to make something a bit warmer and more filmic. Although we were shooting on HD on the Alexa our colourist, who’s worked a lot on film, created some Look Up Tables that could be applied to HD footage. He shot on all the different types of Fuji and Kodak film stock and did various different tests. He also shot on cameras like RED, Alexa, and any camera that could shoot some kind of raw format, and then created a LUT so that the skin tones, the various different colours and the blacks would all behave as they would on film. That was really important in trying to make it as filmic as possible even though we were shooting HD because we all learnt on film and we all really wanted that kind of feel to the film.
I think the main thing was prioritising performance over cinematography. I know that’s not a great thing for a cinematographer to hear from a director but there were quite a lot of times on the shoot where there’d be a really big emotional scene, that if we’d got wrong the film wouldn’t work and I needed to give the actors freedom. In those scenes they wouldn’t necessarily be able to say “OK, so I’m gonna come in and hit that mark,” they had to go with how they felt in the scene. It made it very difficult for Justin Brown to do his job but he did do an incredible job, I’m really proud of the cinematography.
How much did the film evolve from what was on the page once you’d been through post?
The script writing definitely continued throughout the shoot and during the edit. What I mean by that is when we were about to do a scene or the prep week before, we were constantly interrogating the script and trying to work out: is this the best way for us to tell this story, is this something that feels truthful, and works, and is honest for the actors? I was constantly making changes right before we did a scene to try and make sure that what we got on camera was the best thing we could.
In post production I’m really lucky that our editor Barry Moen, aside from the fact that he’s edited features before, also worked as an assistant director on stuff like Control and The American. For a long time he also had a big interest in writing and had written scripts, so brought a fresh pair of eyes to the story, and would suggest things like moving scenes. Effectively it is rewriting the script in the edit and I think what we ended up with is much more in the spirit of what I was trying to do than maybe the script was when we went into production.
Sixteen is available to buy now on iTunes and a variety of other VOD platforms.
Sixteen is released today on iTunes // Google Play // Blinkbox // Xbox // Sony // BFI Player // Wuaki // Amazon 🙂 pic.twitter.com/O1C7S2ZDIG
— Rob Brown (@RBrownDirector) May 18, 2015