If you live in the UK, then you’ll be all too aware of the shocking amount of youth on youth violence which has plagued the country in recent years. Less often reported is the fact that these attacks are often fuelled by the activities of criminal gangs who recruit vulnerable children as expendable foot soldiers in a cross-country drugs distribution practice known as ‘County Lines’. In his forthright British feature debut of the same name, New Zealand born Director Henry Blake draws on first-hand experience as a London youth worker to expose the human costs of this despicable practice. DN sat down with Blake to discuss the many ways in which his proof of concept short paved the way for the feature, depicting “lethal accurate clinical gems of violence” and why he felt urgently compelled to address this growing national emergency onscreen.

So what brought you to directing in the first place?

In New Zealand where I was born, I was a child actor. I then left at 18 years old, landed in London, and tried to act over here with some degree of success. Essentially what happened to me is that I fell out of love with acting. I went through quite a visceral identity change in terms of my internal attitudes towards art and I realised that actually what I really wanted to do was make films. Both of my parents are very keen cinephiles and I grew up immersed in film, watching it, bathing in it. I just listened to my heart and said, I’d really like to try and do this. I’d started directing my friends in plays out of necessity because no one else could do it and they said to me, “you’re a better director than you are an actor”. My wife Victoria Bavister (who produced County Lines) is an actress as well and she was the one that really encouraged me and introduced me to John Cassavities and more of Lars von Triers’ work, and the rest is history. 

I was exposed to that vulnerability and came to understand that this is actually a really profound cultural problem we have right now.

County Lines was inspired by the work you were doing in East London as a youth worker. What did you see there and how did that first-hand experience feed into the film?

County lines is basically a child trafficking and drug exploitation business. It’s a business model that is really active in the UK at the moment where criminal networks set up drug lines and mobile phone lines in rural areas selling crack cocaine and heroin. They use children to traffic and sell the drugs in the area generating lots of profit. I think the key thing about county lines is how they get children involved. They exploit a wide spectrum of vulnerability and it’s a business model that removes all risk from the key perpetrators and in that way, it’s very successful. It’s also a business model that is based on exploitation. To be successful in it, you need to understand the psychology of vulnerability and that’s where in my youth work I was exposed to that vulnerability and came to understand that this is actually a really profound cultural problem we have right now. So many people, from all walks of life, from all economic backgrounds are affected by this and that’s really where the seed of the film came from.

In the film, the main recruiter is pretty blatant and quite blasé about it. Is this something you found in your youth work, that they don’t give a shit?

Exactly, it’s bold and it’s entrepreneurial. The character is based on two different young men that I’ve worked with. They will look you in the eye and just say, “yeah, this is about money and this is about status”, which are the main driving factors. They feel that society has abandoned them, given up on them and so fuck society. They’re going to make the most out of it and it’s that sort of interplay between abandonment and exploitation that is very very complex and very hard to break. 

This feature was preceded by a short of the same name. Did you go in knowing you were going to make a short film first or is that something which developed along the process of making the feature?

I always knew as a filmmaker that I had to make a short for many reasons. I was nothing on paper. None of my short films have played any festivals. I didn’t have an agent. I wasn’t making music videos. I was zero! I’m going into meetings saying, “I want to make a film about a national crisis that is unfolding in this country right now, it’s about as hard hitting as you get in cinema…give me some money.” So I needed to make something that was a proof of concept and that would really make people go, “Whoa, that’s bold!”. I also knew I had to make it without any major institutional support. I needed to try and get this off the ground privately because I needed that vision in the short to be as pure as possible. I knew what I wanted to achieve was so confrontational. So the short film was a vehicle for channeling all of that vision, but also getting it through the gate. I didn’t have any time to wait. I was seeing this unravel week after week, time after time, with thousands of young people and I’m going, “we need to move now!”. I couldn’t wait on funding applications for months. I didn’t have time as this is a prescient issue and so I really felt the urgency to make it.

What lessons did making the short ingrain in you which you then took into the feature?

Don’t put $35,000 camera in an estuary when the tides coming in, especially when it’s a Panavison camera, so that was a big lesson! Every filmmaker should get to make a film twice. I’ve shot scenes from the short and the feature three times because we had to do reshoots for the short film so I’ve actually shot some of those scenes that you see in the film twice before. When you do that you start to refine your process, the first bottle of wine that you make isn’t going to be as good as the nine hundredth one and that’s why the short was so important. I feel very lucky now that I got to repeat simple things like camera placement, going back to the same location again and working with the same actors. Each time being able to go deeper and really exploring what we were really trying to say in that moment. That’s just the process of refinement.

You’re talking about kids, drugs and gangs and if you come at it very directly it’s going to create what we’ve all seen before.

You’ve been quoted as saying that you wanted to avoid an urban genre. How did you then find your way to the style of the film?

I totally wanted to avoid that genre, there were no urban references. Rembrandt was a huge influence. No one will see that in the film apart from me but he was. You’re talking about kids, drugs and gangs and if you come at it very directly it’s going to create what we’ve all seen before. I don’t find grime videos interesting but when I look at a Rembrandt I burst into tears so I’m going follow my heart. The challenge as a filmmaker is, how do I take what I really love such as works by William Eggleston, Rembrandt and Nan Goldin and put that in my film, how do I do that? It’s difficult but it’s a great challenge. I think sometimes it’s just lazy to go for realism for real sake. Cinema is about ideas and exploring ideas and that has to be the first thing that you go to. We were always serving the idea. The core idea of the film that vulnerability is almost extinguished entirely because of exploitation. That’s really what the film is about – vulnerability being systematically exploited and almost destroyed.

Your lead Conrad Khan delivers an outstanding performance as Tyler. How did you find him and how did the two of you build his progression from the sweet loving boy who takes care of his sister to being involved in these incredible flashes of violence?

Aisha Bywaters, the casting director, did an incredible job on this so she really has to be thanked and admired because her discerning choices led to the collaboration. There is an internal world in him that you put the camera on him and it’s just so magnetic, it’s palpable. We saw hundreds of boys from all walks of life but I was looking for a particular quality and that quality was vulnerability. When Conrad walked in he was dripping in it and it just so happens that he is quite a striking young boy as well. It was one of those classic casting tales, someone walks in and then the rest is history.

My main note to him was, “Look, you possess so much power just you standing there right now, trust the camera because if it fucks up, it’s my fault. Trust me.” With a young actor you have to endow them with a lot of support, there were challenging days understandably, he goes through hell in the film. It’s exhausting but he’s very sensitive and the one thing about Conrad is he takes direction so superbly. It doesn’t take three takes to get what you want, you say it once and he does it and that’s why he got the job. You haven’t got any time so you need actors who just go ‘boom’ and all of them are like that actually. I was very lucky.

I watched the film with a constant feeling of uneasiness ignited by that opening scene. How do you best go about balancing the brutal reality of that world with what would best serve the aims of this story?

There was more violence in earlier drafts, and I think everyone felt very strongly that violence was going to be more effective if it was just very strong gems. Lethal accurate clinical gems of violence. From the short I pulled it back in terms of depiction. In the short there is actually more and I think the violence is more effective in this final feature because it’s very explicit but there is also a suggestive nature to it and you are just riding that line. Riding that line which makes the viewing so uneasy because you feel like you’re seeing it but you can’t unsee it and then how much is in your mind and how much are you seeing and it’s an awful traumatic experience.

Are we in this for ourselves or are we in this together and that’s what the film confronts you with.

I’ve seen a lot of very serious violence in my youth work and that’s how it felt. I find violence hugely distressing. I think violence in the film is as a result of tension that has been building up before the act happens. I hope that we managed to get that across where there’s this tension and then suddenly it erupts and then we sort of go back into this uneasy atmosphere and it builds again. I recognise that it is very traumatic to view that but essential when trying to get to the core idea of the film across. 

One of the most chilling aspects of the film is how it reveals the utter disposability of these kids to the criminals who run them and the relentless continuation of county lines. As somebody who’s worked within the system what do you want the film to inspire in the audience and within society at large?

Empathy. For the windows that are very steamed up with judgement to become clear. I want people to watch the film and say this is a child; yes difficult, yes potentially dangerous, not perfect, but it’s a child. Why can’t empathy within our own households extend beyond them, why does that have to stop at our front door? I’ve got three children but my empathy extends beyond them and isn’t that what being in a community is about? Are we in this for ourselves or are we in this together? That’s what the film confronts you with. What would you do if that was your child because it could very well be?

I had exactly that thought when I was watching it.

Exactly, so the film has succeeded. If you personalise the film as you’re watching it that means that the film is playing on a level deeper, that the debate has been put to you more than just as an intellectual idea, it’s being put to you as a deeply emotive human idea. You feel that debate and you experience it rather than just consider it.

Are there any other projects that you are currently working on?

There are a couple but they’re so embryonic it’s like there’s not even a fetus. I can tell you they are all character led, powerful performance driven pieces. Sverre Sørdal the cinematographer and I, continue to build that visual style. We will keep building on that, keep refining it. It’s about power. Creating a cinema of feeling, economical, lean, powerful and just bloody great film acting. That’s what I love.

County Lines is released in cinemas and digitally on BFI Player and Curzon Home Cinema on 4 December.

The above conversation is an extract from the podcast interview we recorded with Henry Blake at the London Film Festival.

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