Taking a known experience and channelling that into a creative outlet lies at the heart of Writer/Director Toby Wharton’s short film Held. The London-based filmmaker tapped into a core shaking incident from his own past to explore the shame of being a victim. Sadly, we know how prevalent appalling unprovoked incidents of violence have become in the UK’s capital, however Wharton’s drama depicts a not often presented side of this violence by focusing on the unseen humiliation suffered by those on the receiving end. Held offers a stripped back view of its protagonist’s inner torment as we following him on his ill fated journey towards the comfort and safety of home – embodied by a stellar performance from Rasaq Kukoyi. With Held currently in the midst of its festival run, we here at DN sat down with Wharton to learn how a chance meeting in the BFI library led to the development of the script and funding, why he needed to find the right balance of maturity and vulnerability in his actors and how he moved away from a previous aversion to storyboarding and embraced the adaptability of the process.
Held features the largely under-represented perspective of the victim of a knife attack, why did you decide to approach it this way?
Maybe a good place to start is that the idea for Held originated from my being attacked and stabbed when I was a teenager and that for many years I wasn’t able to speak openly and truthfully about my experience. I wasn’t able to be truthful with myself about what had happened to me and I couldn’t face the fact that I hadn’t been able to fight back and defend myself and was left feeling powerless, humiliated and ashamed. Held explores the trauma and shock experienced in the immediate aftermath of an attack. But at the heart of this film, what’s really driving its narrative is the great lengths a person can go to in order to hide their shame. I think this tendency towards self-blame after being hurt and abused can be experienced by all walks of life, so I hope this is where our film will resonate universally.
How did you find working on a script so closely connected to your own personal experience?
It’s funny, throughout the entire process, I’d mostly forget the story was based on my own experience. The film began as a literal expression of what happened to me, but then so much more was added to the pot when building its narrative. I thought back to conversations with mates growing up and our relationship towards violence in general – so much posturing! Vulnerability really was another language. Then research, casting, every HOD, helped the story grow and transform. But it was interesting when I began talking with friends about the film, even some family. I’d be excitedly describing the story arc, the lead character, how I wanted to shoot it, etc… Then they would ask where the initial idea came from, and I’d casually reply, “Oh you know, it’s based on that time I was stabbed.” They’d be like, “What? I never knew this happened to you.” Personally, that was very telling, and it helped me understand exactly what this film was about – the shame of victimhood.
At the heart of this film, what’s really driving its narrative is the great lengths a person can go to in order to hide their shame.
For me, the big learning experience has been grappling with the language of realism. Most of the time we keep things very simple and pure but there are moments when we break that and become more psychologically heightened. It’s been interesting to play around and see how far we can bend and push the language. On my next film though, I’ll be looking for even more simplicity in how we tell the story.
How did the BFI get involved?
I originally approached Joy Gharoro-Akpojotor, the executive producer back in 2018 and she made a big impression on me. I really liked her energy. At the time of developing Held, I was writing a lot at the BFI library and I kept seeing Joy around the building. I decided to say hi and tell her about the film. I’m pretty sure she didn’t remember me but she agreed to read an early draft and luckily was interested. She came on board as exec and from our first meeting has been instrumental in the story development of the film.
I was then put in touch with my producers Clement Fernandes and Silvia Felce, and we all bonded quickly which helped the project gain some real momentum. In 2019 we were awarded funding and development from BFI Network. At this point I thought the script was ready to shoot, but working with them I soon realised the story could be far more stripped back and focused. Like many films, our production was suspended due to Covid and it was over a year of waiting before we could get the ball rolling again. That time of uncertainty was hard to bare, but some big positives came out of being forced to hit pause.
They helped me boil the film down to its essence and cut any moments that weren’t driving the narrative forward.
Me and my talented DOP Laura Seward had time to step away from the project and come back to it with fresher eyes. When we did, our visual language felt significantly clearer and developed. This partly came out of a year where all we could do was watch and dissect films together! We were also able to meticulously storyboard the film, something that we’d both been previously adverse to for fear of stifling spontaneity. Instead, it gave us a strong foundation to confidently improvise on the day and I believe made us more adaptable when up against time pressures, practical challenges etc.
How exactly did working with someone as experienced as Joy and then the funding from the BFI Network assist you in developing your story to the place where it was ready to shoot?
I loved working with Joy. She’s very story minded and gave so many nuggets from our first meeting to the final cut. She had a great knack of being direct with me about what she thought wasn’t working, but always communicating it in a supportive and nurturing way. When BFI Network came on board I was sure the script was ready to shoot. They weren’t! They helped me boil the film down to its essence and cut any moments that weren’t driving the narrative forward. Working with them sharpened my understanding of the story and, in turn, changed how I wanted to approach it visually.
As the origin of this film is very much based on a lived experience, why did you decide to work with a majority Black cast?
I always thought it was important the lead character should be Black, but was concerned about how the film might represent the Black community, especially it being made by a white director. It was something I wrestled with for a while and spoke about with a number of friends and collaborators. In the end, my choice came down to the tragic, unavoidable truth that knife crime in London disproportionately affects boys and young men of African-Caribbean heritage. It’s those boys and their families that I want the film to represent, and speak to, first and foremost. If the story had been set somewhere like Glasgow, then that would have been different.
Still, it was very important to look closely at each character and make sure we weren’t falling into any form of stereotyping. It was also important that one of the attackers was white. I hope audiences experience our characters as real, nuanced human beings. I also hope they see that although the story is specific in terms of location and demographic, the psychological trauma our protagonist goes through could happen to anyone, anywhere.
Your background is in acting, how did that perspective inform the approach you took when casting the film?
I worked with the Casting Director, Aisha Bywaters. We didn’t street cast, but the many young actors we saw had very little acting experience. When I met Rasaq Kukoyi, I immediately knew he was right for the role of Charles. He’s instinctive, playful and, most importantly, has an innate vulnerability about him, so I was confident he’d be able to express Charles’ traumatic journey without falling into the trap of emoting.
As an actor, I’d say the auditioning process is mostly one of uncertainty. But I now appreciate it’s equally nerve wracking on the other side. There’s so much riding on getting things right in the casting. You can have the strongest script, slickest camera sequences but if the actors in the middle of it all aren’t right for their roles, nothing holds up. When casting our protagonist there were so many qualities I needed to find in that one person and some of them seemed in direct opposition.
They needed to look genuinely young and have an innate vulnerability about them, while at the same time bring a maturity and depth to the role. I also needed to know they had the stamina to get through a punishing shoot and feel confident we’d both get along together. That’s a lot to decipher in one brief casting but when I met Rasaq, any anxiety immediately left me. He had everything the role demanded and then some. We’d seen so many talented and capable actors, but there was an essence in Rasaq that was just right. I still remember banging my desk and laughing in relief, once he’d left the room, of course!
I read that you wanted “invisible camera work” which is so apparent right from the opening scene. How were you able to achieve that?
I’m glad it comes across that way! It was really important to me and Laura to find imagery that was engaging and cinematic, but without the camera ever drawing attention to itself. Our process was definitely one of stripping things back and finding a language that felt seamless and grounded in reality. We tried to be as economic as possible, it was about maximum impact with minimal coverage. Storyboarding (a first for both of us) was a game changer. As well as showing gaps in our shot list that might leave me unstuck in the edit, it helped identify any shots that weren’t relevant to the story and could be dropped.
Our process was definitely one of stripping things back and finding a language that felt seamless and grounded in reality.
We also made a rule from early on that the camera would need to keep moving, it had to keep a kinetic energy going that would match Rasaq’s pace and state of mind. Then on the day, it was just about staying alert to any move that felt unmotivated or contrived. This attitude of continually stripping things back fed into how I approached every aspect of the film, especially with sound design and music. It was so satisfying removing an element and then finding that what was left resonated all the more for it.
Why did you choose the slightly uncommon aspect ratio of 1.44:1?
We shot on an Alexa Mini and it was a case of gut feeling. We discovered it with the music video for Elderbrook and Rudimental’s Something about You. It’s such a cool video – poignant, playful and simple in its execution. I loved how it was shot, particularly how they captured two people together in the frame. I kept thinking of our film as an intimate portrait and 1.44:1, similar to medium format photography, lent itself to that. I did consider 4:3 for a while – partly because I’m a huge Andrea Arnold fan and want to do everything she does, but for some reason it didn’t feel quite right. Instead of the boxed in claustrophobia 4:3 would have given us, the height of 1.44:1 allowed for some nice negative space and helped isolate him in the frame. Instead of trapping him, it felt best to make him small and alone in his environment. And again, an aspect ratio that would help create dynamic two shots was important for this film.
And last but not least, what are you working on next?
As well as developing a feature, I’m gearing up to shoot my third short early next year. It’s a contained, slice of life story with only a cast of two. Nice and simple. At the same time, it’s challenging in its psychological complexity. There’s a lot of ambiguity between the two characters – something I’m yet to get my head around!