Baby Boy has plenty of sex and drugs, but no rock and roll. An abrasive, gripping and dark descent into the heart of London’s underbelly, this tale of a typical suburban man succumbing to his worst impulses suggests Taxi Driver meeting Uncut Gems. Yet the locale and the feel are undeniably British, with experienced low-budget Director Greg Hall (whose DN association predates this website) turning in a particularly harrowing look at how easy it is to fall back on one’s inner weaknesses. Told with a great sense of empathy from a screenplay by George Russo who also puts in a terrifying central performance, Baby Boy makes great use of a dual-lighting scheme, carefully co-ordinated camerawork and fantastic acting to flip the script on traditional masculinity in favour of something far more nuanced and interesting. Ahead of today’s online premiere, we had the chance to talk to Hall about making violence believable, the reason behind picking a black cab driver in the lead role and how the film worked as a form of therapy for both cast and crew.
Nicky is a black cab driver. They are a fixture of London life, so I feel like it makes him a relatable character for this particular tale. Why did you choose that profession?
I wish I could have a profound answer around a taxi cab being a symbolic vehicle for the human soul or an avatar for the ‘everyday man’ but the real reason is probably less interesting. The original story of cab driver Nicky and his crack-induced binge was a smaller story thread from an abandoned feature script that George Russo and I wrote which looked at the intertwining lives of the drug trade in east London. We always had a soft spot for Nicky as a character. It’s a classic Jekyll and Hyde narrative; we always loved how he had a Mick Jagger swagger once he transformed into his drug-fuelled alter-ego Skinny Nicky.
During the first lockdown the script came about from re-exploring the abandoned story thread and bringing it to life with the short. I think the black cab originally came from conversations about people using vehicles to sell and take drugs, such as ice cream vans. But certainly as the story and character developed the role of being a black cab driver and the significance of this archetype came to the forefront. In some respects Baby Boy is about exploring and subverting identities and expectations. You couldn’t find more of a cliche than a white working class man with a house, wife and two kids in the suburbs who drives a black cab in London!
What draws me towards sex and drugs as intertwining subject matters is that they both set out to achieve the same result.
I even joked at one point with George that we should call the short Taxi Driver. There’s certainly a direct influence of Scorsese’s film, which we both admire as a stellar piece of seventies filmmaking. During the shooting of Baby Boy I would play Bernard Herrmann’s score on set to evoke the same insidious mood. To paraphrase Godard: It’s not about where you take something from but where you take it to. I believe all culture is some kind of appropriation so I try to ensure to steal from the best.
What drew you to tell a story about sex and drug addiction and did you have to do any research to get the tone right?
I would say that sex and drugs are both widely used and abused across all levels of society, so I guess I find it hard not to tell stories that don’t touch upon these topics in some way as they are so intrinsic to the world around us. What draws me towards sex and drugs as intertwining subject matters is that they both set out to achieve the same result. As part of the human experience they help us transcend, offering momentary relief to the banality of everyday existence. People pursue both sex and drugs with great conviction; they are common motivators that can be found in all the best and worst stories.
Ultimately everything we create has come from some place of experience and authenticity.
Baby Boy is co-written with George Russo. My debut no-budget feature The Plague and George’s first film Turnout both cover similar topics of drugs, dealing and petty crimes. Therefore when we started writing together a lot of what we draw from is our mutual interest in drug culture, from the positive artistic and creative contributions through to the negative addictions and depravities around the topic. George has been in recovery for over ten years which has influenced the writing process. Ultimately everything we create has come from some place of experience and authenticity.
George Russo is so amazing and intense in the main role, giving his character a great sense of depth; what’s he like to work with as an actor?
George is a dream to work with. He fully commits himself to a role and does his homework building the character. He really invests his time and ideas into layering the character, finding the truths and reality of who he is embodying. Working with an actor like George makes my life as a director a joy. I’m fully confident in knowing that he will strive towards wanting to deliver the best performance he can. The standards he holds himself to are incredibly high.
As a director I really enjoy working with actors who I can build strong personal bonds with because ultimately they are your co-collaborators in bringing your vision to life. George is godfather to my son so it’s safe to say we have a strong trust. Filmmaking to me is like an extended family in both the figurative and literal sense.
This is a dark, depressing story but I felt like it had a strong sense of empathy for the man at its centre! What was it like getting the tone right?
It’s always a challenge approaching a story where the protagonist is not just flawed but displays questionable and damaging behaviour. The key for me was to establish a sense of sympathy and empathy for the audience, attempting to bridge the gulf between what the protagonist does and what the protagonist feels through the choice of film language in telling the story. The shot decisions were in line with building Nicky’s world. For example in the opening scene, his wife Angie is only ever composed in a wide shot because there is so much distance in their relationship. It’s visualised in the film; she’s never given a close up because Nicky is not close to her, which the audience receives on a deeper psychological level.
Likewise, the opposite approach is taken with the character Baby Boy, the object of Nicky’s obsession is framed in close ups and extreme close ups, so the audience is receiving the story through the protagonist’s perception. A lot of the shot composition played with the idea of creating tension between the subject and the frame. It wasn’t about shooting the perfect close up of Nicky but constructing a frame which he would push against to capture the seething frustration building up within him. The choice of film language reflected the emotion of the protagonist which therefore shaped the audience’s reading.
A lot of the shot composition played with the idea of creating tension between the subject and the frame.
It follows Villain, which I very much enjoyed, in using violence as a means to really get into the psychodrama of its characters. There’s an incredibly shocking, violent moment in the middle of this film with a hammer. How did you think about this moment, especially in terms of the way you shot it for maximum impact?
Well spotted! Yes, both Villain and Baby Boy have extreme hammer moments, I guess it’s becoming a Russo / Hall motif — funnily enough, the actual hammer we used was one of the same ones from Villain. Violence is so fascinating, it is a window into the darker side of humanity, there is baseness and savagery to extreme violence that tells you so much about the character. And the trauma that surrounds violence, from those who carried it out, to those who have it enacted upon them and those that witnessed it. Getting violence correct on screen, making it appear real and horrific, is so important to me.
The way this scene is shot is very much in keeping with Nicky’s paranoid mind state, it’s completely handheld and keeps our protagonist constantly in the frame; less concerned with establishing the external scene details and instead focusing on the character emotion. This film is a contemplation of time: it obscures and bends time within the narrative framework; this moment in the crack squat is all shot in long takes as we inhabit ‘real time’ in the story. We practiced this a lot, in the rehearsal space we had blocked out the layout of the location and had shot tests on my iPhone to ensure it was working.
Deciding where to place the camera is always fundamental. For this moment the camera stays with Baby Boy watching the attack happen through the doorway. While it’s not a POV it certainly indicates where the audience’s sympathies are positioned. The audience, like Baby Boy, are fellow observers caught in this wild situation. All of this heightens the impact of the violence in my opinion. Ultimately the success of this moment is with the magic of cinema: all departments working in unison – the performances, the prop hammer, make up, the cinematography, the edit and the sound design – made this violent moment feel shockingly real.
The lighting is amazing too, lots of bright colours which do create this duality of tone. What was it like setting up the lighting scheme in the film?
The film had a very defined colour palette from the outset. Early into pre-production I put together a lookbook of references and ideas that articulated what I wanted to achieve with the realisation of the film and how it connected with the underlying theme. We play with the colours of blue and pink; both are steeped in deeply gendered binary concepts of masculinity and femininity, therefore throughout the film we wanted to play with these levels of colour and blur the line between the two, much in the same way the film explores and subverts identities, traditional archetypes and expectations of masculinity. Leona Flude the production designer worked the palette into the props and location dressing, likewise Lowri Whitwell the costume designer utilised the two colours and based all of the costumes off of this concept.
It was also the first time I worked with wonderful Director of Photography Karl Poyzer, having been introduced by mutual friend and filmmaker Joseph Roberts at a Dutch film festival. I feel we really bonded on a personal level which was important to us both, I couldn’t have made the film without him. We shot this film at a very strange time. It was relatively early on in the pandemic, we had just come out of the first lockdown over summer 2020 and were going into this film still with a sense of uncertainty about the future. We quickly built a working relationship with video calls to discuss the script, outlining visual ideas with a shot list and shooting script, plus recceing locations in preparation.
Alongside the colour palette, the film also plays with the concept of daylight as a device to confuse the audience. When you read the script a lot of the material (e.g. drugs, violence) feels like it would atmospherically be set at night, but instead we decided the film would have a sense of eternal daylight. I didn’t want the audience to know whether it had been one day or three days; we wanted to capture what sleep deprivation feels like, losing sense of time and all blurring into one just like how Nicky feels on his binge. The conversations with Karl were always story focused, while we had a plan to follow we also remained open to creative discussions of how to capture the emotional beat of the story during the shoot. I’m really happy with the look we achieved for the film.
I didn’t want the audience to know whether it had been one day or three days.
The intensity seems to build throughout. Was this something that you had from the beginning or something you had to build up through editing?
I would say the story has an inevitable building intensity as Nicky goes further out of control, deeper into a drug-fuelled paranoia, it’s very much part of the character arc and the DNA that drives the narrative. There’s no other way a story like this is going to end, it was always going to result in tears from the outset. But of course, the editing process sharpened and tightened the breakneck experience that Nicky takes us on. Editor Riccardo Servini often referred to the film as a ‘fever dream’, which I absolutely loved, it really captures the essence of the film. It’s intense, almost hallucinogenic, where you lose the sense of what’s real and what’s not. It swells and builds just like a fever, taking you through a roller coaster of emotions and leaving you drained by the finale. So it was always envisioned that the intensity of the character journey would build till breaking point, the edit process worked from this idea and refined the film to fulfil the rising ‘fever dream’ arc.
For me the fever dream analogy became really poignant, the post-production all took place online through the lockdowns of early 2021. I never actually met Riccardo in person till we completed the cut! It was a surreal time to make a film, the fever dream of the narrative feels like it also represents the fever dream of the period of time.
And you have to tell me about the music too, which perfectly accompanies this wild ride!
The music for the film is phenomenal, fully immersive and never relents. It takes you on an audio journey. The music is by Speakers Corner Quartet, made up of the super talented Biscuit (flute/producer), Raven (Strings), Pete (Guitars) and Kwake (Drums). I go way back with Biscuit, who was the main driving force in producing the score. We knew each other from the UK hip hop scene of the early 2000s. I used to make music videos back in the Channel U days, I shot Jehst’s Nuke Proof Suit (2005) video which was when I met Biscuit, who has a cameo. During the first lockdown Biscuit had seen one of my old films on TV and contacted me via Instagram. We started chatting over video calls just to catch up, he would play me some of the SCQ demos and I’d fill him in on what I was up to.
The fever dream of the narrative feels like it also represents the fever dream of the period of time.
So when the chance came with Baby Boy, the stars aligned and we were able to have an incredibly unique and creative score produced for the film. It’s funny for me because my previous short Smack Edd was very in the neo-realist vein of Alan Clarke and Andrea Arnold using no musical score at all. With Baby Boy I did the opposite: the score doesn’t follow the traditional expectations of where music would be used as a device, instead the score is all consuming. It never relents. From the opening through to the closing credits, the music grabs you and pulls you into the journey. It works perfectly because the music score is much like the wave of indulgence Nicky is absorbed by.
I should also add that the film is dedicated to the memory of Biscuit’s Mum who sadly passed away during the post-production period. The experience of making the film is bigger than the film itself. In a way Baby Boy is like a time capsule that captures this strange period of time during an unfolding pandemic that was marked with uncertainty and loss. The pain that’s seen on the screen really has come from a place of experience; our creativity became a therapeutic outlet.
You spoke to MarBelle about your feature The Plague way back in 2005 when DN was still getting started. What has it been like navigating the low-budget film space since then? Has it been easier or more difficult over the years when working with small budgets?
That’s a great question but one I feel like I’d struggle to fully answer in a comprehensive manner. I made my no-budget debut feature The Plague back in 2004 so it’s been over eighteen years of experience in guerrilla filmmaking. So much has changed in terms of equipment, technology, distribution and financing over that period of time. The real answer to how it’s been navigating the low budget film space over nearly two decades is probably best saved for a pub over numerous pints for me to honestly go into the depth and details that the subject deserves.
When I made The Plague in the early 2000s both the technology and industry were in very different places, likewise distribution and funding have gone through multiple evolutions and life spans during the window of time I’ve been working. There’s been many pros and many cons but for me one thing has remained constant and the same. It’s that classic William Goldman quip that “nobody knows anything”. The world of independent filmmaking in my eyes is that it is like the Wild West. An unknown filmmaker, with unknown actors, no money and the smallest of technical resources can create a film with a strong enough story and creative vision that it can connect with an audience across the globe.
So in some respects nothing has really changed. When working as an independent filmmaker on small budgets the attitude has remained the same; one of optimism. You get certain creative freedoms with small budgets that can be a real luxury, but on the downside there are always corners that need to be cut, and compromises that need to be made. But no matter what your budget is, you never really have enough, you’re always trying to think creatively and logistically about how you can tell the story you want with the funds you have. It certainly sharpens your senses, I don’t know if I would say it’s got easier but rather I’ve got more knowledgeable about my craft and the business. The only thing that’s become more difficult is age and the responsibilities that go with that. Ultimately it’s not sustainable when the budgets are too small.
What are you working on next?
Whenever I’ve answered a question like this in the past I always find every project I talk about never ends up happening, which may be one of the obvious downsides to being an independent low-budget filmmaker. As you could guess I’ve got a couple more feature scripts written with George that we’re trying to put out into the world. I’m keen to direct a new project soon but also not in a rush. I’m really pleased with how Baby Boy has turned out and I am taking my time to line up the next adventure. Meanwhile I’ve been teaching filmmaking which I love, raising my two kids and generally trying to survive in the inner city during a pandemic through to the cost of living crisis. Hopefully it won’t be too long until I have new work to talk about.