The rapid advancement of AI technology and all of its potential applications may offer an exciting, albeit somewhat daunting, future. However, when filmmaker Calvin Demba stumbled upon the concept of ‘relationship robots’ he found himself pondering the type of person who might purchase such a humanoid and to what ends. That train of thought culminated in his BFI Network backed directorial debut BabyDolls, which examines fragile male masculinity through the story of Billy (played by Frankie Wilson) whose inability to hold down a healthy relationship leads him to purchase a bot, falsely believing that he can continue to perpetuate his selfish and damaging behaviours without repercussions. Demba, an award winning actor and performer, has crafted a short where his protagonist’s self-justifying narration offers a tongue-in-cheek insight into the extremely questionable motivations which could led such a man to embark down this non-traditional road to, supposed, happiness. Ahead of the online premiere of his perceptive short on DN today, we spoke to Demba about wanting to tell an absurd story with very real associations to toxic relationships, immersing the audience into a timeless world despite the modern tech of a sexbot and developing the film’s narrative driving original score and spoken word monologue.
BabyDolls is your directorial debut, how did the idea come to you?
The idea to make BabyDolls derived from hearing about ‘relationship robots’ and how they can be bought by the general public. After reading arguments for and against their existence, I asked myself if I would find someone who purchased a sexbot reprehensible. I decided it would depend on the buyer in question and their justification for why they wanted to buy one. I then wondered if it were possible to design a sexbot in any image, what would make them pick a previous partner? These questions inspired me to create our protagonist Billy and, through introspective and interactive spoken word, have him justify his purchase to us. Our film has a serious message in that it sheds light on how damaging toxic behaviour can be to the individual, old relationships, and new ones. In short, BabyDolls is about the golden rule, treat people how you want to be treated.
How did you find the transition from in front of the camera to behind and what do you think your acting experience brought to your directorial style?
I’m familiar with set life from my experience as an actor, and as I wrote the script, I had an idea of what I wanted visually. That said, being a director seemed like a problem-solving exercise at times. Luckily I was working with a very talented and game group of creatives who invested themselves wholly into what we were making. As for my directing style, I’m still finding it.
How was the journey moving from the initial idea into production?
I came up with the idea, wrote it, scrapped it, wrote it again, got someone to read it, scrapped it, rewrote it, left it alone, went back to it, scrapped it, wrote it again, and liked it. I met my producer Pauline Glomaud-Murmann who introduced me to her producing partner Alice Raymond. I then rewrote the script and sent it to my actors (who also happened to be my close friends). Alice and Pauline sent the project to the BFI as I rewrote the script again, and then, by God’s grace, we were accepted by the BFI and given funding towards the budget. We created the film’s music, and I rewrote parts of the script again.
Speaking of the music, your jinglesque score coupled with his revealing spoken word stream of consciousness do a great job propelling us through Billy’s self-defeating story. Could you tell us more about building those elements?
I worked on an original score with my good friend Skitz Beatz. We wanted the sound of the film to have elements of a 70s disco track. We brought in artists to record guitar riffs and piano loops, and a singer to record our film’s chorus. I wrote the chorus as a way to declare Billy’s love for his BabyDoll while explaining the bot’s algorithm “BabyDoll, you know me like I know me my BabyDoll, you’re my dream my fantasy my BabyDoll, inside you you can find me my BabyDoll, please be my BabyDoll…” I wanted the chorus to sound catchy and slightly cheesy to compliment the music’s retro feel. Our sound designer, Dominika Latusek, added some violin notes in post-production and we used a subtle reverb for all of Billy’s voice-over, so as to hint that Becks is echoing Billy’s thoughts as she becomes like him. Becks’ transformation then becomes overt by the film’s end, when she finishes Billy’s sentences.
The short is tongue-in-cheek as it thematically deals with non-platonic relationships and the importance of self-reflection within them.
Music is integral to the film as our original score represents Billy and Becks’ journey, seen through the eyes of Billy. Becks is subservient at the beginning of the film, so the score is melodic and catchy, but as Becks begins to impersonate Billy’s behaviour, the score glitches in places indicating Becks isn’t what Billy had hoped for. The short is tongue-in-cheek as it thematically deals with non-platonic relationships and the importance of self-reflection within them. If Billy would have reflected on why his relationship with Jess went wrong, he would have never treated his next partner with the same disrespect. As Becks’ algorithm works to make it more like its owner, Becks becomes Billy’s mirror, forcing him to confront his toxic nature.
Why did you feel it was important to focus on Billy’s inability to reflect on his previous behaviour corrupting his new BabyDoll relationship?
I think without self-reflection you can become a toxic person. Introspection is key to our personal development; our character Billy hadn’t done the work and he suffered the consequences. The more Billy revealed himself to Becks the more Becks grew in boldness, and she became a threat to Billy in the way he had been a threat in his former relationships.
The self-reflection aspect was explored using mirrors. A reference for this being when Billy peels off a face mask in front of a mirror, in homage to American Psycho, but when he says “So Becks babe take a bow” he himself bows and we reveal Becks stood behind him in his reflection. I also used this as a device when we see Becks stand over Billy’s body, which match cuts to Billy standing over his own body. At this point, Billy becomes aware that what he is afraid of in Becks is actually what he can see in himself.
Without introspection, Billy could not see how his toxic behaviour caused Jess to leave or how damaging it was to himself. In the words of Ice Cube, Billy needed to check himself before he wrecked himself. I think the film has a good message for all people to adhere to and perhaps young men in particular.
I love the juxtaposition of very modern sex robots and a vintage 70s London feel. Could you tell us about your costuming choices and how they echo the central themes of BabyDolls?
I thought it could be a good way of making our film feel both timely and timeless, absurd yet true. That sounded pretentious and that’s OK. I wanted the audience to get lost in the world we made, without guessing when we made it. The costumes seen in the film are non-contemporary, with every character’s style reminiscent of the 70s. For Billy, I wanted him to look well dressed and maintained for the arrival of Becks and for him to become increasingly dishevelled the more time he spends with Becks. This was to suggest that he was struggling with his BabyDoll and, therefore, his own nature. Equally, when Becks is in her subservient stage, she is dressed only in a kimono robe. By the end scene, Becks wears trousers and a leather jacket to poke fun at Billy’s patriarchal “she needs to know who wears the trousers” dialogue/attitude. Becks has become dominant in the relationship, and so wears the trousers, whereas Billy is dressed only in his undergarments, suggesting a role reversal to the pair.
I also set out to use colour as a tool to convey character. Billy is dressed predominantly in red as he is a walking red flag, Jess wears blue as she is cool, calm and collected when deciding to leave Billy, and Becks is seen in purple as she is an amalgamation of Billy’s personality and Jess’s appearance.
Our film has a serious message in that it sheds light on how damaging toxic behaviour can be to the individual, old relationships, and new ones.
Aside from our actor’s performance, we used hair and makeup to separate Becks from Jess (both played by Saffron Hocking). For Jess, we had Angela Davis and 1970s Pam Grier as style references. Jess symbolised strength in my eyes, I wanted to tell that story through her look. The afro, to me, represents strength and black pride in knowing oneself. In our opening scene, we watch Billy change Jess’s hair from afro to straight on the BabyDolls website, inferring that he didn’t want a strong woman as much as he wanted someone he could control, making her conform to a standard of beauty that wasn’t hers.
There are distinct shifts in the lighting and cinematography of the film, what’s the narrative logic behind those differences?
My DOP Charlie Jenkins and I spoke about aspect ratios and the best lighting to tell our story. We used a 2.35.1 aspect ratio when showing Becks and Billy’s relationship in Billy’s fantasy world. The fantasy section of the film contains vivid colours, heightened performances, and the use of spoken word. We also played with the idea of night and day. Billy attempts to be intimate with Becks during the night when he is his ‘shadow’ self. To highlight this, Charlie lit our scenes ominously, conveying the threat of Billy and accentuating the colour red. Practical lighting such as lava lamps also added to the sleaziness of Billy and kept us in line with the period feel we were creating.
We applied a slight grain in the grade to make our short look like it was from a past time, again reflecting Billy’s outlook on women and relationships.
We used a 1.33.1 aspect ratio for Jess and Billy’s relationship. The dialogue and performances are naturalistic, the lighting is stark, and the scene is shot handheld to create a less playful, more documentary feel. The flashback for me is the most truthful insight into who Billy is, and I wanted to keep that as stripped back as possible. I liked the change in the aspect ratio as it highlighted the claustrophobic nature of Jess wishing to be free of Billy.
Initially, I wanted to shoot on 16mm film but after speaking with Charlie, we decided to shoot on an Alexa Mini instead and emulate film in the grade. We applied a slight grain in the grade to make our short look like it was from a past time, again reflecting Billy’s outlook on women and relationships.
Do you feel the short loses anything being shot on digital instead of film?
I love film, but as it was my debut in directing, I didn’t want to put added pressure on myself by not being as flexible with takes due to cost. I am proud of what we made, so I can’t dwell on what could have been.
And finally, what will we see from you next?
I’ve recently wrapped a six part series for Netflix called Supacell and I’m working towards my next short film.