SSIFF interview: Sarah Gavron and Theresa Ikoko (Rocks)

After screening their new film Rocks, director Sarah Gavron and screenwriter Theresa Ikoko sat down for a roundtable session in which Cédric Succivalli took part. They talked about the writing process, Gavron’s influences, social media, and where their desire to do what they do comes from.

Q: Nicolas Pariser, the director of Alice and the Mayor, has said that in France, normally the writer is the one who directs. My question is, would you want to direct a film written by you, or do you prefer the dynamic?

SG: Personally, I prefer the dynamic. I think that there are lots of great examples of writer-directors, and I think Theresa has the capacity to direct and the desire to direct and she’s also a born writer, all in one person. But it’s an individual thing. Part of the reason I love film actually is I love the collaboration, I love the conversation that goes on, the constant conversation. It’s almost like you’ve got two brains on every moment or more than two. That for me is where I get my kind of energy from.

Q: To me the film really reminded me of a tradition of female directors at the moment like Maïmouna Doucouré or Celine Sciamma, the latter with Girlhood and the former with Cuties, a film that has not been released but that I have already seen. So you’re in a way part of a very French tradition, so to speak, even though it’s all translated to England of course. Do you like that type of cinema?

SG: Definitely. When I was growing up there were no women directors that I could look to, I mean there were a handful but I didn’t see any of their films and it was really only when I started seeing them in my early twenties that I realized that it was possible to direct and you could be a woman and direct. I’ve always followed female filmmakers in the UK. But obviously there’s a whole wonderful tradition in France from The Divine to Girlhood, Mustang, all those films, where we were seeing stories about women told by women that were reflecting the world around them. It was exciting. And we as teenagers would talk about those stories when we were starting out. So yeah, French cinema  definitely does influence us.

Q: How did the story begin? How did it come to you, and how did the collaboration start?

TI: When we started I wasn’t quite sure where it was going. The process started with just wanting to tell a story about young women in London and with going out to find young women who wanted to be part of the storytelling and the process. The casting director went out and saw about 1,300 girls in London. Thankfully we didn’t go on all those castings, but we went with them to a few schools and community centers and afterschool activities, and we met girls and asked them about their families, about their friendships. And one day you’d go into a school and you meet two girls who’d insist on meeting you together and when you’d go back for those same two girls they didn’t want to meet you together anymore because they had fallen out, so we really got into those kind of dynamics. So then we started doing workshops with around 30, and out of those 30 about 10 seemed more consistent. Then out of those 10 we took the seven girls that you see. That took nine months to a year, and me and Claire went away, reading the notes on the workshops, reading Judy and Jessica’s notes on visiting the schools, trying to find what the story was, trying to find an angle that felt like it would be honoring the process. We wrote a script, but it wasn’t really quite working, there was probably one too many boys in the original script (laughs). Separately I had been working on a story to honor my sister, I could describe it as a love letter to my sister and to other black women, who I feel have to be really strong and enduring and resilient. They are beacons and fountains of joy and love and phenomenal beauty. When we threw away the first script, this other one I was working on really was reflected in the room, because the thing I was working on was about sisterhood, and what was happening in the room was sisterhood, we were watching sisterhood in action. Between us, the crew, the creative team, amongst the girls we became big sisterhood to this little sisterhood, and it felt like what I was trying to say in this story was happening in real life. So I took the story to them and they all responded so generously and so openly, and took it apart and put it back together, and it became this bigger beautiful thing. What was supposed to be a love story to my sister became a love story by 100 women to 100 women, to 100 more. And it’s hopefully become this chain of love.

Q: Theresa, you started as a playwright. How was the transition to cinema and your collaboration with Claire Wilson? And for you, Sarah, how was your collaboration with the cinematographer, Hélène Louvart?

TI: The transition between film and theater I find pretty easy, because I find them quite similar. Both are based on telling a whole story, to tell the story slowly and to use your imagination as far and wide as you want. Writing with Claire was probably the easiest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I like to call her my soulmate, it’s as if we get to share the same brain. To save time we had divided up the script, she was going through the first half and I had the second half, and would I sent her texts. We spoke to each other in texts and said, “I’ve made a change and you’ll see when you get it“. And we swapped the halves of the script and we’d have both made the same change in different halves of the script. So we could literally send each other out into the world to represent each other in all elements of our lives, I’m sure.

SG: Working with Hélène, we talked about how we wanted to cast our crew. So we wanted to find a crew that felt suited to this project particularly, and since it’s about young women we felt that it would be appropriate to have a predominately female crew. We wanted the girls to look behind the camera and see people who they could aspire to be one day. I hadn’t worked with a female DP and I admired Hélène, I’d seen her previous work. Then she was approached, she was sent a draft and she responded so emotionally to it that she felt like a really good fit. And then we also talked about French cinema, we also talked about having two cameras and it very much being about allowing the girls’ lives to translate onto the screen. So how could we not get in the way and how could we also not peer through our adult gaze that allowed us to feel we were in that world with them.

Q: Bukky Bakray’s performance is really natural, she is not really acting, she is just there and present. How did you lead her to that? I understand the creation, because there’s already a base foundation. But how did you take her into Rocks’ world, its emotional world?

SG: I think a lot of that work had been done in the workshop process. And then, Theresa was on set and the women who she’d worked with were on set. So if ever I couldn’t find a way to elicit that performance, I’d call in Theresa, and there was also an associate director called Annie who had a good relationship. So we found ways of tapping her. It was also about this idea of rolling two cameras, of not calling “Action,” of removing inhibiting factors, of saying to her, “You don’t have to learn lines, you can just find those lines in the moment. You don’t have to turn that chair at that moment. You don’t have to walk over there at that moment, you can find the scene and we’ll work around you.”  They’d come into the room and we had set things up, and then the cameras would quietly start rolling. And we rolled a lot so they could try out things, we filmed the rehearsals and so on, so it was really about freeing it up. And often they would respond and say, you know, there was a moment where Kosar Ali who plays Sumaya came up after filming and said, “Sarah, this scene’s dead. It’s just totally dead. We’re going to have to start again.” So they had a great sense of whether they were being truthful and whether it felt right to them as well.

Q: I’d like you to expand as well on your directing skills that are pretty much at the top of the game here once again. But there is a bit of a departure from your previous work. There is a blending, a mixture of traditional social realist British background and there’s also way more poetic elements than one would have expected when the film starts. How as a director did it all come together in terms of influences? I thought about Alan Clarke,  the Dardenne Brothers, everybody basically.

SG: Certainly I have done my homework and watched all those films and examined their process. I rang up Laurent Cantet from The Class to get his process, and I spoke to Shane Meadows’ producers, and we designed that we shot chronologically which was key to that. It feels like in a way, as Theresa said, fate that takes part. It’s likely a combination of lots of things. So I think had I not met Theresa, had certain elements not come together, this project wouldn’t have happened. I’ve always loved collaboration and often when you make a film somehow that gets driven out of it, you’re suddenly stuck there and the decisions are all being made from the top and there’s not much room to maneuver. And I’ve always wanted to say, “Let’s really be honest about this, that there are so many voices at play.” And the only way I think to do that is to say from the beginning, “We are absolutely doing it in a different way.” And you have to be strong about that. The way we did it, it’s not just about me, she (Ikoko) had as much a voice as I had and others have had a voice in it, and we tried to break with the standard way of making a film. So it came from so many different influences that all sort of coalesced.

Q: I love the movie because in Spain we are not used to seeing this kind of reality like in your films. The way that you present diversity for example in the house of Sumaya is beautiful because you get into the dynamics of familes, it’s so natural and not dramatic at all. It’s like the beautiful reality of them. So how did you decide to present diversity in the way you did?

TI: I always write about black women, and it’s always very important to me that I write stories about my community that feel like my community. Because I watch a lot of things about my community that other people wrote. We don’t cry all the time and then tell jokes and then stab each other. (laughs) Films like Mustang, which I love, let you see human beings. I think we underestimate audiences so much, particularly when we present them with people who don’t look like them. I always say to decision makers, you underestimate white audiences because you assume that white people do not want to see other people if they aren’t shooting guns. People just like people. What’s so beautiful about our film is just watching a family, mad things are happening in the background, but you literally spend twenty minutes in the bedroom. But it’s beautiful and it’s a joy and that’s really what we wanted to do: we wanted to show the insides, the beauty, the joy, the love, the pain, the trauma, but also just see how beautiful it is to live. I think we really wanted to show off people’s lives because there’s so much color and richness and I think we could have probably all done with ten more minutes of the uncle singing. Funnily enough, people really responded to that scene in particular.

I think the wonderful thing about it is that I felt making a film that was predominately female not only gave us the chance to make spaces for young women and also to give them visual aspirations, but what happened is that it did that to me as well. Though the spaces were for the girls, I too had a “I could be anything” moment. I grew up in exactly the places you saw on screen. I felt like, “Yeah I want to do this“. I think this is the standard now. There’s absolutely no reason why we just can’t continue to make films with people we love, who love what they do and create amazing spaces where people can grow and express themselves. And I just think there’s no reason why you should come to work every day and not fall in love.

Q: So what made you want to start writing at first – I don’t mean about the film, I mean in general – and you, Sarah, directing?

TI: I don’t know. I feel like I should have a good answer to this, but I don’t. I started writing because I wanted to tell a story for a friend of mine who wasn’t in a great place, and I used to read it to him over the phone. It was almost like just for this one person. And then one day he said, “What’s up with that story you were writing?” I wanted to go into policy and law, but he said, “This is something  you need to share.” I think funnily enough that’s why I continued to write stories for people who want to hear them, it’s about loving people back. I went to see Black Panther and got really emotional, not because of what was on the screen but because it was the first time I felt that Marvel was loving me back. Until that moment I hadn’t realized that I was in a one-sided relationship with Marvel. So now I want to write stories that love people back.

Q: Last question regarding this transfixing little boy. It’s always very particular to directors, the directing element with really young actors. How did you manage to get so much out of this little boy? Because he’s really truly phenomenal.

SG: You have to give a lot of credit to the casting people here, because obviously it’s all in the casting. It was Lucy Pardee and Jessica Straker who found him, and they found a lot of boys but they knew that he was the one. And then I met him and he was literally the only one actually. If we hadn’t found him, that would have been it, he was the only one who could play that role out of all the boys I met. But he just had this very vivid imagination, the minute he came in he was already doing things, and we realized it was just about allowing him to. It was kind of extraordinary, I’d never seen that before in a child actor where he’d get the sense of the scene and made it his own, and he’d be wandering around and absorbing it in his own way. And ultimately he was so emotionally receptive and he formed this natural sibling bond with Bukky. And she felt very protective of him and worked very hard at that bond and I think he really responded. So they had that off screen and on screen. We tell this story that one day he was really resisting doing something and she said, “Who do you think you are, Denzel bloody Washington?” But generally she was so sweet and nurturing with him, so he felt safe and could do his own thing. And I would always say, “She’s doing it just to help you.” In one of our first sessions with him and the associate director Annie, I said, “Imagine she’s your sister, What would you do if she felt miserable?” And he said, “A guided meditation.”

Q: Social media like Snapchat and Instagram are often used by young people to make their lives look better than they are in reality, and this is reflected in the film. Why did you decide to also incorporate those social media images in the film?

SG: We talked about how dominant it should be in the film or not. A valid point raised by Theresa was that we had to be careful that it didn’t become the driving force of the film, because somehow we wanted the film to be more timeless than that. And you never quite know how it’s going to develop. While it is a strong part of their lives, the actual physical interaction between these girls also is, so we wanted to get a fine balance. They were filming bits themselves as they were doing scenes, so in the edit we used that footage, trying to find such a balance that it didn’t dominate.

TI: You see Roshé using social media almost in a violent way but also using it to protect herself, because behind that she is heartbroken after the betrayal and the loss of her friendship. But her expression on social media is one of anger. I think social media has become this sometimes healthy, sometimes unhealthy way that people can channel their feelings through prisms. You go in blue and you come out pink. It reminds me in a way that social media is maybe becoming a barrier between how you feel and how you communicate.

Q: Are you working on a new project? Do you aspire to write for Marvel?

TI: (laughs) My version would be very slow. But no, I’d love to put my hand to anything. I love character, that is my whole passion. I just love people and to write about people in a way that maybe we haven’t seen before.

Q: Do you have a new project?

SG: Not quite yet. Kind of working myself out and I’ve got this team so it’s always about, I’m thinking where it’s right to go next.

Q: Where does your desire to direct come from?

SG: I often read interviews with directors who had that epiphany when they went to their local arthouse cinema, but I didn’t have that moment. I was watching a lot of Tom Cruise and a lot of daytime TV. I did have a really interesting drama teacher at school, and I was doing drama and a lot of drawing art. I was thinking of stories in my head, and when I thought of stories I didn’t write them, I saw them. I remember sitting on buses and seeing all the stories I was making up, but I still didn’t know that filmmaking was a thing. And at the age of 19 I still didn’t know. I did an English degree and went to Edinburgh, and someone said, “What are you going to do in Edinburgh?” And I said, “Maybe I’ll go to the art college and work for a while.” So I did, and then really randomly met a group of filmmakers there and they introduced me to Bergman and all those classic filmmakers. And I thought, “Wow, this is really interesting,” and I made some shorts and really enjoyed it. But then I switched to documentaries because I thought I had to do something political and important, and I went off and did four years of working for the BBC making political documentaries. That was fascinating and I loved it for all the world, but it was somehow not what I wanted. Then someone said, “What about trying out for the National Film and Television School,” and I thought I could only try out for documentaries because I didn’t have enough fiction. Literally the night before sending the application in I changed my mind, because I thought, “No, I just want to tell stories and invent stories.” So I wrote a whole new application and applied to do fiction/direction, and miraculously got in. From there on I knew it was the thing I wanted to do. So it was a bit of a journey. That was literally age 27 when I discovered it.