Shola Amoo on The Last Tree | BFI Q&A

Shola Amoo on The Last Tree | BFI Q&A


– The first time I watched the film, I was actually just
incredibly overwhelmed. Like it really felt like testament to the onscreen, well, a contribution to onscreen
history in black British cinema to the Nigerian narrative and
the West African narrative, which, I think, largely when we look at the story of Black Britain on screen, it collapses into a Caribbean experience, and fostering is quite central to that. I think if you’re first- or
second-generation Nigerian, you’ve had some sort of
exposure to it in some way. So I guess my first question,
I guess, pertains to that, and this is a
semi-autobiographical narrative, so how did you sort of
approach like working with aspects of your personal
life in making the film? – So it’s like, strictly, I think when it’s semi-autobiographical, it takes maybe a longer period to get that kinda access to
the story maybe in a way. And I think the sweet spot was that I was close enough to it for it to feel authentic and real, but far enough from it for it to feel okay telling the story at the same time. ‘Cause it’s like semi-autobiographical, but it’s also mixed with, I was fostered, it’s mixed with other people
I know who were fostered, so it’s kinda like an amalgamation. So it’s like watching it isn’t
an exact replica of my life, but there are elements lifted. So that’s why I think it took a while to get to that sweet
spot where you were like, eh, it’s close enough,
(both laugh) but not too close, yeah. – And what about, well,
I guess, like you said, you got to that sweet spot, but just shooting it in that sense, ’cause I think you can get to that stage when you’re kind of writing it, but what was like the process
of being, like making it? – Actually, very joyous. I had such a great team, and a lot of the HODs were people I’d collaborated with before. Shout out to Stil Williams,
cinematographer extraordinaire, my brother from another mother. – Mdhamiri.
– Mdhamiri Nkemi. – What’s the screen listing? – Star of tomorrow.
– Star of tomorrow. – Mdhamiri, it’s kinda like a
knighthood where you say sir, but you just say star of tomorrow, Mdhamiri Nkemi.
– Right okay, I’ll remember that next time I see him. – Same with Sam Adewunmi, actually, also a star of tomorrow.
– Yes, two stars of tomorrow in one film. – Yes, do you wanna say that again, Tega? – Two stars of tomorrow in one film. – Okay, and– – Three, should I have said three? – No, no, no, no, I don’t
feel left out at all, so– – But you were saying, you
were talking about like, your experience on the shoot.
– Yeah, so my experience, and also Segun Akinola, composer, I’d worked with them
before, so it was great. This was our, between those three guys, this is our third collaboration. And it was just, felt like a real, I was always trying to
replicate the energy of my first kind of
feature-length project, which was “A Moving Image,” which felt like very much a family. That film was about
gentrification in Brixton. It was just like a family. The crew felt like a family,
it felt like a bunch of guys in south London just come together to make something that they cared about. And on the bigger scale with this budget, it felt the same way. And shout-out to my
producer, Myf Hopkins, who– – Is in the room somewhere, I think, yeah.
– Sitting in the room somewhere. I promised that I’d make
people ask her questions, she’s really shy. (laughs) – That’s mean. (laughs) – But yeah, it felt very
much like that vibe on set, so I felt very comfortable, you know. Filmmaking can be very
capricious, kind of, There are stories of how
that can go sometimes, but this was a very loving, caring crew. And I always say films
are infrastructure games, so once the infrastructure
is set, it enables all of the kinda creative
stuff to kinda bounce off. – Yeah, well I mean, that’s really great, because it’s a very personal film. And what is consistently striking for me in watching the film is the performances, and just how Sam, who plays Femi, how that’s just a very deep,
internal kind of performance. So I think, yeah, you’re
definitely gonna need to create that sort of frame, to let those performances to come through. But what, can you talk a little
about the work that you did with Sam, and Tai as well, the young Femi, in producing these very very
deeply subjective performances? – We had a great casting director, Shaheen Baig and Aisha Waters, who helped find Sam, and Tai Golding, and our entire cast. With the kids we worked in
a really interesting way. You know, kids are one of the
things that you’re not meant, you’re not meant to work with
kids, apparently, or animals, right, in terms of that,
in the kind of folklore. But I really loved, this was my first time working with kids, and I really loved it. Our approach to it was that
they didn’t see a script, Well, the ones who were
like around the ages of 11, so the earlier scenes, we just kind of worked from
the ideas of character, and a little bit of improvising, and just casting. When I cast, try to cast as
close to the bone as possible, so like 99% the thing, and then build the character
with whoever I’ve cast. And so that was a great way, and it was very flexible,
which was really good. And Sam in particular, the eldest, the adult in the piece, or the older people in
the piece, saw a script, but Sam in particular
was someone who just had a complete understanding of
what we were trying to do. He’s Nigerian, he’s Yoruba like me, and he got the entire
thing, so I was having with the entire cast what
I just call conversations, not too much rehearsal,
just very much conversations about character, about the
trajectory of their characters, and then the rest we left on set. – Right, okay, so just
like really organic. – Yeah, yeah. – In kind of like revisiting the film, so I was able to watch the film when it premiered at Sundance London, but in returning to it this
week what really stuck me is that it’s a film about
fostering and that experience, but it’s also a film about just
boyhood, like black boyhood, and what that experience is, life, and I think that in real
life, we see a certain, we kind of see the manifestations
of those behaviours. We kind of encounter the same silences that Femi sort of expresses as well. But the film just feels
really like a doorway into like how we arrive at that point, and kind of like sketches
this landscape of, I guess, like the options or the
scenarios that are available, like Mace and the teacher, in terms of the capacity
for black men to actualize. Or there’s a really, really
small incidental moment when one of Femi’s friends
comes and he’s like, “Hey, when are you
coming into the school?” And then I think it’s Femi,
he’s like, “You need to relax, “like you’re too happy,”
like do you know what I mean? And it’s like a really small thing, but I think the impact that
has on a young identity kind of forming itself are
things that we don’t really see. Do you know what I mean? And we get this kind of backstory with Femi and his character. And how I was able to really
access that reading of the film was through the kind of style and the aesthetics in the film. So I kind of have a two-part
question in that sense about whether that was intentional, and there were things
that you wanted to say about black British or black sort of boyhood identity? But also how the way that you
constructed the performances and how it kind of works,
like how did that work in you creating the visuals in the film? – I felt when you fully trust your actors and you feel super comfortable, you can take ideas from anywhere. And there were moments, particularly when those
three got together, the three schoolkids, they just
had a rapport and an energy that produced results that were probably a hundred times more than
whatever I could come up with, the little moments of improvisation. So it’s not, I think the
script has inherent markers for kind of interracial
conflict in like, for example, Nigerian kind of Caribbean tension around the names, stuff like that. But those guys also came up with a lot of, that moment was very much,
it was in the script, but it was given a kind of a different gravitas by the performers. – The way it was delivered.
– Yeah, it was delivered. Yeah.
– Yeah. – So there’s always space for that. And essentially, aesthetically,
the plan was always to create a single-perspective
immersive experience. And so therefore that’s
why so much of the film feels quite floaty and constant movement as you follow the protagonist and you see the world
from his perspective, and we’re trying to put you in that, in his shoes, literally, to
see the world as he sees it, and then you see that world grow as he sees it, and
change, and ideas change. So that was really the key
ideology behind the aesthetics. – And I think by the end
it really comes together, because there’s a lot
of silence in the film, there’s like a lot of gesture. And by the time you arrive
at this final chapter when he is in Nigeria,
and he has that encounter in that super-ostentatious house, like– – It’s real “Curse of the
Golden Flower,” that’s what we were aiming for.
– That whole was just like, I’m going to (drowned out)–
– We’ve seen that film. (both laughing) – But, yeah, like you just
kind of, you get it when he, the way that he sort of
exits with his mother, and even the final scene in the film, like you, I guess, create
a language that we then, or that I felt when I was watching it. It becomes readable or understandable in that way, so yeah. I have one more before I
open it up, and it’s like my selfish question.
– Oh, go. – And it’s about one of
the textures in the film. ‘Cause one of the way we
really bond is through music and our love of alternative music. And I remember when I
first watched the film, and there’s that gorgeous headphone moment between Tope and Femi, and then we hear The Cure track come on, and I was just like, how the
hell did you choose that song? And knowing the range of music
that you like listening to, can you talk through a little bit about, yeah, your choices with
the music supervision? – Yeah, well that what’s
our key bonding thing. – It really is. (laughs) – So I knew, you know,
the film’s all about masks and how we put on personas
to exist in space. And particularly in that world as a teen, Sam’s character is
clearly wearing a mask to, or what he perceives to be the right way he should be in that environment. And what he was dealing
with is perception of, with black teens in particular, ’cause so much is put
on us, or put on them, since I’m an old man
now, I guess. (laughs) – But it is really different
now because that is a really, it’s a very romantic moment, but also it’s a moment of recognition. And we kind of grew up
at roughly the same time, although I’m not as old as you. – That’s true.
(audience laughs) And you don’t look, your skin is fresher, it’s glistening.
– It’s just, I drink my two-liter Aspires.
– It’s true, it’s true. (audience laughs) – But we grew up at the same time, and I think this moment that we’re in now, it’s I love, like I love seeing
black kids on skateboards, I love seeing kids with
multicoloured hair, and just doing the stuff. But those moments of
recognition were like rare to the point where they didn’t exist. So it was like he obviously
likes this young person, but at the moment when you
meet someone as a young person and they like the band that you like, and it’s just like wow, and then the extra layer
of being a black individual and having that experience is
just like so powerful, so– – And we were lucky, you
know, Robert Smith, had to, the lead singer of The
Cure, had to see the clip, the actual moment, and agree with it, before we could have it.
– Wow. – So it was a personal win.
– He must have seen your film, like that’s crazy.
– I don’t know if he even saw the whole thing, I think he just saw the clip. (laughs)
– But still, like, he’s seen a bit of your film,
and that’s like pretty big, that’s like a big thing–
– Yeah, no, it’s a big deal. I love the band, so it was really, ’cause he could have said no. – It’s true. – It wasn’t the record label,
it was all down to him. – That’s dope though, that’s really cool. – If he hasn’t seen the film, I think we are gonna make
sure that happens somehow. – Yeah, no, we should send him, I say we, I’m not involved, but like– – But you can come, you can be there.
– Yeah, like maybe we could watch it together–
– We’ll watch it. – It might be awkward
if he sat between us– – Yeah, ’cause I’d just be like looking at him and not the film. (Shola laughing)
Very weird. We will figure it out,
we’ll figure out something. I think, do I have time? I’ve got some time to just ask one more. So also that moment with Tope, it’s like, it’s this romantic moment, it’s
this moment of recognition. And then they have this,
there’s this conflict as well between them, which is
extra to the narrative. So what was your, why kind
of like put that scene in about, I guess, colorism
and how that is playing out, what were your, what
was your thought process around that scene?
– I think it’s such and interesting scene because, and I wanna give the lead
actress, Ruth, her props in that, because it’s one of those scenes where, and I’m not ashamed to say as a man, you’re kind of wondering if it could play out more romantically. But she really stood
her ground in terms of what it meant for her to have that moment, and how it should go. And we literally, it
wasn’t, it’s something that Ruth came up with and
we let her have the moment, and it made so much more sense. And, you know, even, I remember
on the day shooting it, thinking, hah, this was a lot harsher than I thought it would be. And then I was, of course it would be, and then it’s just, it’s how
your own, I guess, perspective can almost cut you off from
a scene, from a moment. And it’s why it’s so
important to trust the actors, ’cause they know so much, and she knew so much about that character. And my producer Myf got
that scene expertly, as a woman, in that moment, she understood exactly what it was. So I really, I really loved
the scene, how it played out, how it didn’t play out
as I initially intended, and how much Ruth, as
a woman, as an actress, brought to that scene. And she took it to where it needed to go ’cause that’s what needed to be said. – Yeah, well, it’s ultimately
about being able hear. Do you know what I mean? And I think we all kind
of have blind spots. So just, yeah, it, when
she kind of just says, “I want you to get it,” it lands in a way that I think is really significant, and it’s just like a
really wonderful texture. Like I really do feel that
this film is just like an artefact of black British culture in the way that we haven’t seen it before, and I think that kind of scene and that scene delivered
by this alternative girl, with this, do you know what I mean? There’s just so many layers to it that I think are just amazing. – Yeah, she’s a amazing
actress who will do very well, and just was a real privilege
to have her in that moment and to have her in the whole film. – Definitely. Well, I wanna open it up now. I think we’ve got some
roving mikes somewhere, so if there are any questions? – Yeah absolutely, Ifa is
definitely a part of my heritage. And I agree with you, it’s been demonised, even by us to some degree,
and in Nollywood films, and I just wanted a positive
representation of it in a way that I hadn’t seen. And what was one of the most interesting pieces of trivia from behind the scenes, is that’s a real Ifa priest,
and on set on the day, ’cause we were using local
Nigerian crew obviously, a bunch of them didn’t wanna come on set, (audience laughs) ’cause they were like, “We got a jazz man, “we’re not doing it, we’re not.” I was like, “Really,” I was
like, ’cause I think initially they thought we were gonna
cast and actor or something. (audience laughs)
But I had access to this guy, and I was like, “This is a legit priest.” He gave Sam and me a
legit prayer on the day. And I was very excited about
it, you know, ’cause I’d never, that was the first time
meeting an Ifa priest. And to be in Nigeria having that moment was a big deal for me. But a part, a portion of the crew just refused to come to set that day. And it shows you the kinda stigma of our own kind of heritage and culture, which is, it is what it is to some degree, but I just felt like at least
in this film we can have a positive representation
of that as a positive thing. Meant a lot to me, and so I’m
glad that you picked up on it. I think it was a lengthy process mainly because I was still kinda stuck on how to tell the story
in terms of the script. But I think it was helped by a few things, the fact that I kind of independently, outside of the system, went off to make what you could call my debut
feature to some degree, “A Moving Image, which,
completely outside the system, no Channel 4 BFI or BBC
or any of that support, just went, crowdfunded, got some money. And just a group of friends,
it was friends in South London, making a film about
gentrification in Brixton. So that got some traction. And I think that really
helped the, you know, funders and people see that I have a particular way of
wanting to tell stories. and maybe gives them a bit of confidence. And I think it’s important
to not always have to feel like there is one route to the goal, in terms of we need to get funding from established bodies, and et cetera. I think it is important to go
off and to, and filmmaking’s democratised in a sense,
’cause of technology, where you can go off and
make a film on your iPhone, you can upload stuff online. So I think it’s important to take that kind of energy into your own hands. And then when you get to that
point of doing another thing, you have an example or some
following or something. You’re not going in there
empty-handed asking for support. You’re going in there
with some sort of backing and some sort of prestige
behind you in yourself. So I think that’s the key thing in terms of those relationships. And that’s how I approached it. Yeah, absolutely, I
mean, I think what it is is when we’re in Lincolnshire at the start and we’re in a child’s perspective, and that perspective is
one, to some degree, of joy, you know, the depth of field
is a lot deeper, wider, so you really engage with the environment, the freedom of that space. And then when we get to London we gradually narrow the depth of field, and we’re still in his perspective, but gradually this character
is getting more confused, and things are getting a bit more chaotic. So very much the camera
work was reflecting that. I really talk up the concept
of immersion in this film, ’cause that’s what we were
really were trying to do. The key question is how
do we let a character take us through three key
landscapes and make it unified, and feel like you are taking every step, and you’re experiencing the
landscape as he experiences it, rather then you’re kind of objective as a viewer, watching it? So everything we were
doing with the camera work was about compounding that,
with the sound design. The thing, the great thing that is cool about being in the perspective is that then you can then play with kind of truth and reality. So we could distort sound, we could do all kinds of crazy things, create crazier hues, it gets,
the film gets more redder as it gets kind of a bit dangerous. And so all of these things just gave us great flexibility to experiment. – Thank you, I could actually
listen to you talk about the craft of the film ’cause
there are so many details, but we do have to go. – Sorry, we can talk about it– – Yeah, no, we’ll just, we’ll carry on. (Shola laughs)
We’ll carry on. But just a couple of things. So we’ve been really, really lucky to be previewing the film this early. So the film is out on general release on the 27th of September. So if you have liked what
you’ve seen this evening, please tell your friends,
loved ones and neighbours to save the date.
– Yes, please tweet it, and Instagram it and Facebook.
– Yeah, do all of that interweb stuff. And also, this film is, or
this preview this evening is an opening to No Direct
Flight, an amazing season that I’ve been working on with Gaylene, and it fully, fully kicks off tomorrow with the Global Meet-up. Until the end of next
week we’ve got loads of really amazing screenings and discussions, filmmakers from the African continent, from the US and Europe. So please do pick up a
programme when you leave. We’ve got an amazing short film that is diving into aesthetics
and black beauty tomorrow, “Swimming in Your Skin Again,” lots of really big-screen
classics as well. We’ve got “Belly” on the big
screen, which is like amazing, “Touki Bouki,” “Black
Girl,” lots of things, so just pick up the programme,
yes, and check it out. But, I think now we should
just thank Shola again. – Thank you for coming. (audience applauding and cheering) – Do you wanna say something? – (speaks faintly) thank you. – Ah, okay. – I just wanna thank
Tega for all of her joy, her black girl magic, and all that stuff. – You’re welcome. (laughs)
(audience applauding) (gentle music)

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