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EIFF 2018: An interview with Obey's writer & director Jamie Jones
One of the more interesting films to have been presented at the 2018 Edinburgh International Film Festival was Obey, the feature-length debut of writer/director Jamie Jones. It’s an account of the 2001 London riots as seen from the perspective of a disenfranchised young man which I have reviewed here:
On 27th June 2018, I had an opportunity to ask Jamie a few questions about the film. Below is a transcript of the interview.
Me: The film Obey feels very realistic. What kind of research did you carry out before going into production?
Jamie: When you say realistic, are you referring to the riot scenes, or just the overall aesthetic?
Me: The overall aesthetic.
Jamie: I spent a lot of time working with actors who hadn’t had any formal training, but were from that area and kind of lived similar lives in a way to the life of Leon [Note: The film’s main protagonist, played by Marcus Rutherford]. I spent a lot of time with those guys and I kind of developed a lot of things with them to find the authentic voice of the film through them.
Me: Actors Marcus Rutherford, Sophie Kennedy Clark and T’Nia Miller - they give quite notable performances here. Were they all people who were inexperienced?
Jamie: T’Nia and Sophie have got a lot of experience, so they brought a lot of it with them to the film. Marcus is trained, though not classically trained or anything - but he had virtually no experience before coming on the film, so it was a real find getting him because I think he’s an incredible talent and I think he’s going to go far. Hopefully, I can be involved with that! It was like mixing a lot of raw talent with a lot of experience and kind of mashing it all up together and then coming out with the end really… a sort of coherent film I guess.
Me: What methods did you use to discover them? Did you use auditions or did you see these actors anywhere?
Jamie: Not really, no. We had a casting director who was suggesting actors for the certain roles so we then did conventional auditions for that - and then we would do workshops with this theatre group, with young people from the area. Through the workshops I would just discover the talent that was there, you know, and then I would start to create characters around the talent that existed. Yeah, it was just a kind of organic process, really.
Me: What was your experience shooting around London’s streets? Were there any specific challenges you faced?
Jamie: Yeah. Obviously, you know, in low budget filmmaking everything’s a challenge really. In the riot scenes you’re not allowed to have riot police on the streets unless you’ve got permissions and all of that stuff takes time and money, so we were constantly battling against the elements really. So the main challenge was probably shooting with riot police and trying to recreate the riot scenes with a very small budget. So, what I’d do was shoot a lot of stuff on a long lens to try and cut down how much production value I’d need. Just things like that, basically.
Me: The riots are kept in the background of the film for much of the runtime in favour of the human story of the central character. So, if you had a bigger budget would you want to focus more on the rioting or would you still have had more of an interest in the human dimension?
Jamie: I think, even if somebody gave me a massive budget, I would always try and find the human story because that ultimately is what keeps the film interesting until the end, you know. There’s only so many big explosions and things like that can keep you hooked. I mean for me, personally, I get turned off by a lot of that stuff pretty quickly anyway.
For example, I’ve been talking recently about War of the Worlds, you know, the one with Tom Cruise and actually, I think it’s a great blockbuster. I think the reason it’s so good is because at the heart of the story is about a dad who is basically a bit of a shit dad and it’s about how he, through the process of the film, becomes a good dad. That’s really what makes it interesting - it’s about him. Initially, he sees the kids as a kind of annoyance to him and a burden he doesn’t really want and he’s basically a bit of a dysfunctional father really. As everything falls apart, these aliens attack and all of this sort of stuff, he has to become a good father and learns how to. For me, that’s why I quite liked that film. But then, you watch the majority of superhero films and blockbusters and they don’t have those elements in there and I find them incredibly boring to watch, because it’s just like watching a commercial over and over and over, with all the big explosions.
The other good one is Logan, have you seen that?
Me: Yes, I saw that a year ago.
Jamie: That’s a good one, again because it’s about a guy’s struggle with his identity and his alcoholism, and then it’s kind of a rebirth, phoenix-from-the-flames story really. I think that’s what I found quite interesting, so I think that I would always, no matter what the budget was, I would always try and find a human story and make sure that was the central thread throughout.
Me: You focus on these London riots. Were you personally affected considerably by them?
Jamie: No I wasn’t personally affected by them because ultimately I didn’t have any shops affected. Where I lived was fine and at that time in my life I had kind of moved from being a working-class person to being a very middle-class person. So, I wasn’t really involved in the riots in that way. I think, in a way, that’s what I found interesting, you know, because there was a whole section of society which was affected by that, living right next to a section of society who it made little difference to, because they could carry on - the Twiggys of the world. [Note: Twiggy, a character played in the film by actress Sophie Kennedy Clark, is a slum tourist from a middle-class background.] Once they’ve swept up the streets, they carry on with their lives and they’re fine, you know, whereas some of the guys, some of the actors in the film we worked with, they have family members who are still in prison for their involvement in the riots just for minor things such as taking a pair of shoes or stealing some bottles of water. You know, just minor things, obviously, The government afterwards had a huge crackdown to try and make an example of people - which I don’t think is necessarily going to solve the core of the issues here.
Me: Absolutely, it won’t.
Jamie: Punishing people who are already disadvantaged, I think you’re just going to drive more separation and create bigger problems eventually.
Me: There’s this scene where the characters are sucking air out of the balloons. I didn’t really know that was a thing. Is that something that people do?
Jamie: [laughs] Yes! That’s something you could do if you want to partake in that. I’m not sure it’s very good for your brain, but it’s a very funny thing to do. I definitely wouldn’t encourage anyone to do it because it’s probably killing off a lot of brain cells but it’s a very fun experience. People - my friends and people in places like Hackney it’s quite a common thing that’s done. So, I just wanted to get it in there really, because I just wanted to make sure it was authentic but, at the same time, I wanted to show that the class issue doesn’t affect things like that - in fact, those are just common threads of youth, you know, whether you’re middle-class Twiggy, she does the balloons, or you could be a working-class kid like Leon and do balloons too. That’s just about being young, you know. The difference is, if she gets into trouble, she’s got her safety net, whereas the other guys don’t. That’s really what the film ultimately is about.
Me: Do you have any ideas for another feature film you’d like to make at present?
Jamie: I’ve got a few films in development and some that are close to being written. So, there are films which are ready to start development and getting people on board with now.
Me: Are your ideas generally hush-hush at present?
Jamie: Yes. Well, nothing is announced yet so I’m sort of keeping it a little bit. The main one that I’m pushing right now I wrote working with Emily - she produced Obey, we’re writing it together and she’s my wife as well - and actually, it’s very different to Obey. It’s kind of about a very wealthy family and it focuses on the dysfunctions there - so it’s kind of looking at the other side really.