Director Rob Brown is currently celebrating after a very successful Kickstarter campaign for his debut feature film Sixteen, achieving his target of £15,000 and then some. His previous shorts ‘Paper Hearts’ and ‘Silent Things’ have both faired well on the festival circuit, gaining ‘Best Short Film’ nominations from the Royal Television Society West awards in consecutive years.
The script to Sixteen was selected for the BAFTA Rocliffe New Writing Forum at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2011, with the film being shot later in a short 18 day shoot around London. It centres around teenage Jumah, a former child soldier who wants to leave his brutal past behind, however after he witnesses a vicious attack, violence forces itself back into his life with those involved wanting to ensure Jumah keeps quiet.
Below Rob gives us some insight into Sixteen, his plans for the future and, amongst other things, the challenges of independent film making:
First of all could you tell us a bit about yourself, your shorts and the transition into features?
I’m a writer/director and a graduate from Bournmouth film school. My first short was ‘Family Portrait’ which, despite being made for £150 on VHS, got nominated for the BBC New Filmmaker Award and was broadcast on BBC3. It was after this I went to film school and made more short films including ‘Open Skies’, which screen at Ediburgh Film Festival, and ‘Echoes’ which starred Joanne Froggatt (Emmy nominee from Downton Abbey). ‘Echoes’ got me an agent, as Paul Andrew Williams loved the film and introduced me to United Agents where I am now represented. Off the back of that I made ‘Silent Things’ (funded by the UK Film Council) which won an award at Rotterdam and ‘Paper Hearts’ which was nominated for Best Short Film at Rushes Soho Shorts.
I see you spent a good deal of time on the Sixteen script, and it has paid off, what gave you the idea and how did you go about researching the topic?
I thought it would be interesting to make a film about an African former child soldier making a new life for himself in London but realising that leaving his past behind isn’t always as easy as he thought it would be. The film isn’t based on one particular former child soldier’s story but I did lots of research into the subject. I read all of the former child soldier’s memoirs I could find, spoke to Human Rights Watch researchers who work out in the field, other NGOs, charities and I spoke directly to some former child soldiers for my research. Our lead actor Roger Jean Nsengiyumva knows Emmanuel Jal (actor and author of acclaimed memoir War Child) so he was able to speak to him about his experiences as a child soldier to help him prepare for the character.
Sixteen raises awareness of an important issue, one which has been more in the public eye of late for example with the Kony campaign last year. Can you tell me why you focussed on this and in particular why with a UK setting?
If an African former child soldier moved to London, would he leave his problems behind or would they travel with him? This is the question that sparked my idea for ‘Sixteen‘. The film explores the traumas of a former child soldier not in Africa but in normal, everyday London. My intention is that the audience won’t be able to think ‘at least this is happening far away’ because the film takes place in a London that we all recognise. This isn’t a film set in postcard Britain. ‘Sixteen‘ is a film about the damaged victims of war that live unnoticed within our communities. This is why I was driven to tell this story and bring it to an audience. The writing process was difficult (it took three years and continues in the edit as we speak) as it was my first feature script and I had picked a difficult subject to explore. I had completely ignored the principle about writing from your own life for your first feature film because I wanted to get an insight into something that was completely outside of my own experience of life. I am glad that I did this now but this is why it took so long. One thing that really helped the development process of ‘Sixteen’ was being selected from 400 entries for the BAFTA Rocliffe New Writing Forum at Edinburgh Film Festival 2011. The opening 10 pages of ‘Sixteen’ were performed by professional actors in front of an industry audience and the hosts of the event were Nicola Shindler (Red Productions) and Matt Greenhalgh (Writer of Control and Nowhere Boy). I got some invaluable feedback from this process and couldn’t have written a script worth making without the insight and advice offered by the hosts and the industry audience.
The shoot took place over 18 days in a very cold April this year. What challenges did you face during production and what were the positives gained from working on your own independent film?
The main challenge was that 18 days is definitely not long enough to shoot a feature film! Luckily we managed to achieve this and get a great film in the can but this was due to the extraordinary luck of having just the right cast and crew who were wholeheartedly committed to making the film happen in difficult circumstances. As you mention, we were mostly filming in a derelict block of flats in Dagenham during the coldest Spring since records began! But the cast and crew didn’t complain, they just got on with the job and proved their talent with the end results. However, shooting on such a tight schedule (and tiny £40k budget) wouldn’t usually result in such a great film. The shortest micro budget feature film shoot I have heard of amongst my peers recently is 24 days and that is still a ridiculously tight schedule. I feel really proud of what we achieved in 18 days.
Like you say you have an excellent cast and crew – how did you go about finding the perfect people for Sixteen and what was it like working with such an impressive ensemble?
I was very lucky that I was able to work with casting director Chloe Emmerson and also with United Agents. Between us we were able to assemble a great cast that we would normally only get if we had ten times the budget. I was able to cast the lead as Roger Jean Nsengiyumva (star of Africa United) and attach Rachael Stirling (The Bletchley Circlt, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) and Fady Elsayed (My Brother the Devil) to the project which was great as they added so much to the film. Without such a great cast it wouldn’t have been possible to make such a strong film on such a tiny budget.
Congratulations on such a successful Kickstarter campaign, how to you feel about gaining such a positive response?
It’s great. I found it really touching that people would reach into their pockets to back a film that I have been working on for nearly four years now. It also makes me feel optimisic about the release of the film as there is clearly an audience out there wiling to pay money to see this once it’s completed.
Social media is becoming more and more important in reaching audiences, how did you utilise these platforms for your project?
You had some excellent incentives for the backers, can you tell us a bit about these?
The incentives ranged from £6 for a mention on the website and 6 unique frames from the film right up to £1000 for Associate Producer credit and £5000 for Executive Producer credit. We had three people pledge for the Associate Producer credit and one person for Executive. All of these will also receive a copy of the film, invite to the premier plus having dinner with myself and the other producers.
Now you have surpassed your target how do you hope to spend your excess funding?
We will put the surplus into the marketing budget for our festival premiere.
What are your plans for Sixteen going forward?
We will be focussing on screening the film at a major international film festival, in fact there is some exciting news to announce in the coming months, and with a view to releasing the film early next year.
Is there anyone whose work you particularly admire and if you could work with anyone either in front or behind the camera who would it be?
I really admire the work of Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, Rust and Bone) and wish I could visit the set of one of his films to see how he works.
And finally, what advice would you give aspiring filmmakers?
Make films instead of complaining about lack of resources. The funding landscape at the moment isn’t ideal but equally the technology has never been more accessible. If you wait around for the perfect set of circumstances you could be waiting forever. You can’t call yourself a filmmaker if you don’t make films so just bloody go for it!
Thanks Rob, we can’t wait to watch Sixteen and wish you and the film all the best for the festival season.
For more information on the project you can listen to the cast and crew discuss the project below:
or visit the Kickstarter campaign page here