Actor Lonyo Engele alongside Actress Isaura Barbe-Brown & Writer/Director Stephen Lloyd Jackson
Happy February one and all. This month’s edition of the BUFF Blog is guest-written by award-winning writer/director Stephen Lloyd Jackson whose film ‘David is Dying’ premiered on the opening night of the 2011 British Urban Film Festival. The film continues to win awards in the UK and across the globe, most recently on February 17 when Lonyo Engele triumphed in the best male performance in film category at the 2013 Screen Nation film and television awards. Follow @davidisdying @iamsljackson and @buffenterprises on Twitter…
Stephen Lloyd Jackson
February 2013 BUFF BLOG
The making of ‘David Is Dying’
It’s a rainy Friday night and I’m in West London. To be more precise, I’m in Aroma, a Chinese buffet joint in Shepherds Bush Green. I’m with Mr BUFF himself, Emmanuel Anyiam-Osigwe.
I haven’t seen Emmanuel for nearly a year and then some and it was good to see him wearing his signature smile. We got the food in and it was great that we didn’t start talking shop until we were well on the way with our second helpings.
After discussing BUFF’s next tour of duty at the Genesis cinema in East London this coming Spring (which includes the encore screening of multi award winning ‘David Is Dying’ [‘DID’]), we went on to talk more in depth about the state of the UK film industry and other film matters. That’s when Emmanuel kindly asked if I would write the February BUFF Blog. I said it would be a pleasure.
In 2010 I founded SAR Productions as a vehicle to produce a trilogy of intense dramatic movies. The trilogy will mainly focus on relationship themes such as sex, race, love, infidelity and power. Examining human stories, which resonate and transcend through to all cultures and races.The trilogy will particularly focus on characters from the Afro/Caribbean diaspora living and working in London.
Several years prior, I completed my debut feature film entitled ‘Rulers and Dealers’. It was a very ambitious project, shot on 35mm film stock. After a year or so, ‘Rulers’ got picked up and went straight to DVD. The distributors went bust and I have since deleted it from the market with a view to re-edit and release it sometime in the near future.
For the next few years, post ‘Rulers’, I knuckled down and wrote about six movie scripts. I then decided to try and get one of them made. This was to be quite a big budget, psychological, action thriller.
However, after a lot of meetings and negotiations with international producers and financiers which seemed to be going around in circles, plus the onslaught of the mighty global recession in 2008/9, I decided to ditch the project.
At the time, I felt that I had wasted four years chasing ghosts. I soon realised that it was all part and parcel of the filmmaking process. From time to time one will drop the ball and make mistakes, or things will go pear shaped through no fault of your own.
I contemplated my next move. I thought there must be another way around the gatekeepers and financiers. So Iwent back to the drawing board and decided to produce films where I wouldn’t have to ask anybody for finance or rely on any “big name” actor to carry my movies.
I would deliver totally independent movies, using passionate crewmembers, the most talented cast I can find and the latest technology. I would write scripts that are powerful, daring, insightful, and connect with audiences throughout the world on different levels.
Around that time, I was in discussions with a producer called Andy Mundy-Castle. We were having talks about shooting a feature documentary about couples and their relationships. After many meetings and discussions we decided not to go ahead with the project. But I liked his [AMC] passion and methodical approach to things. So I told him about another project I had been working on. It was a dark intense story about a guy who frequently sleeps with different women and goes on to contract HIV. The lead character would be possessive and controlling over his fiancée. It was also based on a script/treatment I worked on a few years prior entitled ‘The Pregnant Predator’.
AMC read it and showed a lot of interest in the project. So I brought him on board. I completed the screenplay and entitled it ‘Romeo Is Dying’. I later changed the title name to ‘David Is Dying’. AMC and I will produce the picture, and I would direct it.
Long story short, we put in place all the relevant pieces of the building blocks to get the pre-production process started. I hired a cinematographer, Olympia Mytilinaiou, from Athens. I met her about five years prior while cutting a movie there. She had a lot of experience of shooting intense human stories and her work was very good too. Whilst there, she showed me around some interesting parts of the city and we spoke a lot about working together on my next picture.
As well as other crew members, I recruited Sheila Nortley. Sheila had already produced a few shorts and is a multi-talented filmmaker, one to look out for. She was one of the last crew members to come on board. We needed a production manager and I was determined to bring on another female. Part of the ‘SAR’ philosophy, which is integral to its ethos, is to try and incorporate an international flavour of crew members, with females both in front of and behind the camera.
Incidentally, 90% of the ‘head of departments’ on ‘DID’ were female.
A few weeks before principal photography, we were still trying to get the main players for ‘DID’. We had seen over 150 actors. There were times when we thought we had the lead sewn down, but for one reason or another, it didn’t work out.
At an audition we held in Brixton, South West London, we had about 30 actors there for a reading. I saw a couple of actors that I liked, but nobody that really did it for me. I was very precise in my thinking of what ‘David’ (lead character) should look like and what attitude he should convey. And add to that, what should ‘Carla’ (second lead character) be like?
Nevertheless, we were auditioning all morning and after lunch, began seeing more actors. Then the second actor to come through the door was this very confident, clean-cut guy, with a street edge but Lonyo Engele also had a professional look to him.
AMC later told me that Lonyo was a major UK garage star. I didn’t know that at the time cause I wasn’t a big UK garage fan. But when I made enquiries about his music career, everybody knew of him. What planet was I on? ‘Summer of Love’ was a massive hit in the UK. I went on to watch all his music videos on You Tube and other media stuff he was involved in. Put all that to one side, what I did know was that this guy awoke my spirit. He sure can act. He’s what I was waiting for. And apparently, Lonyo only came down to the audition to drop off an actress friend of his. In the audition, I thought Lonyo breathed life into the ‘David’ character and everything was going along just fine. He had a natural understanding of the character’s beat and arc.
The sun was beginning to shine and my day was getting brighter. Then from out of the blue, Lonyo’s mobile phone begins to ring. A couple of the production crew looked at me nervously, (Houston, do we have a problem? What now? REALLY!?). They were probably anticipating me putting a halt to proceedings. But I gave them a quick look and a quick shake of my head to indicate to them to carry on filming. I’m an old dog at these auditions and nothing surprises me. I wanted to see where we were heading with this. And in fine style, while in improv with his fellow female actor, Lonyo answered the phone in character, in the character of ‘David’. This was an organised effort on Lonyo’s part for him to stand out in the audition. And it worked.
I had no hesitation signing up Lonyo. I knew 100% that he was our man for the job. But like everything in this film game, nothing’s for sure. You can’t take anything for granted. I knew the scale and intensity of the ‘David’ character, so I had to make sure he [Lonyo] wanted it as much as I wanted him and that he had the mind set for the gig. Lonyo was invited to an informal meeting at the SAR office in Tooting, South London where he, AMC and myself chatted about the character, the film and general light hearted man stuff, you know football and music, etcetera, etcetera.
The meet went well. I then hooked up with Lonyo a short time after that in west London for a coffee and chat about the character. Although I was still sure that he was the man for the job, I knew it would be important for him to seal it for me. Why? Because it was a tough and special role, one that commanded and demanded nothing short of 100% commitment and focus.
So I told him, if he takes this gig and gives it a hundred and fifty percent, there’s no other role out there that he won’t be able to do. With that said, Lonyo looked me straight in the eyes and said that I can rely on him. I’ll give my all, one hundred and fifty percent.
As a director, that’s all you need, to hear and “feel” from your actors, especially your lead players. You just need to know that they can trust you and that they know you’ve got their back and once that bond is sealed between artist and director, you are half way there on the journey to creating something quite magical.
A year later Lonyo won the grand jury prize for ‘best male actor’ at the 15th American Black Film Festival in South Beach, Miami. And only this month, Lonyo scooped the ‘Best male performance in film’ award at the 2012/13 Screen Nation Film & TV Awards.
The other main cast members were still to be cast. I already had my son, Stephen Samuel Jackson Jnr on board six months prior. He was already enrolled into acting classes before I even thought about using him for the movie. I cleared it with him and his mother and got him an acting coach to particularly work on the character of ‘Young David’. He done a splendid job and I could not have worked with a more focused and calm child actor.
After auditioning nearly sixty or seventy female actors for the part of David’s fiancée ‘Carla’, we finally struck gold. On a summer’s Thursday afternoon, AMC and myself were conducting auditions in Tooting. Lonyo was also there too to read with the actresses. We just had three or maybe four female actors to see. A couple of them were ‘call backs’.
Nevertheless, after the second or third actress, in walks this petite young actress. Isaura Barbe´-Brown read with Lonyo. She actually really slapped him in the face, part of a scene that I asked them to do. Apparently, they both instigated the slap whilst I was momentarily out the room.
After reviewing the audition rushes a few days later, I was impressed by her performance and the ‘on screen’ chemistry between them. I saw something dynamic, something special about them both fronting the movie. So AMC and myself met up with Isaura at the Soho Hotel for drinks and chitchat. She was humble and professional. I knew that she was our gal for the job. So a few days later we signed her to the picture.
I then realised that we needed someone to play ‘Roxanne’, David’s mother. Originally, that was the main role that Isaura was meant to read for. So we summoned another meeting with her in Soho. She didn’t have a clue what I wanted to see her about and seemed rather apprehensive. So I reassured her that everything’s okay, but I would like to know if she wanted to play David’s mother as well. Isaura was happy to accept both roles and I was confident that she had the acting range and ability to do it. So I signed her on for that role too. A year later, Isaura went on to win best female actress at the Los Angeles International New Wave Film Festival for her two roles in ‘David Is Dying’.
One of the final main cast members to come on board was Brigitte Millar. We actually saw her months prior in one of the first auditions. She was to play the ice cold psychiatrist ‘Amelia Holland’. Brigitte was such a pro to work with. She had about four straight days of shooting her scenes. A year later, Brigitte won best female support actor at the Los Angeles International New Wave Film Festival. I also won best screenplay at the same festival and the film also picked up best film score too.
After shooting ‘David Is Dying’ I had a small break. I hadn’t seen any of the rushes as yet and wasn’t looking forward to doing so until I got the film out of my head. I needed fresh eyes to move on with it. I recruited Italian editor and photographer Francisco Caradonna to cut the picture. For the next six months we worked tirelessly on it. The original running time was just over two hours. Too long! Way too long. So we cut 35 minutes. I then got the movie graded and the sound fixed. Film complete, job done.
The next step was to get the movie into international film festivals. The 15th American Black Film Festival (ABFF 2011) is where ‘DID’ had its official international premier screening. This festival was on the top of my hit list. I heard a lot of good things about it. ‘DID’ got accepted and Lonyo and myself flew out to South Beach, Miami to represent the movie. The Americans loved the movie, especially Lonyo and his character ‘David’. The festival lived up to all expectations and more. As well as some cool movies, the parties were doing it too, along with the food, the beach and the beautiful weather.
So, on awards night, ‘DID’ won two awards. The Grand Jury Prize for best male actor (for Lonyo) and Grand Jury Prize for best director (for myself). This was a first in the 15-year history of the American Black Film festival to present two major film awards to a UK feature film.
After the success we had at the ABFF, ‘DID’ went on to screen at a further 18 international film festivals and scooped a further six film awards and I was presented with a ‘Focus On Filmmakers Honour’ at the 6th Cleveland International Film Festival.
In September 2011, Emmanuel Anyiam-Osigwe invited ‘DID’ to open the British Urban Film Festival. This was ‘DID’s UK premiere screening. By this time, ‘DID’ had such a buzz behind it that it had to be screened over two days at the BUFF film festival in central London.
The night was crazy. A large turn – out. The film was well received and was the first independent feature of its’ kind to hit the UK in years; “No ‘N’WORD, NO GUNS &NO GANGSTERS!” In my humble opinion, this was a relief for cinephiles who want to watch movies with leading roles for Afro Caribbean British actors.
The BUFF screening was important too. It opened a lot of doors for ‘DID’ in the UK and beyond. Lonyo went on to sign for a top actor’s agency, ‘The Identity Agency Group’ (IAG) off the back of that screening.
On the 4th of July 2012, ‘DID’ was released on DVD on Amazon. I chose to release it independently so SAR Productions could have total control over its longevity in the marketplace and enable a maximum return to plough back into making more movies of this nature.
‘David Is Dying’ is also available to purchase on DVD from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com and is also available to download or stream from the all-new Amazon Instant Video player.
We also intend to launch a movie distribution channel in a few months time where ‘DID’ and other independent movies, short and feature length will be available to purchase.
Last, but not least. SAR Productions are in the second phase of editing their second feature film from the ‘Sex And Race’ trilogy, entitled: ‘SABLE FABLE’. The film is a beautiful story exploring the complexities of love, sex, race and hypocrisy through different couples whose lives intertwine through a series of unfortunate events. Due to be completed this summer.