Femi Oyeniran is set to make his feature-film directorial debut with comedy It’s A Lot; a script he has penned and a film that he will also star in.
We caught up with the actor to chat about the new film, making the leap into the director’s chair and what lies ahead.
- It’s A Lot is your new movie so can you tell me a bit about the film?
It’s A Lot is basically Ferris Bueller’s Day Off meets Risky Business, with a bit of House Party thrown into it. I have been in movies such as Kidulthood and Adulthood - which were massively successful - but I really wanted to make a film about young people that wasn’t about them being gangsters.
The characters are still mischievous because I believe that young people are inclined to do things that make sense to them at the time, but are not really good things.
But they are not necessarily going to go out and kill someone for no reason. It was very important to be able to portray that in this film.
This is a film about young people who make the wrong choices, which gives them the opportunity to then do the right thing; it is then about doing the decision about doing the right thing or not.
- That does lead me into my next question. You have penned the screenplay along with Nick Walker, so where did the idea for the story come from?
Nick Walker essentially came up with the synopsis of the film, and it was inspired by a charity that we both know called ACLT: which is the African Caribbean Leukaemia Trust. They try to raise awareness of the lack of bone-marrow donors on the donor register; at one point, it was ridiculously low.
However, now, due to their good work, has increased. They are still working really hard to get more ethnic minority donors on the register. Nick was trying to find a way to make their message resonate with young people.
We decided to write this comedy film that included a bit of their message; you don’t want people to leave the cinema crying because it is a comedy at the end of the day. So it does have a serious message as well as just being silly and fun. It also has drama elements to it as well.
- How did you find the writing collaboration with Nick? How many times did the story, and the characters change from the initial idea to the final film?
I read the synopsis and I liked it, but I did completely change it and developed new characters. Characters changed and evolved and were lost. I did most of the writing of the screenplay. I would send it to Nick, and he would send me some notes.
I like sitting at my laptop and just working away; it reminds me of being at university. I liked being at university because I was acting and doing the uni stuff. That element of it was lost when I finished uni. So I suppose that writing fills the void that university left (laughs).
I suppose the writing does feed the secret nerd inside me, which is fun. I really enjoy writing, and I have gone on to write four or five scripts. I like just going to the library and focusing on a concept and developing it and growing it to a point where it turns into a screenplay. I am hooked on writing now.
- The movie also sees you make your directorial debut so how have you found the transition into the director’s chair?
I have been eased in because I had a really good co-director in Darwood Grace, I have been eased in. Darwood and I have worked together on every single project that I have ever done; the first short film that I wrote he plays one of the characters in it.
We do an online chat show together that I produce, and he directs. We have done so much together; we did a documentary together a few years ago. So we are long term collaborators, and we have had that relationship there since 2006.
It was easy because we were able to work in pre-production on the script and work with the DOP and the rest of the team to create the vision that I really wanted to portray. I was then able to trust Darwood with that on the set. There were only a few times when we argued on set about the framing.
All things considered all things were good. It would have been more difficult to co-direct with someone whom I didn’t know or didn’t really have a relationship with. The next project I will be directing myself, but Darwood will be acting in that.
- You have enjoyed an acting career for nearly a decade so what made you think that this was the time to make the leap into directing?
Shall I tell you the truth? I got married, and I had kids (laughs); that is the truth. I needed to get more focused in life. With acting you just don’t know what is going to happen next and everything is in flux. I really wanted to start writing and directing as it does give you a bit of structure, and it also means that you are developing stuff.
At the same time, I needed to get to that new level in my career. I needed to play a lead role in something; I needed all of these things as an actor. So they basically enhanced each other. It was important for me to do that.
You look at people such as Noel Clarke - wrote Kidulthood and won a Bafta - and Adam Deacon - he wrote Anuvahood and won a Bafta. Kidulthood, Adulthood and Anuvahood are the highest grossing low-budget movies in the last decade. It was only right that I followed the lead of my forebears.
They didn’t really help me or collaborate with me on this, but I was able to learn from them and use them as inspiration and motivation to get to that next level, whatever that may be.
- You are also on the cast list alongside Red Madrell and Roxy Sternberg, so can you tell me a bit about the casting process and what you were looking for in your actors?
Red Madrell was an interesting one because... With the characters, we went with whoever was good on the day, rather than casting types. It is a bit weird for the casting director and the producer as they wanted to take the conventional route of saying ‘we want this type of girl’.
I try to write roles that are not for white characters or black characters or Asian character, or whatever.
When I write I just try to write roles that anyone could play. The problem that young black actors have is that they are cast in stereotypical roles. It was important to me, when I got the chance to write something, to not do that and to write roles that are open; producers do find it annoying when they read my scripts.
I have got a new script called The New Black Sheep; it is about the London riots, and some of the roles are defined and some of them are not. When I tell people ‘that is not a black character, that is a white character’ they are like ‘wow, I didn’t think about it like that’.
Film is very much stuck in casting type and race, but for me, as a young filmmaker from London, I want to make films that reflect London. The London that grew up in is not about being black or white it’s about sharing the same cultural experiences.
You can call that naïve but I would rather just go with that system as I believe that is what is wrong with the industry. We shouldn’t look at characters of types through race or through casting types; we should be looking at talent.
I would read in with the actors during the casting process - which didn’t help with some of them. I wasn’t directing them or anything, but it must have been really hard. Some actors really pushed me during the auditions, and those were the actors who made the shortlist.
Some actors we offered roles to because I had good relationships. Red Madrell came to one of the early readings of the script, and from that moment, I knew that she could play that character; she really was just amazing. It was a fun process. We took different approaches to different actors.
Some of the roles we cast through a casting director, other roles were cast through the readings. We shot draft nine or ten of the movie, but the reading that I did the year before was with draft three; so some of the actors got roles from draft three of the movie because they read really well. It was a very good experience.
- You are in front of and behind the camera for this project, so how did you find the balance between those two roles?
It was ok, it was ok. Because of the co-director set up it was ok. I did a week where I was just focusing upon the character and the back story - even though I had worked on it for a year and a half before the film got commissioned.
A week before the shoot I concentrated on character and really looking at what I wanted to get across in the character, and the character development through the language: he starts off really middle class and progressively loses that until he has more of a London twang.
I did a lot of back story because when you are on set and things start to go wrong people will turn to you, because it is Femi’s project (laughs). People were looking to me for solutions to different things, and without the back story work, it would have been really difficult.
- Now that you have had a taste of writing and directing your own projects is this something that you intend to do more of going forward? Are you working on anything?
The New Black Sheep is a film that I hope to start shooting before the end of the year, which is about the London Riots. I like that Woody Allen and Spike Lee approach where you take different characters and seeing how their lives intercept.
It is about an investment banker, a middle class girl, a fourteen-year-old boy whose brother gets killed in police custody and a young graduate who can’t get a job. The film is really about how their lives intercept during the London riots.
I suppose it is a little more political and a bit deeper. It is a drama; it’s not really a comedy. I am also working on a few new comedies; I enjoy comedy, and I enjoy laughing.
- Finally, what is next for you both in front of and behind the camera?
I have just finished a film called Taking Stock; it is a film that I have done with Kelly Brook. That should be out next year. That follows a girl who loses everything, and we go on a journey to gain everything back.
It is a very powerful script, and Kelly is very good in it. I worked with Georgia Groome on that as well, she is awesome. I was out with those guys yesterday, and they were talking about the film and were really excited about it - I am really excited to see the film. Hopefully, that will come out and do really well.
Again, this is something that is slightly different to stuff that I have been doing in the past. It is important to diversify the things that you do as an actor because the industry does find it very easy cast you as a certain type.
I welcome every opportunity to do something slightly different. The whole point is to keep developing and keep growing. I don’t think I am the best writer or director yet; even though I have been acting for ten years I don’t think I am the best actor yet.
I still have got a lot to learn, and I still have got a lot of development to do in film. I really want to do stage - but I don’t think anyone would have me (laughs).
It's A Lot will premiere on Monday 21st October at the VUE cinema in Leicester Square. It is released 25th October.