Rayna Campbell is one of the actors making the leap into the director's chair this year as she makes her feature film debut this week with Lapse of Honour.
Campbell, who is best known as an actress, has directed, written, and produced the film, which has already been playing well on the festival circuit around the world.
We caught up with the actress turned filmmaker to chat about Lapse of Honour, how she found the transition into the director's chair, and what other projects she has on the horizon.
- Lapse of Honour is set for a UK release this March, so can you tell me a bit about the film?
Lapse of Honour is a film that is set in Manchester and it is the story of Tom and Eve, who are both at college studying their A-Levels with the aim of going to university in a different city to escape their abusive parents. Eve finds out that she is pregnant, which would spell trouble if their parents found out.
They make a pact to try to get as much money as possible as quickly as possible, so they can get out of Manchester. Eve is an aspiring rapper and starts entering talent contests with the aim of getting a record deal. Tom goes job hunting, it doesn't really work out and ends up getting in with the wrong crowd.
- The movie sees you serve as director, writer, and producer, so where did this project start for you? What inspired the idea for the story?
It actually started as a poem. When I was at college studying my A-Levels, there were some guys in my class who were pretty cool and intelligent, and then one day they would disappear; you would find out that they had been arrested or put in prison. It was really a shock. They led these double lives.
They were not your typical gangsters in any way and I was fascinated by that and wondered what would make them separate from college and the potential to have this amazing career, amazing choices, and do what they wanted to do. I have been working on this since 2000. It started off as a poem and then a play, and then I turned it into a film script.
- That does lead me to my next question actually. Can you talk a bit about the writing process? How much did the story and the characters change from the initial idea that you had, to the final film?
The main character of Tom doesn't really change much because he is an amalgamation of different people and there's a lot of truth in his story. The other characters certainly changed. There were some points where there were other people attached to produce it, and so, as the writer on the project, they would be giving me different notes according to their idea of the story.
I picked it up and be really fervent with it and then I would be 'I hate this, get it out of my face.' It was very painstaking at times. Also, because it was the first thing that I had done, I was learning how to tell stories as I was going along. I had written plays in the past but I had never written a screenplay; I was teaching myself as I was going along. I did some courses, which helped, and then I would go back. In the end, I worked with a really great story editor who helped me to shape the story.
- Lapse of Honour marks your feature film directorial debut, how have you found the transition into the director's chair? What made now the right time to make that transition?
I am an actress and found myself frustrated at not getting roles. I am the type of person who doesn't like complaining, I always like to look for solutions; even if it is not conventional. So I started writing. I originally wrote this so I could play Eve but it took so long I outgrew the character (laughs). It met someone at the Film Council in Manchester and she suggested that I direct it. I said 'I am not a director I am an actress, I would not have a clue what to do.' But she was like 'you really should direct this.' She put that seed in my head and I started thinking about it.
I bought a couple of DVD courses on how to make low budget films and they really did make it seem more possible. I got the lead role in this film that we shot in South Africa and I just watched how the director worked and how she communicated her ideas. That is really when I thought that I could definitely do this. Because of my acting background, it felt a very easy and natural transition.
- I was actually going to ask how you felt your background as an actor helped you make the leap into becoming the director?
I think it was easier for me to communicate with the actors because I had been in their shoes. I also feel that I know how to get performances out of them or how to push them to get the right emotions from them. I spent a lot of time with the actors and was quite intense in my way of working. Nobody complained (laughs).
Afterwards, they were like 'man, you were so hard,' but I needed that to get what I wanted. Sometimes - not with every director - if they haven't got an acting background, it can be difficult to understand what they are trying to get out of you. I feel like I did have that advantage.
- The movie brings together a great cast as Gary McDonald, Tom Collins, Lady Leshurr, and Louise Emerick are all on board. Can you talk about the casting process and what you were looking for when you were casting the central roles?
Because it was low budget and set in Manchester, I wasn't looking for any A-list actors and I wanted to make it seem as authentic as possible. When I wrote the character of Bruce, Louis Emerick immediately popped into my mind as a northern actor who could play the role of the dad.
Gary McDonald was another actor that popped into my head when I was thinking of someone menacing, who could do this Caribbean accent, and had the stature. I had never met these two actors, it was literally just what I had seen them in on TV. Gary is living in Los Angeles and he hadn't been on the screen for a while, but, from what I had seen, he was just the person that I was looking for.
For the other characters, I knew the essence of what I wanted but I didn't who which actor that I was going to choose to fill those roles. I was also adamant about using unknown talent. Many people said 'that's not going to help you when you are trying to sell the film' and I was like 'there're so many examples of films where you didn't know anyone in the cast.' It was so important if we were going to come into Manchester - I live in London now - and use the community to film this, we should also use the people; there are a lot of people who want to get into acting but don't have the means. We did open auditions.
For Lady Leshurr's role, we were looking for a female rapper who could also act and really convey the emotions of the character. We found her on YouTube actually. Someone sent me a link, I watched her and was like 'I have to get in touch with her because she is perfect.' I stalked her basically (laughs).
- How did you find working with the actors? How collaborative a process was it between them and yourself?
It was quite collaborative. I think everyone was on tenterhooks because the cast was a mix of experience talent and less experienced talent and we didn't know how well we were all going to work together. I had an amazing cinematographer and we had the same vision. We would get the actors, I would roughly block out the scene and I told them that I wanted them to interpret it in a way they thought was right; sometimes they were spot on and other times we needed to tweak it. Between myself, the cinematographer and the actors, we would work on it to get it right. I didn't want the actors to feel like they didn't have any room to bring to the table their own talent and I really wanted it to be a collaborative process.
- The movie has been playing at a string of different festivals, so how have you been finding your festival experience? And what about the response to the film?
To be honest, in the beginning, because of the nature of the film and the fact that it is set in a working class part of Manchester and most of the cast were African/Caribbean, I didn't know what to expect from the festivals. I thought it would be a film that would only appeal to young urban audiences. It totally blew my mind because we were invited to some amazing festivals.
For example, we went to the Dinard Film Festival, which is a low-key British film festival in France and most of the audience is made up of middle class and upper-class French people. I really thought that they were not going to like this film. They packed the place out and they loved it. They would come to me and say 'you remind me of Shane Meadows, I love Shane Meadows,' and I was thinking 'you like Shane Meadows? You look like you should be eating caviar and drinking champagne. It was crazy.
In Croatia, we didn't have the subtitles ready so they had to watch it in English and, even though they didn't understand what was going on, they really connected with the emotion in the film. It has been a very nice surprise.
- We are always hearing about how difficult it is to get films made in this country, so how tough was it getting Lapse of Honour off the ground and made?
I always say, if I was able to look back and see what I would have to go through to get this film made, I don't think I would have bothered (laughs). I just took one step at a time and I knew that I had to do this. I set out to make the best film that could and then I was prepared to do whatever it took to get the film out there. I didn't have any expectations because, as you said, many people make films but they don't get anywhere. It all just came together but it was hard.
Raising the money is always an issue. I had a figure in mind but I didn't get anywhere close to raising that amount. I just said to myself 'I am going to have to make the film with the money that I have managed to raise and beg, borrow and steal to get the rest done,' which was literally what I did (laughs).
- Now that you have made the leap into the director's chair, how much is it where you want to stay?
Yes, I definitely want to do some more directing. I feel like I have found another thing that I love to do and it is something totally different to my acting. I enjoyed the whole experience. I loved working with the actors. Some of the actors who had never acted before came up to me and said 'thank you so much, this has changed my life.' It was just amazing to be able to give other people that opportunity.
- Finally, what's next for you both in front of and behind the camera?
I am currently attached to this historical TV series, which I can't say too much about at the moment. That is coming up next.
In terms of directing, I have a friend in Los Angeles who is a filmmaker with his own production company and is churning films out like a factory. When I was over at the film festival in LA, he was like 'we need to make films together. Let's have a meeting and think about how soon we can make one.' I think that is what is going to happen next. I have got three scripts written and it is about deciding which would be the best and easiest one to make next.
Lapse of Honour is out now on Vimeo and on Demand.