“Ten years ago, even before the migration crisis dominated the political and media landscape in Europe, I was increasingly interested in ideas around freedom of movement,” says The Drifters Director Benjamin Bond. “I had spent some time in Senegal working on the music concert ‘Africa Live’ for PBS. I met a lot of West African musicians and spoke to a lot of local people, there were so many young people leaving Africa on foot. That’s a big story now but it wasn’t then. I became interested in the disparity between where I could go and what I could do versus people who couldn’t even leave their countries.” With Bond’s directorial debut now on release, we caught up with him to talk about the films production, casting and crew.
Can you talk about the original idea for the film?
The original idea was to make a romantic film which also looked at the issue of freedom of movement. I had been working on Africa Live for PBS – a huge African ‘Woodstock’ music festival, with my father in law, the film director Mick Csaky. There were about 100,000 people in the stadium in Dakar, and I talked to a lot of the local young Senegalese. Men and women were leaving home to travel to Europe in search of a new life. They weren’t all asylum seekers, many just wanted to travel and find opportunities and live life. They were willing to risk their lives. To me, this made them real life superheroes.
Were there any specific people you met in Senegal who you worked into the story?
There was no one in particular. I was inspired by so many people I met: musicians, fishermen, students – they all had drive, ambition, strength, laughter, and they were cool. Not downtrodden or beaten by life, which is the story we are often told.
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I saw a way to do this was through the lens of deconstructing two migrant archetypes and revealing the real people behind them. So if you watch the film, at first you will see two migrants from wildly different backgrounds, who may seem almost like cliches. Fanny is a French waitress who dreams of being an actress and, to begin with, it feels almost like she is acting in everything she does. It’s hard to get beyond the surface with her. Koffee is also a migrant. He’s from West Africa, he’s a Sufi muslim, who’s had a hard journey and, in contrast to Fanny, who’s very extroverted, he is something of a closed book.
Then, through the film, we gradually deconstruct the characters through the choices they make, as they fall in love and reveal more of their true personalities to each other. This inevitable makes them more complex in some ways, yet simpler in others. I chose to do this through the medium of a bright and colourful love story. So, there’s a lot of dressing up and dancing in the film and this is meant to reflect the different aspects of their identities as they try to leave society’s ‘labels’ behind and open up to one another. It is also a reference to cinema and romantic love in general. The film-making approach is intertextual both in terms of the screenplay and image, so it references lots of other films, too many to mention here, but hopefully spotting them is fun. Finally, it’s all meant to feel a little disposable, casual almost, and this is difficult to accomplish as a director. Like a beautiful dream that you have and then it’s gone.
When did you start writing the piece and when did production start?
I started writing the film with backing from the BFI and Creative England in 2016, and it took another 18 months to raise the money. We shot in the summer of 2018. This was very fortunate because it was the hottest summer in England for 30 years, and we had four weeks of unbroken sunshine. I felt, at this point, that the universe was on our side – at least for shoot.
Who led the charge on casting, and did you have any talent in mind in advance?
Isabella Odoffin is a wonderful and very talented casting director and she has to take a lot of the credit with my producer, Iona Sweeney. They both worked tirelessly to cast far and wide for the main roles. It’s an intimate film, a first time director with a modest budget, so in some ways we were free to cast the best people for the roles without too much outside pressure. They gave me tickets to see Jonathan acting in The Brother’s Size, written by Moonlight’s Tarell Alvin McCraney. It was an amazing production and Jonathan immediately impressed me. He has great presence physically and mentally in that space.
After the show, when I learned he was still studying at LAMDA, I was amazed. I didn’t ever feel I was taking a risk with him – I knew he had all the qualities and technical ability to be a leading man and hold the film. Lucie auditioned and she was full of the same energy I had in mind when I wrote the character: vulnerable, funny, but with attitude and some stee. You would never feel sorry for her or like she was a victim, and this was an essential quality for me. She has been acting on French TV and in movies since she was a teenager, and I think both Jonathan and I learned a lot from her experience, craft and discipline. Together, they are a powerful team and without them and their level of performance, I think it’s fair to say the film would not work.
How long was principal photography?
Not long enough. I only had four weeks. I would have liked six to cover everything and allow for more improvisation, as Lucie and Jonathan bought so much in this regard. I would’ve liked to have improvised and experimented more. I gave them as much freedom as I could within the short time we had.
Had you worked with Ben Moulden before?
Yes, Ben and I work closely and very well as a team. We have shot many commercials together over the last 10 years or so, and we had an invaluable shorthand on set. It’s a mix of trust and knowledge of each other’s strengths and weaknesses and we’re good friends. It is a pleasure to shoot with him. He has a fantastic camera team. He has a photographer’s eye for beauty and detail, and is a magician with natural light. We made a decision to shoot mostly in daylight and, whenever possible, with available light, and I was very happy with the results.
What size crew were you working with?
Our crew was light but big enough to do the job. I guess around 30 people on a light day, up to 60 on a more complex day. We had to keep it small because of the insane amount of locations – many of which we could only reach by boat. I didn’t make it easy for myself or for my producers! But I think they enjoyed having the sand between their toes while they worked.
Can you speak to the lens and camera choice?
We used an Arri Alexa mini that Ben Moulden especially adapted for the shoot and vintage Cooke prime lenses. I wanted a slightly softer image that felt like a film from the 60s. They give the image a warmth and a touch of pink that felt right for the nostalgic elements of the film, which are about cinema and Europe and not knowing what you’ve got until it’s gone. We only used two lens sizes during the entire film – 70mm and 50mm – again, a conscious choice to keep things simple.
How was the production financed?
A mix of tax credits: private equity from people who believed in me and the film; creative England/BFI network; my production company, Starcross Entertainment; and Smuggler which is run by the very successful US producer Patrick Milling Smith. They all invested in the film, for which I’m incredibly grateful.
Can you tell us anything about the colour switch during the MG scene?
This choice is to reflect the opening up of the world and the two lovers’ horizons as they leave the confines of the city and break out into the more open spaces of the coast. It heralds a psychedelic-psychic breakthrough for them both. But it also just looks cool – and I love colour blocking, as you can tell from the film.
What was the choice behind characters breaking the fourth wall?
Only Fanny breaks the fourth wall. Koffee never does. Except for one time near the end when he’s painted his face and it’s fun to break the rules, and I feel his character is saying “wake up” to the audience, just in case they’ve fallen asleep! But really you hear his thoughts only once, in a conversation with Fanny in the MG car. But this is really her imagining his dialogue – an idealised fantasy for her.
Fanny is telling the story of the film, right from the opening scene, where she breaks the fourth wall with a quote from the Sufi poet, Rumi, to speak to the audience. On other occasions she quotes Rimbaud (another poet who became an Islamic seer), Treasure Island, Sunset Boulevard and many other famous films or books. This is because her side of the story is her memory of the time she spent with Koffee. I’m not sure if people spot this or if it even matters but her narrative is a series of snapshots – a fantasy that ends abruptly – which explains some of the cutting choices in the film too. I think Fanny learns a lot about herself and how to be in the world from Koffee, who I don’t give a voice outside of what you see – his determination to live on his own terms says it all for me.
I grew up there and my family and many of my friends still live there, so that element is very personal to me. I knew I could make it beautiful because I know all the secret places and, given that we didn’t have much time or money, this is how I brought the production value to the film – or rather Devon did!
Were you conscious of tackling certain stereotypes in the piece, such as Koffee’s aversion to swimming?
Of course. This is the most important thing for me. The whole point of including these provocative statements – such as ‘black people don’t swim’ – and other micro-aggressions that Koffee has to deal with in the film, is that he can turn them into something positive without burning the world to the ground in response.
I took a big risk with this element of the writing, but Jonathan Ajayi, who plays Koffee, the wonderful Ariyon Bakare, who has a cameo in the film, Isabella Oddofin, the casting director, and most of my investors, who are not white or British, all read the screenplay and saw what I was doing and why. Jonathan expanded it with his own words and improvisation, and I think that’s his power. Fortunately, the audience gets it and you can always trust them to be smart.
Specifically I wanted to write Koffee as a character who is here to enjoy life and who is not burdened forever by trauma, historical or otherwise. Some critics have been outraged by these choices, and one Guardian critic called the film ‘reprehensible’. But of course they’re wrong and have just exposed their own ignorance or misunderstanding of the narrative. Other commentators have also criticised the film because I didn’t explore a more complex or ‘deep’ narrative for Koffee, in particular, and I just laugh and think ‘fuck you’. You understand nothing about people, just because he’s a migrant! It all feeds into the central themes of freedom of movement and freedom of speech and freedom to love. I guess, ultimately, what I’m saying is I’ll defend your right to be offended by my film to the death!
What has it been like entering post-production during lockdown and were there any pickups shot during the pandemic?
We didn’t have any pickups because I have awesome producers in Iona Sweeney and Theresa Larche, who run a very tight ship. Post took around a year and we premiered at the Sao Paulo International Film Festival, late in 2019, and then the pandemic hit. So we had finished the film but we had to delay the release until now. We felt like it needed a little bit of optimism and sunshine to return in the UK to take it to market. It’s that kind of film. Hopefully now it will have a good run over the spring and summer.
What’s next on the slate for 2021?
I am writing a big TV drama series with the US director Marc Forster and his creative partner Renee Wolfe, which I’m incredibly excited about. We’re working with one of the most famous actors on the planet, so it’s a dream project. I’ve also written my next two films, which I will direct. The first is about a giant and his talent agent in the 18th century – we’re going to shoot it in a very modern way and it will have the same colourful approach as The Drifters. Then, after that, is a contemporary horror film set in Glastonbury, with the world’s best soundtrack, but I can’t say much more about that now, as it’s all under wraps.
I was hoping you could talk about the french new wave influence. I was certainly getting Breathless vibes.
The film has many influences – it’s very intertextual – something of a collage, which of course is a style the new wave pioneered. So, it has been influenced by a diverse input – architect Le Corbusier provided inspiration for the palette, Powell and Pressburger and Technicolor also, Antonioni’s modernist film, Red Desert, Bertolucci, and also US filmmakers like Arthur Penn. But the French New Wave, especially Godard, Eric Rohmer and Agnes Varga are the most influential. How can they not be? This is where all modern films begin. I wanted to see if you could still make a film in this way – now that all their styles and tropes have been absorbed and done to death – how could you make it feel fresh?
Perhaps this is even not possible, but that was the ambition. I think casting Jonathan and putting his character Koffee in this sort of film play a big part in moving it all forward in this respect. Anyway it’s the type of film I love to watch – that makes me want to make films – so it’s kind of me learning in camera, which is very exposing and you are a hostage to comparisons with the greatest of all time. But it’s also very liberating, because I made this film for me and if you don’t like it then, as Fanny says, fuck you!
Finally, the film straddles two places throughout – the UK and Europe – and I wanted to make a British film in the European style that is a little bit nostalgic for times past, because I believe people don’t give a fuck about Brexit or borders, they care only about love, passion, nature, ideas, dancing, music, literature, movies, food and other people.
Jonathan Ajayi and Lucie Bourdeu had wonderful chemistry together, which is so important for the film to work, was this discovered during pre-production after they had been cast or did you choose them after they read through together?
Yes, it’s hugely important and, without them and their very committed performances, it wouldn’t work – it would be too self-conscious. I am indebted to them both. We tested them for chemistry – and for height! – during the casting process. Really, though, it was discovered fully in a 5 day rehearsal period where they shared a lot with each other and became friends. After this, they made it look effortless, which is a testament to their skill as actors, but also to their enjoyment of each other and the process.
I love how the colour palette really opens up once they escape to the seaside together, especially after starting with the almost clinical white walled rooms of London. How important to you was the colour scheme?
The film started with two colours – red and blue – before I had anything else, any idea of the characters or the story. This is because, where I grew up, the sand of the beach is red – from the clay in the Jurassic Coast cliffs – and the sea is bright blue. So this was the vision and then I added a modernist palette designed by Le Corbusier, who knew very well how colours fit together naturally. I lived in a building called Highpoint in London, designed by the architect Lubetkin and the Tecton group, who were also inspired by Le Corbusier, and it uses the same scheme. The idea was precisely, as you say, to have a monochromatic feel. All interiors at the beginning in London where the characters are still archetypes – literally black and white – no nuances. As they travel and loosen up, the colour floods in and they get to know each other for real. Both Ben Moulden and I and Jodie Davison ,who coloured the film for us, and also worked on Phantom Thread and The Revenant, all agree this is our favourite aspect of the film language employed in The Drifters.
The film has a lovely spontaneous energy to it. Was it boarded – and if so, how strictly did you stick to it?
I boarded the film myself, twice, and then ignored it completely!
The Drifters is available to watch now:
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