IFFR 2020: Director Sarah Gavron On The Unique Casting And Creative Process Behind ‘Rocks’

Director Sarah Gavron joins us on Close-up Culture to discuss Rocks ahead of the International Film Festival Rotterdam 2020. The film tells the story of a teenage girl (played by Bukky Bakray) who suddenly finds herself struggling to take care of herself and her younger brother (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu).

Q: ‘Rocks’ has enjoyed a very successful festival run. What does it mean to take this film to the International Film Festival Rotterdam?

A: Rotterdam is an exciting place for us to screen Rocks, as it is one of the very known and respected European festivals and it also runs a series of masterclasses and events around the films. Rotterdam attracts great audiences and we are keen to engage with the audience in Q and As. We are particularly happy to be having a screening of Rocks for a youth audience. It is also a great way of meeting other filmmakers. 

Q: What drew you to Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson’s script/idea for ‘Rocks’?

A: The idea for the film and the script itself evolved out of a workshop process. We began with a broad idea that we wanted to make a film about young people – girls particularly, that we built with them. Reversing the way it is traditionally done, with this film, the casting director [Lucy Pardee] and her associate [Jessica Straker] found the cast before the script was written. The two writers [Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson] and I and other members of the creative team then workshopped the young cast for almost a year.

During that time many ideas emerged, but it was Theresa Ikoko who came up with the narrative arc for the film. She had been developing a story independently that she describes as a “love letter” to her sister. She realised that this narrative would work well with the group of young people with whom we were working and particularly for Bukky Bakray who, like Theresa, was British born Nigerian.. So she shared the story idea with us all and we all responded and then the cast themselves started contributing ideas that fed into the script that Theresa and Claire wrote. So it wasn’t a typical script process! 


Q: One aspect of this film which I loved was that way it shows the diversity of London. In particular, I am thinking of a scene where Rocks stays over Sumaya’s house. How exciting for you was it to tell a story that features this representation?

A: When we went in to inner city schools, to both research and find the cast, the friendship groups we observed looked like the girls you see on the screen. The girls all speak different languages at home, eat different food and celebrate religion and festivals in different ways. As Theresa Ikoko has said, they found fun and power in exchanging that with one another, which is one of the gifts of growing up in London. It was important to us that this film didn’t become about being marginalised in terms of race and culture, but it was about the joy and friendship they had together.  

Kosar Ali, who plays Sumaya, the best friend of Rocks, is Somali British. She invited us into her home and shared all the details of her culture, which then helped the production designer and creative team to create her character’s home in the film. 

Q: This is such a talented young cast, but I think the only actor I had previously seen was Ruby Stokes (‘Una’ & ‘Nosebleed’). Can you tell us about the casting process and uncovering some of these gems?

A: Our casting director was Lucy Pardee (American Honey, Fish Tank, Attack The Block). She has a really immersive way of casting and she also researches… She started in schools and youth clubs where her and I and the writers sat and talked to the girls. A number of the girls we met in schools we then invited to join our workshops.

Lucy also carried out a big open call casting process where she and her associate Jessica Straker met over a thousand girls. During the workshop process the girls who kept returning and contributing formed friendships. They grew through the process and became the girls who ended up in the cast.  

We met so many talented, wonderful young women and a number who couldn’t be main cast, so they played smaller roles in the supporting cast. I hope many of them go on to find their way to tell their own stories. 

For the character of Roshe, who is a newcomer to the school, Lucy went to the Nottingham Television workshop and found Sheneigha Greyson. She was a brilliant improviser and quickly fitted into the group. 

Q: The cast give incredibly authentic performances. How did you work with them to ensure they were so natural and real on camera?

A: The year long workshop process certainly allowed the girls to get very used to us and feel confident about acting in front of us. We also filmed the workshops on iPhones, so they were not self conscious around cameras. We allowed them to express themselves in their own way on set so they weren’t learning lines. 


Q: And how did you also bring that naturalism through in the visual style of the film?

A: We filmed with two cameras at all times and as no take was the same in terms of staging. This allowed us to have material to work with in the edit. We did long takes and didn’t say “action” as we wanted to remove all the inhibiting factors of filming. We also shot in chronological order, which allowed the cast to hold onto the story and live through it moment by moment. This also enabled the writers to respond to certain performances and adjust the script accordingly. 

And we worked with a 75 percent female crew – many of whom were young and from backgrounds close to those of the girls, so there was a great feeling of solidarity on the set. As Theresa says, mentoring took place at all levels between all of us. We tried to create an environment that wasn’t hierachical. The Associate Director, Anu Henriques, who worked closely alongside me, would often talk directly to the cast to communicate an idea and the writers also were on set talking to the crew and cast, to help each scene be the best it could. It was all a conversation and if something wasn’t working the girls let us know! 

Q: Young D’angelou Osei Kissiedu is a little show stealer. Do you have any stories from your time working with him?

A: He was so creative. We would give him the jist of the scene and he would run with it – go into his own little world and come up with lines and ideas we could never have anticipated. When he first came in to audition, he was asked to do a little improvisation to cheer up his sister. He said: “I will do guided meditation to cheer her up.” He asked her to close her eyes, breathe deeply and think of something happy. That became a moment in the film. 

Q: Did you face any obstacles while making this film in London?

Lots! London is great to film in, but of course crowded, noisy and hard to get around… But the community in Hackney is amazing and the support from the council and the local schools was wonderful. We were restricted by child working hours and so we had to move quickly. But all in all it was worth it. 

Q: What impact do you hope ‘Rocks’ will have when it’s released in cinemas?

A: We want it to reach as wide an audience as possible, but particularly we would love young people to see it in the cinema. In test screenings with young people there has been a great atmosphere – so fingers crossed that will be the same when we release the film. There are not many films about girls like these girls, and I hope young people see it and connect with it. Working with them made us feel empowered and inspired! So it would be great some of that rubs off on the audience. 

I learnt so much from the young people while making the film and also about how vital it is that we have structures that support the youth so that they can fulfil their potential…

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