There aren’t many new voices in British cinema as exciting as that of Shola Amoo. His new film The Last Tree, which played at Sundance earlier in the year, is finally readying itself for its theatrical release in the UK, and to mark the occasion we had the pleasure of sitting down with Amoo himself, and what’s more – he was paired with the hugely talented young actor Sam Adewunmi, to discuss this indelible piece of contemporary cinema. We speak about the notion of identity, authenticity – and even manage to get in a brief chat about The Cure…
What was it about Sam that made you think, this is my Femi?
Shola Amoo: He was just so organic and natural and just has such a calm screen presence, some people just hold the screen effortlessly and he had all of that from the first time we saw him in the auditions, his presence really shone in the room. He has a great personality, a very empathetic person and also Nigeria Yoruba, the exact heritage and culture of the protagonist. It just all aligned.
So it’s semi-autobiographical? To what degree?
Amoo: I was fostered, so that was the seed, I wanted to explore that. I met up with other British-Nigerians who were fostered and got their stories and experiences and amalgamated some of mine with some of theirs to create a new reality, and that’s where the semi-autobiographical nature of it comes from.
So when directing did you ever instruct Sam emotionally on your own experiences? To think, how did I feel in that situation? Or was it always important to treat him as a character on a page?
Amoo: It’s interesting because I was close enough to it for it to have authenticity, but far back enough to remain objective. Once Sam was cast as the character I would ask him questions about how feels in those moments, because I cast close to the bone, and once you feel you’ve got that person you trust them with the character and I actually draw knowledge from him about the character, often informed by the script but it’s more organic as a building process.
What was it about this story Sam, that appealed to you and made you want to get involved?
Sam Adewunmi: I really connected to the authenticity of the script and Femi’s journey, I just felt that it was truthful and relatable, and having ground up in London myself I felt he captured London life as a teen really well, to the experiences at school to the experiences at home. I’m also a second generation immigrant so I could connect with that theme. Also there are many universal themes that we all go through as we find ourselves and our identity and culture. It was a really layered script that I found interesting and I could engage with it. Once something is that real and that true, I wanted to jump in and get started. He’s a troubled youth, justifiably, he’s trying to understand himself and who he is in the world. One scene I could really relate to was when he walks into the playground and he’s listening to The Cure, and someone comes up to him and asks what he’s listening to and he says, ‘Tupac’. I was that guy for a period in my life – will I fit in if I say what I’m actually listening to? Or will I be made to feel different, not who I am? That was something I could really relate to, this idea of wearing masks, wherever Femi is he’s always wearing a different mask, trying to figure out when he can actually take it off, and that’s us in society. When we’re in public we’re different people to who we are with our friends, or our partners, our parents. He is someone who encapsulated what it means to be a young man just trying to figure our who he is and find himself, and I’ve definitely been there.
Is that where anyone can relate, that sense of duality? My family are culturally Jewish, and at the weekends I’ll be at family events, bagels everywhere and people talking over each other, and then the next day I’d be at school, hood up, trying – and failing – to act pensive and cool. At that age it felt like we all had different personalities, and different lives.
Amoo: I can 100% see why you can relate to it, because like we were saying it’s also that second-gen condition, in your example having a family with a different culture to that of UK and already there’s a difference there. I think teens feel alien to their family anyway, in one way or another, whether it’s amplified by that generational divide. We were very specific in the film about its cultural setting but in that proximity there’s a real universal element and I thin that’s what people are responding to.
It feels very specific to London though.
Amoo: I think the way we’ve told it, the location as a character is key. Each place, London, Lincoln and Lagos, it very much has that London vibe, but that comes from authenticity, we’re trying to represent it in a very authentic light.
Do you wonder how different Femi may have been had he stayed? And to what degree we are enriched, and affected by our surroundings?
Amoo: It would’ve been completely different, it’s hard to speculate. I spoke to people who have been fostered in all sorts of scenarios, some who got to go home and some who didn’t, some who deliberately, once their parents came to collect them, said no. It could’ve gone anywhere, it’s really hard to say. There’s such a wide range of narratives from this world of fostering.
I recently interviewed Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje for Farming, which is another story told by a British-Nigerian filmmaker that explores the notion of identity. Now it’s a totally project with a completely different story, but do you think it’s a coincidence that we’re seeing two films told by British-Nigerian filmmakers about their own personal experiences so close together, or do you think it’s reflective of a British film industry that is moving towards more inclusivity, and giving the tools to directors from different backgrounds to tell their own stories?
Adewunmi: I think we’re in a time where what it means to be British is constantly being questioned, hashtag Brexit. Although our film isn’t set in the now and I know Farming isn’t either, I think it’s just in the consciousness of Britain right now and kind of the world, to figure out who we are, and what it means to be who we are. That can’t just be told from a singular perspective, or through a singular narrative, i.e. the white, British narrative. There are so many of us here that are here for a reason, because of our history as a nation and our past, so now is the time to definitely start investigating these sort of stories. I mean who’s to say we couldn’t have investigated it before? But we’re here now, and the stories are being told, and given the opportunity to really shine and a platform to be told, so I think it’s important for people to come out and see this because it’s different to what we’re used to seeing. It’s a story of a young British black man, told from a perspective we haven’t seen before.
Despite this progression, Adewale also spoke of the difficulty in getting a film off the ground as a young black filmmaker. How was your experience, going from conception to this moment here?
Amoo: I think it’s always difficult to get a film off the ground. It’s not an easy thing to do. I’ve done it in a variety of ways, I’ve done it completely independently and with industry backing, and each is incredibly hard, it’s really about how much time and passion you’re willing to put in, and how important that story is to you in getting it out. I think people who really have that burning story will find a way, albeit independently, or via some industry support. But there hasn’t been a better time to do it in terms of how technology has democratised the whole thing, you can shoot a film in a few weekends on your iPhone with a few friends to some degree, so it’s more plausible now than 10-15 years ago.
Sam, you’re sat right next to the poster of the film which with your face on it. Has that got normal yet? Do you recognise that as being yourself?
Adewunmi: You know what, that’s a really good question because I’ve seen the poster for a few weeks now, and I’m looking at it, and I don’t really see myself, it’s weird. I know it’s my face, I know it’s me, I’m not insane, but I just see Femi. The way I like to look at work and the industry and stuff, that’s my work, that’s not who I am, so I can look at it objectively and be proud of the work that we’ve done. The Last Tree, a film by Shola Amoo. When I see that I don’t just think of Shola, I think of the whole team and how much work we put in. The whole shooting process was incredible and I feel like the poster is a culmination of all of our hard work even though it only has my face on it.
Talking of a team – Shola you’ve used much of the same crew across your projects. That must create such a sense of familiarity and trust on set?
Amoo: Yeah absolutely. One thing that is unique about this film is that while we’re improving I guess in terms of having films directed by people of colour, HoDs are harder to find, and our film is quite unique in that sense and I’m very proud of that.
You mentioned earlier about Femi listening to The Cure – why them in particular? Was there a reason why you chose that band, was there a particular meaning to you personally?
Amoo: I just find their music to have a real sense of opera, theatre and scale. It really works with the scenes and the concept of the character. Sam mentioned earlier about wearing masks and Robert Smith has got the most obvious one. I enjoyed all of that conceptually, I think it worked really well.
Fair to play to him, he must be in his 50s and he’s still got that same look.
Amoo: He’s still got that same mask on! One of the best things that happened was that we had a screening in Manchester and a member of ‘generation Z’ tweeted, ‘great film and thank you for introducing me to The Cure’. That’s the thing, they might not be as connected to the youth in that way, so it’s great to see a film about a young black teen introduced a young lady in Manchester to The Cure, that’s really interesting.
Is that one of the great things with this project, particularly when going somewhere like Sundance, you’re presenting this personal story, that resonates with you both, about London. When watching it in cinemas full of people from Utah, it must be cool to know you’re sharing your story with the world?
Amoo: It’s great. Our first screenings were in Utah, and that’s where a film that is so specific, when the themes are as strongly felt and universal, transcends specifics of the locations, so it was great that people could still engage with all of the nuances that we put into the character, onto the screen, and that’s when we knew when it played well there that it would be great to bring it back home, and have additional layers.
So what’s next for you both?
Adewunmi: I’m about to start shooting a Terry Pratchett adaptation called The Watch, which is exciting. It’s with BBC America, it should be fun. That’s my next thing for now.
Amoo: I’m working on a few things.
The Last Tree is released on September 27th