Ben Drew – AKA Plan B – grew up in Forest Gate, East London. He played music from a young age, and has always been interested in storytelling. His highly successful 2010 album The Defamation of Strickland Banks tells the story of a soul singer sent to prison on false charges. He has acted in films such as Adulthood, 188.8.131.52, Harry Brown, and The Sweeney – this last set to be released in September of 2012.
With ill Manors, Drew steps behind the camera to film his own original screenplay that tells the intertwining stories of a group of people struggling to survive on the rough streets of Forest Gate. The film is told through both traditional dialogue and hip-hop music, with Drew having written an album of songs that provides the film's soundtrack. He took time out from his preparations for the film's screening at the Toronto Film Festival to speak with Buzzine's Jesse Livingston about the challenges of filmmaking, his love of episodic television, the battle of the head vs. the heart, and how we try to fix the things that have been broken in us as children.
Jesse Livingston: ill Manors is your first feature film as a director. Did you feel fairly comfortable behind the camera due to your previous acting experience, and having directed music videos and short films?
Ben Drew: Yeah, I did. The pressure isn't on me to perform; the pressure is on me to get other people to perform. I'm good at seeing things and knowing what the problem is. If you're talking about authenticity in a performance, you're talking about a script I wrote, you're talking about a world that I know. When I'm looking at actors, and they're not performing correctly, and I don't believe it, it's a lot easier for me to tell them that I don't believe it and what I feel they need to do in order to convince me. So, I was really comfortable in that respect. I think it's just the technical side of things. I mean, I've done short films and music videos, but only a few, and really low-budget. So, it was working with the crew and not knowing the technical terms for what I wanted which was quite difficult. But in terms of working with actors and telling a story – no, it felt very natural.
JL: Are the characters in ill Manors based on specific people you knew growing up, or are they based on general types of people?
BD: It's kind of half-and-half. Some of them are based on people I knew. Maybe they were based on a few different people, and were represented by one character in the film. It depends. The characters of Ed and Aaron, they represent two different sides of me, I guess. The heart and the head. Aaron – played by Riz Ahmed – he represents the heart; and Ed – played by Ed Skrein – he represents my head. When you're growing up in that environment, you're faced with certain situations, and you have certain decisions to make. In life, I think you need to follow your heart – but sometimes you do need to listen to your head, because sometimes your head's right. Your head's a bit more realistic. If you let yourself be governed by your emotions, you leave yourself open to attack. That's why the two of them had extreme difficulty doing the opposite of what they were. Aaron had extreme difficulty following his head, because his heart was always telling him what he was doing was wrong – which is why he needed to be disciplined, in a way, by Ed. Ed would kind of make the decisions, but only to a point...
JL: Do you feel that emotions are dangerous in an environment like that? Do people have to shut their emotions down to survive?
BD: I think you feel like you have to, yeah. You have to hide them, and you have to be very careful who you show them to. But that's no way to live – never having a heart, never doing anything good for anyone, never taking a risk on people or learning how to trust people. In reality, a lot of people feel that they can't be that open. That's something I try to portray in the film. It's really difficult. It's not to say they haven't got a heart, it's to say that they live in this environment where it's not always easy to show the heart. You kind of have to lead people to believe that you're a cold-hearted bastard, and you're not gonna take s**t from anyone – and that's only in order to survive, you know?
JL: You've said that the soundtrack album is like a “film for the blind,” telling the story of the film in words. Did ideas for the songs occur to you while you were writing the script, or did the music come after?
BD: I tried to write it before, but it was difficult, because certain characters would change. In preparation for making the film, in order to get the script down from 140 pages to 100 pages, I had to really transform the story... Some characters that used to be two different people became one, and sometimes the color of their skin would change, or their sex would change, or their country of origin would change. So, it was kind of a false economy to be writing the songs beforehand. It was better to get all the rushes in the bag first – do the film, and then work out where the film was baggy and slow, 'cos I knew that I could speed those moments up with music. So, to answer your question, I did write some [songs], but they never made the film. I just ended up waiting 'til I had the film in the bag.
JL: The narrative of the film is broken up into smaller stories focusing on different people. What led you to take that approach?
BD: I'm a massive fan of The Wire, and I'm a massive fan of The Sopranos – many HBO programs, and things like Lost. I saw that kids entertain themselves now on YouTube or watching music videos on their mobile phones, so I wanted to make a music video hybrid film. When I made a short film – Michelle – which was the pilot, it inspired me to want to write a feature. [Michelle] was sixteen minutes long, which would break into music video segments in order to tell a story, and it just felt quite fast and tense and harrowing. I managed to convey a strong message in just that sixteen minute film, and I felt that going forward and making a feature film, it would be great to do that with other characters, but have all the stories come to a head at the end of the film.
I guess that's because when I sat and watched The Wire – I think I was ill for about a week, really ill... I remember just watching episode after episode, because every time you finished one, you wanted to know what was gonna happen next. So, I just thought, “These television series are a massive source of entertainment that maybe you don't get from a film.” And, recently, I'm experiencing it with Game of Thrones. I've watched the first couple series, and now I wanna watch the next one, which hasn't even been shot yet. So, I wanted to create that kind of experience in this film... I've since learned, there's no reason why I have to be a movie director. I want to direct, and this was a way for me to show the world that I could do that; but I think the way I write, and the stories I like to tell – there's no reason why one day I won't be a television director. Because actually, I think that's what Ill Manors is.
JL: You've said that we spend our adult lives trying to fix something broken in us – something that maybe our parents broke. Is that a theme in ill Manors?
BD: I think everybody feels that someone has broken something inside them. It may be their confidence – they don't believe in themselves. That can just be from someone you grew up with telling you you're not good enough. It doesn't necessarily have to be that someone beat you or raped you; it can just be that you live in a family where you don't really feel any love, or you're ignored. Every time you went to your parents and told them you liked something, or told them you were interested in something, they just put you down and told you, “You're dreaming. There's no way you could ever achieve that. You need to get real, just work hard at school, and get a normal job. None of us are movie stars, and we're your mum and dad, so what makes you think you're gonna be a movie star? Live in the real world. Stop being a dreamer.” If you're told that as a little kid, that's someone breaking something inside you. You grow up to your adult life lacking that confidence, and that affects many other things: your relationship with girls, that 9-to-5 job you have – instead of trying to get that higher position and be a manager at your work, you just think, “Oh, I could never do that. I'm not intelligent enough.” So, I think it's true. Yes, definitely.
JL: Do you feel that any of the characters in the film are able to fix themselves?
BD: Yeah, they do. Most of the main characters, either the consequences of their actions end in tragedy, or they end in some kind of life-altering situation that they're gonna learn from. It was important that that was included – that they got somewhere. There's these moments in your life when something really big happens, and you either learn from it or you don't. So, it's kind of left open for the audience to decide if these characters learn something. The important thing is that the audience learn something from it. The audience is asked the question, “What do you think you would do in that situation? How would it affect you?” I feel that's the great power that film has.
JL: You've said that your new album The Ballad of Belmarsh isn't going to do well commercially in your opinion, and that you're okay with that. Do you still think that's true after the praise that Ill Manors has received?
BD: What happened with ill Manors surprised me, so it may be different for Ballad of Belmarsh if and when it comes out. I feel differently about that project now. Every project I do, it takes away two to three years of my life promoting it. I'm not sure if that's a story that I wanna tell right now... Musically, I feel that I've kind of done that with ill Manors. I've satisfied that hunger. I got a number one with it in the UK. I'm not sure if the next step is to do The Ballad of Belmarsh. The Strickland Banks saga – I can pick that up pretty much when I want. I'm not one to capitalize on my art, in terms of making good business. I'm sure there're people that bought the Strickland Banks record that are like, “Yeah, let's have another one,” but that's not a good enough reason to do it.
JL: The film is playing at the Toronto Film Festival in the next week or so. Will you be there, and are you looking forward to the festival circuit?
BD: Yeah, I'm gonna fly out there on Saturday. I've never had an experience like that before, you know. I'm really looking forward to it. I don't know what to expect, because I've never been involved in one. I've just gotta go there and represent my film.
JL: What do you want people to take away from the experience of watching Ill Manors?
BD: Well, it must be quite similar in America, in the poor parts of the major cities there – gang culture and crime. Even though it's in a different country, I'm sure there are some messages within the film – some situations that people will be able to relate to. But if not, there's the fact that this is a hip-hop-based film. The hip-hop music is a tool in this film to tell a story. The concept is something that I think any English-speaking country can get into and appreciate.
There's not been a film like this before... It will hopefully open people's minds to the world of UK hip-hop. There are some really great, talented artists that have been active for years, but have been so underground... I really hope this opens up that world to people across the pond. It's conscious, storytelling hip-hop – as opposed to pop hip-hop, which is only motivated by money and selling records. This hip-hop is trying to tell a story and convey a message.
Ben Drew's directorial debut, 'ill Manors', is currently screening at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Read the Buzzine reivew of the 'ill Manors' Soundtrack