The distribution deal was done with Revolver but they wanted some minor cuts to the film, which I was unhappy about... They went ahead with it without ever discussing it with me directly."
Director Menhaj Huda is best known for his hit feature film Kidulthood (2006) which became a cult flick amongst teenagers across the UK and went on to win The Douglas Hickox Award at the British Independent Film Awards in 2006. As part of a series of articles on Netribution from Film and Festivals Magazine, Menhaj meets Editor Vicki Psarias and explains how he got to shoot Kidulthood on 35mm for under a million, what went on behind the scenes, and why he feels let down by the British film industry.
You're known best as the director for Kidulthood, but how did you start your career?
I never set out to be a director - I always wanted to be an editor and after university, that's where I started. I was working with music videos and I pitched an idea for a dance music show called Hypnosis to Channel 4, which they made into a series that I directed. I'd never been to film school so that was an education in itself. From that, I spent the following five years directing music videos, music shows and youth programmes.
What did you study at university?
Engineering. I have a very technical mind so I love everything equipment wise and mechanical. Most crews are quite surprised by how much I know and understand about the technical side of filmmaking. Ultimately, they're all machines whether it's a camera or an edit suite and if you understand how machines work, you can cut corners and do things most people don't learn how to do. I've always been very confident about computers and once you have that knowledge, you can extend it and be very creative.
You work a lot with eminent cinematographer Brian Tufano, who shot Kidulthood. If you're very technical, does that ever cross into his area?
It actually saves a lot of time as I can be very specific and say to Brian, ‘I want this particular lens' or ‘I want that shutter speed'. Other directors, however, come from different, more theatrical backgrounds or are speaking more artistically about what they want, and it's the DP's job to translate that into visuals. I know exactly what I want and how that can be done.
What was your first taste of drama?
I made a short in 1998 called Jump Boy that was a precursor to Kidulthood. It was about a group of Asian kids leaving school for the day, all talking the talk and trying to be ‘gangsters'. One of the characters, Baggy, admires and simulates black American street culture - then three older, black kids turn up and mug Baggy and beat him up.
Sounds like you explored a controversial issue.
Jump Boy is about cultural identity and race but explores it in a really honest, shocking way. The beauty of it was, when I started showing it around the world, people started taking from it what was relevant to their own lives. It had a hip hop soundtrack, very urban settings, walls full of graffiti and raw, real street language, which was something no one had ever seen before. You can watch the film at http://www.filmfour.co.uk/
You then moved into television drama and directed the second series of Queer As Folk. Did you do any research before directing this drama that focuses on gay characters in Manchester?
It was a pretty foreign world to me but you just have to trust the writer and that's what I always say - as a director you don't have to know that world. You have to have a sense of it, but if someone else is writing it and they know the world, you just have to tune into them.
Queer As Folk includes scenes of a sexual nature. How did you get the best out of the actors' performances?
With Queer As Folk, the actors had already been cast; they'd done the first series, so they knew each other and what they wanted to do. One thing about actors is that you have to talk to them and tell them what you want. They like to do stuff. They hate being left alone. These days, a lot of directors don't talk to their actors, they just stand behind the camera and speak to the crew and that's how you get a weak performance.
The actors' performances in Kidulthood are particularly gritty and incredibly natural. Would you say you are an actor's director rather than a technical director, despite your background?
So far, people who have seen my films have said the acting is very good, and I put that down to my casting because I'm very, very thorough. That's the key to it. If you get someone in an empty room with a scene they've only had for a couple of days and they can make you laugh or cry - you know they've got the part.
After Queer As Folk you did various other projects including the television feature Is Harry on the Boat? (2001) with Danny Dyer and Will Mellor. Was it easy to get into features after these projects?
No, it was tough actually. I made Is Harry on the Boat? thinking that would be my first feature but unfortunately Sky Pictures went down and the film was just tucked away on Sky One with ad breaks in July. It was a long road before I got to Kidulthood.
Kidulthood is about a-day-in-the life of a group of troubled teenagers growing up in West London and has been compared to cinema classics La Haine and A Clockwork Orange for its graphic portrayal of drug use, violence and sex. So how did you get involved with the film?
I'd received a call from an actor I'd worked with previously, Ray Panthaki, who recommended I take a look at a script by relative newcomer, writer Noel Clarke. That script was Kidulthood - and it was brilliant.
What happened next?
I optioned it for 18 months on the basis that I would not only direct it, but I would produce it as well. We managed to get The Film Council to want to make it with Film Four but after lots of re-writes and meetings that I felt lacked any real direction, we lost all our backing. I had no support. There were times when I just wanted to walk away.
At that point what kept you going? How did you manage to finance Kidulthood?
I got lucky and came into some money which I invested in to the film. I also met a producer, George Isaac, who put some money into the project too. We eventually had a working budget of £650,000 - not the £800,000 I was aiming for, but enough. We had to defer the writer's fee, the producer's fee, and some legal fees. We decided to shoot on 35mm and finish on High Definition, so if the film was a complete pile of rubbish we wouldn't be wasting money on getting a print.
So after a lot of trouble and toil, Kidulthood finally got made. How well did it do on the festival circuit?
We entered it into Edinburgh and we failed to get in, we entered it into Toronto and after we'd been told they loved the film, they said they weren't going to programme it. We didn't get into Venice or Locarno. In July 2005 I decided to just do a cast and crew screening, with family and friends invited, and an audience of 750 - 800 people turned up! It just went crazy. That was when the buzz really started.
Great - proof that word of mouth really does work. So, did a distributor then pick it up?
Actually, the only distribution company that was there was Revolver. We were incredibly excited by the audiences' feedback and we very quickly set up another screening for more distribution companies. It was held in the Empire Leicester Square; a packed house, loads of kids and was a fantastic screening. The audience loved it. But no one from the distribution companies were interested. Some people walked out. And that's when you think, how much more does it have to be spelled out? The kids are here and you can see their response - they love it.
But things ran smoother after the screening?
After the screening, things took a strange turn. The distribution deal was done with Revolver but they wanted some minor cuts to the film, which I was unhappy about (as was Noel) because I didn't believe the film would perform any differently with these cuts. They went ahead with it without ever discussing it with me directly.
What were the cuts?
The main cut is in the sequence where Trife, the lead, is by the river and pulls out the purse that he's stolen from the woman earlier on in the film - and the audience is left wondering why he does this.
In my cut, Trife goes back and returns the purse to her. She invites him to come in for a drink. She is really drunk and we find out her story; that she is a widow, her husband recently died and she has no one. In her drunken state she comes on to Trife but in a pivotal moment he actually tells her how old he is and that he doesn't want sex with her. This is a big moment in the film as he actually admits that he is just a kid - a kid that's grown up too quickly.
But on the flipside, Revolver did distribute the film and Kidulthood got a DVD release. Have TV rights been bought?
Yes, the BBC has bought it.
And career wise, on the strength of Kidulthood, you recently won a BIFA, the Douglas Hickox Award for Best Debut Director. How does it feel going through a journey of such turmoil to finally having your work celebrated?
Considering how little attention we got from the festivals it was great to get some kind of recognition that we'd done a good job and that we'd made a good film. The BIFAs was the only place we were ever going to get recognition and I'm really pleased that they took note of Kidulthood because it is the most independent film that's been made and come out of the UK.
But the Dinard British Film Festival did give you Best Screenplay (2006).
It did. But isn't it ironic that the first British film festival that Kidulthood goes to is in France? And, up till now, Kidulthood has yet to be screened at a festival in the UK.
Despite losing your backing, you went on to make your film independently and with great success. What's your advice for filmmakers passionate about making their own independent films?
Don't wait for years of development. Get your script right and try and raise the money yourself. There are so many ways to get a film made and it doesn't have to be the traditional route. Be strong and realistic about what you want to achieve and don't take no for an answer.
More info at www.kidulthood.co.uk/
The follow up, Adulthood, from Kidulthood writer Noel Clarke, is released in June 08 by Pathe.
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