One of the things we pride ourselves on doing at TBB shining a light on British black talent who have been building a legacy in their industry, but rarely make the news. 38 year old multi-talented John Giwa-Amu is someone who qualifies.
Starting out studying at Newport Film School in Wales, Giwa-Amu has been a permanent fixture in the awards circuits which really means something to a creative trying to establish a career. Along the way, he has acquired expertise in many fields – directing, editing and visual effects. But, where he has made the longest strides is in film production, mainly as co-creator of Red and Black Films with long-term friend Caradog James.
With just 13 producer credits to his name, each has built on the reputation augmented by the project before to culminate in an internationally respected standing. He has been selected to become part of the globally recognised production and financing initiative ‘Inside Pictures’ 2016/17 and will travel to LA with the course in September to be mentored by various studio funding executives.
Currently, Giwa-Amu is balancing the release of two films – The Call Up and The Silent Storm, the distribution of another – Don’t Knock Twice, and the development of not just future film projects, but that of the company itself. He sits on numerous film-related boards and has a passion for making the positive experiences he had available to emerging creative talent.
We caught him during his pre-Cannes busy schedule…
I’m off to Cannes tomorrow, so looking forward to not being in the office for a little bit.
Well, you had such a good time there last year, being named a Future Leader at Cannes 2015 – one of the world’s most promising new producers. How did that feel?
I didn’t really know what it meant when it happened. I understand that peers from the UK nominated me. [Then] to know that it had been selected from people that I hold in really high was really nice. People had actually read the articles and actually studied who the guys were on the list. I didn’t realise it was as big a deal as it was, but, it has helped.
The Screen International team of correspondents, under the guidance of Screen Daily editor Matt Mueller, canvass the international industry. In 2015, they selected 47 candidates who were on their second or third feature, currently working on highly anticipated projects expected to gain critical acclaim. The award was presented in partnership with the Cannes Marché du Film’s Producers Network.
The Academy and BAFTA are all very glam, but they’re all strait-laced. Cannes has that European polish, that sort of chic-ness about it…
[Laughs] When I first went to Cannes in 1999, I stayed in a tent. That wasn’t very chic. I was a film student and I was star-struck by the sand to be honest. I remember standing on that red carpet – with no-one else there, of course, just me standing on the red carpet. It was the first one I’d been on, thinking, God, this is the most amazing thing I’ve ever experienced; and it is. It’s always got that razzle dazzle and of course Cannes is always a hustle.
It has quite a strong history of recognising and screening African and Diasporan contributions to film – not so much now, but I think everyone’s in agreement that there are fewer films being produced. In 1991, that red carpet was dubbed The Black Croisette, because 3 major black films premiered – Isaac Julien’s Young Soul Rebels won the Critic’s Prize; Bill Duke’s A Rage in Harlem screened In Competition, John Singleton’s Boyz ‘n’ the Hood (USA), Adama Drabo’s Ta Dona (Mali); Bassek Ba Kobhio’s Sango Malo (Cameroon) and Drissa Touré’s Laada (Burkina Faso) competed in Un Certain Regard featured, and Cannes Critics’ Week screened Pierre Yaméogo’s Laafi (Burkina Faso).
Oh, that’s really interesting. That was when Spike Lee was knocking out films, yeah. Tell me more about The British Blacklist…
I do, and finish with the tired old lamentations we constantly hear from broadcasters and commissioners bemoaning that they don’t know who or where to find British black talent. They’re right here of course…
I’m on the board of the Film Agency in Wales. So we had the BFI Diversity Manager Deborah Williams to one of our board meetings in Film Cymru. Diversity is a very big word about all sorts of things, so we had a very broad conversation about it. But she was just stepping into the job, reaching out to all the regional bodies and making contact. But it was interesting to hear the grand plan for it. It’s great these things are happening. It doesn’t happen quickly, but it’s better than it ever has been…
Exactly. Tell me about what Red and Black will be doing at Cannes 2016…
We’ve had quite a big year. We’ve got a film going out in the Cannes Film Market – Katee Sackoff’s film (Don’t Knock Twice) which premiered on Wednesday (May 11th) and will go again in Market on Saturday (May 14th), sold by content. The Call Up gets released on May 20th. Also, against that, but a different genre is The Silent Storm with Daniel Lewis and Andrea Riseborough, which I co-produced with Barbara Broccoli of James Bond fame coming out the same day and I’m just closing another film with a director who has been Oscar-nominated, which should be shooting in June. Then we’ve got the spin-off TV series for The Machine commissioned by NBC Universal, which we hope will go at some point during the Autumn.
I loved The Machine (2013), and I will definitely come back to that. But, The Call Up had its world premiere at the Brussels International Film Festival in April and the UK premiere was the closing feature in Sci-Fi London Film Festival earlier this month…
Charles [Barker] the director, also wrote it and I was approached just after I did The Machine, because Matt [Matthew James Wilkinson of Stigma Films] and I really wanted something to work on together. Then The Call Up was put in front of me and it was visual effects, it was Sci-Fi, it was a contained location, it was an American cast, American setting and it was a really identifiable hook. You put the suit on, you go into this world and it’s the most thrilling and engaging experience you’ve ever had. But at a certain point, you realise you’re not just killing things in the game. The game can injure and kill you. I thought that provided some interesting [ideas]. It was the kind of thing that felt like it should have been done before. But when I thought about it, it hadn’t. Then, it won the Brit List 2011, which they actually call the British Blacklist [laughs]…
The Brit List is the most liked un-produced screenplays in the U.K. and Irish film community as voted for by industry professionals, modelled on the USA’s The Blacklist, founded by African-American Franklin Leonard…
That gave us a bit of groundswell, slowly we started putting big chunks of finance together, which took about a year from the time I got on board. We shot a promo – that was a big part of it. Even with the success we had with The Machine, and my knowledge of visual effects and working with the calibre of talent we had, there’s no amount of words I can use to describe what the film is and really crystallise it in a distributor or financier’s head better than showing it to them and doing it. So we made 2 minutes of it.
When I first read the script, I didn’t understand that one minute you’re in this world standing in this room, the next minute, you’ve put down this visor and that room changes into a degraded version of the world you’re already in. It’s augmented reality, not virtual reality, so it doesn’t change the whole world, it augments the world you’re in. That was one thing to get your head round. The other thing was, we were making this on a modest budget.
The key thing for me to understand was that when you pull the visor down it isn’t a virtual reality world, it isn’t made up of pixels. It’s real, so we could [use] the office you are standing in now and then we’ll dirty the walls, burn all the paperwork on the desk, and then re-shoot the scene. So we didn’t need visual effects for the whole movie, because the game renders in so vividly, it looks real. That was a very clever thing that Charles did. Those were some of the elements that got me engaged and got me thinking, this is achievable, and it can be done.
It also had a female protagonist in it. That was key a key thing for me – Morfydd [Clark – Love & Friendship, Madame Bovary, A Poet in New York] is a costume drama, period drama girl and we chucked her into these battle fatigues with an M15 machine gun. It was funny seeing someone who’s normally in girdles, in a battle environment. I was interested to look into this notion of gaming being solely a male environment as well.
Caradog said the same in the London Screenwriter’s Festival panel when discussing writing British Sci-Fi and The Machine – he was proud to have written the machine as female…
Yes. As soon as I knew about that Bechdel Test, I was like, Oh my God! I don’t want to be that male film maker who does that [laughs]. That would be really embarrassing.
I think you’re alright, you’ve got a nice little female-centric thing going on over at Red and Black. But, Sci-Fi does really well for women, because the films aren’t necessarily a romance, or it’s certainly not always the A story. It’s usually about saving a universe.
For The Call Up and Sci Fi London FF, did you have to put your film forward or did they select it?
We’ve got a great relationship with Louis [Savy – festival director]. The Machine played there which he championed along with The Call Up. He contacted me and said, ‘I heard you’ve got this film, can I have a look at it?’ The response there was amazing! There are certain festivals you go to – Fright Fest, for example and SFL is one of them as well, where the audience, are very responsive. They’ll clap, they’ll almost boo, like watching a pantomime. They’re active participants in the story. You don’t get that in many places. It was very energised.
I have to bring you back to the subject of The Machine, I know everyone went mad for Ex-Machina last year. But I kept asking, but have you seen The Machine!? It could almost have been the natural precursor to Ex-Machina in terms of story…
We beat it by about a year and a half. Which, thank goodness we did, because we had a tenth of their budget. So at least people knew we were the original ones, which was good.
You mopped up a few awards as well…
We did well! It got 4 BAFTA Cymru (Wales) nominations – it won 3 [Best Film, Original Music and Costume Design]; it got a BIFA (British Independent Film Award, the Raindance award), it won Best Sci Fi Picture… and Best Actress… at Toronto After Dark [Film Festival]; [It also won the Jury Prize for Best UK Picture at the Raindance FF]. It’s played all around the world… It’s been funded to make a sequel, and now it’s in development as a TV series with NBC Universal. Toby (as Vincent McCarthy) and Caity Lotz (as Ava/The Machine) did really well out if it. Caity got a job playing Black Canary in Arrow, then got her own TV show spin-off, and now plays White Canary in Legends of Tomorrow. Toby got the lead in Black Sails, which is now on series 3! That film was a bit of a midas touch for a couple of us. It was a tough shoot, but it gave me the confidence to take on The Call Up with the knowledge of visual effects – what I’d need to raise and what I’d need to ask people, what we could reasonably expect.
It was resonant in a way that Ex-Machina possibly wasn’t. The Machine was a much more relatable – set in the UK on a military base and it brought in those other themes of recovering military vets, the nature of family and ultimately The Machine. I thought it was quite beautiful…
Crad’s a very emotional director. We’ve worked together now for 10 years. Our first film together was called Little White Lies (2006), and that was a black comedy about racism in Wales. Carad’s a red-head and, I’m mixed race. We both got picked on to an extent in school because of the way we looked. So I think it gives Caradog, quite an empath with ‘difference’ which gave us common ground. We share a sense of humour, he was Best Man at my wedding, we’re very good friends. Funnily enough, Caradog with his Welsh name was born in London and I, John, was born in Cardiff [laughs]! But he moved to Swansea when he was around 10.
You obviously have a love for speculative fiction. Where does that affinity come from and where will you take it?
The smart thing to do, if I’m sitting on a big pile of money (which I’m not), is to go to a book shop, read those you’re really interested in, slap a load of money down and option them. Well of course, we can’t do that. We have to find a way to generate pre-awareness in the market place without having any pre-awareness. Part of that is that the genre helps. We know what Sci-Fi is. For The Machine, we based it loosely on Frankenstein. It was also our positioning to make people believe they knew what this is before they saw it, even though they don’t. It was the same with The Call Up. I felt like I’d seen it, it was easily digestible, the hook was very simple.
The company is moving into the space of buying. What we look for in a piece of existing property is not just an interesting hook, but the journey that the character goes on. If that engages me, then that can cut out years of development. Character is everything. I used to make short films and character is so much more important to story in short films. You’re with that person for 5 or 10 minutes and you can watch them on a bench for that time if they’re engaging enough. We’ll continue with high concept – that’s really important, But I want to start ingraining it now with much more textured character work.
It’s quite refreshing, because people might be lulled into thinking everything in cinemas at the moment is Sci-Fi, because Marvel and DC and the rest are eating up the screen slots. But they’re more fantasy movies… Big, pure Sci-Fi movies like The Martian (2015) or Interstellar (2014) are fewer and further between, in fact…
Yes, I would agree with that, it’s a blurred space. What blew me away in terms of what Sci-Fi could actually do that’s modern, was District 9 (2009). The allegory was so strong. If you’d shown people a film about black people in a concentration camp with a white guy who starts becoming one of them (Ooh! That sounds like quite an interesting film, actually! [Laughs]). Using the genre of Sci-Fi allows you to enjoy it. It pushed it toward the fantasy element of it. But it was allegorical, it felt grounded in a reality. The choice of country was very clever [South Africa] and being brave enough to host it there, as opposed to bottling out and putting it somewhere like Bermuda, or wherever. There was such a richness behind it. That’s what I search for in film. Just one time, I’d love to do that, really kind of nail it.
Giwa-Amu should probably check out Adam Lannon’s 2015 short film Matter Of Fact, starring Justin Marosa (also of No Guarantee, Sci Fi London FF 48 Hour Challenge winner) to see how elements of his film idea are represented at the moment. So you were saying that for Katee’s film, Don’t Knock Twice, you were lead producer. How does your producer role vary? Have you executive produced on a project?
I was a hands-on producer, producing on the ground on-set for Don’t Knock Twice and for The Machine. I’m exec’ing this next one I can’t yet talk about.
Didn’t you have a small role in The Machine as well?
I cut myself out [laughs]! I had a walk-past in a lift with Caradog and we decided it was unnecessary. The trouble is, once you agree to be in a scene, and the reason I don’t, is that you’ve got to stay there until the scene’s shot out! Obviously, I’m so busy on-set, I can’t be hanging around for 3 hours and not have my laptop, not working. So that’s the reason I don’t do it normally – I don’t have the time. The general advice is to stick to producing if you’re producer and try not to wear too many hats, because of what the job requires you to do. I would find it very hard to straddle both. I don’t know how I would get time to meaningfully produce.
You can have the title of producer and not really be producing. You can be the kind of producer who walks on-set and no-one knows who you are, and you filter it all through your line producer. That’s not the kind of producer I am. I know everyone’s name and they know me. They know they can come up to me and talk to me; that’s important to me. I like it because most of them will know I won’t ask them to do anything I wouldn’t do myself. I like that bond with the crew. I’m not scared of them. I think some producers are scared and don’t want to engage because frankly, it’s tricky. They can ask you uncomfortable questions. You can get caught up in different things that you’re one step removed from. So it is a risk engaging with people. But I like it.
Was producing your aim, was it what you wanted to do at Film School?
I started off directing. I directed a short film which won the 48 Hour Film Challenge sponsored by Film 4 and Jonathan Ross at the time, and then I won the BBC Talent Award for my next short film – beat like 1000 other films to win that. That’s when I thought, alright, I probably can direct. So then I did another one and I won a BAFTA Cymru award in Wales for that. But, I was producing side-by-side with them and it took for me to really specialise in producing to realise just how much there was to it. I wrote a bit – I’ve had 2 screenplays commissioned about 8-10 years ago, one by quite a big producer. I got here via the creative rather than the financial.
I’m very much a creative hands-on producer because that’s where I came from. I’m on the board of BAFTA Wales and it was a big deal when I got my first nomination for the film that won the BBC Talent award. I didn’t win the BAFTA Cymru that year, but that was the nomination which made me validated and think maybe I’m a film maker; maybe I can do this. Being inside BAFTA now is a big honour, because I know what it’s like to be outside and I know what it’s like to look up to it. It’s an honour to feed into such a recognised and respected body, and what we champion and what we can instil in people in the industry is really powerful, because it was instilled in me and it made me want to succeed. I want BAFTA to do all those things for other people as well. It was a big part of my internal validation process , which is important to give you confidence. It’s a really important body. The reasons to have BAFTA in Wales are really important as well, otherwise I wouldn’t have felt connected to it if it wasn’t in my major city and was all the way in London, which people in Wales wouldn’t connect to it in the same way.
I really enjoyed this chat.
The Call Up is released in cinemas on May 20th and on digital/DVD on May 23rd Vertical Entertainment has picked up US rights with Mongrel Media taking Canada, Nikkatsu for Japan, Defiant for Australia/New Zealand, Betta Pictures for Spain and Gate 23 for Airlines. Worldwide release will be during this 2nd quarter.
For more information, visit the Red and Black Films website.
Read TBB’s interview with Parker Sawyer on his role in The Call Up here.