“Everything I write is a reflection of my surroundings and I always say that my upbringing was one of duality.” Abraham Adeyemi
Writer/director Abraham Adeyemi transitioned from finance to writing and without looking back seems like a risk that has paid off. Growing up in south London Adeyemi’s experiences resonate in his work. His directorial debut No More Wings is set in a chicken shop and explores young people reaching for their dreams.
After winning Soho House’s global screenwriting competition Adeyemi faced the challenge of bringing No More Wings to the big screen. His film then captured the attention of the industry and viewers worldwide and went on to be considered for an Oscar and a BAFTA after being crowned best narrative short at Tribeca Film Festival.
Signed to the prestigious United Agents Adeyemi’a play These Minging Streets was long-listed for the Alfred Fagon Award in 2018 and stars Jude Law. He is currently in commission with Channel 4, developing an original pilot as part of their 4Screenwriting programme. In an era where creativity, talent, and opportunities are growingly important institutionally and globally, TBB relished talking to Adeyemi who reinforces the power of storytelling …
Tell us about your journey into the industry and how you became a writer/director?
I’ve loved writing for as long as I can remember. I loved writing essays in school. Writing for the screen, however, was a much later development. When I was 19 and at university studying International Politics, a friend of mine passed and it made me question the direction of my life. One thing led to another and I decided that I didn’t want to pursue a career in law or finance. I met someone who was a year older than me and from a similar background who’d sold a script to the BBC and so I asked myself, why not? It’s been nine years since that decision and I’ve never looked back. I studied a Creative Writing BA part-time but I think the real work and learning came outside of that, I just kept writing.
As for directing, that never on the agenda. I won a screenwriting competition last year and the prize was funding to make the winning script, No More Wings. In the terms and conditions, though, it said that the writer of the winning script had to direct. So I didn’t have a choice. It was a baptism of fire going from ‘I never want to direct‘ to ‘I need to figure out how to do this in ten weeks‘ but thankfully it went really well. More importantly, I enjoyed it. And excited to do more of it.
You are from South London how much of an influence did your surroundings have on your creative path?
Massively. Everything I write is a reflection of my surroundings and I always say that my upbringing was one of duality. I’m London born and raised but lived in a Nigerian household. I grew up on a multicultural estate, yet went to a predominantly white grammar school in the suburbs. I feel like all of this spills into my work in terms of how I see the world; I’m always trying to see the multiple perspectives, rather than focusing on just the one. South London is rich in character and culture and as a storyteller that’s given me the confidence to feel like I can tell any stories.
Tell us a little bit about your award-winning film No More Wings why did you want to make this film?
No More Wings is an idea I’ve had for years. I actually found a note in Google docs from a different project I was working on in 2017/18 and there were a few paragraphs for an idea called “Coming and Going“; it’s the exact same story as No More Wings. It’s about two lifelong friends meeting up in Morley’s, their favourite fried chicken shop. But more than that, it’s about success, shattered dreams, and whether decisions of the past have lasting consequences. The film is a reflection of the environment I grew up in. Being a working-class black kid with dreams and ambitions, and reasons to believe those things are actually attainable. But also the choices you make when you attain success, whether you use it to elevate yourself, to enrich your environment and whether it’s possible to do both.
Is there pressure as you occupy this space to either push against the stereotype or conform to expectations of the stories you should be telling?
For me, no. When I’m writing, I’m not thinking or worrying about expectations. I’m just telling the story I want to tell in that moment in time. I think, naturally, my work does push against stereotypes but that doesn’t lead my decision when I decide what to write. I’m just writing what I want to write.
No More Wings is your directorial debut, how did you manage transitioning between writer and director?
At the time I didn’t feel like I was ‘managing‘ it well, it was more like panic. But reflecting on it, I would like to think I managed it well. I think panicking helped in that it kept me on my toes. It was clear that I cared and that I didn’t want to fail. I had ten weeks to figure it all out and the most important thing was to accept that it would be impossible for me to figure it all out in that short period of time (maybe, even, ever!?). Films are a collaborative process. So I considered my role as a director to get good performances from the actors and as long as I communicated well, all those magnificent talented people would be able to deliver on their jobs and contribute to the finished project. That’s what I think directing is.
If you have faced frustrations as a filmmaker who or what do you turn to, to either inspire you or motivate you to keep going?
My loved ones are my safe haven. Frustrations are inevitable but it’s never the end of the world, frustrations are usually due to problems arising and they can either be solved or they can’t. Whichever it is, I escape to my loved ones and they reenergise me. The answers, solutions, and motivation usually all come from within me and I know that sometimes I need a break from it all, to recharge and restore myself so I can tap back into my source.
No More Wings was crowned the best narrative short at Tribeca Film Festival making it an Oscar-qualifying film. How did it feel to receive that news?
Incredible. I had high hopes and ambitions for the film but never did I imagine that we would be selected for the first festival we submitted to. From my filmmaking peers, I’ve heard how arduous the festival stuff can be. And the first to be Tribeca and to actually win? Yeah, that was absolutely insane. I’m still in disbelief but so happy and so grateful. And we put Morley’s on the global map! Everyone involved in the film gave so much to it and I’m so happy that their work has been recognised.
Does this then mean you’re going to submit it for the Oscars (have you planned your acceptance speech)?
God, no, no speech planned! We are definitely submitting for the Oscars, but I’ve not even begun to think about a speech yet. First we have to make the shortlist and then get nominated. If we’re nominated – and I pray we are – then I think I’ll have to write one. I don’t think my friends would let me not write one. Even with Tribeca, the only reason why I had a speech ready is because a couple months back a friend and said “Abe, don’t shame us, write a speech! We can’t have you winning an award and free styling a speech with zero composure“. My friends know me well, I’d be a blubbering idiot if I don’t have a pre-planned speech for anything.
What was your process in getting No More Wings festival attention?
I found the Oscar and BAFTA-qualifying festivals lists and started applying for whichever ones were open. I think we’d just missed Sundance, SXSW and Aspen because we didn’t have any money. We’d gone considerably over budget with the film and needed to wait until our December screening to get back in the black and use the left over profit for festival submission fees which delayed us. The exception was Tribeca; I got in touch with them as one of the programmers had been a judge on the Script House competition, so I asked her for a fee waiver and thankfully she said yes. She also advised that the film required subtitles to be considered as the audience would not understand it due to the accents of the characters, advice that she’d have given to any English language film that used a strong regional dialect. Perhaps the best advice I’ve ever received because if there had been no subtitles, the film would not have been selected. My producer (Abiola Rufai) and I aren’t festival experts so the only way we could quality control/strategise was using that list; no amount of hours in the world would have been enough to sift through the thousands of festivals that exist to figure out which we should submit to.
Can you tell us more about your Channel 4 commission and what does it mean to have the support of a broadcaster of this scale?
It’s part of the 4Screenwriting Course where they select twelve writers to commission to develop an original pilot. All you do is submit an already existing script of yours for stage, screen or radio to be considered but you write something brand new on the course. I’ve applied every year since its inception in 2011. I’d submitted my play All the Shit I Can’t Say to my Dad. It’s been so great to be supported by Channel 4; having script editors during the process has been invaluable.
Being a writer and director, what challenges have you faced in keeping the authenticity of your work and adapting to outside critique in the development phase?
I’ve felt really privileged in that I’ve not felt a fight to keep the authenticity in my work. But what I’ve learned is that I need to keep working with people who get my work, understand the stories I’m trying to tell, and want to support that rather than make it what they want it to be. Something that really struck me recently in a call with a huge exec is that he said to me “the way I like to work is to find brilliant voices/writers and I want them to take us on a journey, lead us and we support them” – him saying that was what actually convinced me to work with them and it’s been great so far. When you’re in situations like that, dealing with outside critique is easy because more often than not, the critique tends to enrich the work as everyone has the same vision.
How do you deal with writers or creative block?
I sleep. I’m not the type to force through for a solution and my writers’ block never lasts very long. It’s usually just tiredness. As long as there’s no pressing deadline then I choose to be kind to myself and spend my day watching TV/films, playing games, reading, anything but writing. But, if it’s actually a serious block and not because of tiredness, I’m very quick to talk to other people. Usually my producer or script editor or, if the project isn’t attached to anyone yet, I’ll get the opinion of someone I trust and is usually good at helping with solutions. Friend and writer Ifeyinwa Frederick is usually my go-to in those situations.
Three films you wish you’d been involved with?
Before Sunrise – because I wish I wrote it, Straight Outta Compton because of getting to experience a nostalgia I never got to experience in real life, and Avengers: End Game because the sense of satisfaction that I felt as a fan of MCU, I can only imagine how proud I would feel if I was involved in it. I’ve already started to think of many other films but I’ll stop myself…
Who would you like to collaborate with on your next project?
Can I give two answers to this? I’m thinking of two separate projects. For one of them, Stormzy/Merky because I am absolutely ready for them to make a foray into television and think this project would be perfect for them. For the other project Netflix. I would love that to be its eventual home.