James Barber is a Journalist, who has written for The Independent, The Times and the Huffington Post and has a background in television, having worked for the BBC and CNN. Now he’s turning his talents to creating a new web series called Flatshare…
1# What’s Flatshare all about?
Flatshare is a comedy drama about four young people from diverse backgrounds, living in a rundown flatshare in South East London.
2# How did you come up with the idea?
About a year ago a friend of mine approached me about doing a web series together and something in me screamed yes. I’ve always been a writer but I’ve never embarked on a creative project of this kind. However, at the time I was yearning to find an outlet in which I could fully express myself and Flatshare became the catalyst for me to do that. Whilst I was writing the series I was inspired by this popular hashtag called #VentYourRent which involved young professionals Tweeting about the extortionate rent they were paying to live in substandard properties. It’s a huge problem in London, and the government is not doing enough to clamp down on this issue. I’ve spent most of my young adult life renting, and unless I win the lottery I don’t ever see myself being able to get my foot on the property ladder in London. With Flatshare, I wanted to bring awareness to this in a way that was funny and thought-provoking.
3# Although your intention is to have a series which features gay characters, your lead is a black female heterosexual why did you choose Kemi as your lead?
There are four lead characters, and Kemi, played by Lauren Cato is the female lead. They all have important stories that need to be told. Tom and Omar are both gay but they’re the polar opposites of each other which as a writer was important for me to portray. There’s isn’t one way to be gay, we come from different walks of life and have different experiences. With Flatshare, I wanted to flip the script of heteronormative conventions by placing two gay characters at the centre of the narrative. I’m sure many will label it as an LGBT show but to me it’s inclusive of people of different identities.
4# Where does your voice as a British Black gay male fit in the narrative?
My voice is in every character. I don’t just happen to be a black British, Afro-Caribbean gay man, they are all parts of my identity that I feel and experience deeply. It’s the kind of thing that W.E. Du Bois spoke about in ‘The Souls of Black Folk‘ in relation to people of colour who live in the western world, having a ‘double consciousness‘. When you have multiple identities, like myself, you see and perceive things through several filters.
As a writer, I incorporated this into Flatshare. Like many gay men, I was bullied in school for being ‘different’ and for not conforming to stereotypes. As difficult as this was I think it was the feeling of being an outsider that allowed me to create the characters Kemi, Tom, Seb, and Omar as they each belong to communities whose identities and experiences have been historically marginalised, underrepresented and vilified because they didn’t fit into the mainstream. My intention with Flatshare is to say that their lives matter and I think subconsciously I was also making this assertion about my own life.
Last year I had the pleasure of meeting Tarell Alvin McCraney, the incredible writer behind Moonlight. I remember telling him that I was writing a web series called Flatshare and his eyes lit up. I think it was that moment which gave me the confidence to believe in the power of my own voice. I was inspired by the success of Moonlight because it says that mainstream audiences are open and receptive to seeing films and perhaps a web series like Flatshare in which gay characters are not peripheral subjects but essential to plot.
5# What has your journey been like as a creative how did you get into writing and how difficult or not has it been?
I come from a more journalistic background so this has been the most challenging project I have ever embarked on. It took me a year to write Flatshare. I think because so much of myself is in it, I had to really push myself to really open up. During the writing of the series I was fortunate to connect with another writer John Gordon Russell, who became like a mentor to me. He kept pushing me, and encouraged me to go deeper. It was important that each episode felt authentic and was offering something new to say. The hardest episode to write was one which involves Tom and Omar going to a Chemsex party. As it’s a very sensitive issue and one that I don’t have direct experience with, I spoke with friends who have tried Chems and I also went to meet David Stuart, who manages 56 Dean Street, which is a sexual health clinic for gay men in Soho. He’s an expert when it comes to Chemsex. Having the opportunity to sit down and talk to him helped me to understand the psychology behind it, and what drives someone to do Chems which I hope comes across well in the show.
6# Why did you choose to go the crowdfunding route; and what’s plan B if you don’t hit your target?
Crowdfunding is often the best way to finance a project. For the past three months, my team and I have built an audience online via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Within hours of our Facebook page going live some guy from L.A asked if he could watch it from the US which was encouraging. Over the past three months, we’ve been releasing lots of teasers which has been great because our followers have become emotionally invested in Flatshare. Our intention is to take this growing support to raise funds. I’ve already had lots of people, some I know and some I’ve never met who have heard about the series and would like to donate.
Unlike America, the U.K. is still behind when it comes to supporting digital filmmakers. For instance, in America there are specific programs that you can apply to get funding for a web series, in the U.K. to my knowledge there are none, so the only option is to go down the crowdfunding route. If we are not able to raise the funds through our Indiegogo campaign, we’ll look into bursaries for the creative industries. Although money from these schemes often take a lot longer to come through, whereas with crowdfunding you can run a campaign online for a month, raise the money you need, and if you reach your target you can start shooting the following month.
7# Which web series’ do you watch, are there any you see as direct competition to your story?
I recently went to a special screening of the new web series Brown Girls, which I absolutely loved. It’s a refreshing show about the friendships and sisterhood between women of colour. My friend Nosa Eke, has a new web series called The Grind which is coming out soon. I’ve only seen one episode but it’s about a diverse group of young creatives in London hustling to make a name for themselves, which I can very much relate to. But to be honest I don’t see any other web series I know of as being direct competition to Flatshare because I haven’t seen anything like it.
8# How did you pick your cast, and did you have any of the actors in mind before you knew the characters etc? Also, who you’ve chosen to work with regarding production and directing?
We started auditioning for the lead roles last October. We advertised the roles online, on Facebook and websites like Casting Pro. When we were advertising for roles like Kemi’s I’d use hashtags like #Blackgirlmagic to describe her character and with Omar’s character I’d use #Carefreeblackboy because I saw them as encapsulating these qualities. When we cast Lewis Brown, I started to follow him on Instagram and I noticed that the #Carfreeblackboy hashtag was one that he used often in his pictures. He’s funny, free spirited, unapologetic, and comfortable in his skin and I liked that about him.
With Lauren Cato, I remember seeing her audition tape and having very high expectations. When she walked into the audition for Kemi, I knew instantly it was her. When she started reading for the character the thing that struck me was the sensitivity and softness she brought. Kemi is a very strong willed woman, but I didn’t want her to be stereotyped as the ‘angry black woman’. I think it was some of those qualities that attracted me to Andrew Rowe. He has this sensitivity that brings so much emotional depth to his character Tom, which was so important to me because I didn’t want people to come away from the show thinking of him as just another ‘superficial gay guy’ with no substance. With Callum Tempest there was this fire and intensity that really resonated with me because Seb is a very passionate character who feels strongly about stopping gentrification that’s happening in London but he’s very conflicted. Callum is a great actor and I think through his portrayal of Seb, he’s going to provoke a lot of discussion and debate about important social issues.
One of the supporting actors is Jake Graf who is an amazing trans actor and filmmaker. I knew I wanted him to be in the web series before I approached him, so I was happy when he accepted the role. Production wise I’m working with some amazing producers. Hannah Tokey, is the lead producer and has worked on lots of social/political films, documentaries and theatre productions, and then there’s Will, the associate producer who is full of energy and keeps me motivated. He’s been a huge driving force behind the series. As for a director, we are currently on the lookout for one, so if you’re interested in the series do reach out. I really do believe in the laws of attraction and that we will attract the right people to the project.
9# If all goes well, where do you want to take the series?
I don’t want this to be a one-off series as I’d like to do a second instalment. I already have the themes in my head in terms of what I want to explore in the second series. For many digital creators, the long-term goal is to get a show picked up by a mainstream television station but having worked in those environments this isn’t my main goal, although I’d be open to it if the opportunity was presented to me. I love how Issa Rae has taken an amazing web series like Awkward Black Girl and transformed it into the hit TV show Insecure, but I think the future of TV shows is on platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime. Once we’ve wrapped filming my hope to get it shown at digital festivals across the world and to attract distributors like Netflix to commission further seasons.
10# How can we keep up to date with Flatshare and its progression ?