Plan B: ‘I love directing. But does my art change lives? I don’t think it does’
The following is an article from DV8′s internal newsletter produced by Ben Jolly with useful information for DV8 learners and staff. This Article originally appeared in The Guardian
I have looked forward to root-canal surgery with greater enthusiasm than I could summon before watching Ill Manors. Few phrases in the English language conjure dread quite like “low-budget gritty social realism”, it being almost invariably shorthand for cartoonish rubbish that will make you eat your own fists in embarrassment. If you’ve ever had the misfortune to see Kidulthood, you will know what I mean.
Production year: 2012
Cert (UK): 18
Runtime: 121 mins
Directors: Ben Drew
Cast: Anouska Mond, Ed Skrein, Mem Ferda, Natalie Press, Nathalie Press, Riz Ahmed
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That was about a month ago, and a day hasn’t passed when I haven’t thought about the film. Social commentators are already talking about its political significance, and reviewing last year’s riots through the prism of its lens. Set on the estate where Ben Drew (the director, who is better known as the rapper Plan B) grew up in Forest Gate, a bleak scrag-end of east London, the film follows the lives of drug dealers, addicts, prostitutes and teenagers over the course of a few chaotic days. The plotlines grow increasingly frantic, as their lives tangle up in a claustrophobic maze of tragedy and violence, but the performances are so unbearably real that in places it feels more like documentary than fiction. Every tiny detail is observed with an authenticity we almost never see on screen; the clothing, the body language, the street slang and the squalor all look casual, even careless, but ring so true.
We watch the characters make split-second moral calculations to justify amoral choices – she’s only a crack whore, we may as well pimp her; the baby’s only going to end up in a home, we may as well sell it – and see the hideous internal logic of a world that too often looks senseless to outsiders. My partner spent half his life in that world, and found the film so disturbing he was left almost speechless. Only Gary Oldman’s Nil By Mouth has come anywhere as close to evoking a London we all know is out there, but would rather not think about.
I meet Drew at the film company’s achingly fashionable offices near Notting Hill, where he cuts an incongruous figure among the trendy west London creatives bouncing about. He stands and moves with the faintly wary, studied self-control of a hard man, his burgundy polo shirt and immaculate waxed jacket signifying East End geezer, and for a moment I wonder if he’ll be able to lower his guard enough to get us through the interview. So I’m completely unprepared when he starts to talk about his own shame and vulnerability, humiliation and exclusion, with an emotional honesty that very rarely ever survives the damage of those traumas.
“My house was quite violent and stuff,” he says. His dad was gone, his mum fell in love with a crackhead, and home life was fairly dysfunctional. “But when I was a kid I used to love drawing, and whenever I’d bring my mum a drawing – and I remember some of the drawings, and they’re fucking shit – she’d just shower me in praise. ‘Wow! It’s amazing! Put it on the fridge.’ And then I would rush through to the living room and do another one, because I wanted that reaction again.” It was about the only positive thing he can remember from his childhood. By 15, he had wound up in a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) for kids expelled from normal schools.
His mum couldn’t afford Nike trainers, so Drew had to wear his big sister’s hand-me-downs. “I used to get picked on for wearing my sister’sGolas, there would be purple or pink in it – you know, girls’ trainers and shit. And there was so much importance put on having the right trainers by the other kids, because, actually, it defined whether or not you were popular.” As a consequence, he wasn’t. “I think, if I’d had the clothes that the other kids had, that I would have been popular. That’s how shallow it was. And yeah, it broke my heart. We went through so much pain, just cos we live in a consumer society. But no one questions it. It’s really weird but it is so important for a kid to have the right clothes. Through not having it, I had to dream about it.”
So he began drawing trainers at school, and soon the other kids were copying him, and then they were all designing football strips in class. When he heard some other boys were starting a band, he asked to join, but they said no, so he wrote them a song – but the band promptly fell apart. “They never had one rehearsal, nothing. It was all just talk.” But for Drew: “I imagined my song being a real thing; I could hear it in my head, and that was my imagination running wild.”
By then he had begun to realise he was unlike all the kids he knew. “That really makes you feel uncomfortable when you’re a kid; you just want to be like everybody else, you just want to be normal. But I knew in my head I was different; being artistic, having an opinion that differs from the majority. Hearing other people talk about something, and going, ‘That ain’t right’, and then saying something, and then they will turn on you.”
When he was 16, his friends went on holiday to Ayia Napa, but Drew decided to stay at home and write songs. “Because when they come back from Ayia Napa, what are they going to have? They’re going to have no money, nothing. But I missed out on a lot of bonding – they came back with certain jokes that I hadn’t heard.” The following year they didn’t even bother to invite him, and when they got back everything had changed. “They were all making jokes under their breath, and laughing – I felt like my whole group of mates were laughing at me. And they were, they were; I’m perceptive, I knew what was going on. Literally, everyone was just cunting me off. And I thought: ‘Fuck all of you, man. Fuck it. Now I’m focusing on me.’”
It was the big turning point in his life. But when he looks back now, he’s glad it happened. “Because if I would have been accepted, I wouldn’t have become so reclusive and obsessed with my work. I would have been sidetracked by all that bullshit.”
Drew wanted to be a soul singer, but felt a bit self-conscious singing love songs, so his plan B was to try rapping, hence the stage name Plan B. At 22, he released his first rap album, Who Needs Action When You Got Words, which enjoyed some critical acclaim and did OK commercially. By then a lot of his mates were DJs, and he would give them copies of singles to play in the clubs. “And they’re like, ‘Yeah, big tune, big tune,’ but they wouldn’t play it. I’d come to the club and wait all night, and they wouldn’t play it. It was all that kind of shit; it was just like school. You lot have a gang mentality, and I have to change the way I am to fit in with you guys? Bollocks.”
They would still get together and have a laugh, taking the mickey out of each other, but when one asked him how his single did in the charts, and Drew told them it got to No 35: “They all burst into tears laughing. I just thought, that’s deep – you went so deep there. Because my single only got to 35, I’m a cunt, yeah?” He spits the words out slowly and angrily – before adding philosophically: “They were just kids, innit, and that’s the way it goes. And what I find now is the fact that they’re normal, and the fact that they’re not different like me, actually depresses the fuck out of them. And they want nothing more than to be an individual, and be different, but they can’t. It’s too late.”
Drew’s second album, The Defamation of Strickland Banks, proved to be the second big turning point. Reverting to plan A, he reinvented himself as a slickly styled soul singer, and struck gold; the first two singles, Stay Too Long and She Said, made the Top 10, the album sold more than half a million copies, and he won the best male solo artist award at last year’s Brits, along with three Ivor Novellos. All of a sudden Drew was a hot mainstream pop star – but by then he had become obsessed with film.
Drew had already written his first script, Trigger, at just 21. A studio had wanted to make it with a multi-million pound budget – but, hardly surprisingly, when Drew said he wanted to direct it, they just laughed. So he went off and made a short film, thinking that would convince them he was up to the job – but instead he ended up expanding the short into Ill Manors and making it himself. With £50,000 of his own money, and £50,000 of funding, he shot most of the movie in just 18 days.
I’ve seen enough terrible low-budget directorial debuts to know it must be harder than it looks – and Drew wasn’t even the only novice on set. For the film to be believable, he had figured that he would need people who had actually lived the lives they were portraying, so most of the cast are old friends of his, or people he spotted in the street. He even cast his own godfather to play a drug dealer, pictured in this link. They deliver astonishing performances, yet most had never even acted before. Did he have to teach them how to do it?
“You know this film is going to change their life. So you just say: ‘Listen, your friends are going to watch this film. In 10 years this film will still be here. For the next 10 years you’re going to have two things going on; people coming up to you and going, you were fucking brilliant in that film. Or people will start laughing at you because you were so shit. So what do you want? Because I know you can give me what I need, and this is your opportunity. Fucking do whatever you can from inside yourself, and give me that, or people will watch it and you’ll be that person in the film who’s the weakest fucking link, who ruined the film.” Drew himself acts – he appeared in Adulthood, and in Harry Brown with Michael Caine – and uses the same technique on himself. “This is me putting myself up for public ridicule. And it’s a bigger stage than I ever had at school. So either I fucking smash it, or I embarrass myself.”
There are few spectacles more embarrassing than a failed attempt at dark urban realism – but most do fail, often spectacularly, so I want to know how exactly Drew got it right. “Honestly, it’s just honesty. We’re doing a scene, and if someone says something that you wouldn’t say, well, we’re all from that world and everyone would go: ‘We don’t say that.’ It’s just like that, it’s honesty. As soon as something felt forced, I’d just throw the script away.”
The trouble for any artist whose success comes from mining a rich autobiographical seam of misery is all too familiar. Exiled by fame and wealth from their source of inspiration, how do they maintain the authenticity on which their success depends? “Do you know what?” agrees Drew. “I was never naive about that. I knew money would change it.” This realisation came in part from going back to his old PRU, which he had visited in order to cast one of the parts. He is now making a BBC documentary about the kids there, and getting them to perform at a Radio 1 concert in Hackney later this month.
“When I go to the school, I feel such a sense of purpose. I see myself in all of them. You see the insecurities straight away, but then you see the strengths as well. I keep telling them: ‘All that shit that went on in your life that has caused you to act and behave in the way that you do – that’s not your fault. Your whole life you’ve been made to think that you’ve done something wrong, and you haven’t. You’re only getting kicked out of school and bullying other kids and shit like that because of what happened to you, which wasn’t your fault.’ There’s a lot of guilt running through them, a lot of guilt. It’s heartbreaking. But I say: ‘The shit you’re doing now, you have to take responsibility for.’”
Going back to his old PRU has really thrown him, Drew admits. “I’m sitting there thinking, does everything else I’m doing mean as much as this? It all comes from the same place, and I love creating things, directing, being artistic, yeah. But in terms of: ‘Does my art, in itself, change individual lives like this does, like what I’m doing here?’ I thought, right now, no, I don’t think it does. And actually, should I be a teacher?” He starts to laugh. “A proper weird experience, it was. Should I be a teacher? Should I quit all this music shit, should I just quit it and do this?”
If that’s his plan C then, selfishly, I would strongly advise against it. With a new album Ill Manors out next month, Drew is about to appear opposite Ray Winstone in a remake of The Sweeney – he lost two stone for the part: “Cos there was no way anyone would believe a fat bastard like I was at the time could be policeman” – and is also making Trigger, the film he wrote at 21. If this is what he can do at just 28, the thought of what’s to come is quite something.
Lost My Way, the first single from the new album Ill Manors, is out on Atlantic Records on 2 July. The album is out on 16 July.
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