Made TV sat down with Naeem Mahmood, who released his hit directorial debut feature Brash Young Turks last year, to discuss independent filmmaking, diversity and how growing up on colourful Portobello Road influenced the stories he wanted to tell.
First and foremost, what inspired you to become a director?
To have a voice and a way of channeling my creativity. I found school uninspiring and got involved in street crime, so filmmaking was an escape. I grew up in West London. My dad had a shop on Portobello Road, a vibrant, multicultural and buzzing area and I realised that there were so many stories and characters not being depicted in mainstream British film and TV. That whole kind of scene inspired me to go out there and do something.
What made you take the plunge and set up your production company Trailblazer?
When I was in my late teens my brother and I would turn up at all sorts of production houses in London looking for support but no one wanted to know. So we were like “lets set up our own production company and start doing it ourselves.” I wasn’t going to sit around and wait for someone to give me an opportunity.
You were very hands on in the development stages of the script for Brash Young Turks, do you view your work as a filmmaker as a platform for your own voice?
With Brash Young Turks I wanted to do something about young people from the wrong side of the tracks but who were going to get their hustle on and be more than what society expects of them. So I had this whole aspirational concept of young people creating their own rules, finding their own voice, finding their own identity and creating their own empire. The Brash Young Turks are a gang of young people who refuse to be boxed in and won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. It kinda mirrors how I’ve been able to make films.
The majority of your cast can be described as ‘new talent’, what was it like working with less experienced actors on such a big project?
I had auditioned trained actors from Rada, Lamda, Central School of Speech and Drama, to actors with leading roles in mainstream TV, but I ended up casting less trained actors in some of the leading roles. And what I found with them was this ability to dig deeper, go the extra mile, let go of their inhibitions and push the boundaries. There is more scope to do things differently and find different characteristics that you don’t always see in the trained realm. I like to work with a mixture of new talent and established talent and blend the two together. I also like working with music artists, fashionistas – it all becomes this melting pot of creatives.
The actors in the film are from very diverse backgrounds, how do you feel about onscreen and behind the camera representation?
The film industry is elitist, classist, sexist and racist. There’s a tiny group who make the decisions. The acting profession is still heavily geared towards the privileged and there’s definitely a load of middle-class actors all quite similar to each other that we see onscreen. The shortage of working-class actors, diverse filmmakers etc is simply a mirror of what’s going on everywhere: a shortage of diverse academics, engineers and politicians. I’m much more concerned about the broader picture because it’s an indicator of a much deeper problem.
However, with the technology and platforms now available, young filmmakers have the power to create their own industries and production companies and not be dependent on the so-called industry. It’s like with music, there are now a lot of major artists who refuse to sign to a label and are able to distribute and market their own music.
As for diversity quotas and tokenism; it’s all very forced and fake. With Brash Young Turks we didn’t sit in the casting room with a quota in our hands saying “we have to reflect and represent the societies we live in.” It was an organic, natural process. A lot of the characters could’ve been of any race.
You chose to hold multi-screenings at many youth centers and colleges across London, why was that?
I think it’s very important to engage with young people and local communities. You have to share your work with other people and inspire them to go out and do their own thing as well. Show people that we did it, that we were a group of young people, in a youth centre, with little resources, but we managed to make a grand scale movie. You can do that too.
What was your biggest challenge making Brash Young Turks?
Making the film was like going to war. Working with and managing over 300 cast and crew members, sustaining 35 days of shooting in up to 50 locations, staying focused during a marathon post-production, all on a shoestring budget. If one thing falls out of the jigsaw the whole thing collapses so that’s a lot of pressure. We also had to ensure that props and sets didn’t get damaged. We were given a £6 million yacht for one shoot and if there was one scratch on it that was the entire budget of the film gone right there!
Would you say that getting things for free is crucial to making a successful independent film on a small budget?
There are many elements to making a low budget indie a success which stem from script stage to marketing. But there’s no doubt that the ability to hustle is crucial. Nobody is going to care about your film as much as you do so you can’t be dependent on anyone.
What advice would you give to young people wanting to make it in the film industry?
Collaboration is key. Get out there and meet people face to face, cultivate relationships, build a team and start making films. A legendary old-school director called Terry Gilliam said directing is not this mystical, shamanistic enterprise but a practical one. It’s about understanding your vision then finding the right talent and articulating your vision through them.