Amma Asante has taken an unusual route into film direction. After appearing on TV screens as a child actor in Grange Hill, she moved behind the camera, writing New Year Jamdown and the BBC Two series Brothers And Sisters. Now she's making her directorial debut with the gritty but compelling South Wales racism drama A Way Of Life, which she also wrote. She recently won the UK Film Talent Award at the 48th Times bfi London Film Festival.
Where did the idea for A Way Of Life come from?
Two ideas hit me at the same time. The press was focusing a lot on girl-led gang crime - boy gangs with maybe one girl running things. I suppose, having been an actress in my late teens, I was always interested in that area. When I'd written my soap, those late teen characters were the age range I enjoyed writing about the most. At the same time, the Bradford/Burnley riots were happening and the news was focusing quite a bit on that. I was listening to the young Asian guys, and then listening to what the young white guys were saying, and to me they were saying the same thing. But all they could see were their differences. I found myself wanting to challenge the stereotypes, and show that people who seem different can be incredibly similar. I wanted to find the humanity that links us all, really. That's what a good film is all about.
Why is it set in South Wales?
Again, a couple of things. I'd always been interested in South Wales because it has some of the oldest black communities in Europe. Those who came to Bristol were mainly slaves, but those who went to Cardiff had come more through free will, and I thought that must have made a difference over how those multicultural communities were going to be living together. As I started doing my research, I found out that, at one point, Newport was number two for hideous race crimes in the country. So it wasn't necessarily all as rose-tinted as perhaps I was painting it. As I started to dig further and further, issues of poverty clearly began to stand out - because a lot of these multicultural communities were often living in the poorest areas of South Wales.
Also, my niece and nephew are half black, half white, half English, half Welsh. Quite often when you think about mixed-race children, it's the side of them which represents the minority that you're worried about honouring. The obvious way to go was the black side. But then I realised, when my brother was talking about moving to Wales, what makes that side any more or less important than the Welsh side? I don't have any children of my own, and I really wanted to write something - in the craziest way, I know - that paid tribute to their Welsh side. I wanted to be able to say, "I'm writing this because you are half-Welsh, and that is as important as your black side, and here's a way that I can honour that," albeit in a hard-hitting story.
It's interesting that Hassan, the victim of racial abuse, is a long-time Turkish immigrant and not even someone you'd stereotypically class as 'black'...
I think A Way Of Life is very much a film about the grey areas. You know, that area between child and woman, boy and man, and definitely the area between black and white. And the only way to not make this a black and white issue was to make Hassan as close to [the kids] as possible, but still different. Because I really felt that, in many ways, the issue of racism in the film was being used to explore themes and issues surrounding poverty. I think black and white racism has been explored before on film, but it hadn't been done in a way where those issues of identity were a lot more smudged and smeared.
The Leanne character is that much-maligned tabloid figure, the teenage single mother. How important is it for you that she's a very caring, considerate mother?
Incredibly important. I was deeply, deeply in love when I was Leanne's age , and I always felt that the fact that I was young and a teenager in love somehow made it not as important, that I didn't know how to love. So I wanted to show in the film that babies can be made in teenage lives through loving relationships. But also I wanted to make Leanne quite powerful in one way. In her group, she's the only one who has the ability to give life. All of them have the ability to take life, but she can give life. I had to show that Leanne had the ability to value something in her life.
I didn't want to be condescending in the other way. Sometimes you see working class characters and they're just the salt of the earth, you can't fault them in any way. I also didn't just want to make her the most horrendous creature you'd ever seen on screen. Although she can be extremely difficult to watch, I actually wanted to show that, gosh, even murderers love. When the Yorkshire Ripper's wife used to go out at night, he'd say, "Be careful, because it's dangerous out there." That boggled my mind, but I suppose sometimes, to get to the bottom of our problems, we have to understand that people who commit these crimes are human beings.
The casting of Leanne is crucial to the film's success. How did you find Stephanie James?
In looking for the character of Leanne, I first went about it in completely the wrong way. What I was looking for was someone who was tough, who could have moments of vulnerability. And I realised after quite some time - after quite a few people had come in and actually scared me! - that this wasn't what I should be looking for. What I should have been looking for was someone who was utterly and completely vulnerable, but who would spend all of her time putting her front up. Stephanie was not what I was looking for at all in my head. I'd imagined Leanne to be quite scrawny, with greasy lank hair, and I suppose a stereotype in many ways.
We saw hundreds and hundreds of kids, and as I started to see lots of these young potential actors - many of them coming from a not-too-dissimilar world to the one which I was creating - I realised that there was something quite aesthetically beautiful about catching that moment between child and adult. Stephanie is very shy, very beautiful to look at, but - even though it maybe wasn't expressed at her first, second, third or even fourth audition - I just knew there was a talent in there that I could play with. I think it's like when you're house hunting or flat hunting and you walk into the corridor; you haven't even seen the rest of the place but you just know that it's right. It was an instinct I had. I love the way she looked; I love the fact that she looks like a healthy teenage girl; and there's something very pure when you look at her. Stephanie's next part could be in a costume drama playing somebody as pure as the snow, and it would work.
One of the things people say about Ken Loach is that he casts unknowns who are very similar to the characters they play in the movie, and that subsequently they don't go on to develop acting careers because they don't have the necessary range. Do you think that's true here?
I would say that's the complete opposite for all of my young actors. None of them are remotely - character-wise - like the characters they play. I think it's sad in many ways that that's said about actors - that they're playing characters that are quite close to themselves - because I think we take away from the really hard work that they do. Whatever happens with this film, I think these actors are faces that you're going to see for a long, long time to come. My hope for them, actually, is that it doesn't happen too quickly, it doesn't happen overnight, and that they're able to build steady careers.
How do you gauge success on a movie like this, because it's probably not going to make £10 million at the box office...
I certainly wasn't trying to make a calling card movie that might get great reviews but nobody would ever see, that financiers would say, "Oh, she got good reviews on that, let's give her some more money to do another one." I really wanted to make a movie that people will hopefully go and see. It's difficult when you're a first-time director. I mean, I saw the poster and I thought that was success. The first good review you get, you think that's success. The boundary gets pushed along all of the time.
How would I gauge it? You know what, bums on seats are important to me, because I made it for an audience, I didn't make it for the critics. Ultimately, I don't think a movie becomes a movie until it meets its audience, and if it had a decent audience, that to me would be successful. Success to me is if it touches an audience, and if it touches a big enough audience so that people are talking about it out there. We made this film and all I get out of it is to express my creativity. Financially there really aren't any rewards when you're a first-time filmmaker at this level. I'm sure my financiers won't like me saying this, but the finance... I've put that to one side at this stage in my career.
David Gray penned the film's soundtrack. How did he get involved?
I think the great thing about being a first-time director is that you really have no ego, and if someone says no to you, you haven't lost anything. I wrote to David and just said, "I know this is a crazy long shot, but please just read the script and, if it moves you, please consider writing as little or as much as you like." Three or four days later we got a call from David's management saying he wanted to do it. We went along to meet him, and it was a scary meeting, to be honest. He's a most unscary man, but I'm a fan; I had been listening to his music for a long time. On the train, going back and forwards to Wales, I would have White Ladder playing in my ears, so his voice became synonymous with the piece that I was writing, and it was an absolute bonus that he was Welsh as well.
Someone asked me what advice I would give to young, up-and-coming writer/directors, and my biggest piece of advice is to ask. You have absolutely nothing to lose, and certainly in my career as a writer and now a director, there have been seven or eight key people who have made a difference to my career purely because they've decided to put their own neck on the line and take a risk on me - and David was one of them. I think that those people exist for everybody, but you don't find them unless you ask.