Monday, 28 September 2009

Being in a Gangster Hip-Hop Movie

It couldn't have been a more English scene. Hampshire. Summer. Pouring rain. A cancelled family-and-friends cricket match, and everyone milling around a smallish house in that very British slightly damp, politely-aggrieved-with-the-weather way which talks about anything and everything else but the fact that you want The Bloody Sun To Shine so you can have the planned picnic. Oh yes. And it was Wimbledon Men's Final day. Of course it was.

So what I was not expecting in the least, as we were Just Making The Best Of It, was for my little cousin (who has now, 20 years later, just about got over being passed over as a bridesmaid for her younger sister) to say, quite casually: 'I'm making a hip-hop film in Birmingham. About gangs. I need extras for the chicken takeaway scene. Wanna come and be one?' Acting, let me tell you now, has never been my forte. I prefer to observe rather than be observed, and putting myself under the microscope of a stage has always seemed like a nightmare-come-true (the sort where I am wearing no clothes in public). But the Gazelle Girl is a keen actress, and anyway, I'd never been on a filmset, and it's a writer's moral duty to experience Life (with a capital L) in all its manifestations, just in case it is needed in some future project.

So, in October last year, we set off for Birmingham at an ungodly hour of the morning into the unknown territory of someone else's plot. We got lost of course. You always do, in Birmingham. But eventually we drove into a supermarket carpark filled with trailers and buses and whatnot (whatnot, thank God, included a catering van--I'd had no breakfast). The little cousin was efficiency personified, rushing around with a clipboard, organising people, and had little time to talk. Impressive, if a little scary in someone whose nappies you have changed. The Gazelle Girl, as a minor, had the shared use of a comfortable trailer stocked with unsuitable junk food and a napping couch. This was lucky, as she'd been to a party the night before and had had precisely 2 hours sleep. Grumpy was not the word, but the sniff of film fame (even as an anonymous extra) was just about enough to drag her out of bed. Having parked her, I grabbed a plate of delicious cholesterol-inducing eggs and bacon for camouflage and mingled with the crowd. There was a frazzled filmperson looking at her watch. I sneaked up behind her for a listen. Ah. The 'bling' hadn't arrived. Apparently for this film, the main character needed large amounts of bling--with real diamonds which had to be insured and guarded. Then, tyres screeching, the 'filmstars' arrived in a quick swagger of tilted baseball caps and banter and fizzing energy and whirled into 'wardrobe'. Little cousin had told me that these guys were the real deal--the film researchers had gone to Birmingham to get some insider knowledge, and had been so impressed by what they had seen that they decided to use the people they had talked to instead of trained actors. As far as I could see, it was a great call.

Then we were off, crammed into mini-buses, to the location. Lights! Camera! Action! Yep. They really do say that. What I hadn't realised was how long it was all going to take to make one 5 minute scene--and how fascinated I would be by the whole technical process. Briefly, the synopsis of 1 Day--The Movie reads like this. Angel is released from prison, and he wants to reclaim the £500k which his mate Flash was keeping safe for him. Now. Today. And Flash doesn't have it. So Flash has to race against the clock as he tries to cut a deal to get the money together while being pursued by a rival gang, the police, his 3 irate babymothers--and his granny. 'Our' scene was set in Angel's favourite chicken takeaway joint--just what he fancies on his return to life 'outside'.

So how did it pan out? We were arranged at the tables--just a bunch of ordinary punters having a sit down and a cuppa. But we needed props for the scene (where Flash sings 'Hate Me Hate You'). And the props for us extras (all that long day) would be a plate each of cold, congealed, unnaturally red-dyed deep fried chicken bits. Yum. A meal never eaten and best forgotten--except that the Gazelle Girl, a healthy eater at the best of times, never WILL forget it (I think it features in her nightmares).

First they filmed it from one end. Then they filmed it from the other end. There were several versions of this due to passing cars, buses, sirens, airplanes. Then they filmed it from above, and below, and outside. Every take necessitated fiddling about, moving lights, building scaffolding for cameras, testing, shouting at people to get out of shot, making sure the clapperboard was there, doing the close up bits, each separately, switching on the's a fine and precise art, this film-making. Sometime in the later afternoon, after we'd gone back to the carpark and had lunch in an old double decker bus revamped as a restaurant, I became aware of a problem as filming resumed in the takeaway. No one said anything. I don't think any of the other extras noticed. But 'Flash' and his co-actors were becoming increasingly edgy between takes and shooting angry sideways looks out of the windows at the petrol station over the road. There were cars parked there. Black, pimp-my-ride cars full of scary-looking staring guys with a uniform 'look' who just sat there and watched. I wondered quite seriously at that point if we were going to be sprayed with bullets. And we could have been. I learned afterwards that a rival gang had come to check out what was happening. It brought home to me that although we were making a film--a film with hip-hop songs in it--there was a more serious social undertone here--an undertone of the reality of what happens daily to young people here on Britain's streets. In the end, two huge security guards placed themselves in the entrance--and the cars drove off.

I talked to 'Flash' and 'Angel' and 'Evil' and their mates through the day. Nice guys who live lives very different from mine. Was I scared of them because they are part of gang culture? No. I wasn't. I liked them very much. And for me that was the best thing to come out of being involved, even in a small way, in the film. Often--more often than not-- we demonise and judge and label what we don't know, what is different from our own experience, because the unknown frightens us. This film is going to be quite controversial--let there be no doubt about that. It's already been compared to Boyz in The Hood and some will say it glamourises guns and gang culture--others that it reflects real street life as it is now for young black people. Bishop Derek Webley MBE, a long time anti-gun campaigner says, 'The film raises some real issues that should cause us to think and give some deep consideration as to what we are going to do about it," and you can find out more about the ongoing debate on those issues here. Or you can go and see the film when it comes out on 6th November and make your own mind up. For me--and the Gazelle Girl--it was an experience we wouldn't have missed for anything.

PS: If you're looking for me in the takeaway scene, I'm the no-makeup, tired-looking one in red and the Gazelle Girl is the pale and exhausted teenager beside me. Blink, and you'll miss us.

1 comment:

AnneR said...

Oooh, film star as well as ace writer? Talented lady! It sounds fascinating. If life has calmed down any, I'll go to the film and see if I can spot you :-)

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