All Stars – Ben Gregor interview (exclusive)
Interview by Rob Carnevale
BEN Gregor discusses some of the challenges of making his feature film debut with dance movie All Stars and how much he learned in the process.
He also talks about working with Spike Jonze and being inspired by him, directing John Barrowman and Ashley Jensen and why an early mid-life crisis led to a motorcycle accident at 0mph!
Q. All Stars manages to combine fun and heart…
Ben Gregor: Thank you. I wanted to make a film with heart. I think some dance movies are a bit sterile at times… stuff like Step Up and that kind of thing, and I wanted to make a film that reminded me of the ‘80s dance films I liked – something that felt a bit more true and heartfelt.
Q. I gather you have to thank Spike Jonze for putting you in the frame of mind to contemplate doing something like this?
Ben Gregor: Yeah, I was lucky enough to work with Spike Jonze on a TV show in the States [The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret] and I was able to talk to him every day about making films and some of the things he’d been involved with such as Where The Wild Things Are. And he talked a lot about how you can mix comedy and seriousness with visual stuff. He said that if an audience is into the story, then you can really get inventive with things. That’s why we messed around with the way we told our story a bit but still delivered a solid story. We could go black and white, we included space invaders and all those kind of touches. So, his inspiration and the fact that this was going to be a dance movie really let me get more creative with the visuals.
Q. Ironically, I’ve read that you were never that bothered by dance. So, why choose that genre to make your feature film debut?
Ben Gregor: I think it was the challenge of it. I’ve never done anything like it before. It actually reminded me of skateboarding, which is something that I’ve always done. It’s free and physical and you can do whenever you want. I liked the idea of doing a film that included a character who is not allowed to be what he wants to be. My dad always took my skateboard away in order to try and make me work harder at school. But it didn’t work. It had the opposite effect. I just wanted to do it more. So, I related to the character of Jaden in the film, who is under the same kind of pressure from his dad. So, I thought, “yes, time for revenge!” [Laughs]
Q. And what does your dad think?
Ben Gregor: [Laughs] He didn’t pick up on that. He just loves the film so much. He kind of just laughs now. He can’t really believe this is happening.
Q. Why do you like skateboarding so much?
Ben Gregor: I like skateboarding because it lets you meet some really interesting people and you can’t be self conscious when you do it. It wipes your brain and reboots you. It stops you thinking. In a world where we’re always on and communicating, it enables you to have a time that’s freeing… that’s just you and your friends or whoever you are doing it with. I love that. I think dancing and skateboarding have a lot in common.
Q. How often do you manage to do it?
Ben Gregor: I get to do it once or twice a week. I recently dropped a motorbike on my foot during an early mid-life crisis, so was unable to for a little while. But I live in Hertfordshire and they have just opened this amazing facility in Hemel Hempstead, so I go there a lot of the time.
Q. How come you dropped a motorcycle on your foot?
Ben Gregor: It’s actually a sad story. I was shooting a video out in Hebden Bridge and everyone rides motorbikes out there, so naturally I came back wanting to have one myself. So, when I got back I went and test drove a bike and managed to drop it on my foot while waiting to go out into traffic. It was at 0mph! And I was literally just waiting to pull out when it fell over on me. But that was actually a really good omen for me. And if you ‘re going to have a motorbike crash, it’s better to have it at 0mph! Needless to say, I’m never touching one of those things again!
Q. Getting back to All Stars, your two young leads [Theo Stevenson and Akai Osei-Mansfield] have a great chemistry between them. Were you aware they were already friends when it came to casting?
Ben Gregor: Yeah, they came as a package. But I liked that. It can be a funny age, 14-15. It’s a time when kids are becoming more self-conscious and going through lots of changes, so I spent a lot of time making them be playful and feel chilled. We were very mess around-y on set to make sure they were not feeling self conscious. It’s a magical age really. Now, both of their voices have broken and they look 10ft tall. But a year ago, it was completely different.
Q. Is Akai an inspiration to have on-set, when it comes to what he can do with dance?
Ben Gregor: Akai is so hard working. He’s a really sensible, hard working guy. When he dances, he looks 10 years older. And it’s hard for him at times because everyone expects him to be brilliant, which of course he is. But with his dancing in this, I wanted him to dance in a way that felt as though it was really coming from him. So, it wasn’t strict streetdance but also stuff from his heart. With every routine, we left bits for him to fill. That’s why some of it looks so raw because it’s really coming from him and it’s just amazing. You can’t choreograph the stuff he does. Kenrick [Sandy] from Boy Blue Entertainment was also doing the choreography for the Olympics opening ceremony at the same time we were shooting but he really loved the idea that it would come from Akai and that he’d choreograph the frameworks from which Akai would bust out. But Theo, by the same token, is an incredible actor too. When he was doing the scene with Kevin Bishop, he nailed it. One of the themes in the film is kids being let down by their parents.
Q. It does feel like a film that’s very much of our time. As well as that theme, it also tackles art cuts…
Ben Gregor: Absolutely. It’s about having stuff taken away. I was really pissed off about it all [arts funding cuts]. It’s ridiculous what’s been going on and blatantly been proved to be wrong. I’m stunned we’ve accepted it as a country. We need to change our minds and we will. Hopefully, it won’t be too late. But it is also about kids and their parents. Ethan’s parents in this, who are brilliantly played by Kevin Bishop and Kimberly Walsh, always have the telly on and are unmotivated. And there are a lot of people like them, who could easily be so much more motivated [in life]. It’s about finding the right level of motivation. And then you have Ashley Walters as Jaden’s father, who is over-driven. So, it’s about finding a balance between having a plan and finding time to relax as a family. I have two kids and it’s almost impossible to have a plan but finding time to have fun together is a big part of it.
Q. Finding time to balance work and family life is harder and harder nowadays…
Ben Gregor: It is. But I didn’t want the film to be preachy on the subject. I just wanted to portray it. I want people to be able to relate to the characters, whether it’s that guy watching TV too much, or having too much expectation. We’ve all taken phone calls when our kids are talking to us or not turned up to something when we’ve said we would. It’s a really hard time for everyone. So, I’m not trying to blame anyone but if you can relate to something, then maybe that person will try not to do it anymore. We are all better connected today but at the same time we’re over networked and over stressed… there’s too much pressure. So, maybe try and take some time to talk to the person in front of you because we’re all a little too fixated on our phones. So, without saying ‘let’s run for hills’, let’s just try and have a meal together! It’s an amazing thing to do nowadays! I do a lot of work with a youth group in London Bridge [Kids Company], making music videos with the kids, and you realise just how little input some of them have from the adult world. Yet spending time with these kids and encouraging them to do things and express themselves, much in the same way that the kids in this film are doing, is inspiring.
Q. How often do you do that?
Ben Gregor: I go and give them every Tuesday afternoon. There’s also a group within that called Dead Rappers Society and we’re holding out first screening later in the summer of the music videos we’ve made together. It’s amazing some of the stuff they’ve done. If you give kids a voice, they’ve got something to say.
Q. How was working with John Barrowman on All Stars? The black and white sequence is a joy…
Ben Gregor: John is amazing. He’s a force of nature. And he’s a very funny guy and a really passionate performer. So, it was a treat really to be able to work with him. But this is such a varied adult cast, so every day was different because they all came in and did a day with us.
Q. Did you have any sense of nerves about directing some of the names you have on board being that this was your first feature?
Ben Gregor: Not in terms of the cast. But I’ve worked with some Americans and so am used to working with some big Americans and being challenged by them. Everyone here was really nice. Of course, you wake up in the morning and hope it goes OK. But these were some really nice people. Ashley Jensen is the type of person who literally makes the world a happier place. She’s so easy going. So, it was a pleasure to have her on-set with us.
Q. And how about working with your younger cast members? Did you ever feel like a strict teacher?
Ben Gregor: Well, you don’t have a lot of time with young people when you’re filming because they can only shoot for four hours at a time. So, what feels hardest is having to push them all the time. It means you can’t really relax on set and sometimes you do feel a bit like a slave driver. But you’ve got to motivate and engage them because they are young and they do get bored. So, you’ve got to respect who they are and you’ve got to have fun with it.
Q. How was working in 3D?
Ben Gregor: Well, those cameras are very sensitive. They don’t like being taken in and out of trucks. They prefer being in a building. So, they were always malfunctioning and needed a lot of rebooting and stuff. So, when you’ve only got the kids for four hours and the cameras keep going down, it’s not a happy time. But that being said, when you see the finished version of the film, it looks twice as amazing. So, it was worth it.
Q. What was the biggest lesson you learned from the whole experience?
Ben Gregor: I think it’s really that if you make something with heart it makes a big difference. It’s a nice ingredient to have. I’ve always done late night comedy where I’m pushing gags and giving things an edge, so it was amazing to do something with heart that’s more inclusive of people. Now that we’ve started showing the film to audiences and seeing how people are really touched or can relate to something is a massive gift. It gives you such a lift. So, that’s something I’ll continue to look for in projects that I do.
Q. What is next?
Ben Gregor: I’d like to do a few more films and continue to make films for young audiences. Hopefully, they’ll get bigger and there will be a mix of commercial and more indie ones. So, I’m really excited to keep trying to make films that touch audience hearts and make films that are fun.