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iLL Manors - Ben Drew interview

Plan B, Ill Manors

Interview by Rob Carnevale

BEN Drew – aka rapper Plan B – talks about directing his debut movie, iLL Manors and some of the inspirations behind it.

He also discusses the impact of working with leading man, Riz Ahmed, working in songs as well as using improvised dialogue and why he hopes to continue balancing music with independent and mainstream movie making.

Q. Can you talk a little bit about what makes iLL Manors so different?
Ben Drew: Parts of this film are narrated by hip-hop songs. It’s kind of what makes the film unique and also allows me to tell back stories and condense information into a small amount of time. I wanted to do that because I grew up entertaining myself on music videos and I wanted to make a film that gave me both – you know, the entertainment value I get from watching music videos on YouTube but also movies. I think kids entertain themselves like that with the Internet, iPhones, Blackberries… constantly sitting there all day watching their favourite music videos and I was no different. So, that’s kind of what inspired me to make this film.

Q. How did you cast Riz Ahmed?
Ben Drew: I know Riz. He’s a friend. Adam Deacon was supposed to play that role and he did in the short film. But he was directing and starring in Anuvahood at the same time that we were shooting Ill Manors, so once I’d got him out of my head and out of my system to play Aaron, who was originally called Adam [laughs], Riz was the only kind of person who could play the role. It was the best piece of luck, really, that ever happened to the film. We all know he’s a great actor but he’s great for other actors. He’s engrossed in acting and he’s so intelligent in the way he reads a script, in the way he explains the script to the cast he’s working with. Ed [Skrein] is starring in his first film… he’d done two short films before and I always knew he had potential.

But it was only through working with Riz on the feature that I feel Ed Skrein has come into his own. I think working alongside such an intelligent actor and having Riz there as support and to explain to him how he should be understanding and performing the script, it unearthed this movie star in him. I think I could have done that on my own but I don’t think I would have got such a great performance from him as we did. It was so good having Riz there and I truly believe that Riz needs to get into directing himself because he possesses that power where he can get a performance out of someone.

Q. How did this film come about? What inspired it? And at what point did you start trying to write it?
Ben Drew: I wrote a film that was based on a story that happened to me and my family and some friends around my house one summer. We went to the off-licence and one of my friends took a BB gun out in the street and a plain clothed police officer saw us and my house got raided by armed police. So, I wrote a feature film about it called Trigger. I think I was about 20. I had a company that wanted to make it and wanted to give me a budget of £1 million. The only reason it didn’t get made was because when they asked me who I wanted to direct it, I said myself. I realise that I can’t expect people to trust me with that kind of money until I can prove that I can direct.

It’s the same in music… I used to tell people that I wrote songs and people would just dismiss me until I went out and bought a guitar and learnt how to use it and started performing live. I knew this was no different so I used the last £2,000 from my recording advance, which was all the money I had in the world at the time, as well as the £2,000 my grandfather had left me when he died, and I made Michelle. And when I showed this company the short film, we didn’t end up making that short film into a feature. We did Trigger. But I wanted to make a feature version of Michelle, which within four months of making Michelle in November 2007, I had Ill Manors written.

What basically inspired the feature was… from the short film there were these bit part characters and I found them so interesting. All of the characters always spoke about coming from somebody else’s house. There’s a guy called Terry who arrives and he speaks about a character called Kirby, whose house he’s been at, and a lot of the characters in the short film would talk about this character called Kirby. I just remember really wanting to know where Kirby’s house was, what it looked like inside, what Kirby looked like. And that’s kind of what inspired the feature. It was almost like a television series. I just kept on writing and I would use a character as a way of getting from one story to the next, and then suddenly I’d want to know about that character, and so I would build upon that character.

I actually wrote about 13 short stories that went down to nine and then became six when we actually started shooting. But it took me from early 2008 until last year to get this film made. I was ready to make it before Strickland Banks came out. In fact, the whole time I’ve been making Strickland Banks I was ready to make Ill Manors. But no one would back me with the money. So, in the end I just applied through Microwave and did it that way. But I did have very big major companies involved with me, telling me we could get a big budget for Ill Manors… again in the £1 million bracket. But then I was told that because of the credit crunch, that company couldn’t give me any money. So, we went around all the other big companies and they just dangled a carrot in front of me for about a year, which was really frustrating because I would rather they have said: “You know what? We just don’t want to do it.” But film companies don’t do that. They say: “Yeah, yeah, we really want to do it and we’ll give you an answer after Cannes, or after Toronto…” So, I got pissed off with it and went with Microwave Films and that’s how we got here.

Q. Are in the film? Do you direct yourself? The music that we’re hearing… was that something you wrote specifically for the film?
Ben Drew: It’s stuff that I wrote specifically for the movie. I’m not in the film. This wasn’t a vanity project. I didn’t make a film because I wanted a starring role. I made a film because I wanted to tell a story and I wanted to prove that I could direct. I have a tiny little cameo somewhere in the film. But the music was really hard. When I did the short film I had written a song, and obviously all my music videos the songs are already written. With this, because I allow people to improv… I wrote the film in a way that certain parts were going to be scripted but certain parts were always going to have music over them. So, the parts that had music over them I didn’t bother writing a script.

So, we’d turn up on set and I’d tell the guys the situation and let them improv. The problem with that was when they started to improv, magic would happen, which messed up the whole structure of the film, because I then wanted to keep those scenes in the film. The stuff in the cafe, for instance… the film is so dark and harrowing that it needed some light and that scene provided the humour for me, even though I know it’s quite twisted humour. But I had to keep those scenes in, which meant the music had to change. So, it was like chicken and egg… I didn’t want to write the song until I’d edited the scene. But then I couldn’t really edit the scene until I had the song. So, it’s been a bit of a nightmare in that sense but we’re almost there.

Q. Which came first – the interest in film or the interest in music?
Ben Drew: I was a soul singer first and I’d write love songs. I find with soul music it’s really hard to write about anything else. But I was 15 at the time when I was doing that and, to be honest, I’d never experienced love, so the words were kind of meaningless. With hip-hop music, it allowed me to talk about political and social things but also to tell stories. I found very early on when I became a hip-hop artist that I loved telling stories. Actually, when I was trying to get a message across it was more powerful when I told a story, rather than if I used a metaphor or if I preached about an issue. And through doing that I realised that actually these stories were very visual in my head and I couldn’t wait to make the videos.

The problem with working with a record label is they maybe a song I want to make a video for that they will refuse to make a video for because they don’t see that song as a single. And I found that very frustrating. I realised what I was doing was making these short films for the blind. They were films and all you had to do was put some headphones on and close your eyes and listen to my voice and you’d be able to visualise the images that I’m putting into your brain. And so I started calling what I was doing ‘films for the blind’. So, the logical progression was to make a feature film where that music could live. I love the way I make hip-hop and I refuse to make pop-rap. I don’t refuse to make mainstream music, which is why I did a soul record. There was no reason why soul music couldn’t get played on the radio and I still wanted to have a relationship with my record label. So, I really enjoyed doing the Strickland Banks album. But there’s no point in my trying to release underground hip-hop music on a major label. That part of my talent, or part of my art, had to live somewhere else and feature film was the perfect vehicle for it.

Q. You’re also in The Sweeney remake. Is that part of a strategy – doing something heartfelt and independent and then doing something more mainstream for someone else?
Ben Drew: Look, the bonus of doing exciting stuff like directing your own stuff and then starring in a film alongside Ray Winstone is that one will feed the other. And as well, if I do a song for The Sweeney, for instance, there’s every chance that the song will be charted and go Top 10. The promotion for the film will feed the single and vice versa. That’s what happened with Harry Brown and End Credits. But all that stuff is a bonus. It’s kind of when the stars align for you and give you the best possible chance for your work to be as successful as possible.

And anyone who puts 110% into their work deserves as much success as they can get. So, yeah, some cynical people may see that the only reason I’m doing that is part of a strategy to become more successful but I just see it as a bonus. It just happened… that’s the way it is and there’s an opportunity there and we’re going to take advantage of it. I’d rather if I’m going to be working as hard as I’ve been working for the last two years – non-stop, solid, no personal life, no break – then I want what I’ve been working on to be as successful as possible. And I will take advantage of every opportunity that comes my way.

View photos from iLL Manors