Thursday, March 21, 2013

El Hosaini and Floyd on Award Winner

My Brother the Devil is Playing in Theaters

El Hosaini and Floyd on Award Winner

(from brinkzine.com 3/21/13)

MyBrothertheDevilphoto.jpg Sally El Hosaini and James Floyd Photo: DP
Rarely, dating back to the 1950s, have we said that a film about youth gangs is heartfelt, but that's the case with Sally El Hosaini's bold, touching, and authentic feature debut, My Brother the Devil, which opens Friday in New York City at the Landmark Sunshine Theater and Film Society of Lincoln Center. Born in Egypt, El Hosaini lived ten years in her movie's locale, Hackney, which, as the production notes state, is "one of London's most ethnically-mixed and historically volatile neighborhoods," and got know, even befriend, countless young gang members, including those who have major roles or are extras in the movie. Her goal was to portray the youth and the neighborhood as she knew it to be, not as it has been portrayed in the British cinema. Her story is of two brothers, Rashid (charismatic professional actor James Floyd), and the younger Mo (newcomer Fady Elsayed, who the director met at an anti-gun crime event). Mo idolizes him but Rashid doesnt want his nice, smart younger brother to follow his footsteps and enter the gang life, and hopes to make enough money selling drugs to pay for him to go to college. But when the disenchanted Rashid pulls away his violent gang friends and spends less time with Mo--Rashid keeps secret his new romance with a male photographer, Sayyid (Moroccan-French star Said Taghmaoui), because all the gang members and Mo are homophobic--Mo joins the gang and threatens to expose his brother and put him in danger. My Brother the Devil won major prirzes at festivals in London and Berlin and I'm curious how American audiences will respond to it. I recommend it as the movie to see this weekend. Here is a brief interview I did with the personable El Hosaini and Floyd earlier this week:
Danny Peary: Sally, while growing up in Hackney, were thinking that this would be really great material for either a documentary or narrative film?
Sally El Hosaini: Actually, I grew up in Egypt, but I lived in Hackney for over ten years. I was inspired by my environment, just walking around the neighborhood, and I knew that I wanted to make a film about it. I knew I wanted to do fiction films, so it wasn't a question of whether I wanted to make a documentary about it. What I related to was the youth, because in them I could see this mix of all these different cultures, and I found that really fascinating--especially linguistically, hearing the way different words, from Jamaican patois to Arabic words, infiltrated that urban language. I was an outsider and I got to know boys who were in gangs in London and develop relationships with a few key people, one of whom played Repo, the guy with the tattoo on his neck in the film [see the group photo]. His name is Aymen Hamdouchi and he was my script consultant. My documentary film background really helped me, because I knew I didnt want to make a phony film. I wanted to make something really authentic.
DP: There's a young girl in the film, Aisha [Letitia Wright], who befriends Mo. I was thinking that maybe she was based on you.
SEH: No, I'd probably say I'm more a mix of Rashid and Mo. I've always been a bit more of a boy. In a way, I'm in all the characters, because when you create them from scratch, they come from parts of you. In some sense I injected a bit of myself into all of the characters, even the nasty ones.
DP: James, did you audition?
James Floyd: Yes. The audition process was just convincing Sally that I could be a gay Arab gangster.
SEH: I had wanted a non-actor to play Rashid because I was quite worried that an actor would come in and really stand out among the non-actors I was going to cast in the other roles. But I couldnt find a non-actor who wasnt homophobic, who would take this on. When I met James, we had an instant bond and chemistry in the audition room. I always hear that corny story about directors saying, "As soon as they walked in, I knew!" But James convinced me. Because of the amount of work and detail he had gone through just for the audition, he showed me an actor who was going to be extremely diligent, and who would prepare to use the resources I already had, essentially the real boys. And, James, you went and lived with the real boys for five months, and went completely method. And I knew you were going to dot every I and cross every T. It was a no-brainer casting you. We work in the same way.
MyBrothertheDevilbrothers.jpg Fady Elsayed and James Floyd                   Photo: Etienne Bol
DP: In terms of Rashid, James, when you first met and discussed the role, did Sally have the character down a hundred percent or was she flexible about you bringing something to the part?
JF: It was the best script I'd read. It was very unusual to pick up a script that is that exciting; it was a page-turner and constantly surprising. It worked . Everything in it was justified, nothing was forced. And the characters were all really there on the page. Sally had Rashid down but was very open to me doing my own thing. It was so easy that it was bizarre because we had the same ideas, pretty much, on how to play the character. When we first met in the audition, we high-fivede because everything we said was the same.
DP: Can you give me an example?
SEH: The hair.
JF: The hair is an example. I had noticed the hairstyle of this very famous rapper in the UK called K Koke, and I based Rashid's hairstyle on his. He also had a couple of scars and I mentioned these scars to Sally and she had already been thinking the same thing. They help tell his history.
SEH: They meant that he had been in a vicious fight. To have that haircut and those scars tells so much more about the character. We wanted to have nicks in Rashid's hairdo but we couldn't fit scars into his hair.
DP: Did you do tattoo research yourself?
SEH: I let all the actors who played the characters design their own tattoos. I let the ones who didn't have them evolve the tattoos they chose according to how they were constructing their characters. I wanted everything to be really organic. So as much as possible, my approach was to take what the actors were giving me.
DP: A major part of your technique, which was very effective, was using a lot of close-ups. James, did you know that would be part of her style?
JF: I can't remember if Sally had mentioned her use of close-ups to me in advance of filming. But it quickly became apparent that that was part of her style of shooting on this film. I had no problem acting with a camera right there. I really love the close-up because it's the cinema's most potent way of getting into the minds of characters, which is exactly what I want an audience to do. I think that is one of the reasons the film is able to take the audience on such an intimate ride with the two brothers.
SEH: The decision to shoot 2.40:1 or CinemaScope turned a mundane world into an adventure because the format forced us into using a lot of close-ups. The close-ups enhance Mo and Rashid's intimacy. During prep I was on the bus and there was a teenage boy sitting in front of me who had really bad skin. I remember thinking that's what this movie needs. I want to be close enough to the characters so that we can see their bad skin. I wanted to see their sweat, their acne, the meaty texture of their skin.
DP: My favorite shot in the movie, and I would guess it's yours, too, is taken above the bunk bed in the bedroom shared by Rashid and Mo. The smiling Mo is lying on his back on the top bunk and we also see Rashid on the lower bunk with his girlfriend. It's like in Rebel without a Cause when Sal Mineo's troubled teen forms a makeshift family in which his more mature classmates James Dean and Natalie Wood are his parents.
SEH: That shot was really a perfect collaboration between myself, my cinematographer David Raedeker, and my production designer, Stephane Collonge. We spent a very tense three weeks together that was crucial to constructing a successful film. I had ideas, they had ideas. They came to my house every single day for those three weeks and we went through literally every line of the script. We worked out how we were going to shoot each scene. We divided the film into five chapters, and each chapter had its own aesthetics. If you notice, in the beginning of the movie, Mos T-shirt is a vibrant shade of pink, and then later he's wearing the same T-shirt but we give it a darker shade as he progresses through the story. That's because the first chapter is Childhood, then comes Grief and Sexual Awakening. Those chapters define the costumes and the aesthetic of the movie, but also the shooting came out of that, because we didn't have a lot of tools at our disposal. We were making things subjective by, for example, having one style of camera for Mo and another style for Rashid. So that they had different compositional weights within the frame. These are very subtle things, but I think they make an enormous difference. That scene in the bed was our eureka moment, when we all came up with it together. Stephane actually told us that we were going to have these bunk beds where the bottom bed was bigger than the top bed. For us, this symbolized the way that Rashid was dominant within the bedroom, and [was consistent with] how we were going to design the bedroom. As soon as he told us that, David and I looked at each other and said, "We can do the top shot!" All three minds connected, and we all saw that top shot.
DP: Some of the shots were in such tight spaces. Did you hold the camera or was cast and your crew cramped in together?
SEH: I didn't hold the camera but I was in there too. I must say one of our unsung heroes is Chris Kane, the focus puller. He did an amazing job, if you consider the fact that we were shooting 360 degrees and it was handheld. He had to respond to our space situation and he got it right.
DP: Why is the movie called My Brother the Devil? Is Rashid ever so bad that he's the devil?
SEH: I left it ambiguous about which brother I am referring to in the title because I was conscious to the fact that certain audiences were going to find Rashid the devil and others were going to find Mo the devil.
DP: Or neither, because I don't find either the devil.
SEH (laughing): Well, that's because youre an elevated human being.
JF: We screened the movie for a lot of the kids from the area who were extras in it. Most of them thought Rashid's the devil because he's gay and they're very homophobic. But others thought Mo's the devil because he's homophobic.
SEH: Mo's homophobic and he's about to betray his brother.
MyBrothertheDevilposter.jpg
JF: Also My Brother doesn't necessarily mean My Sibling.
SEH: The concept of brotherhood begins with tribes, and the gang is a surrogate family, really. The film is about brothers but I feel it's also a family drama about a bunch of youths.
DP: You've said how you think your film is about boys becoming men. Its production notes state the same thing.
SEH: I think it's rather about exploring masculinity. But yeah, I see it as exploring what it means for boys to become men.
DP: I'm actually thinking Mo reclaims his boyhood ultimately. That's more what I see as your theme, along with identity stuff--everybody coming to terms with who they are --the brother thing, and a call for an end to a cycle of violence and revenge and proving oneself.
SEH: I feel it is about identity more than about curbing violence. Let's say that really it's a story about the power of unconditional love. It's about brotherly love, and about having the courage to be different and to live in the true vision of yourself.
DP: And the reclaiming of boyhood?
SEH: I loved when you said that.
DP: I think that's why Mo doesn't want to leave Hackney. He stays and he's in control.
SEH: Yes. Well, ending on a note of hope was very important to me and I actually had a lot of resistance to that. There were people who would invest in the movie only if I killed one of the brothers at the end. To me, you have a responsibility as a filmmaker [to stay true to your vision]. All film is in a way political, and you have to be conscious of that and aware. I didn't have the heart, myself, to kill one of the brothers. I didn't want a "happy ending" but a realistic and bittersweet ending that leaves room for hope.
JF: Theres a reason why a lot of people in the UK would wanted to kill a brother. That's part of the urban-film genre that has been serving us lies for years about how there is no hope in that world. That's the reason we would come up against all that crap. The film industry is predominantly middle-class people who know nothing about this world, and think they see it through these terrible films. And in all these films someone gets shot.
SEH: There are a lot of preconceived ideas. When I was raising the money for the script, which was the hardest part of the whole six years it took to make the film, I told people it was set on a council estate in Hackney, and they went, "Oh, I get it. It's dark and depressing and grim." I said, "Wait a minute, I live on a council estate in Hackney and no it's not like that. There's grass and there's sky and there's flowers and there's childhood and there's love and there's hope." I really wanted to show those parts of council estate life. I chose to film at that specific estate, which is about ten minutes from where I live, because it's on a hill and there is a lot of sky and we were able to play with that.
DP: So, if I would say, pretending now not knowing you at all, that the filmmaker is trying to show that these Hackney kids are growing up in what is equivalent of a war zone, would I be right or wrong?
SEH: That's wrong. I would say that it's a brittle world but it also has hope and redemption and other [positive] things in it. These kids are lot more intelligent and do a lot more thinking than how it is perceived. Often I see these kinds of characters in movies and they don't have possibilities or hopes and dreams and all the things that make them human. I really wanted to humanize these youths. Also, I set out to make a non-Arab-terrorist film, and to have characters that were an authentic representation of Arabs, not the typical stereotypes you see in cinema. Also I wanted to do that with disenfranchised youth in general. They are the ones who were rioting in Hackney at the time we filmed the movie. Everybody's scared of them, but they are just kids. In the most violent scene in my movie, when everything goes still for a moment after the violence occurs--I really wanted the masks to drop off and for us to see children underneath, when they aren't doing their macho strutting and posing. They're young gangsters starring in the movies of their lives, and while it takes only two seconds to actually stab somebody, the repercussions of that can affect them for a lifetime.
MyBrothertheDevilRashidRepo.jpg Elsayad and Aymen Hamcouchi
DP: To me, the gay element of the film--when Rashid acknowledges he's a homosexual and he and Sayyid [Said Taghmaoui] become lovers--comes in fairly late. But were there hints along the way that I didn't catch?
SEH: Yes, very subtle hints. If you go back and watch it a second time, you'll see many hints. From the first scene, in fact, when Rashid watches another guy in the gym.
JF: The key to what you're talking about is the relationship between Rashid and his best friend Izzi [Anthony Welsh], before [that violent scene occurs]. We put in a lot of little subtle things.
SEH: We used slow-mo in the scene where Rashid takes a joint from Izzi's mouth rather than wait for him to pass it to him.
JF: And you wrote that in the script. You have to remember that this is an extremely macho (so-called) heterosexual world, and taking a joint from another guy's lips is a no-no.
SEH: There were some actors on set and when James did that, they were like, that's a bit freaky.
JF: Our definition of what's slightly homosexual differed from what their definitions were. Another moment is when Rashid puts his arm around Izzi, and sits very close to him. He feels Izzi's bicep very briefly, as a joke. Those actors and extras, boys from the streets of Hackney, felt uncomfortable seeing that. They felt it was "too gay" and didn't understand the point of Rashid's relationship with Izzi.
SEH: The idea is that maybe Rashid's relationship with Izzi went a little bit deeper than just being friends, not that anything sexual ever took place. It has to be implied. It's only real when Rashid is confronted with a man who is confident and macho--then his world is shattered. If Sayyid was not the person he is, I dont know that Rashid would have the courage to come out. I think he comes out because of the kind of character Sayyid is. He's Arab, he's macho, he's hard coming from the streets, and he's gay and fine with it. And he's a nice guy--that's more of a threat than anything.
JF: True.
DP: James, with the camera right on top of you was playing intimate scenes with another male, whether it was veteran professional actor Said Taghmaoui or nonactor teenager Fady Elsayed, harder than anything youve done before?
JF: No, none of those things were difficult. I'm always amazed that some actors have issues with playing homosexuality. Last time I checked, I'm heterosexual, but you know, it's really about whether it works for the film. And is it right for the character? If Sally had wanted me to do even more intimate scenes...
SEH: He wanted to do more.
JF: Well, I wanted to give you the option. I wanted to say, "Look, I have no problem with doing even more physical love scenes, just in case when you get into that editing room, you realize you needed a bit more." It turned out we didnt need it, but if it worked for the story I would have done anything.
SEH: When you say I didn't need it,--one of the things people have asked is whether I shied away from showing more, but I don't think sex is actually that interesting and I wanted it be more about how people come together than them actually being together. Also, this movie isnt Rashid's coming-out story; I am consciously saying it is about something else, a story about prejudice, from the perspective of Mo. If I had gone further down that coming-out route, it would have tipped the balance of the movie. I think it could have overtaken the real story.
JF: I was just saying I had no problem giving you the option. I think his question touched on the fact that a lot of actors wouldn't play a gay character.
SEH: A lot of actors wouldn't.
JF: They do it for effect--a lot of actors do it for effect. A straight actor will play gay just to show how progressive he is. But do they really want to do it, or are they just doing it for effect? To me, I would do anything if it were right for the story and the character. It's that simple.
DP: It used to be that few actors would play gay characters because they thought it would hurt their images and career. But I kept thinking of My Beautiful Laundrette.
SEH: It's been referred to. I love Daniel Day-Lewis in that film, although I don't think that film has really stood the test of time.
MyBrotherTheDevilRashidMo.jpg Photo: David Raedecker
DP: In that film his character is in a romantic relationship between a respectable male shop owner and a male street punk, which is kind of a reverse of your film..
SEH: Yes, I can see that. I'm sure I've digested it in a lot of ways, but I'll say that a bigger influence was perhaps The Tree of Life, which I watched with Stephane and David when we were doing prep. I'm thinking of it in terms of developing our subjective style, how we shot the movie. We looked at The Fighter as well, seeing the way that had been shot. And Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park and Elephant were big influences. And the character Said plays in La Haine. Said and I worked together on another project and I was telling him what I wanted to do with this movie. He's from the streets of Paris, and was really enthusiastic about doing a very realistic film about Arab youth.
DP: When Rashid is spending a lot of time with Said, he is told by a gang member, "You've gone soft." That's a line told to Edward G. Robinson's gangster in Little Caesar, which was made in 1931, and the subtle implication i the script is that he's attracted to another man.
SEH: There are so many layers of things I put in my film, so many parts of myself, so many scenes, that getting the balance and the level of everything is almost like weaving a very complex tapestry. Even in the editing, we had to figure out how loud something should be. The biggest thing that I was up against creatively was this idea that I was trying to do something extremely realistic yet also poetic. And since it was a fiction, it would have to, in a way, create its own life. It's as far away from a documentary as you can get, in terms of the effect it produces.
DP: But you have a lot of feeling for the characters, which is kind of how it would be if you had made a documentary about such boys.
JF: A good documentary.
SEH: Absolutely.
 

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