New Renaissance Film Festival 2023
Hard To Reach
27th September - 1st October
Sept 26, 2023
When an anxiety-fuelled mentor takes his disruptive teenage student on a photography trip, an altercation on a train leads to a cathartic exchange that changes them forever.
Hi Darryl, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to TNC about your debut short film, Hard to Reach. You’ve had an incredible festival run already with this short; did you imagine the film would have such an impact on festival audiences?
Thanks for the opportunity to talk to you and TNC. Yeah, Hard to Reach has had a solid festival run and has picked up some momentum in the UK and across the pond, so myself and the team are over the moon. I'll be honest; I think you've got to be the biggest fan of your work in this business. When creating an idea and finding the time, energy, finances, and people to support you, you better be in love with your idea - otherwise, the difficulties you'll face may lead you to throw in the towel. So, in a round-about-way what I'm trying to say is that in my head, we were creating the best short film we could ever make at the moment in time with the skills I had. I was shooting for the stars, as they say. I imagined that there must be an audience for Hard to Reach who will connect with the themes as they are universal yet told through a mentor/student relationship we don't often see on film or television. However, once the film was finished, and I sent people the link to watch, a lot of that confidence and self-belief disappeared quickly, haha! The best audience reception has been from individuals who can specifically relate to the characters' lives and experiences in the film, which bring out memories from their own lives. That is truly beautiful and touching to hear and means the world to me. I never thought about that before making the film, but it makes the whole process deeper and more worthwhile.
At last year's Florence Film Festival, you were awarded the Best First-Time Director and at Little Wing Film Festival Best Actor awards. What has it personally meant to you to get this type of recognition for your film?
These two awards were so great to have won. As a first-time director, it's quite a nerve-wracking platform to step up onto as so many people are looking towards you to lead the project. I was so fortunate to have a very talented and experienced team around me to help and support the vision, and we crossed the line with a film we are all proud of. So, to be recognised for my directing solely and win an award was confidence-inspiring and a nudge to say I'm on the right track. The best actor award was also brilliant as I've never won anything in my acting career, so to have won it for a project I wrote and directed meant a lot to me. It's a lovely thing to have happened, and I really do appreciate it.
And Hard to Reach is next to be screened at the 2023 NRFF in the Road Less Travelled section of the festival. Any nerves ahead of the London screening?
Yes, I can't wait for NRFF 2023! I'm super excited about the festival and seeing the other films. There are always some nerves when screening your film as you're just not sure how people will respond, especially as time passes. Still, the more festivals I attended, the more it becomes about just enjoying the other films and meeting the filmmakers. I get so much inspiration from other people's shorts.
Because Hard to Reach stems from your experiences working as a mentor for at-risk youths in Birmingham, did you have any apprehension about making a short film that comes from such a salient and personal place?
I had been sitting on this idea for about five years, so it was very well-trodden in my head. However, even when I came to the script, I faced some personal challenges regarding whether this was my story to tell or whether I was doing the young people I mentored a disservice. Still, whenever I had those questions or reflections, I knew within myself, first and foremost, that I was doing this because I was deeply inspired and passionate and that my real-life experience with those students in Birmingham changed my life. So, with that emotional basis as a foundation, I felt I was in a good place to push on. I will add that I wanted to make Jackson, the young student in the film, as complex and intriguing as the young people I mentored - I didn't want to create a stereotype.
When you started working with these youths, how important was it for you to build your connections to them and their world by using unconventional settings?
It was very important to build connections. I did one-to-one mentoring, so I had one student I'd be with 6 hours a day, five days a week. We'd carry out lessons in libraries, cafes, snooker halls, parks or at their homes. Students could spend a day, week or month just sussing you out and pushing the envelope of how they treated you. My approach was being open, relaxed, calm, respectful, having my boundaries and being consistent. The young people I mentored often come from very difficult or violent day-to-day lives where adults have routinely let them down, so building trust and them knowing that you care was imperative.
Can you tell me a little bit about how Hard to Reach came about?
Yeah, it was during lockdown when the idea in my head became an idea for a short film. At first (in my head), I thought maybe it would be a stage play or a television series, but through my close-knit group of filmmaker friends [Spencer, Liam and Carl], I got inspired and decided that a short film was the way to go. So, I set about getting as knowledgeable and educated as possible in the short film space. My initial step was to follow all the usual film-related social accounts, and low and behold, one of them was the BFI, and they put out a post for a scheme called the BFI Short Film Development Programme 2021. So, I applied my idea. I was fortunate to get selected, and then, with their support across ten Zoom sessions, I went away and wrote my first short film script! Which became Hard To Reach.
"It's not who I am now, but when I was younger, I was more conflicted and unsure who I was and where I was going; those emotions and mindsets are present in Morey."
You’re a BFI Network Awardee; how essential was getting this award for bringing this short to the big screen?
For me, it was my main focus to gain BFI funding. Rightly or wrongly, I was convinced it wouldn't get made without them. I was a first-time writer and director, planning on acting in it too, so I knew the crew I wanted would take convincing this was a safe project to attach themselves to, and what better than a BFI seal of approval? That was part of my thinking. I thought securing BFI funding would help all the other pieces of the puzzle come together. Funnily enough, before submitting to the BFI, I was advised that I wouldn't get funding as I didn't have enough experience, but I took that feeling of deflation or rejection and turned it into fuel and delivered a pitch and treatment they could not turn down, as I left no stone unturned - reading, listening and watching everything to do with BFI short films and funding and asking question to other filmmakers. I also secured funding from the production company I used to work at (Red Production Company) by taking a risk and asking my boss, who was very supportive. So, with the majority of funding coming from Red Production Company, I think this all helped with the BFI realising this was a "backed" project.
How did you go about casting for this film? Did you have much rehearsal time with Cory McClane, who plays Jackson?
We had the fantastic Sydney Aldridge as our casting director, who found us the incredibly talented Cory McClane to play Jackson. It was a clear moment of "Oh, we've found him" once we saw Cory's tape. He took direction well but also had this fearlessness that was so exciting to watch. He was Jackson, hands down.
We did a lot of rehearsal! I was constantly pushing for it as I knew that I didn't want to cause myself unnecessary stress and complications on set, so I wanted to have the lines, performances, and connection between Morey and Jackson deep-rooted before arriving on set. So, we rehearsed across multiple days. We spent a day together recreating a mentor/student day I would have in my old job, and we did dance rehearsals together. It was all about ensuring that Cory and I had an unbreakable connection that I could seamlessly dip in and out of on set. It worked beautifully, and Cory made me a better actor.
Central to this film is the spiritual connection between Jackson and Morey. With a short film, there isn’t much time you have to achieve this, but you’ve managed it beautifully. How vital was the creative collaboration between you and Corey when shooting started?
Thank you so much! And yeah, you're spot on. The connection between Morey and Jackson is ultimately the driving force and what the film is all about. It's a very character-driven piece, so in my eyes, it was my primary responsibility to ensure we upheld it and stayed true to the connection between Morey and Jackson that was on the page. Cory and I achieved 90% of this collaboration and connection through rehearsals and hanging out. Morey and Jackson would've spent all day together, five days per week, throughout the year. So they would know each other in this specific capacity very well. The way they interact needed to feel familiar and tactile at times. Even the baseline of being in each other's presence needed to feel like they'd been there many times before. Cory and I built this real-life connection as actors, director-to-actor, and friends, which was incredibly helpful.
What was fascinating was seeing Cory get into the mindset of 15-year-old Jackson. He was able to grasp that youthful freeness and inability to see the social lines of adult/young person interaction in an education provider setting. For example, as a mentor, I was trained and had protocols and guidelines for safeguarding; in a visual sense, we are to follow straight lines. But students lay lines that are curved, right-angled, or they just have no lines at all. I think because Cory achieved this character trait so well with Jackson in our scene together, it instantly put me back into that situation as a mentor when I was always trying to guide him back on track, a sense of unease which helped the connection between Morey and Jackson.
Had you always intended on playing Morey, and how close does this character experience mirror your own?
Yes and no. I started writing the role of Morey to be a vehicle for me as an actor, a chance for me to play a role that was three-dimensional, intrinsic to the story arc, nuanced and interesting. I wasn't getting cast in these roles, so I figured I would write it myself.
However, as I got deeper and deeper into the process and the world-building, I became very passionate about directing the film. Still, the initial idea was never to write, direct and act. I considered casting someone else in the role of Morey, but then I felt like I worked so damn hard to get to this point as an actor to give away my best role just seemed like self-sabotage. Then I considered not directing the film and spoke with other directors who were vastly more experienced than me, but again, I had this deep feeling that I'd regret it for the rest of my life if I didn't take this opportunity. My mindset then was that my career and life were at a turning point and needed something big, bold and courageous to happen. I felt deeply that this film was that 'thing', so I decided I'd rather fail hard and have no regret, so I decided to play Morey and direct.
Regarding how closely Morey mirrors my own experience, there is, albeit retrospectively, an intrinsic connection. It's not who I am now, but when I was younger, I was more conflicted and unsure who I was and where I was going; those emotions and mindsets are present in Morey. In terms of the events in the film versus my own experiences as a mentor, they have been heightened or re-imagined. In my reality as a mentor, an incident on a train did happen, but it isn't the scene you see play out in the film. I've kept the feeling but shifted the visuals.
You come from an acting background; did this help inform your approach to writing and directing this film?
I have no other reference, but yeah, I think being an actor helps you be a writer. As I write, I'm acting the scenes out in my mind, of course, but perhaps because I am an actor, I have a quicker weeding-out tool for dialogue that doesn't sit with a character or is troublesome to perform. And again, with the directing: as an actor, many directors have directed me, and I have learned many things just being around them on set. Also, I know what it feels like to be an actor on set and how you can feel insecure or lost, so I hope to utilise that experience to be a director who creates settings that let the actors flourish.
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
Hmm. This is a tricky one as I have a few things that I would change for sure, but I think it is best they stay inside my head right now as it's probably my self-critical nature and largely not productive to hear. But I do know that I gave Hard To Reach everything I had. I tried my best and kept digging deep. If I were to shoot it again now, I would do many things differently, or in my eyes better, but I am very content that I did my best with the skills and knowledge I had at the time.
What have been some of the most valuable lessons you’ve taken away from making this film?
You need a team. You cannot do this alone. Remember to have fun wherever possible. Surround yourself with people more talented than you. Work hard, be nice, and share the vision.
What does Hart To Reach say about you as a writer/director and the film journey you’re on?
I hope it says that I'm a writer who can create complex characters that are exciting, grounded in reality, relatable, surprising, and funny at times. And that as a director, I can tell stories that are emotional and character-driven, that feel cinematic, and are also tender and personal. And that I deliver on time, on budget, and it's important to me that people have fun and enjoy themselves in the process.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
I think so. I didn't understand it as filmmaking at the start when I was younger. I thought I just enjoyed films, but now I realise I'm pretty much saying, thinking and feeling the same things about film as when I was 16 years old running out of a Mi2 screening thinking I was Ethan Hunt playing out the scenes repetitively in my mind for days. I'd like to think my filmmaking knowledge has evolved since then, but I also don't ever want to lose that fun effervescence.
What is it about filmmaking that inspires and encourages you so much, and is there any particular genre of film you’re wanting to explore?
Hard To Reach is a coming-of-age drama, and I love that genre and space. But I don't want to make those types of films solely. I love drama, but I also love thriller, action, and character-led sci-fi. I'm not sure why filmmaking inspires and encourages me so much; it just does. I know I'm incredibly excited and passionate about film and compelled to try to tell stories through that medium. My other passion is cars, especially classic cars, which I'd say is what got me into filmmaking in a way. My older brother drove a classic car, and growing up, my brothers and I would hunt out films based on the cars featured in them. So what this meant was that from age 10, I was watching classic British and American films from the 60's and 70's and watching them intently. I didn't know it then, but I had a good grasp of the classics, such as The Italian Job and Bullit, but also niche films like Vanishing Point, Gone In Sixty Seconds (the original) and The Driver. These were extremely cool films made by visionary directors, and I was watching them on repeat as a kid because I'd see a Ford Mustang or Dodge Challenger. This has also led to my final goal as a writer-director: to make the greatest car film ever. Steve McQueen did it with Le Mans, and I want to do it with my own tale one day.
Would you ever consider turning Hard to Reach into a feature?
Yes. I am developing Hard To Reach as a feature, so watch this space.
Has there been any advice you’ve been given since you started your filmmaking journey that has really stayed with you?
Here is some advice I've taken from Fiona Lampty, Ed Guiney, and script editor Jessica Jones.
Jessica Jones - to raise the stakes in your script, you want to metaphorically chase your protagonist up a tree and then throw stones at them.
Fiona Lamptey - short films are the most creative you'll be before big studios and financiers get involved, so throw the kitchen sink at your projects while you can.
Ed Guiney - surround yourself with a good team. Listen to others intently, but never direct via committee. If you feel nervous or apprehensive, this is good, and it means you're onto something, so lean into it. If you make a terrible film, make another film ASAP.
Finally, what message do you want your audiences to take away from Hard to Reach?
I hope that through Morey and Jackson's journey, the audience, on some level, takes away a feeling that sometimes, we can find ourselves and our lives in states and positions that just no longer feel true to who we are. Maybe it's our job, home, relationship(s), or emotional or mental state. It can be crippling when you don't know who you want to be or who you think you should be; it can be almost impossible to break through that and find your uniqueness. But you have to take risks and be bold. Don't let your environment define you. And if you harness that correctly, you can set yourself free from yourself.