The Stupid Boy
Dec, 11, 2023
London is being terrorised by christian white supremacists. While a broken man is groomed for the next attack, a boy from Brixton sees the world in a different way. But seeing things differently can be dangerous.
Hi Phil, firstly thank you for taking the time to talk with TNC, how’s everything been going?
Thank you for your interest in our film! Things are going well - all a bit overwhelming but good problems to have!!
To say you have had an incredible ride with The Stupid Boy would be an understatement, collecting over 40 awards thus far, including Joshua Griffin’s win for Best Breakout Performance at FirstGlance Film Festival. When you made this film did you imagine it would get the response it has gotten?
Not at all! It has been amazing - I couldn’t have predicted it would get selected at more than 70 festivals and screen live to more than 100,000 people. What I would say though, is that when I made the film I had a deep sense that it needed to be made - I have said often that I just “felt it in my bones” and it seemed important somehow to get it out there. I remember reading once that “whatever is most personal, is most universal” and I feel like maybe The Stupid Boy has proved that to me now - it’s amazing how a film that means so much to me has resonated so much more widely than I could have imagined. We also just won Best Short Narrative at Anchorage IFF - one of Moviemaker mag's top 25 Coolest Film Festivals.
Have you been able to enjoy the ride or are you itching to get back behind the camera?
Both! I think it’s important that each film gets to where it needs to go, and I’ve enjoyed every bit of The Stupid Boy’s journey - especially getting to some of the festivals, in the States, Denmark, Italy and here in the UK. Meeting audiences and also other filmmakers has been a real highlight and has taught me so much. But yes I am super keen to get on with my next projects - 2 features and a poetry/dance/narrative short film collaboration with a producer in LA and a Juilliard school dancer from Cleveland.
We got the chance to see Stupid Boy during a packed screening of Hollyshorts in London, what did it mean for you to be part of such an impressive line up of short films?
Yes, it meant a lot to be included in that line up. When they introduced the evening and said that the audience were going to meet some of the UK’s best filmmakers, I got really excited, but then they asked me to come up front alongside them all! That was a bit surreal. There were films by two different Oscar winners there and a lot of important people in the room. I was pretty intimidated.
What makes short films so special and what more can be done to open up short films to more broader audiences?
Short films are an awesome format that is perfect for our current time. What makes them special is how they are able to deliver a punch, a nugget, a ‘moment’ that can leave you thinking for days - sometimes more than any feature film. They dip you into a story and introduce you to characters - a bit like eavesdropping on a fascinating conversation between strangers on a train or on the next table at a restaurant. You get this window into another world just for a few minutes and then are brought back to your own, with your perspective shifted or challenged or even affirmed. And you can fit them into a bus ride home, or a break from work, or those times when you want to watch one last thing before you go to bed but can’t afford to watch a feature and don’t want to get sucked into a series! I am hopeful that they are on the rise now in the public arena - with people like Wes Anderson, Almodovar and Cuaron putting them out there. It’s been encouraging to see them being offered now on the home screens of streaming services like Netflix.
On Tuesday 12th Dec The Stupid Boy comes home to Brixton for a special screening at the Ritzy, any nerves?
Oh, plenty! I have been pulling the evening together as a big collaboration between many people and organisations from Brixton and beyond, much like the film was itself to make. I really want to celebrate the film’s journey but also its birthplace, Brixton, because I don’t think it could have been made anywhere else, and I want the people of Brixton to own this film that offers a story of non-violence and hope at what is proving to be a pretty awful time for the world. Brixton is a place of huge diversity and of people living together from all backgrounds. The bridge over the high street says “Stay in Peace” on it and I think that says a lot about the heart of the place - and I think that the film reflects that too.
The screening event has a lot of elements coming together - including the Brixton Chamber Orchestra playing live, performing with 2 members of the Brixton Youth Theatre (one of whom was also a runner on the film) and playing Thomas Bell’s original score. We also have food and drinks from local suppliers including hot Market Row Rum punch on arrival, mince pies from The Clink Bakery at the local prison (!) and food from the same place that Adio gets a takeaway in the final scene: Oowee Vegan. People will also get to walk through the set of the film as they head to dance at Lost in Brixton to the DJing of Groove Armada’s Andy Cato. I’m so grateful for everyone getting involved in the way that they have. It has felt almost like I am producing another film, and of course I’m anxious it all comes together without a hitch!!
When you wrote the screenplay had you always planned on filming in Brixton and how much did this unique, creative and cultural place, add to the substance of your film?
Well I planned to film most of it in Brixton, but we actually ended up filming even more of it here than I had originally thought! I wrote the final scene to be on a tube train but when it came to pre production we soon realised that was going to be way too complicated, and expensive. That’s when Brixton Village presented itself to me (I used to walk through it every day on the way to the co-working space I had a desk at). It couldn’t have been more perfect, and so much better than a boring tube! It represents all of the diversity and individuality of this neighbourhood - and the city around it - and it’s so beautiful and colourful in there too, which was a bonus on camera.
As far as what it added, Brixton (and I’m not just saying this) really took this film to another level. It was like having another character on screen that draws you in with their personality, their features and their mannerisms. It gave our short a feeling of ‘richness’ in the many things it was able to convey in its short 15 minute timespan. That is worth a lot when you have so little time to play with.
Can you tell me what was the inspiration behind your screenplay?
A few things - the aftermath of the 2005 London terrorist attacks, Ghandi and Martin Luther King, and a book by Dostoevsky called The Idiot..! The main seed for the film came to me when I was on the tube in late 2005 and we were all still very nervous about further attacks. Like many of us at the time, I was imagining scenarios of what would happen if someone started shouting that they had a bomb; what would I do? How would we all react? Most of us would try to run away out of fear, but this thought occurred to me: what if someone walked towards the bomber out of love? It was such a weird thought and it kind of scared me but it wouldn’t go away. For years. Eventually, I realised it was an idea for a film.
How did you go about casting for “Michael”, and what was it about Joshua Griffin’s audition that made you go for him?
We had some help getting our casting lists together from a couple of people who work in casting. One of the things we were looking for was whether we could find an actor who was neurodivergent. Joshua has it noted on his casting profile that he is neurodivergent - he has ADD and dyspraxia, so we were interested to see his self tape. It just stood out: so much nuance; the little looks he did, the mannerisms.. I just completely believed him from the start and wanted to see more.
How important is the creative relationship between you and your actors when when working on a short like The Stupid Boy?
Very important. With a film like The Stupid Boy the acting had to be absolutely on point - we had to walk quite a knife edge between making something believable and moving but it not becoming corny in any way, and without great acting we would never have pulled that off. I really enjoy collaborating with actors and letting them tell me how they see/feel the character, as well as trying to show them what I was thinking when I wrote them. We get to the final characters together and I certainly couldn’t have come up with what you see in the film on my own.
Looking back at the process of making this film what would you say have been the most valuable lessons you’ve taken from the experience?
For me, the most valuable lesson has been that it’s worth really daring to put yourself out there. The Stupid Boy is a very personal film and I made it because I needed to see it. It was such an incredible privilege to gather together actors and crew to enact these scenes that had only ever lived in my head, and I have learned so much from being able to get inside those scenes with my fellow collaborators, and explore other versions of reality; of truth in a new scenario. The film is still teaching me stuff now, which is mad because I have seen it about 1000 times this past year. So yes, the lesson is that it’s good to give these stories space to become a reality and to let them teach you what they have to teach you. The Stupid Boy was ‘in my bones’ and I think those are the ones you just have to make, and as you make them, you begin to see more and more WHY it was that you had to make it. And if you do that, you’re in for a very special journey.
Where did you passion for filmmaking come from and how much has your approach to your films changed since your debut short?
I think it comes mostly from a desire to connect with my fellow human beings. I write poetry too and always I am looking for ways to express and articulate the human experience that resonates with me and hopefully with others. Filmmaking and particularly cinema, is an incredibly articulate form of storytelling; something that requires your whole soul to be involved in the making of it. I can’t think of a more satisfying pursuit.
"Brixton (and I’m not just saying this) really took this film to another level. It was like having another character on screen that draws you in with their personality, their features and their mannerisms."
What are the biggest mistakes a debut filmmaker might make when starting out on their first short film?
Dreaming small; limiting themselves by “what’s possible” or by budget. The whole point of filmmaking is that it is a creative endeavour and we are always going to be starting with nothing, before we create something. That’s the whole point! Start.
What’s your favourite short film?
That’s a TOUGH one! Here’s 3:
How They Get There - by Spike Jonze. It’s clever, it’s playful, it’s brilliant and it’s very very short.
Cautionary Tales - written and directed by “US” - from Academy Films. Such a beautifully put together and quirky short that I have watched many times and learned a lot from. The soundtrack is utterly lovely too.
An Example - by Selma Sunniva. This is a very recent one that I saw when I was on the jury for Odense Film Festival in Denmark this year. It’s a masterpiece in filmmaking and a perfect use of the often unnecessary ‘one take’ that really warrants that technique. A 25 min insight into a psychiatric ward that is so incredibly well put together and acted that is very powerful - I was floored by it. We awarded it Best Danish Short and I’m looking forward to it getting out there more.
With your production company Authentive what future stories are you hoping to bring the the big screen?
I have a feature film about addiction and belonging, called N/A, which we aim to make in the next couple of years. It’s a drama / comedy and really looking forward to getting stuck into it fully, once The Stupid Boy lets me!
I also have another short called FIRE LILY, which is based on a poem I wrote after George Floyd’s murder. It’s a narrative short but has a huge dance sequence in it that we aim to shoot in South Africa and also in Cleveland. All the connections for it have come about as a result of The Stupid Boy’s festival run.
Do you have any advice or tips for emerging filmmakers?
Don’t wait for permission. And listen to odd ideas in your head - often they’re the ones that are most unique and have something to say that’s not been said before.
And finally, what would you like audiences to take away from The Stupid Boy?
Well I hope they’ll make their own conclusions, but I guess I want it to move them and make them think about the simple power of love and kindness that we all can wield.