At the recent Tribeca Film Festival, the award for Best Cinematography in an International Narrative Feature Film was given to Spaniard Albert Salas for his work on British writer-director Jamie Jones’s kinetic debut feature, Obey.
The Jury cited Salas “For [his] original, daring image-making that, along with bold direction, invites the viewer inside the tense circumstances of its characters’ lives.”
I was a bit surprised that the Jury recognized how important the cinematography is in what is most definitely a character-driven movie, creating a charged, claustrophobic atmosphere—there are close-ups, there are cramped spaces—that reflects the feeling by everyone who enters the frame that the unkind, chaotic world has trapped them and is now closing in on them.
The film is set in East London, during the 2011 riots and even the street scenes feel enclosed. The cinematography sets up tense, uncomfortable scenes, and then Jones wisely lets loose his talented and charismatic young actors.
Obey, states the synopsis in the press notes, “is about Leon [Marcus Rutherford, in his first feature], a [poor, unemployed] 19-year-old boy with an alcoholic mother [who] begins to rail against the injustice of his reality as his dreams become more and more attainable and distant….Leon’s existence is suffocating [and his only outlet for his pent-up anger is boxing at the local gym]. When he meets Twiggy [personal favorite Sophie Kennedy Clark of Philomena], a beautiful blond girl living in a local squat something stirs inside of him. As she introduces him to her [hedonisitic] world [and to her political boyfriend, Anton, played by Sam Gittins, a familiar figure on BBC], the weight of his past lifts. He is in love for the first time and for a moment escapes the reality of his unrelenting existence.”
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During the festival, I had this conversation with the engaging Sophie Kennedy Clark (who lives in London but was born in Scotland) and Sam Gittins, two rising stars.
Danny Peary: What does the film’s title mean?
Sophie Kennedy Clark: “Obey” became kind of a slogan during the riots in 2011. We all must OBEY whatever the government says to us. People were being completely petulant by making that a slogan because they didn’t want to obey.
Sam Gittins: Yeah, it was the driving force behind all parties involved. The government and police wanted the youth to obey them and the youth thought, we have something to say and you should obey us. It wasn’t a command as such but it was the power behind every force that rammed into each other.
SKC: There was a lot of graffiti and there were T-shirts and even brands that came out using that word.
SG: It had a revolutionary connotation.
DP: I was reminded of the film Quadrophenia. Did you see it?
SG: Yeah, it was about the Mods and Rockers. I think the difference in the two movies is that in Quadrophenia you have the two subcultures smashing into one another because they are angry and need an outlet—like football hooliganism—whereas in Obey it’s messier, with the subcultures being blurrier and the class system being more apparent. I can’t comment on whether Quadrophenia is realistic or not because I wasn’t there but I know that Obey is to the T what happened.
SKC: We both know people who were involved in what happened in 2011, and it is something that hasn’t been documented or represented since then because it still embarrasses people in London. London went on meltdown. [Laughing] It was worse than when it snows in London, which is saying something.
SG: I lived on the doorstep of Croydon when it was happening and there was smoke everywhere. I was the only one in my group who had a car and my friends were ringing me up and asking for me to pick them up, but there were lines and lines of police and you couldn’t drive anywhere. You couldn’t move. If you weren’t aware of the people who were rioting, from the outside looking in, you’d believe reports that condemned and demonized them. It wasn’t the same as the Brixton riots in the 1980s where they found the reason for the riots—pure racism from the police—and addressed the problem. With these riots, no one made a film that explained the reasons they happened. No one wanted to tell the story about why the youth felt so lost or why it was people from all classes who involved themselves in it. It even happened in nice areas of London.
SKC: There was rioting all over London. They happened in Notting Hill! Politically it’s so hard for anyone to get a foot in the door and it’s even harder if you’re born into a class where naturally you don’t have a leg up. And people were just done with it. And then one thing happened.
DP: A policeman fatally shooting a black man and the cover-up, which happens here all the time.
SG: This is my first day in New York City, but I live in Los Angeles, and I believe what we show in the film is incredibly relevant here as well as in England.
SKC: Besides getting to play Twiggy, I wanted to do this film because it is so relevant and so important.
DP: Did you audition to play Twiggy?
SKC: I was on holiday in Greece when I got the script. I thought, “There is nobody else who is going to play her.” With other characters I go, “I’d love to do this part but I’m sure a lot of actresses could play her.” With this, “I am the only person who can play her, bar none”
DP: You have said, “Other people could play this part, but I want to play it.” I think you said that about your role as the young Judi Dench in Philomena.
SKC: Yes, “others could play it, but so can I.” But with Twiggy, it was no one else’s role. I never felt that way before. I flew back from Greece, eight hours, and went to the audition, and then went back on holiday. I didn’t want to put my audition on tape, I needed to go to casting and tell them in person I really wanted to play the part.
DP: I had a big crush on the original Twiggy in the sixties, so I’m wondering where the character in Obey got that name. Do you think her parents named her that or did she choose it herself?
SKC: I never thought about that! I don’t think that’s her real name. Maybe her real name is Rebecca.
SG: I don’t think Anton has ever called her anything but Twiggy. I think it would annoy her parents when anyone called her that.
SKC: I bet it does! She’s no longer living in that middle-class environment she grew up in. Her rebellious act is to live in a squat and wear little or no clothing. The word that we’d use in the U.K. to describe her is trustafarian. She’s living in a world where she never has to deal with consequence. She can have that youthful experience of going to festivals, going to raves, going to squat parties, whatever. She’s not going, “Oh, crap, I haven’t paid the rent or the gas bill.” She’s having fun. And she’s allowed that by her class.
DP: Certainly she squats in a dilapidated building so she doesn’t have to think about any responsibilities but does she also want to be part of the Occupy London movement?
SKC: Yeah, it was considered a glamorous, cool thing to do.
SG: It certainly was fashionable.
SKC: It was very fashionable to be part of the movement.
DP: Sam, is Anton your character’s real name or is a highfalutin name he picked out?
SG: I think it is real. Jamie and I decided early on that we would change him slightly from how he had written him in the script. He wasn’t going to be a trustafarian. He is someone who genuinely thought he was going to make a difference when he got bold. His being laid back and cool and sharing the world with everyone is actually a façade to hide his insecurity, because he doesn’t know what he’s fighting for.
You see that in the scene when he’s resisting the police who come to kick them out the house. He doesn’t have any facts or reasons to tell them for why they should be able to occupy that house. He acts childishly with the microphone. That’s Anton on the whole—he’s passionate and feels he can make a difference but like a lot of young people, he has no idea where he’s going.
DP: I think I see him as more political than you do. I think he understands politics and is committed, certainly a lot more than his girlfriend, Twiggy.
SG: I think you’re right in that he’s less about the parties than the movement, which separates him from her and the other squatters. His key flaw—and the reason I find him so interesting—is that he has come to a point in these surroundings where he can’t really do much more.
SKC: Anton wants to champion all these beliefs that he has, but does he really know much beyond seeing posters from the sixties and seventies? We’re obsessed with images at our age but we have never had to go through the same kind of thing that the youth culture did then.
DP: How often do you think Twiggy goes home to her parents?
SKC: I think she goes to see mommy and daddy at Christmas and family occasions. East London is such an exciting place to be as a young person. I live in East London and know it and I had my first taste of it when I was like twenty and there is just no other place I’d rather live.
I’m not the same as Twiggy by any means, and I go home to see my parents, but you get wrapped into East London because it’s arty and bohemian and there is so much going on. Twiggy is dipping her toes into a world that she doesn’t actually need to live in, but it’s the place she wants to be.
DP: I can see Twiggy going back to her parents’ house at times but I was surprised that Anton would accompany her, especially if he knows about Twiggy having sex with Leon.
SG: We decided early on about the Leon-Twiggy-Anton love triangle that it wouldn’t be two guys competing for the girl, but two people who love Leon and still love each other. They have found a little haven of peace together when there is a background of chaos. That’s why Anton stays in a nontraditional situation.
DP: Sophie, do you think Twiggy loves Leon? I’m wondering what his appeal is to her.
SKC: There’s a rawness to him that she is attracted to. There is no bravado. He wants her cell phone number and she’s resistant but gives it to him. She’s kind of impressed by his wit and prowess and she follows him down that road. And as anyone who would walk into his house, she wants to give him fun and protect him.
DP: The only time Leon exhibits any sense of humor is when he goes to her door and asks for her number. He’s cool then, but at other times he can’t express himself.
SKC: It’s interesting. I think it’s because he wants something badly. Then when she goes along for the ride, he’s probably embarrassed bringing her into his home and letting her see what is actual life is.
SG: That’s an interesting point. What’s really nice about Leon as a character is that within his own group and subculture, he is cool and confident. But coming into this new alien world with such an amazing person that Twiggy is—such a wild energy to be around—closes him up a little bit. From Anton’s point of view, Leon needs to be touched and hugged. He loves Leon and feels, “I see things in you from my past and I now want you to be part of my world and have what I have.”
DP: This film is extremely physical, and there is a sexual energy that emerges in all your characters when there is protesting in the streets, as happens in Quadrophenia.
SG: That’s right. It’s like a tribal energy that can be sexual. I think the sex scenes are important because they are moments when characters express feelings they hold inside.
SKC: We were talking earlier about some of the sex scenes that go on in this film. They are pretty forlorn but they need to shown in that way. People shouldn’t feel disgusted by the characters having sex because the scenes add to the story and is what happens in that kind of triangle.
But she doesn’t realize that he’s really falling hard for her, whereas for her being with him is just one of many highs. She just chases what’s exciting. And when the shit hits the fan she isn’t someone who will deal with it if she doesn’t have to. It’s easier to go on to the next thing. Twiggy is unapologetic. She is just who she is, and that type of woman isn’t represented much in movies.
SG: That’s a really good point. She’s not represented as a villain for loving two people. She’s not a hero, but is a real person.
SKC: She means well, even what she does is awful. [Laughing] And I know you know that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
DP: Is it just a phase your characters are going through?
SKC (laughing): At some point in your life you have to get a drug addiction and die when you grow up. I think it’s a fork in the road! We’re grown-ups now, aren’t we, Sam?
DP: Can you see yourself hanging out with Twiggy?
SKC (laughing): I think we’d burn London down!
DP: Looking back, how was it making Obey?
SG: Everyone cared about it. The other day I was listing all my injuries to Jamie. I still have a scar on my back where I had a blood bruise. Nobody neglected taking care of the actors, but of course we didn’t have body doubles. Anton was supposed to jump into a canal and we weren’t sure if we were insured if something went wrong, but I just looked at Jamie and said, “I’m going in.” There was a day when I went home and coughed up a little bit of blood. We just gave everything to this.
SKC: It was hell for leather on this. Jamie nailed it with how he brought all of us together and made everyone feel at ease to do our jobs and have fun. I look back to when we were making this film and we just had the best time. The hours were long and it was cold and it was nuts, but every day I’d be on set having a great time, working but also joking around. We knew it was something special that we were making.
Danny Peary has published 25 books on film and sports, including Cult Movies and Jackie Robinson in Quotes.