“Polymath” is a word that describes Ben Drew pretty well. The 29 year old East London native first came to fame back in 2005 under the name Plan B, where his work on influential grime mixtape Run The Road landed him a contract with 679 Records, and his album Who Needs Action When You Got Words landed the following year to all kinds of acclaim.
But there was more than one string to his bow. In 2008, he made his acting debut in “Adulthood,” Noel Clarke‘s sequel to his gritty British hit “Kidulthood,” and followed it up in 2009 as the bad guy in “Harry Brown,” holding his own on screen against Michael Caine‘s aged vigilante. At the same time, his music career went supernova, with The Defamation of Strickland Banks, a concept soul record telling the story of a singer sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. The record went triple platinum in the U.K., with a string of hit singles (you can hear “She Said” at present in the trailer for “Five-Year Engagement“), but Drew had even bigger ambitions — to become a film director.
Written and directed by Drew, and featuring a soundtrack of new Plan B tracks, “Ill Manors” is a powerful, gritty drama about a group of interweaving characters in contemporary East London, starring Riz Ahmed (“Four Lions,” “Shifty“) and Natalie Press (“My Summer Of Love,” “Red Road“). The film, at least in the unfinished form we saw it (it hits theaters in the U.K. in May, accompanied by the soundtrack album), is no Madonna-style vanity project, but suggests a filmmaker of real potential. And it’s not his only project for 2012: he’s also starring opposite Ray Winstone in a cinematic reboot of 70s TV cop classic “The Sweeney,” the pair taking over as iconic headbreaking cops Regan & Carter in Nick Love‘s film, which also stars Hayley Atwell and Damian Lewis. We caught up with Drew yesterday to talk about both projects, and much more. Read on below.
At this point, you’re obviously known best as a musician. How long have you wanted to move into filmmaking?
My music’s my first love, and I feel, out of everything I do, it’s what I’m a master at, whereas filmmaking, obviously I’m still learning. But I saw it as a logical progression, because I’ve always tried to tell stories within my music. Where I was doing hip-hop with the first record, or soul with ‘Strickland Banks,’ there was always a narrative. So film was that logical progression. I always find it really frustrating that the songs that I wrote, that would lend themselves to having a video, you were never given a budget to do that. Because a song that has a story in it, it’s hard for those songs to be played on radio. You’d only be given a budget for tracks that the label deemed singles. I really wanted to see visuals to these stories I was writing, so I went and shot “Michelle” the short film, which was the pilot for “Ill Manors,” with my own money. And after that, I wrote the feature, and used the short as a way of showing the would-be investors that I could direct, and as a taste of what I wanted to do.
Did you ever consider making a video for one of your own tracks? For the Strickland Banks record, maybe?
We tried to do a short film, but I didn’t have enough money to do what I wanted to do. I felt it was a compromise from the start, and we never really pulled it off. We focused on Strickland Banks being sent down, and it was the first time that anyone had seen him, no one really knew who it was. Now, if they saw it, they’ve seen the other videos, so it makes sense. I decided to shoot the middle of Strickland Banks’ story, without setting him up as the character, so it was a strange point to choose to tell. So no one saw that. I’ve had a lot of experience now, of directing, and maybe those things aren’t publicly evident, but I’ve been doing it since 2007, and I’ve acted in feature films.
I was going to say, you’ve been in the likes of “Adulthood” and “Harry Brown.” Did you go to directors you’ve worked with before, like Noel Clarke and Daniel barber, for advice.
Not really. But you watch the way other directors do things, and in your head, you go “I wouldn’t do that, I’d do it like this.” And other times, you go “I never would have thought of doing it like that, and now I will.” More just being on set, and working out how things work technically…Going from “Ill Manors” to “The Sweeney” was a really important learning experience for me. Not just as an actor, obviously I was learning so much from Ray Winstone, but also, there’s no better way of learning how to direct a film, than being an actor in a film, and being directed. So while Nick Love was directing the film, I still had my directing hat on.
The cast is terrific, and aside from a few people, like Riz Ahmed and Natalie Press, they’re pretty much newcomers. How did you end up finding the actors?
I just thought, with young kids, what’s the point of getting some middle-class thespian who’s never going to be able to portray what the real thing can portray? At that age, I’m not saying a middle-class thespian wouldn’t be capable of giving a performance like that, but they’d have to go live in that environment for a couple of weeks at least, and learn how people talk, and I think how kids, at thirteen, fourteen years of age, you can’t expect them to take time out of school to go and learn how to portray that character. I needed the real thing. So I stopped people in the street, I went to schools. Well, I only went to two schools, they were the only two schools who’d let us in.
They wouldn’t even let us give letters to the parents, to let the kids know there was an opportunity there. Which really pissed me off, cos we were going to poor schools, where a lot of the problems are, and offering this opportunity, and the teachers just didn’t wanna know. ‘Cause if they’re affilliated with something like a film, even if it’s just dispersing a letter out to the parents, it would mean, if anything went wrong, they’d be responsible. So they didn’t want to risk it, in case it reflected badly on them. They weren’t even gonna tell the kids that the opportunity was there. This was the problem I had at school, why I never got on in comprehensive school, cos the teachers don’t give a fuck, really. Some of ’em do, I don’t wanna put it out there that they don’t, of course there’s some good guys out there. But they’re never gonna overstep the red tape, it’s bureaucracy, and they have to work within in.
The only school that really opened the door to us was Rokeby, in Stratford, an all boys school. And that’s where we found Ryan De La Cruz, who plays Jake, who was 13 at the time. We found a whole handful of great kids in that school, but I only had one slot for a boy of that age. We offered the other guys extra parts. One of the boys who made the shortlist was Malcolm [Kamulete], who got the main boy in (acclaimed TV drama) “Top Boy.” We shot “Ill Manors” before they shot “Top Boy.” My assistant casting director, she went straight to “Top Boy”, and told them about the kids we found in Rokeby. So the positive thing is that the kids who didn’t get a part with us, had other opportunities down the line. And that’s the great thing about the film business, it gives you a massive sense of purpose, that I went there for my own reasons, ’cause I want to make a film, but me doing that is changing people’s lives. That was the frustrating thing. For me it was important to have a fresh cast, and that went for the older actors as well. I didn’t want you to look at characters in the film and think about their other films. With Natalie Press, I don’t remember her seeing her play an illegal immigrant before. And Riz, you could say that the character here isn’t worlds away from the one in “Shifty,” but he plays them so differently, I forget about “Shifty” when I watch “Ill Manors.”
Speaking of that, what sort of influences and reference points did you have for the film. Watching it, it reminded me of a little of a British version of “The Wire.”
“The Wire” was never a conscious reference, but I did watch the film and thought, “This reminds me of ‘The Wire’ a little bit.” But I never set out to do that. When I made the short film, I remembered “Pusher,” by Nicolas Winding Refn. I just liked the way it was shot. It was a short film, I only had four grand, I couldn’t afford Steadicam or anything. So there was a big reference, and there was even one shot I called the “Pusher” shot. And when I shot the feature, I wanted it to have the same sort of character that the short film had. Then going forward, I used Gary Shaw, my DOP, who was the DOP on “Moon.” It allowed the film to have more production value. But I was such a rookie at that point, I had enough on my plate dealing with the actors, so I just told him, “Do what you want, and if I don’t like it, i’ll just say it. Or if I have a really clear vision of something, I’ll tell ya, but other than that, I’ll leave it up to you.” I learnt a lot about lenses and stuff. I was so fresh to it, he would be like, “What do you want to shoot it on and 85 or a 100?” And I’d be like, “What?” Other people, who went to film school and have been doing it for fifteen years, would look down on me, not knowing about lenses, but Gary never did. I said to him “I don’t know technical terms, but I’m not an idiot. As long as you never talk down to me, or patronize me, we’ll be cool.” And he never did, man. Whereas there were other people who did patronize me because I didn’t know fucking technical terms, Gary was on the level the whole time. He was aware I was inexperienced, but he trusted my vision, and I owe the man a lot.
Anyone else who influenced the film?
Shane Meadows too. After I shot my short film, I realized it was the parts that we improvised, not the ones I wrote, that was where the magic happened. So I wanted to find out more about Shane Meadows, ’cause I knew he did that, and watched the bonus footage on the “This Is England” DVD, and reading about his process. They worked from a treatment, and improv-ed dialogue before they shot the film. So the references were Nicolas Winding Refn, and the man, Shane Meadows. And Quentin Tarantino, how he can make something mundane, two people talking complete fucking shit, but make it interesting. You can go to a pub and sit at the bar, with some really charismatic fucking joker, and listen to him just talk. You’re not learning nothing, you’re socializing, it’s a source of entertainment, you’re not learning about life, but you’re learning about that character, you warm to them, you like them. And that’s what I like about Tarantino films, if you stay long enough with a character, you feel like you know them. So although this is a multi-story, multi-character film, I didn’t want this to be like “Crash,” where you’re just watching a great film unfold, I wanted you to give a fuck about the characters. I wanted everyone to have their own favorite character. And that’s why it’s imprortant to let people improv, and sometimes chat shit. I can always write another film, or do another Strickland Banks album.
So have you got a taste for filmmaking? Are you already planning your next project?
I’m always planning the next thing, for me, this was never a one-off. I had another film I wrote, before “Ill Manors.” It could be my masterpiece. It’s called “Trigger,” it’s a working title. It’s the first thing I ever wrote, I wrote it when I was 20. And I actually had a film company that wanted to make it, with a budget of a million pounds. And I was all excited, and they said “Who do you want to direct it?” and I said “Me, obviously” and that’s when they went quiet. That’s the whole reason I did the short film, I wanted to show them I could direct. But at that point, I realized I wanted to turn “Ill Manors” into a feature film, and gain experience. I didn’t want to make a film like “Trigger,” and not be experienced, and fuck it up. “Ill Manors” was supposed to be a stepping stone, but also to gain experience. And that’s what I’ve done, but I don’t want to give a disservice to “Ill Manors.” It’s become the most important thing in my life, and it needs to be fucking good.
Will “Trigger” be the next film then?
I don’t know if it’s going to be the next one, but when I make it, it could be a masterpiece. The story is fucking great.
Is it a similar vibe to “Ill Manors?”
Only in the sense that it interweaves a lot of different stories. I wrote it on Microsoft Word. I wrote “Ill Manors” on Final Draft, properly. That’s how raw “Trigger” is. When I go back and read “Trigger,” cos I haven’t read it in a couple of years, I think I’ll find a lot of ways of making it better, ’cause I’m aware of what I can shoot.
The next time you’ll be on screen is “The Sweeney.” Are you wrapped on that now?
We finished that just before Christmas. It was really good fun. I never really saw myself as an actor. I know I can act, but I’d never described myself as an actor. If something came up that I thought I’d enjoy doing, I’d do it, but I never saw myself… there’s certain roles I never saw myself doing. And after doing “The Sweeney,” I thought, “Maybe I am capable of doing that.” Maybe I want to be slightly more ambitious, and test myself, and do things I’m not sure I can do. I was worried about it, cos I had to play the hero, I’d always played the villain. And I had to play a policeman. But I just loved working with Ray [Winstone]. But it all depends on time, on what film projects I’m working on as a director. But I don’t know what I’m doing after that. I need a break, I’ll tell you that.
There’s already been talk of a sequel, or a prequel even.
We were talking about a prequel before we even shot the first film. Because of the age gap between me and Ray, obviously we had to freshen up the characters. The names are the same, I’m Carter, he’s Regan. But it’s set now, it’s not set in the 70s. The fact that that much changed about it, we’re just using the names, we can change how they meet, and how their relationship is. Maybe Ray’s character knew Carter from when he was some spotty teenager off the council estate. Maybe Regan knew Carter’s mum, they go further back than they did in the TV series. It’s Nick Love’s twist on the brand. Like the new Batman films, it’s his twist on the franchise, and that’s what makes it exciting. But we’ll see what happens. If it comes out, and it’s a big hit, we can start talking about doing a prequel.
Is that something you’d think about directing?
No, Nick’ll direct it. But I’d love to get involved in the writing process for it.
Presumably the Ill Manors record should land at the same time as the film?
Yeah, it will.
Are you doing anything for “The Sweeney” soundtrack as well?
If I get time, man. I don’t know how realistic it is. Whatever I do for “The Sweeney,” I’d then have to release it as a single, and promote. I’d have to shoot a video for it, so it becomes work, and that could be a period of time where I want to work on something else, or take a holiday. But I would love to offer something up for the soundtrack, it’d be a shame not to get my music on there.
So after “Ill Manors,” you’ll finally get a holiday?
I’m doing a tour in the summer, playing in forests. And I’ll be promoting this new album for most of the year, but I just want to take it easy as possible. I mean, mate, I haven’t stopped. ‘Cause of “Ill Manors,” I never got to enjoy the success of ‘Strickland Banks.’ I was having to leave places early and worry about being up the next morning, and prepping the film while flying off to bloody Germany to do a TV show and then flying back. I wouldn’t want to make a film like this again. Next time, I’d focus, not do any music for six months.
“Ill Manors” hits U.K. cinemas on May 4th, while “The Sweeney” follows on September 21st.