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LFF Women Directors: Rebecca Johnson – ‘Honeytrap’

LFF Women Directors: Rebecca Johnson - 'Honeytrap'

Layla (Jessica Sula) is 15 and has been living in Trinidad. Returned to
her estranged mother in London, she is faced with settling into a new
home and a new city with a fresh set of rules and codes. Unsupported by
her mother and spitefully rejected by her female peers, she is drawn to
the brooding Troy, who marks her as his “Trini princess.” When that
fails, she takes solace in the friendship of Shaun, another admirer, but
her desperate need for acceptance leads to a tragic betrayal of his
kindness.

Director Rebecca Johnson was inspired by real-life cases and
explores gang culture from a girl’s perspective. Moving beyond the
headlines, Johnson gives us an intricately layered and rarely seen
perspective — firmly located in the domain of a young girl becoming a
woman in a hyper-masculine world. Sula’s performance here is flawless,
perfectly capturing the agonizing contradiction of Layla’s choice. (Jemma Desai for LFF)

Honeytrap will play at the London Film Festival on October 17 and 18.

W&H: Please give us your description
of the film playing.

RJ: Honeytrap is a drama [set in the South London neighborhood of Brixton] about 15-year-old Layla, whose desperate need for acceptance leads her to take part in a tragic act of violence. Inspired by real-life cases, it is the first UK film to explore gang culture from a girl’s perspective.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

RJ: I live in Brixton and have been making films with young people here for over a decade. My stories have centred on outsiders and underdogs and in particular the recurring theme of “the girl in a man’s world.” I explored this in the context of sexual awakening and the tricky navigation of status and female friendship in my short film Top Girl and wanted to expand it into bigger territory for my first feature. It took nearly three years from initial idea and writing/re-writing until I was happy with the script.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge
in making the film?

RJ: The writing is hard. As I now gear up to write my next film, I am reminded of that! Without a good script, you have nothing, and good ideas need honing over and over. There are no short cuts. And of course the film was made on a tiny budget, so there were many challenges in that. Our schedule was pretty crazy. I really didn’t see how we’d get through it.

Honeytrap
wasn’t really a story that really fit on a micro-budget scale, i.e., three characters in one location. It had a multitude of characters and many locations, plus several big set pieces: the murder, the bus ride, big crowd scenes, fight scenes, and so on.

W&H: What do you want people to
think about when they are leaving the theatre?

RJ: The idea for the film came from a case that took place in South London near where I live. A fifteen-year old girl had set up a boy, luring him to a quiet cul-de-sac, where he was killed by a group led by the boy she was in love with. When we see gang-related killing stories in the press, we see blank faces and are encouraged to look at them in horror, never to see ourselves in them.

In this case, there was an extra level of abjection at the “going against nature” fact that one of the perpetrators was female. She was characterized in the trial and in the press as a “femme fatale,” despite the fact she was still legally a child. From my work with young people, I knew the truth in a case like this would not be that the girl, or any of these kids, would have been cold and inhuman, devoid of recognizable emotions. I knew that they would most likely be very human indeed: vulnerably, messily human, lost in all sorts of fantasies and swept up by emotions stronger than them.

My goal in making the film was to create a character in Layla that audiences would identify with, even if they didn’t want to, to take them on her journey with her. So when they leave the theater, I hope that I will have succeeded in taking them on that journey. De-humanizing children, even if they’ve been involved in abhorrent violence, is not acceptable for us as the media, as adults, or as a society. That was also something I felt was important to put out there.

W&H:
What advice do you have for other female directors?

RJ: Make your first film any way you can. Don’t wait to “do it properly” with studio money or state funding (which is the way most films are funded in the UK). Make it about what you know, and do it on whatever you have.

W&H: What’s the biggest
misconception about you and your work?

RJ: I’m not sure my work is well-known enough for there to be popular misconceptions about it! We will have to see when the film is released next year. The way I’ve approached a story about gangs in Britain — a genre that people maybe have certain perceptions about — may go against premeditated perceptions though.

W&H: How did you get your film
funded?


RJ: My filmmaking with young people has been made through my not-for-profit company, Fierce Productions, and the first piece of finance for Honeytrap came from a grant for the training and mentoring scheme that was run alongside production from a longstanding local funder, the Walcot Foundation. Then we did a crowdfunding campaign, which was pretty successful not only in terms of fund-raising, but in bringing us to the attention of our distributor Anchor Bay (Starz).

Having UK distribution helped us get other pieces into play. Fortunately, the script was also well received, which helped us to persuade people to come on board. But ultimately, the film was made on very little, and we were still battling to get last bits of finance into place right up to the very last stage.

W&H:
Name your favorite women-directed film
and why.

RJ: The Piano by Jane Campion truly earns the right to be called a masterpiece. It’s so incredibly powerful and moving, but there are also layers and layers of ambiguities and subtleties running through the big, sweeping passions. And visually — sensually in fact — with the amazing soundtrack by Michael Nyman — it is just stunning. Iconic. I think it is a film that will be remembered 100 years from now. How many films can you say that about?

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