Director Sarah Gavron and her team of collaborators discuss the making of their film Rocks, collaborating with teenage girls to develop the film’s characters, and the importance of music. Rocks is an acquisition title still seeking distribution in Canada and the US.
Sarah Gavron’s chaotic and energetic new feature, Rocks, captures the indomitable spirit of the 15-year-old girl who gives the film its name, as well as her London group of friends. When the film begins, Rocks receives a letter from her mother informing her that she is leaving for a breather, and that it is now Rocks’ responsibility to care for her little brother, Emmanuel. Her mother has done this before — disappeared and returned — and Rocks is optimistic that she’ll keep her word to return. But her mother’s absence becomes increasingly difficult to manage when the electricity in their apartment goes out, and Rocks is forced to find temporary refuge with friends as she tries to prolong the inevitable. Relationships get strained because Rocks won’t divulge the details of her situation, as if to do so would mean admitting to herself how bad things really are.
Like Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood (or Bande de Filles, a much more à propos French title) before it, Rocks is a celebration of female friendship and communities — how women get through trauma by taking comfort in each other. But unlike Sciamma’s film, which deliberately avoided a social realist aesthetic, Gavron’s Rocks embraces handheld camera, and the script was developed in collaboration with the non-professional actors. This has mixed results: the characters feel like they’re positively popping off of the screen, but this deliberate chaos can, at times, be disorienting, and get in the way of a clean narrative arc.
Nevertheless, it’s such a joy to see such a diverse cast of young women on screen in a British film. This kind of thing is commonplace on Canadian TV, where Degrassi has, for years, sported a multicultural and multiracial cast, as well as characters from a wide array of socio-economic backgrounds. But this feels quietly radical in Rocks, hailing from such a class-conscious country, in part because the girls are so tightly knit yet unbothered by their differences.
On the eve of the film’s World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it opened the Platform competition, I talked with the creative team behind the film: director Sarah Gavron, co-writers Claire Wilson and Theresa Ikoko, Associate Director Anu Henriques, and producers Ameenah Ayub Allen and Hannah Price. We discussed how the team collaborated with the non-professional actors to craft the script, the joys and challenges of shooting with such a large cast of young people, and the importance of music in the film.
Seventh Row: How did the film Rocks get started? I know you were collaborating with the actors in the film. Did you have an idea for the story first? Did you cast it first? What was the process?
Sarah Gavron: The process was that we, as a team, all decided to make a film about young people, and we wanted to make the film with the young people. The very first part of the process was to go into schools, meet young people, sit in the back of classrooms, and have conversations. Out of that, we assembled a group of about 30 [girls] who would write improvisers. They wanted to be part of the process. They stayed with us. Then, we started this workshop process where [co-writers] Clare [Wilson] and Teresa [Ikoko] were in there, and so was Anu [Henriques], who’s the Associate Director, and [Producer] Ameena [Ayub Allen] was kind of in and out. The process was about finding out what the film was going to be?
Claire Wilson: We came on board to write a story about young girls growing up in London so we spent time with different girls at schools, remembering how it was to grow up and all that stuff. Then, we started to develop a story around them. As the group became smaller and smaller, casting became clearer. Then, Teresa found the narrative which we worked into a script.
Theresa Ikoko: I had been working on something that was dedicated to my sister and other young black women in London. It was very much about sisterhood and female friendship. During the process of working on this film we had developed a sisterhood amongst the creative team. We were watching these young women develop a sisterhood, and between us, it was like a big sister/little sister relationship.
It just seemed really appropriate to bring this story that I had worked on for my sister to my new sisters and see if there was something bigger than what I had envisioned that we could create. We describe it now as a love letter to all of us, to all the women who contributed to this film, and to all of the women that we know and love.
7R: How did you decide that the story of the film would be centred around the main protagonist, Rocks? And how did you find the actress?
Theresa Ikoko: I think that came from the narrative I had thought about for my sister. The character came from a lot of workshopping, a lot of conversation, a lot of contributions from the girls themselves. I think the magic of Rocks the character probably comes from the magic of Bukky Bakray as an actor. She is [an] amazing [actor], and also just [amazing] as a young woman.
Sarah Gavron: Bukky was in these workshops, and it was becoming apparent there was this weird synchronicity that Teresa’s story and Bukky met in a way, and we found our protagonist. She fitted the storyline, and she fitted the world, and around her were these great friendships, like Sumaya, the character played by Kosar Ali. Through that, we built the world around her.
7R: What was the workshop process like for developing the film and the character of Rocks?
Anu Henriques: We got to know the girls over a long period of time, so you didn’t feel that you had to force anything when you first met them. It was a lot of just very general — not pointed, not trying to find anything — conversations. We were really lucky that they were very generous girls, all of them, and they gave so much of themselves: their experiences, their stories, but also their energy. A lot of it came from the energy that was drawn from them. The other thing that was incredible, was that they all had this amazing ability, which I think actors train for years and years to do, to improvise. They were able to riff off each other and bounce off each other, even in [the] very, very early stages. So by the time we got to set, it felt like a very natural way of filming it because it had always been like that since the beginning.
Theresa Ikoko: I think the workshops didn’t feel like the typical workshops. It was really just people who enjoyed being around each other being around each other. It was really fun. It never felt like work because there is such a genuine friendship among them and such a genuine love that they have for them and for us, as well.
It was very much about nurturing relationships, spending time together in order to develop these relationships, and the trust that is necessary to share stories, share secrets, and to share all the things that really made this film.
7R: To what degree did you have precise dialogue for the film? What did the script for Rocks end up looking like, and how did that compare to what happened during the shoot?
Sarah Gavron: We did have a very rich and beautiful script. We had something very concrete and solid to work from, but we also wanted them to live in the moment and make the words their own. They didn’t learn the dialogue exactly so they could free themselves up. It’s such a difficult thing to deliver dialogue as if you are thinking it. For them to find those moments, and find the thought, was a really useful process for them to absorb themselves in the moment. It was a kind of mixture [of written dialogue and improvisation], but they really owned it and found ways of expressing themselves and found ways of behaving within the structure of the scenes.
Claire Wilson: And we were on set quite a lot, so a scene would run, girls would improvise, and Sarah would come back to us and say, “Is that what you needed to hit story-wise?” There was a lot of continued collaboration throughout.
Sarah Gavron: Yeah, we were all touching base [with each other] and with the girls themselves: Does this feel truthful to you?
7R: To what degree did the girls end up playing a version of themselves versus characters that were completely different from themselves?
Claire Wilson: I don’t feel that they are playing necessarily themselves, but I feel that they brought themselves to the characters. The characters we see on screen are not the girls, but they are from the same part of town, the same age, the same kind of culture surrounding the school. But the experiences and journeys these girls go through are completely different from their lives.
Theresa Ikoko: They are very much actors. Everything we see on screen isn’t because they necessarily have things in common with their characters, but it’s a testament to their skill and their hard work and the absolute commitment they put to developing this craft that they didn’t even know that they wanted to be a part of before we started. And to all the people around them that helped mould them. The magic is all theirs though; we didn’t write that.
7R: In addition to Rocks, the film follows characters from a whole bunch of different socioeconomic backgrounds even though they are all at the same school. How did that evolve and develop?
Sarah Gavron: That is so much London and you go into these schools and that’s the makeup of these inner city school and that’s what we found, those are the friendships we found. It wasn’t us engineering that makeup; it existed.
Anu Henriques: The film is so much about friendship and love, not romantic love, just that time when you are 15. It’s such a special time in your life, and those friendships are so dear, and the resilience and the joy that we haven’t seen enough of on screens in cinema generally, but especially in the UK.
Claire Wilson: To begin with, we did think about going down the route, where you come in and see a girl’s life, and the reason she changes was because some boy walked into their life. But we didn’t want to make it about their reactions to boys and that being their story. There’s so much drama with being 14 or 15 anyway, among your girl friends, that you don’t need boys to walk in. You’re already having all this stuff [happen]. There are men in the film, but they are all to them just background. They are not important.
7R: There are a lot of scenes in Rocks with a lot of characters in them, which I know is one of the biggest challenges for a director. How did you approach how you were going to film those, working with all of those people at the same time? And keeping track of all those characters? Because we do get to know quite a few of the girls.
Sarah Gavron: Obviously, it is Rocks’ journey at the heart of it, but the ensemble feel was something that was really important to us because that’s their dynamic. They hang out in groups. But what was it like on set? It was chaos.
Claire Wilson: Beautiful chaos.
Ameena Ayub Allen: It was a mix ‘cause you had the girls who were first-time actors, and you had some really great adult professional actors mixed in with real teachers playing teachers — or going to cast wider, for instance, the British-Somali family. And then sometimes the non-professional actors would make their own roles bigger, which was very unusual, particularly the uncle in Sumaya’s family scene.
Sarah Gavron: That’s a great moment. It’s one of my favourites.
Ameena Ayub Allen: He took it and became a contributor to the music, as well.
Sarah Gavron: Yeah, he’s now got a music credit, and he’s very chuffed about it.
Hannah Price: And because they weren’t professionally-trained actors, you wanted to take the pressure off them by having a few girls in each scene so that, if one of them, over the course of filming, wasn’t always competent, or needed to drop out for whatever reason, then the film could continue. But actually, they were all amazing, so we never needed that.
Claire Wilson: But that is because of the long workshop process, definitely.
Theresa Ikoko: We also had Emmanuel, let’s not forget. There’s a seven-year-old boy in it.
Ameena Ayub Allen: That was most challenging for him, because it was a different level of understanding.
Theresa Ikoko: I think it made the girls’ mature, as well, because the whole thing felt like a family. While we felt big-sisterly with them, they immediately felt big-sisterly with him, so they worked really hard with setting an example and making sure he felt safe. I feel like all films should be made like this: everyone should just like each other, and then it’s easy.
Ameena Ayub It was a very complicated structure of chaperones, and the kind of structures we have to work with made it more complicated and time consuming, so it was a longer shoot than a normal low-budget film would be. Together, it was 40 days.
Sarah Gavron: But we were working with child actor hours. And it was shot in story order.
Ameena Ayub Allen: So for all the moving parts we had…
Sarah Gavron: Yeah, changing locations, lots of young people to chaperone…
Theresa Ikoko: A frog
Ameena Ayub Allen: Crowd scenes. So in every way, we made it a lot more complicated.
Hannah Price: That’s why it’s really inclusive, and that’s why it was really real. Even the girls who played supporting roles in the classroom are of that age. Everything, we took a lot of time and effort to get it really right but also seem invisible.
7R: Can you tell me a bit about the music in the film Rocks?
Sarah Gavron: I remember saying to Teresa early on, when we were meeting about her writing with Claire, “Is music important?” And she said, “Music is everything.” And I wrote that down in my book.
She’s not young, but she’s much closer than I am to these girls, and to these girls, music is everything. They kind of live and breathe it.
And Anu spent hours and hours logging their playlists and working the music along the way. We had some music supervisors who were pre-clearing music. We were trying to find what fitted, and we had a little bit of score.
Hannah Price: We had some songs that they sing in the film and that had to be cleared before we could shoot so if they broke out into song…
Sarah Gavron: We wouldn’t have to keep stopping them.
Ameena Ayub Allen: It didn’t always work out.
Hannah Price: They sing to each other all the time to communicate, don’t they.
Anu Henriques: And they all have very different music tastes, as well. There are a lot of overlaps, but they are very unique in what they listen to and what they enjoy. I think that is reflected in the soundtrack: you have soul, you have bashment, you have Afro-beats, you have some jazz, you have a Somali love song, you have everything. And I think that’s a nice reflection of them; they are not all listening to the same stuff.
Theresa Ikoko: That’s a real reflection of what London sounds like. If you watched from my estate in the summer, with all the windows open, you hear everything. I recently heard someone playing a saxophone in my council estate for hours, and it was like, “This is what it is to be in London.”
Ameena Ayub Allen: And the fact that the girls absolutely loved the soundtrack. That was a real accomplishment that they really, really loved it when they watched the final film because there were hundreds of tracks to distill it down.
7R: Was that part of the writing process, thinking about the music?
Theresa Ikoko: I think there was just always music around, in the workshops, when we spoke to the girls.
Sarah Gavron: We were sitting in a workshop, and you guys said, “Let’s do an exercise with them,” and I think you’ve done this with a lot of young people, where they listen to some music, and they wrote down thoughts and diaries and notes about their characters. They were doing it to their own soundtrack, which would feed them. So it was kind of integrated.
Rocks is an acquisition title still seeking distribution in Canada and the US.