In the 11th session of Lockdown Film School, we delve deep with BAFTA-winning writer-director Amma Asante into her entire body of work, including A Way of Life, Belle, A United Kingdom, and Where Hands Touch.
Our LiveTweet highlights from the masterclass with Amma Asante
Amma was a child actor in Grange Hill for 3 of its 30 year run. There she realized what she wasn’t good at (acting) and what she was good at (storytelling)— Seventh Row (@SeventhRow) July 19, 2020
And her film experience allows her to be convey themes through blocking and short hand more concisely.— Seventh Row (@SeventhRow) July 19, 2020
TV has more screen time, but less production time while movies have more production time and less screen time
Amma talks a lot on set to her actors and is very open about how her own experiences might make her feel in the story moment. She doesn’t expect the actor to tell her the same, but does hope they think about such personal experiences— Seventh Row (@SeventhRow) July 19, 2020
Amma makes love stories because producers will finance them, and getting funding is a big barrier for women of colour.— Seventh Row (@SeventhRow) July 19, 2020
Amma loves to see actors she cast as emerging actors, like James Norton, become stars, because she tries to cast good people as well as good actors— Seventh Row (@SeventhRow) July 19, 2020
Amma is a control freak at finding her department heads, but feels once she has done this intense hiring process she can trust them once production begins— Seventh Row (@SeventhRow) July 19, 2020
Amma wants her films to open new and different windows to past worlds audiences and critics think they know, but are really missing— Seventh Row (@SeventhRow) July 19, 2020
Who is Amma Asante?
Before Amma Asante became a writer and director, she was a child actress. n her late teens, Amma left the world of acting and eventually made the move to screenwriting with development deals from Chrysalis, Channel 4 and the BBC. Her first feature, A Way of Life, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2004 and won Amma 17 international awards for her writing and directing. Her second feature, Belle, was a commercial and critical success, taking a higher per-screen average than Spiderman 2 in the opening weekend in the US. Amma has since gone on to direct A United Kingdom in 2016 and Where Hands Touch in 2018, as well as directing for the TV series The Handmaid’s Tale and Mrs. America. Her three most recent films are insightful portraits of race, period, and relationships, wrapped in the sturdy and familiar casing of an awards-friendly drama. Asante uses accessible, commercial filmmaking to ask big questions, spreading those ideas to a wider audience than a niche arthouse drama might.
Where can you watch Amma’s films?
A Way of Life: Stream on Tubi in Canada and the US. Available to rent on Amazon in the UK.
Belle: Stream on Crave+ in Canada; Prime in the US; and Prime in the UK
A United Kingdom: Available to rent in Canada, the US, and the UK.
Where Hands Touch: Prime and Hoopla in Canada; Hulu and Hoopla in the US; and Now TV and Sky Go in the UK
Mrs. America episodes “Betty” & “Shirley”: FX Now in Canada and the US; and BBC iPlayer in the UK.
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Seventh Row (7R): I understand you were a child actress well before you were a director. How did you get into acting?
Amma Asante: I was a relatively shy kid on the outside. At home, I was loud and boisterous. But I was pretty shy, and I was creative. My parents, who were immigrants who came to the UK in the ’60s, thought that sending me to stage school might be a good way to try and nurture my creativity. [Stage school is] what we in the UK call a full time theatre school where you do formal subjects, as well as theatre studies.
My brother’s a scientist; my dad’s an accountant; my mom was a shopkeeper. There wasn’t really anybody doing what I do now in the family. I went to stage school full time, and from the age of 10 until around about the age of 14, I got into Grange Hill, a UK TV series that ran for about 30 years in the UK, although I wasn’t in it for 30 years. I was in that for three years. It was a really great basis, and still is, upon which I stand as a director.
I learned a lot of things about what I was not good at, acting being one of those things. But it also allowed me to really understand that I love the world, and particularly, I love the power of storytelling. I think the key thing about being a child actor not in Hollywood is that you go back home to normal life; you go back home to your community. You get a really instant sense of how the work that you’re doing, particularly that show that was on twice a week in the UK, has an impact on the community that you’re from. I think that was really big for me.
It nurtured my love for [storytelling.] Not necessarily my wish to be in storytelling, because I didn’t think I could be in storytelling; I didn’t have anybody who looked like me around me — but my love for it nevertheless.
7R: What got you interested in directing and writing?
Amma Asante: There were not many role models. We didn’t have social media in the way that we have now. We couldn’t do what we’re doing now where we’re all linking up from every corner of the world. It was very, very difficult for me to learn about filmmakers like Julie Dash, who later went on to make Daughters of the Dust (1991), and to learn about Euzhan Palcy and people like that. It didn’t cross my mind that I could do this.
On Grange Hill, there was a really great filmmaker who also worked on the show. At the time, he was a script editor. That was the late Anthony Minghella. The UK is very much, or at least it used to be very much, “Decide what you are, and then just be that thing. You can’t be two things; you can’t be three things; who are you who’s trying to be a triple talent or a double talent?” Anthony’s career, in many ways, was kind of the first that I followed where I saw him go from being a script editor to a theatre writer, a theatre director, then a screenwriter, and then a screen director. I really admired his career.
I left acting when I was about 17 or 18 because I was bad, and I did what my mum told me, basically, which was to go to secretarial college and learn to type. I was just trying to get my typing speed up and writing what I knew, and what I knew was scripts. So, I wrote a script in my mother’s pseudonym, and I finally got the courage to send that script out. That was just because a friend in the industry read it and said to me, “It’s good. You should think about sending it out.” But the only people I knew in the industry knew me as a child actor. They didn’t know me as anything else. I didn’t think they’d have any trust in what I had to give, so I did it in a pseudonym. I sent it out to a number of producers that I knew as a kid, and I didn’t expect anything to come of it.
One of those, a man called Mick Pilsworth at Chrysalis, read the script and then contacted the agent that I had sent it through and said, “We’d love to meet this woman.” And, of course, my agent then had to say who I was, and I was convinced that that would be the end of my bid to try and be a writer. But it wasn’t. In fact, I went in to see them, and they really supported me. They then sent the script to Channel Four, and that’s where I started with my seven-script deal. That was swiftly followed by a four-script deal. That’s how I got into writing.
How I got into directing was that all of those scripts that I was in development with didn’t happen. I was in development with them for three years, and then new commissioning editors came in both at Channel Four and the BBC. We call them “new brooms” because they cleared the shelves of everything that they didn’t want to inherit from the previous commissioning editor.
I left almost feeling I hadn’t done any work at all. Except I had: for three years, I’d been honing my skills, and for three years, I’d been working within the industry and getting an understanding of how it worked. The BBC then approached me and said, “We’ve just had an opening for a [TV] slot and we want to fill it with a drama with a diverse cast. Can you come up with something?” I was able to co-create something with somebody that I knew in a completely different guise. I think we had something like four months to try and write 10 scripts, and then have them broadcasted all at the same time, so I became… in America, you call it a showrunner; in the UK, it’s just a writer-producer.
I pulled together this team of writers really fast, and then just very, very quickly got these storylines out. I remember I was writing episode seven, and they were shooting episode one, something like that, and then I didn’t know how episode ten was going to end. So, I got two seasons of that off the ground.
When that finished, I wrote a film, having met a producer called Peter Edwards at ITV Wales, then HTV Wales. It was just supposed to be a TV film. I was just going to follow on in the guise that I had started, which was to write and then produce my work.
A producer at the BFI then called. The film council said, “Why don’t you think about directing it yourself?” And I wanted to say, “Why would I?” They have never seen anybody like me directing. In all those years that I had been acting, I had only ever met one female director.
I said no. The script I had written was A Way of Life (2004), my first feature, and I loved it. I researched it, I had fallen in love with all of the characters, awful as many of them were. I didn’t want to be the person who ruined my script.
We had sent the script to many people, Stephen Frears and you name it, all of the kinds of people who looked like what stock standard directors looked at the time, and for the most part, still do. I had sent my script to them in the hope that one of them would bite.
Eventually, the BFI ended up financing me to go and shoot a couple of scenes and see how I felt behind the camera. That’s how I got into shooting my first film.
When I did that, it felt like home. It made sense, and I realized, at that point, that producing for me had really been a bid to continue the birthing of my characters. What I really wanted to do was direct, but I didn’t understand that, and I thought, “Oh, if I produce, I can stay the length of the process with my characters and protect them from an evil director who will come along and completely change them.” Actually, that’s not what you do with producing; that’s just not your job. The job as a director is to do that, and so that’s what I do now.
7R: You’ve worked on films that you’ve written, but also ones where you’re working with someone else’s script. How does that experience differ for you, especially given that you started as a writer?
Amma Asante: Well, the truth is the only film script I directed that I haven’t written is A United Kingdom (2016). On Belle (2013), the WGA saw it fit not to give me my writing credit, as we all know they do at times. So I’m much more familiar with directing work that I’ve written.
But I certainly can [direct scripts I haven’t written,] like [on the TV shows] Mrs. America and The Handmaid’s Tale: all of those are not scripts that I’ve written. A United Kingdom was something where one goes through the whole process of development and also does what we call director drafts, which are absolutely drafts. I wouldn’t call myself the writer; I’d say I’d be doing director drafts on those, unlike the others.
I think you can probably tell if you study the work. When I’m directing something I haven’t written, I think I direct from the outside, as an observer. I think I direct as a viewer. I am absolutely your eye in that way. When I’ve written a project, I feel I probably direct more from the inside, and I am the gaze, if that makes sense. I don’t think one is better or worse. I just think they’re different.
For the historical films that I’ve written, I go back about 100 years in research in order to get to [the] present day [of] the film and understand the characters and the history and the politics and the economic circumstances and all of that. That can tell you so much about your characters and the people that they’ve been born of. When you do something like Mrs. America, you still have to do your research, but you’re also running to catch up with the process because you haven’t been doing that yourself [from the start].
I do three to six months of research before I write a film, and then I continue all of the research processes as I’m going along. When I do something like Mrs. America, I’m already into the production process. I’m already storyboarding. I’m already doing all of that, and I have to do the research at the same time. You’re filming two hours of TV in half the time that you shoot two hours of film. The amount of catching up and no sleep that you go through is quite profound. But I love it. They’re different. I feel the work that I do in TV gives me really particular muscles that I can bring to film and vice versa. I think that’s why I love doing both.
7R: What do you feel you get from each medium that then you bring to the other medium?
Amma Asante: Learning, certainly. I think if you asked me, “Amma, do you have a hallmark for your films?” I would say, I love to have style and content. I love for my movies to look as beautiful as hopefully I try to make them profound and powerful. You can get very, very caught up in an idea you like that takes time. Getting beauty takes time. And then you do TV, and you realize that you haven’t got time; you haven’t got a choice about time. You have to shoot something like The Handmaid’s Tale and make it look as beautiful as if you had a 45-day shoot when you’ve only got an 18-day shoot and still get performances and still convey the story that you want to convey.
What do I get from film that I bring to TV? The detail and the power of a theme and the power of a metaphor. How you can block or how you can create a situation with your production designer to convey those metaphors and those themes. I think that, oftentimes, because you have to shoot TV very, very fast, the detail can be missed. For me, the key relationship on screen is the one that your central character has with themselves. And I can bring that to TV. I really feel that I strongly brought that to Mrs. America.
I think that the way that TV and film has operated over the years is they kind of swapped roles. Sometimes you get periods where film is really bold and really courageous and independent film is really doing great things, and TV is pretty safe. And then, you have times like I think we might be at now, where TV can be quite bold and is making wonderful statements like The Handmaid’s Tale and like Mrs. America, and film maybe feels a little bit safer.
I think the other thing is that being able to explore character or stories over eight hours is something that is so difficult to do in film. With Mrs. America coming out in an election year, and saying with each episode that we’ll centre a different woman in the movement is a real joy and something that would be much harder to do in film. I think that there are real pros and cons for the formats of each. You just have to decide what format your story is best suited to.
7R: One of the things that really distinguishes your films is how character-focused they are. Not just with the protagonist, but all of the characters feel richly developed. How do you work with actors? The performances you get are just amazing, and I don’t feel there’s a lot of filmmakers who can manage these wonderful ensemble casts and get such uniformly great performances.
Amma Asante: Well first, I appreciate that, thank you. Definitely my history as a kid actor has made a difference. I made up my mind to know what I didn’t want as an actor and to try and provide what I did want to my actors. First and foremost, the dynamic when you’re a kid to a director is very different because you’re a kid, so they become an authority figure. When you’re working with adults — and it should be the case when you’re working with kids, as well — you’re not an authority figure, as a director; you’re a partner. I come into this as a partnership, and I’m a collaborator.
The key thing about directing is you have to have a vision. Your actors work best when they feel safe and when they know the director has a vision. When they have that structure around them, then you can collaborate within those confines. If it feels like the director doesn’t know what they want, the actor can feel unsafe and feel like they’re not tethered to anything. “What do you want from me? I don’t know what you want or what you need.”
I think actors that have worked with me will say, “Amma talks a lot on set.” I’m very open about how my own experiences might make me feel in a moment that’s relevant to the story. I don’t then expect the actor to tell me about their personal experiences that might relate, but I hope that they will think about those in their own minds. That will somehow filter through into the performance that they’re giving.
Take a moment in Belle, for instance, where Dido Elizabeth Belle is told that she’s not allowed to marry. She’s an 18th-century woman, so to be married is everything. To have children means a lot. If you can’t marry, you can’t have children. If you can’t have children, and you want children, that might feel like a loss to experience life. If you want a relationship, and your culture and your society puts all of its value and currency on whether you’re married or not, to be told that you will not have companionship throughout your life might feel like a loss.
So I’ll talk to them [the actors] about loss. What does loss feel like? This is what it’s felt [like] in my life. It might be something completely different, but this is what it felt in my life, and what does that feel to you? What is that? It doesn’t have to be anything as big and as powerful as a whole society telling you what your value is. It could be something small. But you take what that feeling felt like, and you channel that into the performance. It’s a very sort of crass and basic way in which I work, but it’s about conversation.
I don’t like to rehearse scenes or overly rehearse, even if we have some rehearsal time. I prefer to sit and talk about the scenes, talk about themes that run through, and try to create a shorthand with the actor or actress so that by the time we’re on set, we’re the tightest two people on the set. Although, I have to have that with everyone. I have to have that with my DP. I have to have that with my production designer. I have to have that with my AD. I have to be the tightest two people with a lot of people. But it’s really important that each one of those thinks that it’s just them, and that you give that collaboration the time that it needs. I think I’m good at that, and that’s why I love it so much.
7R: Your films deal with a lot of complex ideas about history and politics, and the actors have to carry those ideas on their backs. How important is it to you to cast actors who you know can intellectually engage with these stories? To understand their political context and collaborate on ideas beyond their ability to perform a character convincingly.
Amma Asante: I’ve definitely worked with a number of actors who haven’t really seen the full extent of the vision until the movie is finished. As I’ve mentioned many times, as in my Ted Talk, somebody who’s my shape and my flavour, both a woman and Black, is not commonly seen as a leader on set. Sometimes, you’re a bit of a unicorn, and people don’t know what your vision is going to be. It’s getting easier now as I create a body of work. The point is you’re constantly working with people who don’t always know everything about what you’re trying to put together.
I’m often bringing stories to screen that lots of people don’t know anything about. That’s a difficult thing because we live in a world where everybody thinks they know everything about everything. So, that which you might take a year or even 12 years sometimes to research in detail, someone thinks because they’ve done five minutes of history and they know everything. Those people can be critics, audience members, anyone. So, I don’t necessarily expect my actors to be much different.
What I try to do is never overburden them with the entire history of everything that I’ve come to understand and all the research. For instance, on something like Where Hands Touch, sitting and talking with those Black survivors of the Holocaust — what you feel when somebody trusts you with their innermost feelings and thoughts that exist in an environment where they can be so heavily judged. I try not to dump all of that on my actors but really try to talk to them about who they are in this, who they’re representing, and who it’s important that they give a voice to so that we can have the conversations that we have once the films are made.
Some actors will come and talk to you about it. George MacKay will go off and do months of research himself, and if he has a break in the middle of us filming Where Hands Touch (2018), he’ll go off to Germany and do even more research.
Someone like Amandla Stenberg comes with a whole world of experience just from being a biracial girl who is now going to play a biracial girl. We’re not a monolith. No group of people are a monolith, but there are always going to be some experiences that resonate. I try not to burden them, but I do need them to have a level of intelligence so that they can wrap their mind around what I’m doing.
As Mark Kermode, a UK journalist and critic, likes to call me, I’m a bit subversive, and what I’m doing is often subversive. It’s really easy to take a film that I’ve made like Where Hands Touch and say, “Oh this is a Nazi love story,” when actually it’s a story that’s exploring society’s responsibility to children. What is our responsibility?
Look at where we are today. The language we use and our behaviors and the fact that we live in a world now where any child, including the child of a victim, can click onto YouTube and watch a man be murdered for eight minutes and 46 seconds. What do we think that’s going to do to the kids that are growing up today?
You can take Hitler Youth from the 1940s, or you can look at today, and say either way, society has a responsibility to children. The kind of laissez-faire rhetoric that we blast them with and then say, “Grow up as really good, decent human beings” sometimes just blows my mind. These are complex things that I’m dealing with that require complex responses, and that’s not always what life delivers.
7R: That’s a really interesting way of thinking about Where Hands Touch because I feel that’s something that is a part of A Way of Life, as well.
Amma Asante: 100%. They’re companion pieces. Often people say to me, “Oh it’s Belle and Where Hands Touch,” and no way, it’s A Way of Life and Where Hands Touch.”
7R: The other thing you’ve talked about is people mislabeling Where Hands Touch as a romance. There is a romance component to it, but I would also agree that that’s not really what the film is about. Something that’s interesting in your recent films is you’ve used a plot that involves romance to talk about bigger, complex issues. Why do you feel like that’s a helpful vehicle in order to do that?
Amma Asante: The last time I checked, and it was about five years ago I last checked, I represent 0.4% of the industry, as a Black woman. Whether you’re Black or white or male or female, what we do in our work is we have to walk into many offices and sit there and say, “I’ve got this idea in my head, and I can partially tell you what it is. I can do moodboards, and I can give you a script, but you’re still not going to see it until it’s finished. But I need you to trust me and just give me millions and millions of dollars of your money, and I promise you it will be great.”
Their first question is, “Great. What is it? And who’s going to be in it? Who’s going to be the box office name that’s going to bring me back the money that you’re asking me to deliver to you and trust you to spend?” The reality is that when you are a person of colour, there’s a reason why we’re represented so little in the industry. It’s because we’re not given as many opportunities. You have to find your way around those obstacles.
Love stories are highly financeable. Financiers like to put money into love stories they think audiences come to see. They believe that women drive the box office. They go and see movies, and they take men with them, and they believe that women like to go and see love stories much in the way that they used to believe that there was such a thing as a chick flick or chick lit. So, that’s one reason.
The other reason is that, actually, the only love story I really intended to make was Where Hands Touch. It was meant to be my second movie, but it was deemed too big for me, having done A Way of Life. I knew I was either going to have to not make it, and therefore not be able to make another movie. Or I was going to have to prove that I’m a filmmaker who can tell stories [similar to Where Hands Touch].
When my producer sent me the picture postcard of Belle and said, “Look, I really want to tell a story about the women in this postcard.” I said, “That’s great, but that isn’t the story I would want to tell. I would want to tell a story about the Black woman in that postcard.”
Eventually, I was allowed to do so. One of the things that the industry kept saying is, “We can see she’s a filmmaker, and she can make films, and she won a BAFTA with her first film. That’s really great. But it’s [A Way of Life is] really hard and edgy and she’s very unpolished.” I thought, Well, they want polished, I’ll give them polished. So I gave them my BBC costume drama, white girl polished with a Black girl at the centre. And then, of course, they said, “Well, we can see she can make movies, but it’s all very nice and pretty, isn’t it? It’s all very polished. It’s all very BBC.” That’s just the thing that we come up against as people of colour, but that’s also something we come up against as women. We’re constantly having to prove that the last thing we did isn’t the only thing we can do.
And so, I made Belle to prove that, and I got about three quarters of the money raised for Where Hands Touch. I realized I still didn’t have enough. When David [Oyelowo] came to me and said, “Look, Amma, I got the rights to this book many years ago. I’ve been wanting to make it for a really long time, and we would love you to come on board and help us get this [A United Kingdom] made.” I thought, I’ll make this movie about two countries and two continents, I’ll cast it brilliantly, and then, what can they say? They’ll have to just be really honest. If they don’t want to give me the money now, they can’t say it’s because I’m not experienced, or because I don’t have enough tools in my toolbox. They’ll have to just be honest about why they don’t give people like me opportunities.
Luckily, that didn’t happen, and I got the rest of the money. I’d like to say the rest is history. We almost went ahead hiccup-free [on Where Hands Touch], except just a couple of weeks before we started filming, we lost a financier. That was another story in itself. But had I made Where Hands Touch as my second not my fourth film, there would be no Belle, not as you know it. It would be an entirely different film, trust me. And, there would be no A United Kingdom as you know it.
7R: In what sense?
Amma Asante: I wanted to tell a story about one African country’s journey towards independence. That was very much a part of it for me. So when I talk about being subversive and maybe smuggling ideas, it was very key for me that we really understood what Africa’s journey looked like on its way to gaining independence. My parents are from Ghana, and Ghana was the first sub-Saharan African country to gain its independence. I was raised on those stories of what happened after India got its independence in ’47.
It was very important for me that we heard the voices of the Black women that Rosamund Pike’s character was going to become queen of. We didn’t feel we could just send her to Africa and that those women would just accept it in a group way. We had to actually hear from those women. There are lots of ways in which having a Black female behind that film makes it a different film than the one that it might have been had it not been.
7R: You mentioned that when you’re pitching to financiers, they want to know who’s in it. One of the really impressive things about your films is that you tend to anoint new stars. Gugu Mbatha-Raw had done some great theatre work before Belle, but that was her first real screen showcase. And you cast George MacKay well before he was as ubiquitous as he is now. A lot of your other supporting actors are now all over the place, like James Norton and Jack Lowden. You’ve also worked with real veteran British actors. How does your casting process work to bring together these wonderful ensembles?
Amma Asante: I love working with actors who are emerging, and sometimes, we don’t even know if they’re emerging. They’re just unknowns among the Tom Wilkinsons and the Penelope Wiltons of this world and the Rosamund Pikes working with African actors that we’re getting to know now on an international stage, like Terry Pheto. I think that there’s a wonderful frisson to be created.
There’s another really, really wonderful thing that having great names allows. It allows me the space to have those newcomers. When big names come in, they take the pressure off the film, and they make the financiers happy and comfortable. It means that I get to cast other actors who hopefully have good meaningful roles as newcomers. I’m always super grateful to those bigger names who will come on board and work with a name like mine who is working but still emerging. I know that part of their role is to sort of be the basket that catches some of this new talent that’s coming along at the same time.
It’s just a joy to be able to do that, and I love seeing those actors grow. I love seeing the heights James Norton is flying to right now. I have a knack, if I say so myself, for picking really good people and really nice people to work with. They’re really good on the inside, and so it’s really wonderful to see their stars rise and for them to get the recognition that they deserve. Good people deserve good things to happen to them, and we know that we live in a world where that’s not always the case. When you see it happen, it’s a great thing.
7R: I feel I could talk to you about working with actors for another hour, but I do want to get your thoughts on the more technical side of your films. Your films are so polished now. They are really these beautiful, sumptuous films that drop you into this world that you might think you know but discover you don’t. How do you pick your heads of departments and how do you collaborate with them to create these immersive environments?
Amma Asante: Well, I’m a complete and utter control freak, but I’m also somebody who absolutely respects the creative process and what it is to be a creative. I’ve tried to really constructively use my control-freakishness. I’m an absolute control freak when it comes to picking my heads of department. I spend a lot of time doing that. If I’ve done that well, and if I think control-freakishly enough, it means that once I’ve got those people, I can let them do their work. I don’t have to micromanage them. I don’t have to interfere with their creative process. It becomes a beautiful collaboration in which they consult me, and we sit down, and we have our meetings, and we talk about wallpaper and approve wallpaper. We review props and do all those things that you normally do when you’re a director. But I don’t micromanage them.
The way I work out whether I’m picking the right head of department is, first of all, I see lots and meet lots. I create what I call a moodboard document. That moodboard document sets out the feeling and the tone of the film. Sometimes, there’ll be a keyword attached to it or a couple of keywords attached to it, usually three or four. It will have a colour palette in it. It will have a sense of world. For instance, Dido Elizabeth’s world [in Belle] is this big kind of ice-cream-coloured world, in which the ceilings were really high, and they were like dolls in a doll’s house.
They were naive women, but as they really started to understand aspects of themselves in the world, like gender and race and the intersection of both, in Dido’s case, they grew bigger within their world. We lowered the ceilings when they got to London, and we used darker woods and richer colors. Instead of using pastel green or pastel blue, we would use emerald green. and we would use deep burgundies instead of baby pinks. Their world became more sophisticated as they became women and they began to understand the context, even if, like Elizabeth, she was slightly in denial. That is all there in a moodboard concept. It’s very easy when you present a moodboard concept to brilliant heads of department to see whether or not they’re on the same page as you or not.
That document is a talking document. If they don’t like it, you can see by their face immediately, and you need to move on so that I can find a person who goes, “Wow! I love that, and I can build on that.” I do that with the DP. I do that with the production designer. Costume designers, I talk to them until the cows come home, and I’m sure they get fed up with me in their trucks and trailers. And then, if you’re part of my language, I just let you do your shit. Because now they’ve seen my films, and they know if I’m a person that they want to work with or not. Usually, they’ll look at that document and go, “Oh I can do better than that.” What they do will be better than that, but it will be based off of my original intentions. That’s the key thing.
7R: Something that stood out to me in Where Hands Touch is all of the windows that you highlight in frame that give the feeling of this surveillance state.
Amma Asante: Yeah, it makes me shiver just thinking about it.
As you do your research, there are visual [ideas] that just keep coming back over and over again. I was looking at a lot of art from the period, known artists, as well as not known artists. A lot of art by Holocaust survivors and some who didn’t survive, as well. As I was reading, and as I was going through the museums, first online but then eventually visiting them, various visual references just kept coming back. When I read the testimonies — about what it felt like if you were Jewish, if you were persecuted, if you were anybody different in that period — it seemed to me like you felt like you were being surveyed.
When I think about the moment in Where Hands Touch where they go to visit her mom’s sister, and her mom’s sister says, “First, they’ll see a Negro on the doorstep, and next, they’ll say it’s a Jew.” The level of fear that created… it’s not an excuse for the racism and for the prejudice, but it’s to say, “Hey world, look at this. Look at what a government can do if it chooses to. And look at how a country and maybe even a continent can kind of sleep walk itself into a world in which, if we don’t put our feet down early enough, a surveillance community can exist. One where they breed ideas of calling up and telling on your neighbour, telling on your family member, and all of those things.”
Windows just became a really great symbol of that, and so I used them. Also, windows, for me, mean something really important about films, and particularly, the kind of films I make. My job is to open a window onto worlds that you think you know, even worlds that the really clever critics think they know, and say, “Hey, if you are big enough and open enough, you might consider that there are elements of this world that we haven’t seen before, that we haven’t experienced before, that perhaps we should consider. Those new windows have something to tell us about who we are today and who we might choose to be going forward.”
Seventh Row: When you were talking about the way that you changed the ceilings in Belle, it made me think about the fact that there are a lot of wide open spaces in A United Kingdom. There’s a lot of exteriors, and, of course, that’s also a story of a country finding its independence.
Amma Asante: Freedom. Freedom is the thing.
7R: It’s a completely different landscape, in the sense that you’re no longer in Europe. How did you approach creating that aesthetic?
Amma Asante: First and foremost, I was going to be in the two countries and the two continents. In the beginning, I was like, “That’s easy. I’m from both of those places. I’ve got African parents and I was born and raised in the UK, that’s going to be easy.” And then I got to Botswana for my research, and it was so different to Ghana where my parents are from. I had to remember that Africa is a continent, and it’s got all these different countries in it like Europe has, and they can all be very different.
First and foremost, I wanted first to create London in a way that was like my home, a country that I love. I didn’t want to undermine the love story by making it feel that it was such a horrible place that the first man that proposed to her she [accepted because she] just wanted to run away. That would undermine the love story.
I wanted it to feel she was leaving behind something. I wanted to make London cozy even if it’s rainy and cold. I used really cozy colours and had that bedroom be really small but cozy. And she has a family. Even though her father has a not very nice attitude, he was still her father, and she would love him. I picked an actor [Nicholas Lyndhurst] who, when I was a kid and growing up, was somebody who had a real lovable face in British households. I wanted to juxtapose those small enclosed spaces and narrow streets, rainy streets, with the kind of wide, dry but three-dimensional landscapes that you get in Africa.
What tells us that something is period in Canada? In America? In the UK? It’s cars, hairstyles, clothing. But when you get to rural Africa, how do you do that when you haven’t got all the cars? People aren’t necessarily wearing the same kind of clothes all the time as they might wear in the UK. How do you do that? I was looking for those details of how I could say this is the 1940s in Africa, where we couldn’t necessarily show all of those accessories and added elements.
For me, it was what was left behind. Maybe hairstyles differentiate the two places. Maybe in one place, there is freedom, but it feels enclosed, and the other one, there isn’t quite freedom, but it feels open. And obviously, where we did have cars and trains — I really wanted this train that we had to bring all the way from South Africa, and that was quite a job to get that over.
In Ghana, where my parents are from, prints are a very important part of the design of clothing. West African fabrics have prints. But that wasn’t the case in Botswana, and I was blown away. I was like, “Oh my God! But the whole point was I was going to go from these solid colours in the UK and then have prints when I got to Africa, but they don’t have prints, so what am I going to do?” So, I put the prints on Rosamund Pike’s character. She wears prints, and all the other women [in Botswana] wear solid block colours. So I was still able to do that. She doesn’t wear them in the UK, but she does wear them when they get to Africa.
So, it’s constantly saying, what are the juxtapositions? But not so that it ends up looking like two different films. You still have to create a cohesive Amma aesthetic to the whole thing. You’ve got to say, what’s your voice and what’s your vision and what brings these two elements together but still allows them to be different? Like him and her.
7R: Our attendee Stephen Burks asks, as a writer, do you think about whether your ideas are commercial or likely to be set up before you write, or do you ignore commercial considerations and write what interests you?
Amma Asante: I try not to [pay too much attention to commercial considerations]. I think the difficulty is the more you become steeped in the industry, you can’t help those moments where things slip in — especially having had an experience where it’s taken me 12 years to get Where Hands Touch off the ground. You think, “If I did it this way, it would probably be a little bit easier to sell.” I try to put those thoughts out of my mind, kind of like how I don’t read reviews. I know whether something’s good or bad. When I did that with my first film, in the end, you start writing your second film, and you’ve got that little critic sitting on your desk telling you what they think you should write, and we all know how bad that is.
I try to stay away from what I think will be commercial and what I think won’t be and leave that to the producers and the marketing people. That said, I’ve just said to you I do know that love stories sell more and sell better. I mean, “I think I’m done with the love stories for a little while at least” she says, and then probably, another one will come out. But at the moment, I think I am done with the love stories for a while. But I have known that I could smuggle my ideas that way.
I try to make it not my business. My very first producer of a film, the late Peter Edwards who produced A Way of Life, said to me that, in the detail, you get the universal. So if you try and make something commercial, you will end up with this kind of bland, blurry, grey nonsense. But if you focus on the detail of your characters’ worlds, whether they are a 12-year-old child growing up in Africa or a 17-year-old girl growing up in South Wales, it will resonate in Argentina, as A Way of Life did. It will resonate in Australia. It will resonate in Ghana. It will resonate everywhere because the human experience is both individual and collective all at the same time, and there’s something really beautiful about that.
7R: During the editing process, do you do audience feedback screenings? And if so, what do you take from those?
Amma Asante: Oh yeah, we do test screenings. [Sarcastically] Oh, how I love them.
For something like A United Kingdom, we did a couple. I do remember the Belle audience test screening which happened about less than a week after my father died. I had to shoot pickups, as well, because I wanted to change the ending, or I wanted to shoot it a different way. Thank you to the financiers; they allowed me to do that. So I had this real quick thing where we’d edited all of the film, and then we shot some re-shoots, and then we had to drop those into the film, and my father died at the same time.
I remember it being quite a blur as I sat with the audience to watch the test screening. We got a standing ovation at our test screening. I remember one of my financiers coming over and saying, “You need to stand up and really take this in, because it will be the only time it ever happens in your career. This just doesn’t happen.” He was quite right.
First, it [test screenings] works to know who my audience really is. Secondly, it helps to know what audiences understand and what they don’t understand — what I’m trying to convey, and whether what I’m trying to convey actually is conveyable and makes sense to people.
It bothers me if audiences don’t like my protagonist, but I’m less concerned whether the audiences like all of my characters because all of my characters are not designed to be likable. Even my lead characters must be flawed. They have to have flaws. Think about, to a certain extent, the entitlement of Seretse Khama’s character [in A United Kingdom], not in terms of the empire, but in terms of his own people. We might talk about whether monarchies and kings are relevant to today or not. He had to go through a process of letting go of his family’s entitlement so he could bring in a wider kind of democratic ideal to his family. Some might argue there’s a flaw in that which I wanted to really explore.
I like to really explore what happens to the characters when they have both good stuff inside them and not-so-good stuff inside them. Dido Belle was very elitist. She looked down on John Davinier for a period of time until she was able to allow herself to fall in love with him. I like, in particular, giving aspects to Black characters that we haven’t been allowed to have before. I like a pompous Black guy on screen who has a sense of entitlement and whose family is royal. I can bring that to an audience and say, “Yes, this was us too.” I like an entitled Black girl on the screen who says, “Are you good enough for me?” Because we live those lives, too. With test screenings, you don’t always have to adore all of the characters, but it’s important for me that you feel for the lead characters. I’m looking out for that quite often.