Rocks Interview: Sarah Gavron – ‘We wanted to celebrate the joy of girlhood, female friendship, and its transformative power’.

In a male dominated industry, filmmaker Sarah Gavron flies the flag for female-led cinema. Her works tells important stories from a women’s perspective, and her latest feature is no different. Rocks is a high school coming-of-age drama set in the hustle and bustle of East London. The story follows the path of Shola (Bukky Bakray) after she and her little brother are abandoned by their struggling mother.

I watched it at Glasgow Film Festival earlier this year (you can read my review here) and grabbed the opportunity to ask Gavron some questions…

How did the idea for Rocks originate and how/when did you become involved in the process?

I was talking to Faye Ward, the producer with whom I worked on my previous films, about what we should do next.  We were keen to make a film about young women, as we so rarely see them on our screens, or at the centre of narratives.  At that stage we didn’t have an idea for a story, but decided to first find the young cast and the team with whom to collaborate, as we wanted to build it with them as a true collective endeavor. The creative team came on board at that very early stage: – The casting director Lucy Pardee and her associate Jessica Straker, writers Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson, and the Associate director Anu Henriques, among others.

We began by going into youth clubs, communities and schools in East London to meet teenage girls who were interested in being part of the creative process. We ran workshops for over a year during which we found the young people you see on the screen. In terms of the story line – that came from Theresa Ikoko. She had been developing a story that she described as a ‘love letter’ to her sister and all the young, black women, who have to be more resilient than their years should require. What seemed to be happening between the girls and between us in the creative team, was the development of a sisterhood – and Theresa felt it would work to share the narrative with us. The script was then built around that narrative and co written by Theresa and Claire Wilson, with the cast themselves contributing ideas.  

Did you take influence from any other films that have had a cast made up of most non-professional performers?

Yes, we were influenced by a number of films such as “Divines” by Houda Benyamina and the films of Shane Meadows, Andrea Arnold, and Ken Loach. Not just by the films themselves, but also by the working processes. Those directors shoot chronologically and don’t get the actors to learn lines or hit marks as you would in a conventional process.

With what seemed like a lot of improvised scenes, how difficult was it to keep a sense of structure in the storytelling during the shoot?

The writers were on set and also the associate director and script developer. We had discussions after every take, about how the scene was evolving. This was possible because we were shooting in chronological order…helping us to hold on to the story and character development.

It’s a masterclass of editing to turn so many hours footage into what we see on screen. How involved were you in the edit?

Maya Maffioli, the editor, and I sat together for many months. She had assembled the scenes, as is usual, while we were shooting, and had done an incredible job of finding the best moments in the 150 hours of footage and making it all hang together. She gave us great feedback during the shoot, about what was working best. There was also the phone camera footage, which she integrated into the scenes from early on in the editing process. The creative team came in to the edit too at certain points, to feed back on different versions of the cut.

I think it’s important to have working-class stories in the cinema, yet some have labelled the works of Ken Loach and directors of his ilk as ‘poverty porn’. Do you see Rocks as a class movie or more about the individuals themselves?

We saw it as a film about the young girls who populate London schools more than anything else – we saw it as a story of the power of friendship and resilence of these girls. Theresa Ikoko often talked about how many moments of joy there were in her childhood, growing up in a Hackney council estate, and the girls were certainly full of joy, even when times were tough. So it was important to reflect that in the film.

It must’ve been quite a switch going from directing Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, and Meryl Streep in Suffragette to working with girls that’d never been on a set before. How much did you have to adapt your style of filmmaking for this?

It was a very different approach. We had workshopped with the young cast for over a year, so they were very familiar with the whole creative team. We then tried to remove the inhibiting factors of filmmaking: –  we shot in story order; we ran two and sometimes three cameras at all times and we didn’t say “action” – our takes often went on for ages… The young cast didn’t have to hit marks or learn lines as we wanted to make them feel as free as possible.  Everything was a conversation so if they didn’t feel something was working, they would tell us and we could adjust it. We also had a 75% female crew – who were mostly pretty young – so the cast were surrounded by people they felt comfortable with.

New words and phrases are cropping up all the time from the younger generation and the dialogue feels very authentic in Rocks. Did you learn many new terms and if so, what was your favourite?

I did learn new words. The rest of the creative team were much younger than me and I was the one who had to do most learning. I loved so many of the phrases and they teased me if I ever used them … I won’t repeat them here as they might read this and laugh at me!

What message do you hope audiences will take away from seeing Rocks?

We hope the viewers will feel the joy of girlhood, female friendship and its transformative power. We wanted to celebrate and honour that. We hope the film will attract a young audience who will see versions of themselves on screen. We also hope the film might inspire more stories around young people.

The official release date of Rocks is yet to be confirmed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the closure of UK cinemas.


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