BY CREATORS, FOR CREATORS.
Ours is a community where passion and diversity are nurtured and celebrated, which is why we’re using our platform to highlight under-represented creators from all over the industry - from Colourists, DoPs and Directors to Producers, Editors, Sound Designers and anyone/everyone in between. We want to champion those who shy away from the spotlight, those who aren’t yet in the spotlight, and those who statistically have less chance of ever getting to be in the spotlight at all!
Each month, we’ll be publishing an interview with a talented creator from somewhere in the industry, nominated by the person before. They’ll be sharing their work, their ideas and, hopefully, a bit of themselves!
003: SAM ARBOR
Sam is a queer writer/director from Manchester. Starting out at an early age, he made films purely as a hobby, before winning the BFI’s “most promising talent” award at sixteen opened his eyes to the collaborative nature of filmmaking, and the possibilities money and support could afford.
A string of successful short films and plays followed - including ‘O2’, ‘Lifeline’, ‘Butterfly’, and his recent film ‘Baba’, a story about a queer teenager and his Dad, set in Libya, just won the 2021 Iris Prize.
Sam has recently finished as Director’s Assistant to BAFTA-winning director Euros Lyn (Broadchurch, Black Mirror, Doctor Who, Happy Valley) on the new queer series ‘Heartstopper’ for Netflix, and is currently a Director’s Assistant on another “major Netflix series”.
We discuss the films he made at eleven, the joys of collaborative filmmaking, what he finds so thrilling about theatre, how he learned the art of directing with the help of the BFI, and more.
Cheat: Tell us a bit about your background…
SA: I’m a writer/director from Manchester. I’m queer, and that’s important to me, particularly in the stories I’m interested in telling at the moment. It’s always shifting. At the moment it’s about finding corners of queerness that haven’t been put on a screen and exploring that.
I’ve been making films since I was eleven. It started when I found a laptop at school that they were going to throw away. It couldn’t connect to the internet. The keyboard didn’t work. There was an in-built 240p webcam - probably worth quite a lot now because it’s so old school! Luckily the camera worked and that’s how I started recording myself and making films.
Cheat: What were you making?
SA: A lot of things! I was trying to be inventive with myself in it. There were a lot of things about twins, with me playing both characters. There was a whole series of films called ‘Hide and Seek’ which made sense because it requires one person in a frame at once… normally… except for the final frame where they find each other, so that would be me hiding and me seeking! I did it with a split screen. I’d lock off a camera and make sure not to cross over to the other side and then lay them over the top of each other. I’d use mirrors and things. I was making these films, these terrible films, from age eleven until an embarrassingly late age… The film probably improved as I got friends! And got them involved in the fun of filmmaking! I was always rubbish at the Xbox, which is what most people seemed to do, so maybe that’s why I turned to films.
**Cheat: You won the BFI’s “most promising talent” award at 16. How did that come to be? Most kids at 16 don’t even know filmmaking is a career option… **
SA: Before that, I basically made a film every weekend. It’s always been my only hobby. I was lucky that I walked to school with a few mates that were interested in it as well, and we would chat about what film we were making that weekend. We might have seen a film about a spy, so we’d make a film about it, and completely make it up as we went along. The more we made, the better we planned, and a quick film every weekend became a better film, or a more daring film, every three weeks. During that time, we made a film called ‘O2’ which went on to win the BFI Future Film Festival Fiction Award. I’d upgraded the camera at this point to a low range £200 DSLR and we had started to develop our locations and build props. Our parents would be amazing with it, taking us out to the moors on a freezing November day, where they’d drop us off at a barbed-wire fence. We would climb over and be there for eight hours, then get picked up once it got dark.
We kept making films after ‘O2’. What changed, was that people who watched them at school sort of didn’t take the piss out of them anymore, so I realised maybe it was different. Then one day, we were stood on a stage with a big novelty cheque for £5000. So strange!
[Above: Still from BFI-funded ‘Lifeline’, written and directed by Sam]
Cheat: What happened after the BFI?
SA: It was six months of panic. I had no idea what to do with this money. ‘O2’ was made for about a tenner and a pack of custard creams! You can see it’s made for nothing. The BFI were amazing with their advice. Our conversations about the story were very rewarding. They’d be great at making me feel like the ideas were much better than I thought they were. They’d find things in the idea, and pull them up to the surface. It was very empowering in that way. They advised me to get all this crew, and a producer, which we never had before. So I’d end up on set thinking, for the first time, “this isn’t mine anymore. It’s owned by all these different people and it’s so much better for it.” That’s what changed for me. I suppose I learned that filmmaking is so much freer when other people get involved. I think that was my first big lesson in what directing is, to really be the coordinator of ideas from other people’s wonderful brains. That film was called ‘Lifeline’.
Cheat: Did you have any mentors around that time?
SA: Yeah, the BFI gave me a mentor. The best thing they did was not make any decisions for me. They guided me. I felt embarrassed that they were putting money behind my ideas and I was worried my ideas weren’t worth that money, but they kept saying they were worth it. On a practical level, they’d read the script and say “try again but write it without any dialogue. See if you can make the story work.” Or, because I love working with actors, they’d suggest not writing the scene, but workshopping it with actors. For a lot of the scenes in ‘Lifeline’ the dialogue was stripped away and we built it back up together on set. That mentorship was all part of the prize. It taught me about redrafting. It taught me what a creative process could look like.
Cheat: How have the last 18 or so months been for you?
SA: Tough, definitely. Falling off the wagon of having festivals and networking events, being faced with just sitting in your room at your computer with the blinking cursor is tough. Not only do you not have friends around to support and inspire you, you’re faced with months to sit and write, which is what writers dream of, supposedly, so when it arrives, and it feels impossible, that’s tough. The first 12 months of the pandemic were rejection. I got rejected from everything. Everything! It was difficult, to be honest. So I started working in a frozen food shop, which was nice. After all the rejections I decided I just really wanted to make a film again that didn’t cost anything, like back in the day. To not depend on an organisation, or other people to say “yes, you are worth something.” So, I wrote a short film that could be shot remotely, sent it out to some actors I really admired and they came on board. The script was really personal to all three of us and we were chatting about the script in a way I’ve never been able to before. It’s about a dad and daughter trying to reconnect when they’ve been separated. It felt really authentic and inspired me. I’ve still never met those actors. Off the back of that, I teamed up with my close friend Adam (Ali), and we co-created, co-wrote and co-directed ‘Baba’. So, the second half of lockdown was more enjoyable because we were making this short film together.
‘Baba’ is set in Tripoli in tunnels beneath the city. It’s about a bunch of queer friends living on the underground. It’s about a 17 year old teenager and his quest to become British, because in his mind ‘to be truly gay you have to be British’. It’s kind of about what it means to be queer in a place that wants to keep you hidden. We managed to get funding from the BFI and British Film Council.
Because I made this film with a friend of mine, we could be silly and queer and invent stuff freely. Suddenly the page becomes more alive because we weren’t trying to say “let’s write a thriller about this” or “let’s be inspired by this film”. We knew we wanted to write a love letter to Libya, ultimately. But for the first time, our biggest driver was that we should be inspired by who we are as people. Being queer and hopeful, looking for the reasons to smile in life.
Cheat: You worked with DP Diana Olifirova on the forthcoming Netflix series ‘Heartstopper’ recently too?
SA: Yes. It’s been a busy 18 months! I was the director’s assistant on that show for a phenomenal director called Euros Lyn. He directed Doctor Who, which I love. It was the first proper TV show I ever watched. However, the show I was more obsessed with than Doctor Who was Doctor Who Confidential, which is the behind the scenes sister show. I always remember his name coming up on the spinning tardis that would come up at the bottom of the screen, and I’d think “He directed this. The show is directed. What does that even mean? He is the QUEEN!” He’s been floating around my mind for ages, so it was great to be able to work for him. He was very empowering. It was so fulfilling to work on something start to finish. The problem with TV is by the time you see it on the screen it’s a packaged product, and the magic circle is so tightly sealed you have no idea how they even began to make something like it. When you work on it, you see how they build the magic wheel out of plywood and sweat and conversations around a table… you see everything it takes. It feels possible suddenly - vast and crazy, but possible. That’s what I gained from that experience.
Cheat: You’ve talked about your love of working with actors and how inspiring that is. Who or what inspires you in work and in life?
SA: I find actors fascinating! Always wondering, and thinking deeply about what makes people tick, but at the same time so instinctive and in the moment. It’s that push and pull of close consideration and explosive instinct which makes me enjoy working with actors. Photography inspires me too. I love going out with my camera, going through photo books, going to galleries, going through photo series on the internet. Something I find really relaxing is building photo books for myself of photos I’ve taken of strange things. Life is so strange. Particularly in Manchester - weird, beautiful things happen in Manchester! So I collect a load of images, and they roughly go into books arranged by what the images feel like. It’s a nice way to enter through the side entrance for writing. If you’re watching a film, trying to inspire yourself to make a film, that magic circle thing comes up again. I feel overwhelmed by the pressure to build something so nuanced and beautiful. Taking it back to an image can be so simplifying.
[Above: Still from Iris-Prize-winning ‘Baba’]
Cheat: Let’s go into your theatre work… How is it different from working in film? What are the challenges?
SA: When I went to uni, I changed my course early on to a theatre one because I wanted to get to know more actors so they could be in the films I’d make. While there, I went to the theatre to see a proper play for the first time and was amazed by what I saw. (I’d seen some musicals and things, but no drama!). It changed my perception of what was possible. With film, you’re lucky to get a rehearsal before the day. With theatre, you get hours of rehearsal. It was incredible. Suddenly you can build scenes from dialogue, and when live you can throw in complications and problems for the characters to deal with… and how fun is that to see!
Cheat: Which do you prefer? They’re very different ways of working!
SA: It’s so hard to say. I love how controlled film is. You get to tell the audience what to look at, how long for, what to hear. The puppetry of people’s emotions can be a little more refined. But there’s something so thrilling about theatre - with a human being in front of you doing something. When it hits, it can hit so hard. The potential energy with theatre is great. With theatre, I’ve noticed the process is circular. We all sit in circles and chat equally about everything. People are given the opportunity to have a say. Whereas in film, I’ve noticed the director gets more agency - the director tends to have say on more aspects, more clearly. I see it more like a straight line, and the director is at the front of the line. I think I want film to be more of a circle, if it’s something I’m working on, where the director is asking the questions of the cast and crew, and taking those thoughts on board, to best guide the story.
Cheat: You talked about being queer being important to you. How do you think the industry is addressing and responding to diversity and inclusion?
SA: It’s hard for me to talk about all aspects of diversity. Generally, in front of the camera, it’s feeling better with every production. There’s a real movement happening there. There are a lot of queer characters that feel genuinely queer. They’re not tokenistic. It’s that thing of seeing one gay character as the mate of a load of straight people. That would never happen! I look at my life compared to that and it’s so different. I’m worried about that queer person! I want to dive in there and rescue them! In terms of queerness, finding stories that are uniquely queer is super vital. Just having a queer character who might fall in love with a girl or might be trans is great for visibility but in terms of communicating those details of what it’s actually like to live and feel differently as a queer person - that’s when we can bring about change, because that’s when everybody stops and thinks about it. The meanings within a queer friendship group are different than a friendship group that isn’t joined by their queerness. It’s that unique experience of falling for someone, and the first stage of that working out if they could fall in love with you back. That unique thing that only happens for queer people. I think that’s really important that those stories are told. We’re only just scratching the surface. Generally in terms of diversity and inclusion, what I’d love to see more - which you see in theatre a lot more - is race-aware and gender-aware casting, where you might use the casting of a person to work in conflict with the role. You see it in theatre all the time and it’s really interesting. I think casting can really tell the story, and film still seems quite interested in just presenting reality as it looks, and I wonder what would happen if we let ourselves suspend disbelief a little more in film.
Cheat: You have a lot to choose from, but what is your career highlight so far?
SA: It was very validating but terrifying to get the support from the BFI. Also, working with the crew on ‘Baba’ having been locked down for so long was great. Having a conversation with the cinematographer, Michael Filocamo, for example, and us challenging each other, and him taking what the script meant to him, giving it a new perspective and improving it… I was just glowing after that. It felt like that’s what I’d been missing: Someone else taking what they think something is, smashing it through their eyeballs, throwing it out their mouth back at you, and you’re struck by something so much better than you ever thought it was. It’s so refreshing. I genuinely remember that conversation and feeling so excited. And that repeated with Izzy who did the editing, and Tom who did the music, and Ines who did the sound design. All these people were so raring to go. The process of making that film was really fun. I feel very honoured for all of the opportunities people have trusted me with.
Cheat: What’s next for you?
SA: I’m currently the director’s assistant on a long-standing Netflix series, which we finish shooting soon. ‘Baba’ is on the festival circuit, and it just won the Iris Prize.
Sam’s nomination for next month…
Name: Michael Filocamo
Why are you nominating them?: Michael is a stellar cinematographer, who elevated ‘Baba’ infinitely when he came on board as our DP. He’s determined to change the world on and off screen: in the bold & political stories he champions with his work, and within the film industry itself. A kind, yet fiery force taking the world by storm.