As her South London-set comedy-drama Gone Too Far premieres on Film4, director Destiny Ekaragha recounts the films and formative experiences that led up to her feature debut…
The Breakfast Club
The first film I was exposed to was The Breakfast Club. I think I watched that film when I was like five or six or something like that, and I didn’t understand all of it obviously, but I just loved the characters, I loved them. I loved John Bender, I thought he was everything, and when I was a teenager I was a lot like John Bender – he kept all his feelings inside, you know he didn’t really talk about his emotions, neither did I.
I just loved the fact that John Hughes was able to tell this story in one location. So I was just like “oh my God, these characters are just literally just sitting down talking!” And when I started writing I realised I loved dialogue, so The Breakfast Club was a major influence, Clerks was a major influence. Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused: major influence.
I was young when I saw Clerks, I think I was about maybe 15 I think, and I hadn’t been exposed to another film like that. When I saw films like Clerks and Dazed and Confused, I was like, you can literally just like follow people around and it can be a film, they’re just talking. The comedy and the emotion and indeed the journeys were being told through dialogue I didn’t know you were allowed to do this. Those are the directors that kind of inspired me to write in the first place and tell stories that way.
Your message doesn’t always have to be super, super heavy, but I think your films need to have a message. Clerks has a message, and people just think it’s jokes but it isn’t, it’s “why would you stay in a job that you hate?” You have the power to leave but you don’t, and you don’t because you’re scared. That’s most of us. That’s the message, even though it’s like the funniest thing. Dazed and Confused, that’s letting go of childhood. As much as you like, you might have hated the institution of school, you’re going into the big, bad world and you don’t know it. That kind of coming of age, that’s all of us. Every film should have a message, every film should say something, otherwise you get empty films.
Dead Man’s Shoes
I guess the three main filmmakers, British ones, that I’m inspired by are Shane Meadows, Guy Ritchie and Gurinder Chadha. When I was in my early 20s I discovered Shane Meadows. Not “discovered” – he was mainstream, he’s out there – but for me it was a discovery because I just didn’t know him. It felt like every British film was like kitchen sink, and I just wanted to see something else, and there was this DP that I knew that mentioned Dead Man’s Shoes. I watched that film and I was like “are you joking… how the f*** did I miss this film?!” That’s one of my favourite films, it’s brilliant. It’s a revenge movie, and I was just like, we can do revenge movies, why can’t we do revenge movies? Like of course we can, and he did one!
It was films like that and Lock Stock… Lock Stock to this day is one of the funniest films. The thing that I loved about Lock Stock was that the people sounded like they were honestly from south-east London. I watched Lock Stock and I was like “oh they sound a bit like us or like people we know”, but the comedy! This is a gangster movie, but why wouldn’t there be comedy in there? Like, you know, people are funny! And that inspired me.
And Bend it Like Beckham, I just love that film, but that one inspired me on so many different levels because you had a different culture. You had this Asian culture that you very rarely see but is very much a part of British life or at least London life from what I know. And then the bits with the parents, the mother, they’re so similar to Nigerian parents that I was just like, this is how I grew up, this is the same. It’s just a great film, but I found it to be just really real and kind of unapologetic. And Gurinder Chadha being female and a non-white person that’s a filmmaker, it was just unheard of to my knowledge. So I was like, she got her film done, so she inspired me on that level as well.
When I made Tight Jeans, which was my first short, I was young enough and naive enough thankfully to think that I could do whatever I wanted. So if I want to direct I’m going to direct. There was never any question about “oh my God I’m a woman” and “oh my God I’m black”, “I can’t direct”, or “this is going to be hard”. Because I did my first short film when I was 24. The sky’s the limit when you’re 24, there are no obstacles.
That’s a real confidence booster, you know what I mean, because once you’ve done it, you’ve done it. And then once you’ve got that, you’ve got the major tool that you need for any filmmaker, confidence. So when I walk into a room, nobody in that room, and I don’t care who it is, can tell me that I can’t make a short film, and that’s what making a short film does for you. It gives you those tools and that ability to be like, “I know I can direct because I’ve done it”.
Gone Too Far
But when I got to features… Nobody gives a f*** about your short films one you get to features. Your first feature is everything, so that scared me. I knew that I would love making the film, it was just trying to get that film made, and I fought, we fought to get that film made.
To be honest with Gone Too Far that’s when I first came up against my biggest hurdle, and it’s the hurdle I know that may plague me for the rest of my career, in that once the majority of your cast is black, the moment you say that they’re all black you see the flicker in people’s eyes. Everything becomes harder for people, they’re just like “how do I sell that film? Who’s going to watch it outside of ‘the black’, and I’m doing quotations, outside of ‘the black community’?
And I just thought… It’s based in London, these people are from London, they’re kids, it’s just teenagers. It’s first love, it’s identity crisis, everyone has been through these things, how can they not see the world? Gone Too Far is a walky-talky film. I haven’t created this alien world, it’s not f***ing Avatar. Yet they can’t see this world. I’ll never forget it because it was like that moment I was like, if these leads were white it would be in the genre of Stand By Me. You’re on a journey with these kids. But the moment the kids are black nobody understands them, because my opinion of that is that it’s just not the narrative that they’re used to with young black kids. The narrative that they know is hoodies selling drugs on the corner, or someone gets shot and there’s some moral at the end. Some of the notes we were getting… “There’s too much race talk, there’s a bit too much talk about race”. One of them was “take out the debates about race and your film will get made”. That’s like asking Spike Lee to take out the debates about race in Do The Right Thing. It’s the entire film, that’s that what the film is!
Gone Too Far
When people ask me what my journey to Gone Too Far was I tell you the truth, I’m not going to sit there and go, “ah you know we were in development for a couple of years but eventually got our film and it was just amazing”. I think I’d do myself and other filmmakers, especially up and coming filmmakers, a disservice by doing that. I wish it was like that, it would have been f***ing dope. But I’m glad I went through what I went through because I think I’m better for it, but I wish it was all just sunshine and rainbows but it’s just not yet.
As I was trying to get Gone Too Far made, I ran against every instinct in the beginning, in the development stages every instinct I had I went against because I was absolutely sure that everybody else knew better than I did. With my short films I just made the films that I wanted to make, but features was a big thing, it’s a big deal, and I was like they must know what they’re doing. But when I think of all my favourite directors and their first feature, like Kevin Smith with Clerks, Tarantino with Reservoir Dogs. That’s when I began to follow my instincts and be like, I know how I want to make this film now, I’m going to do it the way I want to do it, and people seemed to go along.
But after Gone Too Far, there’s no looking back from that, after that you’re just like this is how I see the world, this is how I envision it, this is how I want to tell it. And you’ve kind of got to be yourself when you’re going to these meetings and pitching it. That’s why it’s always important to tell the truth about how it is that you see that script that’s been put in front of you, and then if you’re lucky, they go “oh my God that sounds great”, then you try and do it and you do it to the best of your ability. But I will never go against my instincts again ever, that was my lesson on Gone Too Far.
As told to Michael Leader. Gone Too Far premieres on Film4 at 11.10pm on Friday 10th July