Tony Grisoni talks about The Kingsland

The moon looks down. A stranger arrives in the city looking for the same things we all wish for: work, love and respect. His name is Huso. He is a young Kurdish man unable to speak English, unfamiliar with his surroundings and without friends or family in this area of north London – Kingsland.

We travel with Huso; dipping into other people’s lives; George, the fatherly Greek Cypriot who runs a market café, the harsh and controlling Mehmet, Fatma, a sad and lonely woman, Laila, her beautiful daughter who is married to a local gangster. Each person adopts Huso for their own half-glimpsed reasons. Huso survives on charity and favors, misinterpreting signs, treading a tragically inevitable road that will lead him back to the beginning.

Writer-director, Tony Grisoni has worked as screenwriter with such directors as John Boorman, Terry Gilliam, Michael Winterbottom, and recently on the forthcoming RED RIDING TRILOGY with Julian Jarrold, James Marsh and Anand Tucker and THE UNLOVED, directed by Samantha Morton and produced by Kate Ogborn. Grisoni is currently working at the Bureau with producers Kate Ogborn and Mike Elliott, researching and writing KINGSLAND – the feature shooting this Autumn.

Bijan Tehrani: How did you actually encounter the subject of Kingsland?
Tony Grisoni: It’s a short question, but a long answer, I’m afraid. I have lived in roughly the same area of London for around 20 years now. There are two neighborhoods in fact. The first is in the London borough of Haringey in north London. When I first moved there with my partner, it was predominantly Cypriot—it used to be called “Little Cyprus”. We moved there partly because it was very cheap and also because it didn’t feel like England; it felt like living somewhere where you didn’t know the rules; you were surrounded by people who had different ways of living, so it was very exciting. It was also an area full of small shops: grocery shops, dry-cleaning places, bars and cafes. They were privately owned, small businesses and there were no chains. In the ten or eleven years we were there, the demographic changed; more and more people came over from Turkey and these people were predominately Kurdish. At the time I didn’t know why these people were coming, I didn’t know very much about them at all, I was pretty ignorant. Towards the end of our stay there, there was a big street-fight involving around forty or fifty young men armed with pool cues and things they’d picked up. It was a really serious fight; many were injured and one man died. When I asked people about it, they just said, “Oh, its drugs! Its drugs!” as if that explained anything. So I didn’t really know why this fight had happened.

I then moved – not very far – but to a slightly different area where I am now. The overland railway station is Kingsland Dalston and, again, this area is predominantly Kurdish. In 2001, I worked on a film that Michael Winterbottom directed called In This World which tracked two, young Afghani boys being smuggled overland from Pakistan, through Iran, Turkey and eventually to Europe, and London. As part of this film, I went and met some Kurdish people at the local community centre and asked them if they would mind coming along and being extras in the film because we had to recreate a refugee camp called Sangatte, which was near Calais. They wouldn’t let us film there so we had to recreate it on the south coast. I asked 50 or so of these Kurdish people to come along and be extras. Through that, I made some Kurdish friends. So I started to ask them about this big street-fight and what was behind it. Around that time, I thought, “I really want to make a film set in my backyard, a film set where I live.” These were the people I had to go to because it wasn’t something I wanted to make-up or invent, it was something I wanted to source from reality. The producer, Kate Ogborn, came on board and raised a little finance from The Bureau Film Company for research. I went about it in the same way that I went about working on In This World, which is to meet people, and to ask to hear their stories. I did this with my stepdaughter, Lily. We collected hundreds of tales, and in researching, I discovered a little of the true story behind the street-fight I had witnessed 4 years previously. It was a very complex thing, but amounted to a local community having enough of gangsters dealing drugs on their doorsteps and enough of finding money and guns under their sons’ beds. They couldn’t get results from the police or from local politicians, so they firmly took the power into their own hands. It’s a lot more complex than that, but that’s the main thrust. So I had all of these stories, and in order to knit them together needed a framework of some kind.

 I went to the Italian Neo-realists—a little later really—but I went to Visconti’s movie Rocco and his Brothers. Rocco and his Brothers is the story about five brothers and their mother who come from southern Italy up to the rich, industrial North looking for work. Each brother has a story and that story is interlaced with the other tales—I really liked this framework. So I tried to give the tales that I came across that type of structure. I decided to have four or five different people whose stories would be interwoven and converge at the end. And the first character was called The Dreamer; a young man who arrives in a place where he doesn’t know the rules, doesn’t know how things work, he is literally a dreamer. In the middle of trying to get people interested in the feature film, I was given an opportunity, thanks to Jo McClellan at Film Four. She made a real act of faith in me and put enough money up for us to make a short film. I took out the first of these stories – The Dreamer – and I then starting shaping that tale so that it came around in a circle and had a form to it which I felt would make a short film. So, there you have it: that’s the long answer to your very short question.

BT: How did you actually find the main actors for your film?
TG: Well, I knew that we were making a film which sourced real stories; I knew that I wanted to shoot the film in real locations. I wanted to shoot it in the same locations where these stories took place. I also knew that I wanted to involve non-professional actors. It seems to me that if you are lucky enough to get a chance to make a short film, then you should take risks because I never felt people take enough risks when they make films. There’s a tendency for directors to behave themselves because they’re frightened that they won’t get another chance. Then there are filmmakers like Michael Winterbottom and although he’s a totally different type of filmmaker, Terry Gilliam—the thing they have in common is that they like taking risks and I admire this very much. So we had real locations, real people, but the difference was that I really wanted to shoot this with a sort of classical cinematic language.

The co-producer, Mike Elliott introduced me to the DOP, Florian Hoffmeister. We got along straight away and we decided that we wanted to shoot the film on 35mm using anamorphic lenses to give a kind of epic feel to these true stories rather than go the traditional route which would have been closer to a kind of documentary. So that was the plan, and our casting director Shaheen Baig really has her finger on the pulse. She lives not very far away from where I live, so we involved Shaheen and she came along and started to meet Kurdish people who lived around here. Shaheen and I met lots of people at ther Kurdish Community Centre who said they wanted to be in a film. Then we’d start to play games: we played charades – acting out things – doing impersonations, like a charade of someone mending a bicycle tire and they would have to guess what I was doing. Of course, I was so bad at it that they couldn’t guess, but at least if I was making a fool myself than they were less frightened of making fools of themselves. Very quickly we learned who wants to play and who doesn’t. Interestingly, for the main character I had in my head Lamberto Maggiorani The Bicycle Thieves. I kept thinking a man in his late thirties was what we were looking for, but we couldn’t find anyone who fitted the bill. One day we were seeing some people and Shaheen looked in the corner where one young man was just getting some things out of the cupboard. It was Abdullah, who was eighteen years old and was in college. She just nodded at him and I looked at this young man and he had such charisma and it was so clear that he was the person we were looking for. We approached him and he agreed and I then went back to the script and I changed the script to take on a younger man. It made for a better film – thanks, I got to say that, to Shaheen’s instincts.

BT: How are you going about the feature film?
TG: Well, you found me on a really great day, because today that I finally got to— well you never get to the end of a script, but you found me on the day I decided to stop. For now. We have a feature film script. Our feature is the whole, big story I was telling you about. Kate is producing, along with Mike and Matthieu de Braconier from The Bureau. We have been working with Shaheen again to trawl through the local community looking for non-professional actors we can involve, but I also want to involve some professional actors in this one. There are two or three roles for characters which are non-Kurdish, and I am really excited about the sparks that you get when you mix professional and non-professional actors. So we are looking for really quality performers; actors who will be excited to be dropped into a world about which they know very little, actors who will be excited about the chance of working with non-professionals. The UK Film Council has helped us out enormously with some development money and we’ve used that for casting and also to shoot again with Florian. We have been doing a mixture of things like marches in the city and demonstrations, but also we went along to the celebration of the Kurdish New Year with a 35mm camera and filmed these fantastic celebrations – dances – young people leaping over fire—these kinds of things. The community is so generous and so welcoming. It’s all really exciting. Now we have a script and a wish-list of wonderful performers we’d like to involve. We’re working on a budget and a schedule and now we start to go to people who we feel might be interested in financing this film of ours.

BT: At the Palm Springs International Shortfest, you have won Cinema Without Borders’ Best International Film Award for your outstanding use of the language of cinema to address a very essential issue dealing with humans today. What are your thoughts? Do you think it will help in any way?
TG: Winning this award, winning this prize, it does a lot of things. First, it says “Thank you” to all of the people that were involved in the short film. Then, it makes the feature film that much more real. It couldn’t have come at a better time. I’ve got a whole collection of emails from people sending their congratulations and I can’t describe to you the sense of excitement and optimism that this prize has generated. It really does make the feature film that much more possible and we’re all very grateful.


About Author

Bijan Tehrani

Bijan Tehrani a film director, film critic and writer, works as editor in chief of Cinema Without Borders while teaching Language of Film and Film History at workshops nationwide. Bijan has won several awards in international film festivals and book fairs for his short films and children's books.

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