Updated: Dec 4, 2021
Setting in motion a chain of events that would bring an end to decades of cooperation and freedom of movement, the Brexit referendum of 2016 was a watershed moment that we're still trying to come to terms with. One person who was already thinking about the implications of this divisive move was writer/director Benjamin Bond (hereafter referred to as initials BB) whose directorial debut, The Drifters, is now available on-demand and via select streaming services.
For those who haven't read our review of the film (we'll wait while you do that now), The Drifters is "a love story about identity and place in a post-Brexit United Kingdom. Koffee (Jonathan Ajayi), an African migrant, and Fanny (Lucie Bourdeu), a French waitress, are two lost souls who attempt to find home in one another and escape the labels that inevitably leave them homeless". Franco Files founder, Chris Thompson, sat down with Bond to discuss the roots of the film and some of the themes it touches on.
Chris Thompson - You originally conceived the idea of The Drifters on a trip to West Africa over a decade ago. Were you frustrated by the way things started to change politically as you got closer to making the film or did you embrace the increased relevance these circumstances brought?
Benjamin Bond - On a political level I was frustrated about the changes and on a personal level, as you say, I embraced the increased divisions in society. From what I could see Brexit and four years of Trump (among other populist leaders) made freedom of movement and migration even more difficult and dangerous. People have always risked their lives to move and seek opportunity and that was one of the reasons for setting the film against the Jurassic cliffs in Devon - to stress this movement of people has been happen since the dawn of humanity. I think it’s a basic human right to go where you want and to love who you want. We made borders, they are our construct, but humans are not meant to live within a set of lines. And, of course, they are often drawn on a map by people who have colonised others. The film consciously straddles two places - and two cinema cultures - the UK and Europe. And of course we all originate from Africa, so it is already in the mix. Ultimately I wanted to make a British film in the European style that is a little bit nostalgic for times past, because I believe people don’t give a fuck about Brexit or borders, they care about freedom, love, nature and other people.
CT - How much did your background as a Radio Producer factor into your filmmaking approach? It seems like music plays a big part in the film - both in terms of its original score and the other songs you chose.
BB - I started out as a music producer for Radio 1 working with Trevor Nelson and Pete Tong. RnB (in all its forms) and dance music are both deep in my soul. I guess technically it taught me about the importance of sound and how to build atmosphere and tone through music. I think working with famous musicians such as Dr. Dre, Beyonce, Mary J Blige, Common (and many more) recording live music in the studio helped me learn how to communicate and work with artists and actors. The score in The Drifters was recorded by Zero Vu live over the picture, so it’s very spontaneous, almost jazz like, in its conception. In terms of style we wanted to have a feel of the best European scores of the '60s, a little Gallic influence, but still sound modern and work in the context of the scenes. I worked closely with Michael McEvoy and Nick Taylor at Air Edel to master the tracks and make them sync with the juke box songs on the soundtrack. The sound design was by Richard Evans, who I started out working with at Radio 1. The licensed songs are an eclectic mix of rock, RnB, folk and dance. Penguin Orchestra are managed by a friend of mine, so she hooked us up. I love how Patsy Cline and Rod McKuen work, McKuen sings Jacques Brel at the end of the film - a classic French artist performed in English - it sums it all up. I would have had more juke box tracks if we had more money - Riders on the Storm by The Doors and Sunshine Superman by Donovan are the ones that got away.
CT - It also felt like there was some influence from the 'music video generation' of directors like Russell Mulcahy and David Fincher, who brought that cool, fresh aesthetic to the cinema. Was this something you were aware of, or that you'd agree with?
BB - Yes, totally. I grew up on MTV, and I’m obsessed with old music videos which for my money are some of the most exciting and interesting films around. If there’s music on TV I’ll watch it for hours and hours. I’m influenced by Chris Cunningham, Lindy Heymann (who’s a close friend) and too many more to mention.
CT - Many people have highlighted the comparisons with French New Wave cinema, particularly the films of Jean-Luc Godard. Did you intend for The Drifters to be a sort of love letter to classic cinema with these kind of influences on prominent display, or did that just evolve with the project?
BB - Yes, it was deliberate - a love letter to Europe and cinema - as we wave them goodbye! But the film has many influences - it’s very intertextual - something of a collage, which of course is a style the new wave pioneered. So it has been influenced by a diverse input - architect Le Corbusier provided inspiration for the palette, Powell and Pressburger and Technicolor also, Antonioni’s modernist film, Red Desert, Bertolucci, and also US filmmakers like Arthur Penn. In literature it references Rumi, Rimbaud, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, Dickens, and a whole host of other hidden Easter eggs. But the French New Wave, especially Godard, Eric Rohmer and Agnes Varda (down to its alternative title, Les Vagabonds) are the most influential. How can they not be? This is where all modern films begin. I wanted to see if you could still make a film in this way - now that all their styles and tropes have been absorbed and done to death - how could you make it feel fresh? Perhaps this is even not possible, but that was the ambition. I think casting Jonathan, and putting his character Koffee in this sort of film, plays a big part in moving it all forward in this respect. Anyway, it’s the type of film I love to watch - that makes me want to make films - so it’s also kind of me learning in camera, which is very exposing, and you are a hostage to comparisons with the greatest of all time. Jean-Luc, Eric, Agnes please accept my love and apologies! It felt right for the nostalgic elements of the film, which are about cinema and Europe, and not knowing what you’ve got until it’s gone. But it’s also very liberating because I made this film for me, and if you don’t like it then as Fanny says - in French - fuck you!
CT - One of the greatest strengths of the film is in its casting - especially your two leads. How closely did you work with Isabella Odoffin in finding the right people to bring this story to life, and how easy or difficult was the actual process?
BB - Isabella is a wonderful and very talented casting director and she has to take a lot of the credit with my producer Iona Sweeney. They both worked tirelessly to cast far and wide for the main roles. It’s an intimate film, a first time director with a modest budget, so in some ways we were free to cast the best people for the roles without too much outside pressure. They gave me tickets to see Jonathan acting in The Brother’s Size (written by Moonlight’s Tarell Alvin McCraney). It was an amazing production and Jonathan immediately impressed me. He had great presence physically and mentally in that space. After the show, when I learned he was still studying at LAMDA, I was amazed. I didn’t ever feel I was taking a risk with him - I knew he had all the qualities and technical ability to be a leading man and hold the film. Lucie auditioned, coming over from Paris, and she was full of the same energy I had in mind when I wrote the character, vulnerable, funny, but with attitude and also with some steel, you would never feel sorry for her or like she was a victim and this was an essential quality for me. She has been acting on French TV and in movies since she was a teenager, and I think both Jonathan and I learned a lot from her experience, craft and discipline. Together they are a powerful team and without them, and their level of performance, I think it’s fair to say the film would not work.
CT - In one of her interviews, Lucie talks about there being a degree of improvisation and collaboration between the three of you. Was that an approach you encouraged from the outset?
BB - Yes, it’s hugely important and, without it, it wouldn’t work - it would be too self-conscious. I am indebted to them both. We had a five day rehearsal period, in which they shared a lot with each other and became friends. After this they made it look effortless, which is a testament to their skill as actors but also to their enjoyment of each other and the process. But it has a more important role even than just the chemistry on screen.The film has some very provocative statements (such as ‘black people don’t swim’) and other micro-aggressions - that Koffee’s character has to deal with - and he can turn them into something positive without burning the world to the ground in response. I took a big risk with this element of the writing, but Jonathan expanded it with his own words and improvisation, and I think that’s his power. Fortunately the audience gets it and you can always trust them to be smart.
CT - Not only has The Drifters gone through the wringer of Brexit between concept and execution, but it's now found its release window in the midst of a global pandemic. How do you reflect on those various challenges, and has it impacted your feelings about the film in hindsight?
BB - Specifically, I wanted to write Koffee as a character who is here to enjoy life and who is not burdened forever by trauma, historical or otherwise. His freedom to live just how he wants, although short lived, is at the heart of the film. But now the world is more divided and in worse shape than when I started, and we have cancel culture and many other more tangible curbs on our freedoms. I think in many ways I wasn’t prepared for the degree of polarisation we have now, but I am hopeful we’ll come together again because of the extreme challenges we face As for timing - we premiered at the Sao Paulo International Film Festival, late in 2019, and then the pandemic hit. So we had finished the film, but we had to delay the release until now. We felt like it needed a little bit of optimism and sunshine to return in the UK to take it to market. It’s that kind of film. Hopefully now it will have a good run over the Spring and Summer. Perhaps we’re getting more attention because others are holding back.
CT - Given that The Drifters was indirectly a response to the times and events taking place around you, has the current situation inspired something new for you? If not, or if so, what do you see yourself doing next?
BB - I am writing a contemporary horror set in Glastonbury with the world’s best soundtrack. It takes a look back at what we’re currently going through from the point of view of a black female singer from Topanga in LA who finds herself lost in the British countryside, and the audience has to work out WTF is going on - and so does she! Before that though is a big TV drama series with the US director Marc Forster and his creative partner Renee Wolfe which I’m incredibly excited about. We’re working with one of the most famous actors on the planet, so it’s a dream project. The next film I’m directing is BIG MAN about a giant and his talent agent in the 18th century - we’re going to shoot it in a very modern way, and it will have the same colourful approach as The Drifters. Hopefully it will shoot late Summer.