Voices

Christopher Manning: 'Film gave me the sense I wasn't alone'

By Christopher Manning

21 March 2017 - 15:15

Christopher Manning wrote and directed Jamie, one of five short films on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues, which form this year's #FiveFilms4Freedom. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Tell us about the film.

Jamie follows a young man on one of his first dates. It looks at those very first romantic experiences that people have when they are coming of age.

How did you make the film?

It was a challenging film to make. We were working in a lot of public spaces. When you see the film, you'll notice that there's a very intimate conversation that happens along the Southbank in London, towards Waterloo Station. It was tough to work among crowds, while getting the actors to feel that they could concentrate.

How did you cast the two actors for the main roles?

It was important that the two lead characters had a credible chemistry. I wanted people to see them together and understand why they would be attracted to each other.

Finding that chemistry was a long process. Remarkably, Sebastian Christophers, who plays Jamie, was the first actor I auditioned. But the other actor, Raphael Verrion, who plays the role of Ben, eluded me for much longer.

After six or seven weeks of auditions, the casting director said, 'What about my friend Raph?' I had met him already, but for some reason, we hadn't considered him. It was apparent immediately when he walked in the room that he was a good fit. It was an instant 'yes'.

How did you work with the actors?

The night before we shot the film, we had to change things dramatically. Initially, I had written a film that mainly took place on a train, but despite having necessary permissions, we had some serious production complications. I had to go home and rewrite a lot of the script.

The next morning, I showed up with a new draft of the script, and told the actors, 'There's a slight change in plan. Instead of sitting on a private train carriage, you're going to be walking through central London telling your stories and having this conversation.' They were absolutely brilliant. They had such a good attitude and so much trust in me.

The film was scripted, but it ended up being more improvisational than I had planned. We were able to pull this off because we had rehearsed quite a bit. A lot of rehearsal time was spent talking about character, backstory, and things that we knew were never going to end up on the screen. So when we suddenly faced unexpected circumstances, the actors were able to draw on that backstory.

Why did you include an online dating app?

When I asked myself how the two characters would have met, I thought of a dating app, because that's how many young people connect.

However, there's a tendency for young people now to project adult-like confidence, because through the internet, they've seen images that previous generations did not have access to. But I think it's normal to be naïve, and innocent, and unknowing, and inexperienced. An important part of becoming a person is passing through that time. It's a part of youth that we should embrace.

Why was it a story that you wanted to tell in a short film?

I really like the romantic genre, and it meant a lot to me when I was a teenager and first discovering cinema.

Jamie has a simple story, but it's relatable. He wants love, and he's looking for validation through love. I wanted to make a film where there's a hopeful ending, as opposed to just a happy ending.

For Jamie, his new experiences awaken something in him, while bringing up stuff from the past. I wanted to show a certain kind of emotional truth, that you might not get from other kinds of stories about romantic promise.

What has been the reaction to the film?

When I showed it to my family, they said something that I've also heard elsewhere: that they could relate to Jamie's situation, that it felt familiar, and that it could have happened to a straight person. And yet despite this, Jamie doesn't have the basic validation of who he is.

I think people watch LGBT films with certain expectations that they need to overcome. Very often, they're just human stories, and not about 'issues'.

What does it mean to you to be part of #FiveFilms4Freedom?

I'm absolutely elated. As a filmmaker, when I approach a project, I always wonder who my audience will be. Watching films as a teenager was integral to my understanding of my own sexuality. They gave me a sense that I wasn't alone, and that there was a larger world beyond mine where I could be free to be myself.

That was really important, beyond the fact that I'm thrilled that it will be seen by such a large audience, and in so many different countries.

Is an initiative like #FiveFilms4Freedom important in 2017?

Absolutely. When I was 19 and first lived in London, I remember going to Soho, and feeling that it was a place where you could just be. You see everything and anything there. But yesterday, I saw a man walking down Old Compton Street [a street in the heart of Soho], yelling homophobic and xenophobic comments. People were ignoring him, but it underlined the extent to which the political climate has normalised unacceptable prejudice and language. It's important to counter that by reaffirming positive values through film.

What do you hope audiences around the world will take from the film?

Jamie has hope, despite his innocence, his embarrassments, his lack of confidence and the difficulty in his past. He has had a meaningful encounter, and there will be more meaningful encounters. The most important thing is that Jamie wants to be loved, and maybe so do you. And that's okay.

Can film influence people's opinions on the LGBT community?

Film accomplishes two things. First, it provides visibility. People are often afraid of the unknown. Creating familiarity is an important step towards understanding.

Second, it creates an opportunity for dialogue. People who might find it difficult to have a conversation – because it's too confrontational – may find it easier to discuss something in a film.

Watch the films for free online until 26 March 2017. 

#FiveFilms4Freedom is the first global digital LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) short film programme and is brought to you for a third year by the British Council and the British Film Institute (BFI).

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