Rebecca Johnson stands out in a crowd, tall and slender with a million-watt smile when she chooses to flash it. This is particularly true in her adopted home of Brixton, a South London suburb where there’s often not much to smile about, notorious for its gang culture with very few opportunities otherwise to make decent lives for themselves. That’s why for Johnson, filmmaking has become not just a way of capturing the community that she first found her way into a decade ago for the rest of the world to see, but in hiring young men and women from the area to serve as crew and even as some of the cast, she’s giving them a platform to see what kind of options might be out there for themselves.
“That’s a beautiful thing when you’re making a film with someone,” says Johnson. “You have to communicate and work together and it helps to transcend like, ‘Oh, I’m 20 years older than you and come from a white, middle class background…’ You really get to know people.”
True to the poeticism of Johnson’s work, it only makes sense then that after making shorts in the area for some time, the writer/director’s feature debut “Honeytrap” centers on an outsider named Layla (Jessica Sula) who makes her way into Brixton, albeit under drastically different circumstances. Recently arrived from living with relatives in Trinidad and Tobago, Layla isn’t exactly welcomed with open arms when she knocks on her estranged mother’s door, whose kindest words to her are “We’ll get used to each other” when forced to make room in her already cramped flat. She soon finds the school she’s supposed to attend even less inviting, discovering that she hasn’t been properly enrolled, which leaves her to seek out some connection in all the wrong places, a process accelerated greatly when she catches the eye of Troy (Lucien Laviscount), a local hip-hop artist with gang ties.
Johnson introduces a second potential love interest for Layla in Shaun (Ntonga Mwanza), a more well-adjusted young man who holds less excitement but considerably more stability than Troy, yet “Honeytrap” doesn’t linger on the potential love triangle as much as it concentrates on the dilemma Layla finds within herself, surrounded by images of who she should be as a woman, whether on the street with her teen contemporaries dressing the part of their all-too-young mothers before them or in her bedrooms where pictures of Beyonce create an unattainable standard. Set in the rough and tumble locale of Brixton, the results can be especially devastating if one takes the wrong path and while Johnson watches as Layla suffers the consequences of having little positive direction, she’s quite assured as a filmmaker in taking a familiar story and putting a new and often invigorating perspective on it. In advance of its release through ARRAY Now, Johnson spoke about how she came to make “Honeytrap,” how the Brixton community helped in not only informing the project but in aiding the production, and coming to the end of a chapter in her life.
I live around Brixton, South London and for more than a decade, I’ve been working with young people, making films with them through my not-for-profit company Fierce Productions. I fell into working with teenagers who were not in school, or had been excluded, and I really fell in love with it. It changed the way I was telling stories and my process. It developed a whole load of relationships for me that were inspiring – young people who I was mentoring, and some of whom I had known from when they were very young and now are proper adults in their mid-twenties who continued to be in touch with me. Four [of them] – two female, two male – helped me with feedback on the script after three years of writing on “Honeytrap.” Many of them were also on the film, either in small parts or on the crew.
Gang culture’s just a reality [in Brixton]. There is poverty and people who have all grown in the same area getting involved in this, that and the other and it’s going to touch your life [even if you’re not directly involved]. It’s not like being in being in Favelas in Brazil or some huge criminal syndicate, but it’s people doing what they’re doing to survive, but also ending up falling into pitfalls. So I was telling stories set in this world, and there was a case, which [“Honeytrap”] is inspired by, where a 15-year-old girl sets up a boy [to be murdered] and he was killed right in broad daylight. I actually knew of other girls who had been involved in similar situations, but this case really polarized us in an extreme way, [illuminating] the pressures on all of these kids, not just the girls, about status and about face, and these identities that they’re trying to project.
I particularly like the whole [idea] of a girl in a man’s world because gang culture is very much about this show of strength and of course, it oppresses the boys as much as the girls because nobody’s really invulnerable. But I’m particularly interested in the way that girls are caught in this impossible in between thing where they’ve got to be sexy, and there’s the pressure of pornography and the normalizing of those images and ideas, and yet they’re also supposed to be good, so they can’t be sluts. They’ve also got to be tough and have a persona almost similar to the boys, so that the boys will relate to them and respect them. It’s just all impossible, and navigating those strengths, it’s almost impossible for you to succeed, but that’s what Layla in this film is trying to do.
Had you been building up to this as a first feature? Your short “Top Girl” right before this was also set in this world.
I knew I was going to make a feature set in this world and developed “Top Girl,” but it just wasn’t big enough in scope. This is very much the same themes as “Top Girl,” but the territory it plays out in is so much more extreme and when I was writing a continuation of “Top Girl,” I got the idea to tell this story and it was important for me to tell because I felt very strongly that I knew so much more about the reality than the way media depicted the case and other kids in similar cases. It was more complex and tragic because these kids are vulnerable and human. They’re not just these dehumanized monsters that these blank mugshots suggest. These are just human beings, flawed and susceptible to influence.
Status anxiety is a huge thing eating away at most people’s self-esteem – that you’re not rich enough, not good looking enough, not successful enough. We’re pumped with very sophisticated imagery all the time and we, as privileged adults are susceptible to it, so when you’re right at the bottom of the pile like these kids are, and they’ve got all the energy and ambition and drive of youth, what chance do they have of fighting it? Of course, they end up in gangs. Where else are they going to get their status and success from?
One of my favorite things you do in the film, and it’s uncommented upon, but you allow a peek into the home life of each of the central characters – just standing at the doorway and learning who’s in the house tells you so much about all of your characters. Why was that important for you to show?
Even though it’s very much about Layla in this world, and the love triangle and the boys, it’s also about the mums because [in each of the characters’ lives,] there isn’t a dad there and they are conspicuous in their absence. With Troy’s mum, she’s not a bad mum – she looks great, her home’s really tidy but she’s missing all the most important stuff. She’s very young – all the mums are – and it’s not like, “Oh God, look at this terrible mother, no wonder he’s got that bad.” It’s just that her focus is elsewhere and she’s turned a blind eye [to what he’s doing]. It’s clear that Shaun and his mum have a really good relationship, which is the most straightforward, healthy, intimate parental relationship in the film, and that was an important part of why Shaun has the strength of character to stand apart from the gang. You know he can talk to his mum and when Layla comes around [it’s clear] he’s talked [to her] about a girl that he likes.
Obviously, it’s never commented on in any kind of conscious way, and I don’t think the characters would be conscious of it, but on some level I feel like that would be another reason why boys would be jealous of [Shaun] because he doesn’t need all the validation that they all do to even begin to feel confident. Not having that connection with parents, it’s a wound, isn’t it? So it was important to me to show that, and I feel that there’s a lot of separation between male and female. That’s something I feel quite strongly about, that we need to relate to each other primarily as human beings and worry less about ideas of what men do versus what women do.
Layla seems to put enough pressure on herself, often comparing herself to certain images she’s seen or creating them for herself as a talented artist with the pencil. How did that motif came about in the film?
The fact that she’s an artist is about an expression of herself. In this world that she’s in, she’s actually got her own little room to discover who she is because there’s this imagery of femininity coming down from pop culture about being tough and sexy [that creates] the real life pressure of competing with the other girls and the social media-enhanced selfie culture whereby you constantly have to look popular and get lots of likes – all that stuff where teenage girls are like posting, “Do I look good?” in their bikini. It’s a stage where you’re only really starting to discover who you really are, but you’re [fighting being] defined by how you’re perceived and losing any roadmap in terms of who you are. It becomes this whole thing of reflections of reflections of reflections. The boys are doing that too, projecting these personas, which are not really who they are, and then a lot of energy is spent in perpetuating that and it becomes a prison, something they can’t live up to. That’s why there’s a lot of stuff of screens – reflections of people’s perceptions.
The music also plays a crucial role in the film and it’s such a wide spectrum, from classical to synthetic. How early in the process did you start thinking about the score?
I always knew music was going to be really important for the film, and Troy’s a rapper, so we started sourcing music [early] with a music synthesizer, but until we started editing and putting stuff in, you just don’t know what’s going to work. The film is very predominantly a piano-led classical score by Francis Binns, a fantastic first-time film composer. He was the least experienced of all the composers who pitched to me, but he just blew my editor and I away. I’m so proud of the score, and it was a really interesting process.
I’ve never worked so closely with a composer, and having to really think about instrumentation and how music is working and why or how it should be different. But I always wanted to tell a story that had total authenticity to the Brixton setting, but also felt universal. I didn’t want to be like, “Oh God, that’s what it’s like in this crappy little world of these kids.” I wanted them to be swept up into a story, which is like a Greek myth – it’s obsession, desire, revenge, tragedy – and I think the classical score, which has that universality to it, plays a big part in helping to do that.
I understand you actually have a mentorship program that runs throughout the production. Do the kids that you were working with ten years ago end up working on the film, or are those new people brought in from the community?
Some of them, yeah, and then some of them have gone on to make their own films, or send me their scripts to look at. Some relationships are also formed between other members of the crew and young people who have worked alongside them, so a lot of people have used that, not just on their CV, but in a real way to get other opportunities. I’m a believer in the filmmaking process as a collective thing which creates a product at the end which endures, but it builds a lot of soft skills like trust and communication. It’s a wonderful thing to participate in as a group. But I’m not trying to make a nation of filmmakers. Becoming a filmmaker is not for everybody and I’m still struggling to eke out a living as an independent filmmaker. However, once you’ve participated in that experience, those skills are so transferable. If you’re involved in running a production, you’re problem solving, troubleshooting, [and have] a sense of what can be done.
Is it true you were actually mentored by Paul Greengrass and his editor Chris Rouse? Did you pick anything up from them?
Yes, they’re just both extremely talented, smart people. Being able to watch them work and ask their advice was obviously something which was very inspiring. They’re constantly questioning and looking deeply and It’s just heartening to see people working at that level, who are still just as politically impassioned, and have that total integrity in terms of what they are doing. Even though they’re working at much bigger budgets, when you see that somebody who’s working a very low level budget-wise, you feel like it’s not that different, therefore the road ahead working at a high level feels much more achievable.
You’ve said this is likely the closing of a chapter in terms of leaving Brixton as a setting for your films. Did this actually feel like a culmination of everything you’ve worked on for the past decade?
It definitely does. It’s actually been more than ten years of making work in this world. And it’s been really great, but now I feel like I’ve really done that chapter. It took five years to make “Honeytrap.” I’m still really interested in outsiders and underdogs and female-led films, I’m also drawn to working with actors of color, stories that are set in that world as well, but I want to move into different settings and expand. I’m interested in characters who are not just white men – just the idea that’s the default in popular culture is something which I find crazy in popular culture. For me, it’s just natural to want to create characters that are more diverse than that.
Is that actually what drew you to Brixton in the first place?
It was proximity. I started to work with young people and really loving it and I was very into telling coming of age stories anyway. Then because I was working with all these teenagers, you obviously want to set the stories now and the teenagers that I was getting to know best were all black teenagers in my community, so the characters that I’ve created have been part of me and part of them.
Color just isn’t a bar. It may be a bar as far as getting people into the cinema, though I’m not sure I agree with that. If it’s a good film, no one gives a shit. In fact, there was one guy who worked for a cinema chain, who until I mentioned it [after a screening], said he hadn’t even thought about it. It doesn’t matter. Good characters in a story that’s told well could draw you in and make you relate to them.
What’s the festival run been like for you?
It’s been really fantastic for me because people have sat there afterwards in the Q&A and said,”I saw this growing up in Detroit or Chicago,” and I’ve never been to those places and when they strongly relate [to “Honeytrap”], that’s what I’d hoped for because those themes of peer group pressure are everywhere, and I wondered if some of the minutiae was also same. As a filmmaker, it’s a wonderful feeling that your story has traveled. People really come up and shake your hand. It’s quite an overwhelming feeling.