In a different light

Sam H Freeman and Ng Choon Ping discuss Femme

by Jennie Kermode

Paapa Essiedu in Femme
Paapa Essiedu in Femme

LGBTQ+ characters have come a long way in cinema in recent years. They’re beginning to be recognised as just a part of society, present in all or most of the same spaces where one would expect to find straight people, and yet there are a few genres where we still don’t see much of them. One of those is the crime thriller. Sam H Freeman and Ng Choon Ping’s Femme turns that around, and what’s more, it does so with a hero who is comfortable with the feminine aspects of his personality and presentation, a kind of character who hardly ever gets any agency onscreen. Now that Femme has been nominated for a BIFA and a BAFTA, it’s clear that it has made an impact. I met its co-directors to ask them how it developed.

“Me and Ping have been friends for years and years,” says Sam. “And Ping’s background is in theatre directing, mine is in screenwriting, and we've been talking for quite a while about having a project together. And the timing was never quite right. Ping was on something or I was on something, and we hadn’t worked out exactly what the idea was. And then Covid came by, and we were watching movies together. Specifically, we were watching Good Time, the Safdie brothers film, together. We're both really big fans of that kind of late night thriller genre. We got talking about how we had never really seen queer protagonists reflected in those films, and that that was something we'd really like to play with. And we have been really interested in telling a story about heterophobia, which is queer fear in very exclusively or aggressively heterosexual spaces. And we felt like doing a real twist in that genre would be the most exciting way to tell that story.”

It’s also good to see a black gay man onscreen, I say, because they’re seriously under-represented.

“To me, definitely,” says Ping. “A non-white queer was particularly important to us and to me, so, after that the decision was just to choose the best actor we could get.”

So beyond that, how did the casting process work?

“Well, with Paapa in particular, actually the idea just came to us,” says Sam. “We knew his work, particularly from the theatre, and just knew that he was an amazing actor. We just sent the script to his agent actually. It was as simple as that. It was a bit of a shock. Yeah. And he read it and came back and wanted to do it. It actually happened really quickly.”

What did that mean for the rest of the project? Did they have to rush to get everything else into place?

It was complicated, Sam explains. “We wrote the film and we were meant to be shooting in June and then Covid happened that wasn't possible, so we were actually on hold for a few months, and we had Paapa. And we we were hoping that, obviously, the schedules would still work. But we waited for a while, and then once it got going, it suddenly happened very quickly. We realised there was a point where we suddenly downed tools on any other projects and just got together and started the casting process for every everyone else, and that did move quite quickly.”

We discuss a pivotal early scene in the film, where their main character, Jordan, decides on an impulse to get into a car with a drug dealer whom he thinks is attracted to him.

“I think him getting in the car is sort of an act of defiance,” says Sam. “I mean, he's had this horrible night in the club, and you know, of course, he's had his dad saying ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that,” and I think him getting in is a bit of a sort of ‘Fuck you!’ to it all.”

Ping nods. “I mean, in my head, he gets into the car, he didn't expect to end up in the house that way. Because I know – a friend of a friend told me – that that is how you buy drugs. You know, you would you would go to a more quiet location and then the goods and the money will be exchanged. The fact that it ended up in a house is definitely something that Paapa’s character didn't expect.”

“And I think the danger, when it comes, it kind of spirals out of control and it definitely becomes something that he was not imagining it was going to be,” adds Sam. “I think he thinks he's going back to a flat where maybe Wes lives on his own, and they're going to have sex, and that's kind of his hope for it. But I think that there is an attraction to the danger of it. I know a lot of gay friends who've watched the film felt that they really identified with it, which is interesting, I think. Yeah, often when gay people have watched it, they're like, ‘I know exactly what that is. I've done that exact thing in various different ways, going back to strangers’ houses’ There's something there's an excitement in that danger, that draws them into the car, but then it becomes something much bigger than he's ready to handle. And by that time, it's then too late. Once they get out the car, it's too late to come back. And he might then be thinking ‘Have I bitten off more than I can chew?’”

Will straight audiences understand why Jordan takes that risk?

“It's interesting when you say that with a straight audience that’s a question uppermost in their minds,” says Ping, “but when we show it to a gay audience, they absolutely understood why. Why the straight presenting thing was such an attraction. It's the age old story of falling in love with a bully. Isn't it?”

“Yeah,” says Sam. “And what you can't have and, I think, as gay men in the world that we live in, we are taught that these very like typical, traditional representations of masculine identity are the thing to be aiming for you know, like, ‘straight acting gay’, or like, ‘Oh, you don't act like a gay guy. I never would have guessed that.’ Typically using that as a compliment. And I think that is sort of built into us and it's not particularly healthy, but it's, you know, quite hard to escape.”

It’s also interesting to see Jordan as a dynamic character, because there's this idea that femme characters are passive.

“Yeah, yeah, that was absolutely it in terms of that twist that genre,” says Sam.

Ping agrees. “I mean, definitely, pride is one of the defining characteristics of that character. Pride in his chosen identity, and his chosen expression of identity here.”

We discuss the way that, by moving between different social world, Jordan abruptly finds that the way he presents himself, which was the source of his power, has become his greatest vulnerability, and Sam notes that it’s as he realises that that he doubles down on it, relating it to the classic hero’s journey.

It’s impossible to discuss the events of the film without also touching on race, and the fact that, disproportionately in British cinema, we see marginalised people presented as criminals, whereas here the gang are all white and straight (or at least presenting themselves as such). Ping says that although there are different layers of identity there, it was the queer versus straight dynamic which was uppermost in their minds.

“We took all of that into account when we were casting and with what we were telling with the actors that we cast,” says Sam. “Obviously, we’re very aware of the quite problematic history within the industry of black actors, say, feeling like they're only cast as drug dealers. We were happy to flip that and twist it, but, you know, it was also just about casting the actors that we felt were going to really bring those characters to life. And those two were our dream.”

Once production took off, how long did they have to shoot in?

“Four days,” says Ping. “And it was very tight because our original DoP, who we’d prepared with for the film, the day before the shoot, she informed us she was exposed to people with Covid. So we got a new DoP just the evening before, which means that were re-prepping with him. He was brilliant, and was able to come in, and he had a really developed vision. But it just meant that every day, we lost about two, three hours from the original schedule just to prep.”

“We went in early to talk to him and he was bringing his own lighting team because her entire crew was with her on that day where they were all exposed,” Sam explains. “So we had different gaffers every day, because it was last minute. And so there was no recce for the lighting team. So every day they were coming into the space being like, ‘We've never seen this before. And now we need to work out what to do.’ And they had this kind of toolbox of lighting equipment that the previous DOP had ordered, and they had to puzzle out how they were going to use this to create.”

I note that it must have been a challenge shooting in an actual house full of tight corners, and they explain that they actually wrote the script in the house where it’s shot, as Sam was living there at the time. They then acted it out in the space they had, and used an iPhone to work out how they could move around.

“James Rhodes is a very skilled operator,” says Sam. “There are certain things that we could not pull off, but he did it.”

“It also meant that because we were on location, and we couldn't take apart the house and put cameras in at, you know, more optimal angles, it just contributed to that handheld hecticness, you know, the limitedness of space, which we felt positively contributed to the film,” adds Ping.

“It helped it feel a little more claustrophobic,” Sam agrees. “That in itself brings in an unease and a danger, that there's this space where it’s hard to escape or to move around properly. Yeah, and that feeling that the camera’s so tight and everything that you almost can't see what's going to come from out of frame, and, you know, jump in at any point.”

So how do you feel about the awards attention that the film has now received?

“Fantastic. Brilliant,” says Sam. “The BIFAS was such a surprise to us. It comes in stages. We were nominated first, and that was incredibly exciting, It was like I was like, you know, there are only a few of the longlist but we really tried to brace ourselves for the shortlist and be like, ‘Okay, well, you know, we've made it this far.’ Then we got shortlisted and went there really being like, ‘Well, we're so happy to be nominated, but we probably won't win.’ So it's been a ride, for sure.”

They have, they say, something really exciting coming up in the near future, but they’re not allowed to talk about it yet. We’ll look forward to finding out.

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