Officially Selected Alumni Interviews

Stephanie Zari: Lift-Off Filmmaker Interview

British Filmmaker Stephanie Zari’s short narrative “Being Keegan” is a story about nostalgia, guilt, and coming to terms with the past.

Growing up in Liverpool Football Club’s 1970’s heyday, 10-year-old Jay and his best friend Sean spend their days playing football in the backstreets of marginalised Liverpool, gripped by the rise of celebrity footballer Kevin Keegan. When tragedy strikes, it changes their lives forever. We follow Jay’s journey as he returns home after 25 years and explore the ramifications of childhood trauma into adulthood.

Ahead of its screening at Manchester Lift-Off, we interviewed director Stephanie to hear a little more about how this film came to be, and her path as a filmmaker.

Interview by Sneh Rupra

How did you come up with the concept for this film?

Being Keegan is written by award winning playwright Jilly Gardiner, based off one of her plays. Jilly is also one of the executive producers on the film and I was delighted when she chose me as the director to bring her story to life, as well as Producing alongside Jennifer Monks and co-producer Monika Kasprzak. The story is influenced by Jilly’s childhood growing up in Liverpool in the 70’s and the hopes and dreams of football-mad kids, influenced by the rise of one of the first celebrity footballers – Kevin Keegan.

The film explores what happens when those dreams are instantly shattered by a tragic event and the unresolved childhood PTSD our protagonist endures still to this day, 25 years on.

Having experience with similar PTSD issues in my own family, the story was instantly relatable and I was drawn to it. Having written or co-written my past films, I was really excited to collaborate on a story close to my heart with another open and talented writer, and it was a great opportunity for me to explore that relationship.

Intangible concepts like memory and trauma are so key to the film – what were your initial ideas about how to portray them on screen?

Definitely the biggest challenge for me was the visual representation of our protagonist’s disturbing psychological state. My approach was to really play with layering, distorted sound design, colour, and aspect ratio to draw us into his state of mind and different time periods. I had this idea that he ‘dreamed in red’ and that instead of getting drunk, we see his paranoia and pain in a layered self medicating high in the middle of the film.

My previous films have all been very controlled in terms of structure and edit, and from the start I wanted to shoot a lot of footage to be able to find the grammar of the film in the edit specifically. My aim was to make Liverpool itself a character also, a city that he finds also regenerating and repairing itself upon his return after 25 years; the landscape forcing him to remember his past. So I wanted to find a grammar where we felt he was chasing memories and memories were chasing him as he walked these streets.  I wanted to get away from typical flashback structure, and it was quite a long editing process until the film found it’s language. I’m grateful to my editor, Marco Ruffatti, who I worked so closely with on this, and his patience with me during this process, as well as the writer/producers for allowing me to explore and go off-piste!

How did you go about casting the roles, especially Stephen Graham?

Well, we decided to go big for casting our main character from the start. Initially in the script he has very little to no dialogue, so I knew we needed a very strong actor to pull this off: one that had a tremendous screen presence, and Jilly agreed.

We thought of a few A listers with close ties to Liverpool and decided Stephen was perfect.

So I took a punt, called his agent  and sold my previous work and Jilly’s story to her over the phone. To our utter luck and surprise she passed it on to Stephen, who in turn watched and liked my shorts and totally connected to the script.  Of course the first questions was – does the character really not talk at all!?  But I explained that I had an idea to improv with Stephen and have him recite a few LFC chants, popular folk songs and poems – like ‘Poor Scouser Tommy’. To our amazement, he said yes!  We waited for his diary to be free and shot the first stretch of the film 4 months later. It was such a confidence booster to have him on board. He’s a big champion of emerging talent and just wonderful to work with.

The rest of our dream cast was a long process of about 4 or 5 rounds of auditions in Liverpool.  We posted everywhere and anywhere we could and contacted a few local talent agencies – Reflections and Harmony – who sent us quite a few actors.

I believe we saw Rayn Barr, who plays Sean, in the first round and fell for him instantly. He was so natural and we were torn as to whether he was our Young Jay or Sean, but then Adam Perryman came along a few rounds later and he just embodied Jay. So then I auditioned them together and they were just perfect.

The hardest part to cast wast our Teen Jay. It’s tough to cast a teen version of a main adult character, as at that age their physicality really starts to set. So we were very very lucky that a casting agent colleague of mine, Amelia Hashemi, had worked with Kieron before and suggested him. He was cast off his first self-tape he sent to us- it just blew us away. He’s since gone on to be cast in some great features coming out soon.

Liverpool and Manchester has such a breadth of up and coming talent, and I kept giving call backs to a few actors that I just wanted to have in the film and couldn’t decide on their roles, as they were all so good! In the end Elena Stephenson, Philip S McGuiness, Andrew Games and the rest of the cast were just bang on and it was a pleasure to work with all of them.

The landscapes and locations used in the film create such a strong atmosphere – how did you go about getting that so perfect?

Well thanks for saying I got it perfect – you’re very kind!

As I mentioned before, I really wanted this city to feel like our character’s ‘bête noire’ in a way.  Like the city and streets were speaking to him almost, making him chase his memories at times. I went to Liverpool and recce’d several times with Jilly and our producers. Liverpool is such a unique city and definitely has it’s own identity, and I wanted to try to portray that on the screen. In doing this though, I strictly wanted to stay away from the typical tourist spots and wanted to show the broader landscape of Liverpool and our character’s  connection to it’s past and it’s present state.

Were there any unexpected challenges you faced during production?

Having to fund raise after the shoot to get the funds to shoot an action train sequence was challenging for sure. But I’m very grateful for the funds we did raise as well as the contribution of production company Templeheart Films and Pia Pressure, both who awarded us additional finishing funds as did the Danish Decibal Fund.

We  were lucky that all of our post production was in-kind from top post houses Company 3, Park Road Post, Rushes and Goldcrest as well as their Bafta and Oscar winning teams like sound supervisor and exec producer Jason Canovas. It means the process is longer, as you’re working around their bigger jobs, but the waiting certainly pays off in the end. Hopefully the quality of the production and their hard work and dedication shines through.

How did you go about getting that old-film quality for the flashbacks?

We used soft filters while shooting and also added in extra filters and grain in post. The grade was quite a long process to get this right, and our colourist at Company 3, Lucie Barbier, did a great job, as did cinematographer Brian Strange.

The relationship between the friends is so powerful — was that something you were keen to explore?

Very much so. It was key to have the audience fall in love with these two boys and their friendship. Jilly wrote them beautifully and I also improvised with them in certain scenes.  They were great at this, and their natural performances and comfortable relationship helped the process.

Are there any new projects on the horizon that you can tell us about?

I’ve just finished development on my debut feature, a psychological drama, IN OUR BLOOD, that was awarded Creative England/BFI Emerging Talent Funds along with producer Jenny Monks, and we worked closely with uber script consultant Ludo Smolski. We’re just packaging and hoping to finance this year.  I’m also in the process of applying for this year’s iFeatures with talented Liverpool playwright Lizzie Nunnery and producer Jennifer Monks.

“Being Keegan” will screen at Manchester Lift-Off Film Festival 2018 on Thursday 29th March as part of the Local Filmmakers Showcase.