Interview with Iggy London
Written by Carmen Bellot
Photography by Christian Cassiel
Iggy London has been marrying poetry with filmmaking since his first film, Black Boys Don’t Cry, debuted in 2016. Since then, the director has opened the conversation on Black British masculinity through his thought-provoking shorts that highlight under-represented stories, leading his film Velvet (which centres on knife crime) to win Best Experimental Film at the Thunderdance Cannes Film Festival. FMR speaks with the director on his unconventional career path, how to balance commercial objectives with creative integrity and what his advice is for those starting in the field.
FMR: You started writing poetry and that’s how you got into filmmaking, could you explain that process in more detail?
IL: I’ve always had a love for life and a love for writing. I think it’s something that I thought that I couldn’t truly do, but it was something that I was interested in. There was this TV show called Def Poetry Jam that aired in America, with people like Kanye West, Erykah Badu and all these amazing lyricists and poets that came and performed pieces, and that’s where I learnt about art being able to articulate social issues in a way that plays upon culture, art, music and rhythm. You could talk about things in an indirect way but still have everyone listening, and I felt that was something really strong. I wrote Black Boys Don’t Cry in my last year of university. I performed it at a charity event, and everyone was super surprised that I wasn’t a poet, lyricist or rapper. At the time, the idea of Black British masculinity was prevalent and I wanted to explore how that connected to meritocracy and competitiveness with one another. One of the audience members told me that I should make it into a film, so I did.
It was released in 2016, and then I made another film called Fatherhood which was an extension of that and also played with poetry. With Velvet, one thing that I really loved about the film is that it doesn’t show the perpetrator or the knife. It talks about it in a way which allows you to see the essence of the man, which is tying into more of my work.
How do you think poetry and film as two separate mediums complement each other?
I think that poetry gives film an element that it doesn’t have. It gives it the heartbeat of a visual piece because ultimately it can; it can say a lot without having to physically show it. I think if film was a cake, it would be the base, and poetry would be the icing; it’s the thing that’s sweet that makes it a finished object. But obviously, you need the base and foundation.
You didn’t go to film school and learned by experimenting. What do you think you gained from not going down that more traditional route?
I’m so happy with how things have happened because I don’t know the formalities or the structural ways in which things are supposed to be made. I go on the basis of feeling and that allows me to be as experimental as possible. I really do want to stress that we definitely have a very western idea of what film is supposed to look like and I love that idea. I love the beginning, middle and end and I like the idea of having things that flow from one another. But I really am excited about the idea of breaking all of the barriers and techniques; not really caring about the formalities and how you can actually create something which gains peoples’ attention because you haven’t relied on those techniques you’ve learnt at school. So I feel that for me, I’m trying to basically take all of those things away.
“If there can be thousands of period dramas, I think there should be at least ten versions of Moonlight.”
You were saying the way you make your films is that you lead with your emotions and address emotional issues. I can imagine that you end up getting a lot of pressure as a Black man to keep telling these stories. How do you deal with that if you do feel that pressure?
That’s a great question. I think for me, I never really had pressure to make stories which are an expression of what other people are going through or feeling. I never wanted to be in a position where I’m not speaking truthfully to the medium or to what the subject matter is. When I first started making films and when I first started watching cinema, I didn’t necessarily see people of my sort of existence and identity being portrayed in the film. I’m not even just talking about representation, but I’m talking about the actual story itself. So all I’m doing now as a filmmaker is making films for my younger self. As long as that 12 year old is happy, I don’t give a crap. Fatherhood was a testimony to that person, and I believe you can do whatever you want if you believe in who you are.
You mentioned that there hasn’t been much representation in film of the stories that you’re highlighting, do you think that’s starting to change? Or do you still feel the need to really push those stories to the forefront more now than ever?
I definitely feel the very fact that I’m a filmmaker is a testament to the fact this is changing. I feel like there are more people that look like me who are telling these types of stories. There are more examples of representation in the film industry, which is great, but I don’t necessarily think that there can ever be a moment where you don’t stop pushing that forward. If there can be thousands of period dramas, I think there should be at least ten versions of Moonlight. It’s ongoing, I think you should still continue to pioneer really original, thought-provoking stories.
Going back to talking about your films as being very emotionally charged, how do you personally deal with balancing your own well being while discussing these personal topics?
I deal with those issues by making the film. Like anyone who’s in the creative arts, the process is therapeutic and it is a form of healing in itself. I put all of the emotion in it because ultimately, it’ll give me that element of catharsis.
“That’s always been my mantra; if I’m not necessarily getting a great cheque from it I should have control of it – if I can get both, that’s great.”
You’ve been working a lot with a lot of commercial brands like Harrods, Nike and Adidas, how do you balance meeting the commercial objectives of those brands as well as keeping true to your own visual identity?
I’m a Taurus, so I’m the most stubborn person in the world. But there’s a couple of things I do with any project. First of all, you always ask thousands of questions at the start to understand exactly how much creative control you will have. Any project where I don’t have creative control or that I have to compromise my visual identity, more often than not, I’ll just say no to it. Only the times where I can transform things and actually put my own spin on it is where I actually say yes, so I think that’s really important. That’s always been my mantra; if I’m not necessarily getting a great cheque from it I should have control of it – if I can get both, that’s great. Ultimately I think it’s important to push your identity and think, am I going to be able to learn something from this?
You always have to be a negotiator. As a commercial filmmaker, you’ll always have to be able to have a good dialogue with the client; ask them what they think about an idea. The client will love you because you’ve been listening to them, but also you’ve been able to try out new things that you wanted to get out of it. So hopefully it has that balance.
You have a book coming out this year! Do you want to explain a bit more about that and how the idea behind it came about?
I have a book coming out in October called Mandem for Black History Month. It’s an anthology of different writers who speak about their own personal stories or otherwise that connect with masculinity, manhood and identity. All these stories have conversations around fatherhood to sex to fighting to love, and all these things that make you human. I’m the main writer and the editor for the book, and it came about from my first film Black Boys Don’t Cry and my experience with making films about masculinity. That developed and grew to the point where I got asked to do a book.
What advice would you give to any budding young filmmakers?
I really hate this idea of saying you just need to work hard and it’ll pay off; I like giving practical advice. Ultimately I would say, go buy a book and write down your ten favourite films and your ten favourite things about filmmaking, and do this whenever you can. What do you like the most? Is it the story aspect? Is it the dialogue? Is it the script? Is it the writing? Because then those things can ultimately guide you so you don’t have to divert from your real passion. When you read those things, they become your mantra. Apply it to programmes and workshops, apply it to all the things that you’re doing. They will help you figure out what you want in your career.
Then I would say, watch a lot of films. I watch like five films a week, I live and breathe film! It’s made me the type of director that I want to be because I can reference so many different films that I love.
Lastly, don’t settle. That’s the one thing I really want people to think about. Always try to make it happen, don’t ever stop being hungry as it will eventually work out. You can shoot things from your phone, you can shoot things on Tik Tok – you should create the content you want to create rather than waiting for someone to do it.