Having worked on housing estates in London for over a decade, Rebecca Johnson is no stranger to the world portrayed in her feature film, Honeytrap. Starring Skins actress Jessica Sula as Layla, a young girl who has recently arrived in London from Trinidad, Honeytrap examines one young woman’s determination to maintain her new-found power in a gang run by ex-boyfriend Troy (Lucien Laviscount). Purposefully setting the film through the eyes of a female, Johnson draws on her own experiences working in South London estates to create an emotional, raw and enticing story that strives to help the audience empathise with people that are normally stereotyped in mainstream media.
REBECCA: My name is Rebecca Johnson, and I’m the writer/director of Honeytrap, which is the film I’ve brought here to South by Southwest for its US premiere. It’s set in South London, which is where I live, where I’ve lived for nearly 20 years now, and it’s the story of fifteen year old Leila. It’s a girls-eye view on gang culture. It’s the story of Leila being drawn into this new world, freshly arrived off the boat from Trinidad and ending up getting involved in a tragic act of violence.
LARRY: It’s an intense looking film, I mean if the film is as intense as the trailer then I think people are in for a bit of a ride. Tell me a bit about how that concept came together.
REBECCA: Well it’s inspired initially by, well there was one particular case that took place near me in South London, but I’ve actually been working with young people in Brixton for about the last decade, or a little bit more than that, so I am privy to that world, I’m kind of immersed in it, and I know alot of young people that have been involved in gang culture, both girls and boys as perpetrators and victims, and in a way they’re all victims. That was what inspired me to set out and tell the story, becuase in terms of the way that gang related violence is covered in the press, of course these are things that shock and scare the general public, but what ends up happening is that stereotypical kind of caricatures kind of get painted in terms of these young people – that they’re monsters and dehuminised and of course there are people that have done some dreadful things but if you have done something dreadful that’s not the sum total of who you are. I think it;s worse than that; I think it’s more tragic than that and the fact is that alot of them are vulnerable, caring kids, but nevertheless they’re drawn into, through a whole series of social factors, are drawn into this culture.
LARRY: The systematic issues in place that are as much the perpetrators as the people themselves
REBECCA: Yeah, so what’s been fantastic is showing the film here. It’s the first time it’s been seen by anybody outside the UK, and in fact even in the UK it’s just shown at the London Film Festival and it opens in May so it’s all pretty new in terms of audience response, but it’s been amazing because I’ve had people come up and shake my hand and say “It’s just like this in Detroit. Growing up on the projects is just like this” or “I saw this stuff happen in Chicago” or wherever, and in the Bronx, and that’s amazing because of course I’ve always wanted to tell a story that’s very true and authentic to it’s local setting, which I know very well, but that had universal resonance and I’ve wanted to tell a story that isn’t just like “Oh, isn’t it a bit sad, all these kids just flailing around in their little bubble of deprivation”, I’ve wanted to tell a story that had these massive almost Shakespearean and mythical elements of jealousy and obsession and revenge, you know it’s a love triangle situation, so I think these are huge over-arching emotions that anyone of any age can relate to. So that’s why hopefully the film is intense, it’s not just intense in that let’s just bludgeon the audience over the head and really depress them, it also captures those feelings of both excitement and and just being caught up in something in which you are being hurtled beyond your control.
LARRY: Being young?
REBECCA: Yes! Indeed.
LARRY: And obviously one of your leads has come from a series that did much the same, with Skins, that never shied away from drama, so she was I’m sure was familiar with that side of storytelling. Tell me a bit about the cast, how they were, how they were cast in this film.
REBECCA: So we had a casting director, and we brought in all the young actors – you know, I’ve got to say, at this point there’s a lot of controversy about diversity and representation by the cast, it’s an all black cast in the film, and black actors in the UK have quite a tough time of it, there’s just not a lot of work for them. So I’m very, very happy but it’s also interesting that two of my leads are out here now in the States, and they’ve both scored big US roles, so Jess, who as you said was known for Skins, has now been cast as the lead in a new ABC series called Recovery Road; Lucien Laviscount, who’s done a lot of UK shoes – Waterloo Road, Coronation Street, also Skins, is now a series regular on Scream Queens, the new show from the makers of Glee. So I saw them, I saw lots of other people, we spread the net pretty wide to non-actors as well as actors, partly because there are not that many black actors who are represented by the main talent agents, because there aren’t the parts for them, I think that’s the truth. But I saw some fantastically talented people, they did shine out and they were the right people for those roles, they really, really were. Jess had an amazing mixture of both vulnerability and steely determination and oscillates between that, and they both needed to be there, either alternating or together at the same time, and that quite hard. And Lucien as well, who plays Troy, needed to have what it took to be the leader, the top boy in the gang, but also an insecurity, whereby he also feels like a fool and he feels like he’s an impostor that’s going to get found out at any point. And then Ntonga Mwanza, who plays Shaun, who’s the least experienced of the three young leads, he’s absolutely fantastic, and again I didn’t want it to be good boy/bad boy, he’s a good boy but he’s also got his flaws, you know? He’s human. He’s from that same world, it’s not like he hasn’t gotten involved.
LARRY: So what do you hope people take away from this film? Obviously you’ve spoken about the fact that there is a universality to it, and whether people are seeing it in Australia or America or England, what do you hope people walk away from the film with?
REBECCA: Well, without wanting to talk about the emotional experience in too much detail, I want people to have that as they watch the film, but I hope they are moved by it in ways that perhaps they wouldn’t expect. And I hope that they are moved to empathise with characters they might not have thought they would, and that goes for all of the characters. But I don’t want to paint anyone as kind of the villain of the piece. So because of my experience and proximity to that world, that was something that was really important to me, that I wanted to do those people justice and I wanted to create three dimensional characters, and I hope that people feel that I’ve done that.
LARRY: And I can imagine that the actors really brought their own take to what you had in mind as well, you can’t cast younger actors without their natural tendencies coming through in some ways.
REBECCA: Well I think that’s true of actors at any age, actually. As an actor, you are a human being with your own experiences and frame of reference and you bring that to the role. Both Lucien and Jess have been acting since they were children so they were pretty different, these roles, than anything they’d played before, and I had smaller parts played by real people from Brixton in the community that I knew, but these guys weren’t simply playing greater versions of themselves, or their life experiences particularly, and for both of them it’s quite a reinvention from their previous roles, they’ve both played kind of squeaky-clean characters in those UK shows, so it’s nice that they’ve had the chance to show a deeper kind of talent, I think.
LARRY: And was it filmed entirely in Brixton?
REBECCA: It was filmed entirely in Brixton and some little surrounding areas to that.
LARRY: So what did it mean to be able to film there, what was that experience like?
REBECCA: Well it was great, because as a first-time low-budget filmmaker I had all of my contacts and friends and all of the community that I’ve been working with for a long time to draw upon, and that good will was crucial, we couldn’t make the film without it. And young people that I’ve worked with on previous films were part of my crew, and in terms of filming on estates – I don’t know what they’re called in Australia, here they get called projects – those kinds of areas can be typically difficult to film in because residents kind of feel like the media have come in and paid no respect to them and are very much sort of separate, because the film office granted permission but the residents haven’t been asked. But in this situation it was different, because the residents are a part of the film making, and not just from this film, but because they’re people I’ve known for the last 6, 7, 8 years, so it was really, really nice. I mean, Lucien and Jess were both known by the young people on the estate, particularly Lucien, the young girls loved him, so for me to be able to take Lucien down before we started shooting and go down to the community center and hang out it was great, the young girls especially were really, really excited and really, really chuffed that these celebrities were coming down to the estate and just hanging out and playing a bit of pool with them.
LARRY: Well, I really appreciate your time, I wish your film the best of luck and thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today.
REBECCA: Pleasure, thank you.
Honeytrap premiered in the USA at SXSW in Austin, Texas.