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Vs.: An Interview with director Ed Lilly and actor Connor Swindells

October 19, 2018

Film + EntertainmentInterview | by Candid Magazine


In Vs. young adult Adam (Connor Swindells) unearths his calling in lyric and rhyme to escape a dreary life of foster care. His latest foster home finds him in Southend with its burgeoning rap battle scene but also where his birth mother resides. Soon enough Adams meets Maykala (Fola Evans-Akingbola), a rap battle compere and influencer, who sees his talents him and helps him to take things to the next level, whilst strating to develop feelings for each other. As the narrative evolves, we see Adam’s personal struggles find their release in aggressive if highly witty rap battles.

It’s an enjoyable affair, oddly very British in sentiment yet multicultural with its diverse cast. At points its admittedly rather clichéd; the scenes of rappers interacting with each and their whole macho bravado feels its slightly imitating some generic US rap movie. However, its Adam’s personal story and Swindells brilliant portrayal of him, that completely saves the film. The emotionally charged encounters with his mum and the warranted rage the conjure up is an all-engrossing gem. As well as other unique plot points, such as a rarely seen woman-man rap battle, the noteworthy female representation across the board, but also how writers Ed Lilly (also director) and Daniel Hayes subvert the traditional love story that we first assume between Adam and Maykala, turning it into a completely different relationship, even if this twist feels slightly lacklustre at the end.

This is Lilly’s first full feature and despite the few glitches it’s an overall impressive one at that. Swindells being a newbie, is a complete natural, with his discernible acting talents beaming through. Candid Magazine managed to chat to the two at last week as the film is the film starts its screening at this year’s BFI London Film Festival. This is what they had to say…

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Connor Swindells and director Ed Lilly.

Can you tell us the impetus to make the film?

Ed Lilly: We wanted to progress the urban genre. We wanted to serve a younger audience which remains unserved by British film. We wanted to show young people as intelligent, funny, witty, creative. We also wanted to stay away from the gangs, crime that we see a lot for youth focused movies. Battle rap is a great way to do that because of the nature of it

Had you rapped before? If not, how did you learn it? And learn to do it convincingly?

Connor Swindells: I literally only had a week to learn how to do it. I had help from other cast members who were rappers. It was a good week of going through raps repeatedly. And basically, for them to teach me how to say them as best as I can. If you’ve got only a week, you are not going to become the hot shot, but at least become the best version that you could be. They went through it and sort of force feed me how to do it. When it came down it I just had to pull it out of the hat! But when you are around people who rap, it rubs off on you after a while. So, it gets easier to do it.

How hard is it get a film like this, about UK rap, off the ground?

Ed: I think it’s difficult for any first-time film maker to get their film off the ground in the UK. It’s becoming easier and there are lots of schemes, but overall it’s difficult to get financed. Dan (Daniel Hayes, co-writer) and I, spent four years on the script before we went to financiers. So, the script by the time the BBC saw it was in a pretty good shape and actually they were the first people we went to, we didn’t expect them to come on board, but they did and they loved it. They got that we were trying to do something that was aspirational, something that drew on American cinema, like in the uplifting, positive nature of the film. Its been a long process, 6 years from when we first started to now. But actually from the moment we went to the BBC, it all happened quite quickly. We were shooting within a year and a half.

Talking about the script. There are quite a few unique twists in the story, it doesnt follow traditional routes that we would otherwise expect it to. Do you think audiences now, need more of a bite in a film’s narrative?

Ed: Yes! As far as the structure of the film, we wanted to be a bit like Karate Kid. Like having this sports tournament where someone new comes in, learns the craft and makes their way through the ranks and fights the big boss at the end. But we also knew that if we were to employ that structure we would need to throw in some surprises. So with the love story between Adam and Michaela we start taking it down a traditional route and then just flip it down the line. That strand always read well at script stage. I think that’s the key now to try and give audiences what they want, but then throw in a few surprises.

Connor: To me when I first read it, it didn’t come across as a rap film. It was a film about family, a self-destructive young boy in a rough path, but then he gets picked up by this external source and through that he finds some closure or catharsis for himself. And I knew what I was like, cause I had the same thing growing up as a kid. I had boxing. Boxing put me in a situation, where I was starting to have friends and getting introduced into a whole other world in its own right, completely different to the world of school and home. Hanging out with older people for the first time, they had a big influence on me, on how I dressed or spoke; all those things are what makes this film great. Rather than being this traditional rap film, all these aspects: crisis of identity, fear of abandonment, anxieties, insecurities that everyone has when they are growing up. That’s what makes this a great film and compliments the rap battles.

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Fola Evans-Akingbola and Paige Meade star in ‘Vs.”.

The boy versus the girl rap scene. You don’t see that very often. Can you tell us about it?

Ed: It was really important for us to have good female representation across the film in all of the characters. Particularly in all the battlers, we were excited when we were developing Miss Quotes character, then once we cast Paige in that character, it come to life much better than we ever imagined. ‘Miss Vs Adam’ is tested as one of the favourite scenes, because of the 8 Mile influence, it’s what you expect from rap battle. High energy, in front of the biggest audience, it in front of the lions. It was a great scene to develop and to then shoot it…. It was amazing.

Conor: I think it was traditionally male thing, but I think rap battles are opening up. I think that has to be shown and that has to be represented.

The film has a large cast, are most of them non-actors?

Ed: Yes a large cast from various different backgrounds. Connor is an untrained actor, who has been doing this a year or two. Then you have Shotty Horroh who is a legitimate rapper, like one of the best in the world. I’ve worked with him for the past 10 years. I put him in the film as Slaughter. With someone like Shotty, you need to make sure his acting ability comes across as authentic, which he ended up doing amazingly anyway. Paige who we ended up as Missy, her day job is a rapper, although she has never battle rap before, we knew that she would bring that authentic lyrism, that flow, that swag that she brings. Its a real mix. We then have Fola (playing Makayla) who is a professional actor, who came very well prepared. Makayla was a hard part to cast because she has so many different sides to her, she is the promoter but then she has story lines with Adam, Missy and Slaughter, and she was able to nail all sides of the character.

Whats next for the film?

Conor: its released in October in the UK and Ireland. We have now sold to China, Middle East and the US deal has just come through, so hopefully in the coming months it will be available to everyone around the world.

Vs. is released is screened at the BFI London Film Festival with a theatrical release on 19th October 2018.

Words By Daniel Theophanous @danny_theo_

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