James Barber – Journalist turned screenwriter pens new web series about London’s housing crisis

Hello James, welcome to Levile the home of all things film!

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James Barber

Q: Coming from a journalistic background, how did you move into the film industry? What challenges did you face?

JB: Well, prior to working on Flatshare, I worked at the BBC on different TV shows and I’ve always been a big fan of avant-garde movies which inspired the visual style of Flatshare. Before we started shooting I watched TV shows like Queen Sugar, which aesthetically is a feast for the eyes, I’ve never seen such a beautifully shot television show. I also watched lots of indie flicks like Weekend, The Comedian, A Single Man, Fishtank and Jungle Fever. I love the cinematography in these films, but we obviously don’t have the budget that these films had, so having to work with a very limited budget has been the biggest challenge and this is one of the main reasons why we created a crowdfunding campaign to help finance the web series.

Q: How did the idea for ‘Flatshare’ come about and what is it about?

JB: A friend of mine approached me about doing a web series together just over a year ago. I’d never embarked on a project like this but it seemed like an exciting idea, so I agreed to do it, not knowing how much of a big impact it would have on my life. I wanted to create a show in which I could see myself and the people within my close inner circle as I feel that the lives we live are often missing from mainstream narratives.

During the writing of the series, there was also a popular hashtag that started to circulate across social media called #VentYourRent, which involved lots of young working professionals expressing their frustrations at having to pay extortionate levels of rent to live in properties that are in a terrible condition.
So, I thought it would be really interesting to not only have a story about these four big personalities from diverse backgrounds living together in a run-down flatshare in South East London but to also explore this dynamic through London’s housing crisis.

Q: How would you describe the Flatshare web-series in 3 words?

JB: Funny, thought-provoking, riveting.

Q: What vision did you have of the type of characters you wanted to portray and how were the final four cast members decided?

JB: I think as a writer you’re always writing about yourself, even if it’s subconscious. I feel a strong connection to all of the characters because each one represents a different dimension of me. When I started to develop their characters I was really inspired by archetypes and using astrology to give them specific behavioural patterns that are related to certain birth signs.

Like most people, I spend a lot of time on Instagram and have been really inspired by hashtags like #CarefreeBlackBoy and #BlackgirlMagic as it helped me to visualise how I wanted characters like Kemi and Omar to look like and the personality traits that are associated with these hashtags.

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Left to Right – Andrew Rowe (Tom), Lauren Cato (Kemi), Lewis Brown (Omar), Callum Tempest (Seb)

When we started auditioning for the roles it was very obvious who we would cast for the lead roles. I was very clear on what I wanted, so it was then about finding actors who could bring those qualities out and take it to the next level.
When Andrew Rowe came into to audition for Tom, what I loved about him is that he tapped into the emotional undercurrent of his characters sexual drive which gives him more depth. And the same with Callum Tempest, who plays Seb. He not only captures the rage and angst of his character who is a social activist but also the inner conflict he has around coming from a privileged background.

Throughout the auditioning process, it was about casting actors who brought a strong level of authenticity. The hardest character we had finding was Omar, who to me is the heart and soul of the series and also happens to be a free-spirited gay man of colour. I found that a lot of the straight guys who auditioned for this role would overplay him by being overly camp and effeminate which was off-putting to me because I didn’t want him to be stereotypical.

“When Lewis Brown walked in, he captured the right balance of what I was looking for. It was the little things he picked up on like Omar’s facial expressions, his body language and his tone.”

Kemi, is the female lead in the series, she’s very outspoken and strong-willed but I also wanted to make sure that people wouldn’t label her as the ‘angry black woman’. We had quite a few actresses read for this role, but what stood out about Lauren Cato, who plays Kemi is that she brings a soft sensitivity and a vulnerability which makes her character more multidimensional.

Q: How do we take the story forward and tackle issues explored in the series, like gentrification, class division and racial prejudice?

JB: Once we complete filming for Flatshare we plan to hold screenings and have panel discussions about the issues raised in the series like the lack of affordable housing, gentrification, misogynoir, and Chemsex. With Flatshare, I’m not trying to present a single solution to these issues, if anything I want to create more dialogue. My long-term vision is to use the series as a platform to bring different people together to discuss new ways of moving forward because I think the world is very divided right now.

I think that social media has created these echo chambers where people live in their own little bubble and just surround themselves with people who think like them and affirm what they already believe in. And as a result, they’ve forgotten how to listen to others, especially to those who have different opinions to themselves, and this why there has been such a strong resurgence of the far-right. I’ve always identified as someone who is quite liberal, but the intolerance and the desire for people who would describe themselves as liberals to silence people who don’t agree with their worldview concern me because it goes against everything that we claim to stand for.

When it comes to gentrification, class division or racial prejudice, it’s not just about government policy, it’s about making sure that everyone who is most affected by these things are included in the conversations designed to tackle these issues and creating spaces where we can collectively come together, talk and listen to each other without judgment or silencing others who challenge our perspectives and look at how we can work together.

Q: When is ‘Flatshare’ going to be released?

JB: Our crowdfunding campaign will be over by mid-June, so we are aiming for a summer release.

In terms of specific dates of when Flatshare will be released, we’ll be announcing this on our official Twitter page: @flatshareseries

Crowd funding campaign details can be found here: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/flatshare-webseries-lgbt-diversity/x/16138112#

Q: If you had to choose between Barry Jenkins ‘Moonlight’ and Jordan Peele ‘Get Out’ which film would you choose and why?

JB: That’s a tough question, I think both resonate with me for different reasons. I actually met Tarell McCraney who is the writer behind Moonlight when it was first shown in the UK at the BFI film festival. As a black gay man, I saw so much of my own story in Chiron’s, growing up feeling different, not conforming to the stereotypes that are forced on us as black men, which in my opinion is a facade and stops us from showing our true selves. But I also loved Get Out, which I went to see in Peckham with my partner who happens to be white. I kept looking over to see his response to certain parts of the film. He’s wasn’t uncomfortable at all and really enjoyed the film. I think Get Out, aside from being very funny makes an extremely powerful statement about race in the 21st century through humour that makes you laugh in the moment, but makes you think afterwards.
So to answer your question, I am afraid I am unable to pick just one because they both left an imprint on me.

Q: Do you think growing up in South London Brixton and Peckham had an influence on the content you enjoy making?

JB: I don’t know how it couldn’t! Growing up in South London is what shaped me. Because Flatshare is so personal to me it only felt right that it would be set in Peckham. It’s funny because while I was growing up I didn’t feel like a typical ‘South Londoner’ but as I get older I can see how much of an impact it had on me. There’s a certain realness and a groundedness that you get with South Londoners. I think when I was developing the characters, I knew that I wanted at least two of them to be indigenous South Londoners. For instance, Omar is from Peckham where the web series is set, but he moved to Dalston to pursue a career as an artist but after 5 years of living East, he decides to move back to South in an attempt to reconnect with his roots. I wrote this a year ago, having no idea that a year later I would be moving back to East Dulwich, the place I was born. Definitely, a case of art imitating life.

Q: If you could relocate to one place to live, where would it be and why?

JB: It would have to be America. Like most people in this country I was very disappointed when they elected Donald Trump, but when I look at the kind of films and TV shows that are currently being made in the US, that’s where I feel most drawn to. I’m a huge fan of Queen Sugar because I think it does such a great job of showing black characters who are multi-faceted. It shows the essence of who we are as a people, our strength, our messiness and reliance to overcome adversity.

I don’t think we would have seen a show like this if there wasn’t someone like Oprah Winfrey who is a position of power to commission shows like this to go out on a television network that she happens to owns. And I think when you look at a show like Queen Sugar, it’s not just about seeing lots of black and brown faces on screen but the fact that it’s also reflected behind the scenes, which is very rarely the case. All the directors from the first series were women, and mostly women of colour who are all talented within their own right but were struggling to get work on TV but as a result of the commercial success of Queen Sugar they are now getting booked for jobs. This to me is very inspiring and I think we need TV shows like this in the UK in which we see diversity reflected on all levels.

Q: You may be slightly unknown to our audience, so if you describe yourself as a super hero who would it be?

JB: That’s a tough question for me, mostly because I’ve never identified with superheroes. There have been a few exceptions but most superheroes are represented as heterosexual, hypermasculine, and conform to the heteronormative values of what a man should be and I don’t fit into that box. As a kid, I loved Dean Cain in Superman, but I think that was more to do with the fact that I thought he was cute.

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Q: Who inspires you?

JB: I’m a huge fan of Oprah and my dream is that I’ll be able to meet her someday and tell her how big of an impact she has had on my life. There are several reasons why I admire her, firstly I love and feel inspired by how she managed fame by staying true to herself, I love the platform she has created first with her show and now with her television network which champions groundbreaking shows like Greenleaf, Super Soul Sunday, Iyanala Fix My Life, and of course Queen Sugar. I love how business minded she is and how she has used her money to create things like the leadership academy for young impoverished girls in South Africa and also as an actress. If you haven’t seen her in the new TV movie The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, you need to watch it ASAP. Just make sure you have your tissues on stand by. It’s a tearjerker!

Q: What importance does the internet play in the film industry? Does social media, Netflix and video sharing platforms benefit the film industry?

JB: I remember seeing a tweet a couple of months ago in which someone suggested that Rihanna and Lupita Nyong’o should be in a film together and that Issa Rae should write it and Ava Duvernay should direct it. And recently it was announced that Netflix won a bidding war at Cannes to make the film. I for one will definitely be watching! I think it’s amazing that this genius idea came from a simple tweet, the internet went crazy for it and Hollywood jumped on it.

Even when you look at the recent success of films like Moonlight, Fences and Hidden Figures I think it’s a direct result of hashtags likes #Oscarssowhite which have highlighted the long-standing issue of films with black actors being overlooked and in many cases having to work twice as hard for recognition.

When I think about the future, I see platforms like Netflix and video sharing platforms really leading the way. When it comes to my web series, my goal is to get it distributed by Netflix as they champion the work of digital filmmakers.

Whether you’re black, white, Asian, gay or straight, you can specifically find shows that cater to your individual tastes and find content where you can see yourself represented.
The Internet has increased the speed at which happen, and that means that people are not willing to wait for change, they want to see it now. If the mainstream film industry is things unwilling or slow to respond to the call for more diversity people will go elsewhere, and they are in their masses. Most of my friends don’t watch television because they are finding what they’re looking for on Netflix and on platforms like YouTube, and I think that’s exciting, in terms of the opportunities available to people like me.

Q: If you could say something to your younger self, what would it be?

JB: Don’t be too hard on yourself. You don’t have to be perfect. Listen to your intuition and trust that it will guide you to the right place.

Watch the trailer right here:

Follow @Flatshareseries for future news and updates!

 

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