The writer-director and producer of Expensive Shit speaks with Leila Latif ahead of their short film playing in London Film Festival 2020
A Nigerian toilet attendant is faced with a terrible choice in Expensive Shit, the powerful and poignant short film from writer-director Adura Onashile. The film is based on Adura’s stage play of the same name, which scooped the coveted Fringe First award when it premiered at Edinburgh Fringe in 2016.
The short film adaptation came courtesy of Adura’s collaboration with Rosie Crerar, the founder of barry crerar production company, who is now working again with the filmmaker on their debut feature Girl. Ahead of Expensive Shit’s premiere at the 2020 BFI London Film Festival, Adura and Rosie spoke with Leila Latif about the film’s genesis, the key to their collaboration, and the best way to light black skin for camera.
Adura, did you always know that you wanted to be a writer-director?
AO: I didn't think of myself as a writer; I thought I'd be an actor and a director. I wasn't getting the parts I wanted so I wrote a one woman show for myself. I loved then continuing within the directing process, having complete autonomy over a piece of work.
Rosie, how did your journey into film begin?
RC: My first job was at Edinburgh Film Festival when I was 17, and whilst I was at university in London I worked at BFI Southbank. I came back to Glasgow and I just tried to meet people and build networks. I've straddled film festivals and programming and script development for almost 20 years. We set up our company in 2016 with the support of the BFI Vision Award. It has not been a straight journey. I don’t think it is for most independent producers.
How does being a filmmaker in Glasgow compare to being a filmmaker in London?
RC: I worked and lived in London for years and there was no way to make a living as an independent producer in London. The only way we were able to support ourselves up here was because of the Vision Award. Being removed from the epicentre of the UK film industry has its challenges, but we have a unique view from up here as well, so we offer something different.
barry crerar produced Expensive Shit, and you are now working on Girl, a feature film, together. How did you meet and what makes this relationship work?
RC: We approached Adura when we set up the company in 2016, having seen her play Expensive Shit at the Fringe. We were really struck by the clarity of her voice, and I could see it working visually. We talked about working together on a number of different projects and settled on Girl. We worked on Expensive Shit in tandem and it’s been a long process. Adura, myself and Ciara had babies since we started working together, and that’s something that we navigated together.
How did having babies impact your work?
AO: We have to own that we are mammoth in being mothers and workers as well. I've learned a lot of things through motherhood that help. I don't have time to waste anymore and I’m much better at time management, but at the same time it is huge doing both things.
RC: The process of developing a child and the process of developing a script is long-winded; there's no rush to the finish. Adura and Ciara and I have all got children under two, so going into making the feature, that is going to be at the front of our minds. We want to work in a healthy way and be mindful of practical things that impact how we're able to care for our daughters.
Has the transition from theatre to film been something you envisaged, or was it just a case of taking opportunities as they presented themselves?
AO: I'd like to meet a freelancer who plans their career trajectory! My career has very much been about being in the right place at the right time.
RC: As a producer, you are meant to be quite strategic, but for us it wasn't just about making a short film. It’s about recognising Adura’s talent and supporting that. There’s a natural trajectory of doing a short and then working up towards the feature, but it didn't really work out that way. You always have a game plan, but life gets in the way.
Expensive Shit was an award-winning play before you made it into a short film. How did you distil it down to the ten minutes that the film is?
AO: My approach was that it's a new story. The lead character is still a toilet attendant, but everything else about her is completely different. The short film is a lot more successful than the play; I feel like I was really able to walk that knife’s edge more successfully.
Is lighting black skin difficult to accomplish? Because it’s rarely done as well as it is in Expensive Shit.
AO: Our DOP, Sarah Cunningham, explained that film light is inherently biased towards white skin, so when shooting black skin, you have to adapt in certain ways. It's really frustrating for a cinematographer.
I was influenced by Moonlight and wanted to bring in neons and those rich brown tones. It's really lovely to hear you say that we were successful in that.
In Expensive Shit you stopped short of actually showing sexual violence. Was there a reason for not crossing that line?
RC: We didn't want to sensationalise, or mistreat something so devastating and wanted to focus on Tolu rather than the actual violence itself. When we were on the shoot, the gravitas of it was so powerful to watch that we were very challenged by it. Adura and I had conversations checking, “Are we doing this for the right reasons?” There were versions of it where you saw more detail, but we decided to not show it.
AO: I'm a great believer that you cannot show anything as bad as people's imaginations; all you need to do is suggest something. On the shoot I talked to the actors and assured them this was not going to a gratuitous place. I told them if you're ever uncomfortable in anything we won't shoot it. It’s really amazing to me that I can still see things on film that I feel are unnecessary in terms of violence against women's bodies. Definitely we had a moment on set where I took Rosie aside and asked, “What are we putting in the world?” I still have questions about that, because it's very dark. I think it's a good thing that it sits uncomfortably in me. I hope it always does if I continue to work with this sort of material.
What sort of films do you intend to make? Do you have a philosophy when it comes to choosing or creating projects?
AO: Creativity is my reason to be here; it’s the thing that excites me the most and collaborating with people is the thing, aside from daughter, I love the most. I want to continue to make challenging stories that allow me to push myself.
RC: Our priority is to work with more female filmmakers and shake up the status quo a bit!
Expensive Shit is available to view on the BFI London Film Festival digital viewing platform from 7th - 18th October.
All images credited to Brian Sweeney.