Killing Boris Johnson is the only UK film selected as part of La Cinef at Festival de Cannes 2023. Cinamore speaks exclusively with its writer, director Musa Alderson-Clarke, and producer Solomon Golding.
La Cinef selected among 2000 films submitted by film schools from all around the world, 14 short fictions and 2 animated short films, among which 10 films are directed by women and 7 films by men. Killing Boris Johnson was made at the National Film and Television School (NFTS) in the UK, with other entries originating from places including Iran, India, France, Spain, South Korea, Czechia and the United States.
Director Musa Alderson-Clarke, and producer Solomon Golding created Killing Boris Johnson as part of their Master’s degree in Directing Fiction and Producing respectively. They speak exclusively to Cinamore about their time at the school, and the film’s journey from COVID to Cannes.
Killing Boris Johnson expresses frustrations against Prime Minister Boris Johnson for the mishandling of the COVID pandemic, blaming the Conversative minister for the death of a family member.
When did you first start working on Killing Boris Johnson? What period of your time at NFTS were you in?
Musa Alderson-Clarke: So we do three big films. We do first-year film at the end of the first year, Digi film at the beginning of the second year, and our graduation film. It was around the end of the Digi film. It’s a blur now, but it was at the end of February.
Kaz is a character dealing with so much anger and pain. Still, your lead actor Shadrach Agozino portrays his pain in a reserved and sensitive way, among moments of heightened expression. What was your process in working with him as an actor to achieve the balance in his performance and charting Kaz’s emotional journey throughout the film?
MAC: With Shadrach, what stood out from his audition tape was that he really tapped into the character’s humanity. I think it’s easy to see this guy as a maniac and to play that, but he saw that it was a guy struggling essentially. He is supremely talented, Shadrach, and that helps so much. He innately got what the film was about.
We did a bit of rehearsing to build trust between us. A lot of it was talking about the logistics of it. So when we came to set, we had exhausted all questions, so the work was very focused. It was little bits of direction here and there, but we didn’t have to do any heavy lifting on set. We didn’t really have to talk about motivations too much. Shadrach just took it on himself and ran with it. I would give him efficient notes, like “Maybe for this take, say it this way,” to find more options in the edit. But he’s a talent.
Solomon Golding: I will also say there was much of that within the film’s writing. Musa’s writing gave due respect to this character, the person going through this experience, and the depiction of mental health or whatever you want to call it was very much present in the script. We wanted to show a person going through something that could be displayed in a dramatic way, or a way that we’ve seen a lot of mental health depicted as, and instead show something else.
It’s a very poignant, emotional film, but there are elements of really dark comedy sprinkled in, like the sequences where Shadrach recites government addresses whilst donning a Boris Johnson mask. Was that a consideration in the writing process, finding those fun moments in the drama?
MAC: It’s never really a decision at the start to do it, but if you watch the film and then you know me, you would understand that I joke a lot. So elements of humour always get in there. Without it, ‘levity’ is a good word cause I think without it, sometimes it’s not as trustworthy. If it’s drama, drama, drama, it’s just heavy, heavy, heavy. And life isn’t like that. You know, there are moments of humour. Even in the darkest, most dire situations, there are still moments of absurdity.
It’s a tone I like to explore; it feels natural to make work like that. I want to put the audience in a space where they’re still deciding if they should laugh. In some of my earlier shorts, we’d have these ‘crits’ at uni, and people would be asking, “Oh, so is it a comedy, or isn’t it?” as though you need to give people permission to laugh by letting them know it’s a comedy at the start. But I don’t personally agree with that. That space of “Oh, should I be laughing, or shouldn’t I?” It is an interesting place to be.
You choose to leave the ending on a somewhat ambiguous note. Was that always the intention?
MAC: We had a lot of chat about the ending. We decided on it in the edit. There were some other options, but the important thing isn’t what happens to Kaz; the important thing is that he gets to that point.
Having just started at the NFTS in January, one of my favourite things about it is getting the opportunity to watch many films. Were there any films or filmmakers you discovered while studying that you feel have influenced your style as a director?
MAC: My favourite thing about it was using the cinema whenever I wanted. I don’t know if there was any one film, but what we used to do a lot was before we shot, me, the cinematographer, editor, sound designer, and colourist, we’d get together and watch a bunch of films to discuss the script with what we watched. That environment helps a lot.
SC: Everyone is wanting to be filmmakers, and we all just love film and TV. So being in a place like that, you know, in the real world, you might be the only one in your family or friend group who wants to make films, so going to a place where we are all from different backgrounds, but we are all there just enjoying and celebrating the same thing. It’s nice to know you’re in a safe space to talk about and discuss films; you’re just immersed in it. So we’re all influencing each other’s films through discussions and showing our work to others. It’s a space for collaboration and debates, conducive to filmmaking.
MAC: Our team was very diverse, coming from different backgrounds, which is essential. It helps when you’re writing as well cause you’re essentially making stuff for yourself, but also you want to make sure that your intentions are clear. It might be clear to you often, but it’s important to have people who can experience the world differently. It helps you see how your work is being perceived as well.
Congratulations to both of you for getting into Cannes. What has that experience of being selected felt like?
SC: It’s really weird! Because of my upbringing and the way I’ve gone through the world, on the one hand, I have like crippling anxiety about whether I’m worthy or good enough. And then, on the other hand, like, complete faith and trust and knowing that, you know, you are. So it is one of those moments that’s insane for me. I had complete confidence and trust in the film, but you’re always like, ‘Either this is the best thing ever made, or it’s the worst thing ever’.
So it’s great to go to Cannes, to be recognised by them, especially within this competition, because such amazing filmmakers have had their films selected for this, so it’s great to be in that space. It’s already garnered interest from specific demographics to people who either love or hate it. But I’m proud of this film and proud of the work that people put in, and I’m glad it’s being recognised.
MAC: I’m really excited to go. Short films sometimes disappear in a way. So I’m thrilled it’s just being seen. It’s going to be great for the film, and hopefully, you’ll get people excited and get to go to more festivals. But I’m really excited for it to have a London premiere as well because, obviously, it’s quite close to a British experience. I made it for the people, essentially. So I’d love for people to see it in London, that would be a great experience.
As you said, the films speak to a UK audience. The UK’s recent frustration with Boris Johnson and the wider Tory party has become global news. Do you have any hopes or expectations for how this film might play in a European context at Cannes?
MAC: You never really know, of course. And that’s the beauty of it as well. It’s like you make the film, and then it’s not yours anymore. But I’ve always had this feeling that it would play well in France. They’re not afraid of political films. And obviously, Ken Loach does well in France, and he’s very political, that legend! So I have hopes that it will play well. But the films are very personal in many different ways, and that transcends anything, you know. If people connect to it in a personal way, for me, that’s the most important thing.
SC: I think people can relate to having frustrations with politics in general. You know, we’ve lived globally through a pandemic; we’ve lived globally through what’s been going on with politics. As Musa has said, it’s such a personal film that it’s political and radical in its unique nature. It’s from this person who has had this experience.
Others may have had a different experience but can relate to the anger, frustration, and pain of loss more widely, regardless of what guise that loss comes in. So much in this film explores grief in a way separate from politics. Still, there’s also grief that has been bought on and exasperated by politics. So it’s not one-sided; there is a different facet that people can find a way into.
Killing Boris Johnson will premiere at Festival de Cannes on 24 May alongside other worldwide premieres: Asteroid City, May December, Occupied City, Killers of the Flower Moon, The Zone of Interest, Elemental, Hypnotic, and The Old Oak by filmmakers Wes Anderson, Todd Haynes, Steve McQueen, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Glazer, Peter Sohn, Robert Rodriguez and Ken Loach respectively.
If Killing Boris Johnson wins amongst its international peers in La Cinef, it will be awarded The Short Film Palme d’or by the Jury chaired by Ildikó Enyedi, Saturday, May 27, during the closing ceremony of the 76th Festival de Cannes.
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