Filmmaking in Brixton: Phil Dunn Interview

Phil Dunn is a writer, director & poet who filmed his award-winning short film “THE STUPID BOY” on location in Brixton, with a Brixton-based cast & crew. THE STUPID BOY tells the parallel narrative of Michael, a 16 year-old neurodivergent boy unable to recognise hatred and bullying, and Stephen, a broken man full of repressed rage following a history of abuse and loss. These characters’ journeys are brought together in a heart-stopping finale when their narratives cross paths. Ahead of the film being screened at Brixton Ritzy alongside a party at Lost in Brixton, we sat down with Phil to ask him some questions about filmmaking in Brixton.

The film was set and filmed in Brixton. What about Brixton was important to you to achieve your vision for the film?

Brixton worked for the film in so many ways – both in front of the camera and behind it. First of all, I had lived and worked in Brixton for many years at that point, so it was right there in front of me, and I was already in love with everything about the area; the people, the place, the architecture and just the overall vibe, which is so unique and distinctive for London.  Having shot 2 shorts in the area already, I knew it looked great on camera.

For the story, we needed an area that would provide a multicultural diverse backdrop for the setting of the film, and a place that would be a credible target for a white supremacist terrorist attack. Brixton has always been an incredible melting pot of so many wonderful cultures and nationalities, which is why it’s so awesome, but of course, a white supremacist nationalist far right thinker would hate that. So that worked.

Behind the camera, it made a lot of sense to film here because my production company authentive has been based there for 15 years and we have a large creative network there. Amazing creative and collaborative people who would be able to help us pull off such an ambitious independent short film, and we were going to need all the help we could get!

Can you describe some of the positives about working and filming in Brixton?

Well, firstly, I knew a lot of the people who we would need to ask favours from! For example, in Brixton village, I had over the years met many of the stall owners there and bought from their incredible shops and eateries. Also, there is an amazing open-mindedness and creative collaborative spirit about Brixton that made this kind of thing so much easier to pull off. What I love about filming in Brixton is that the area itself is its own character, and therefore plays such important role in the tone of the film. But Brixton is also full of characterS; amazing and unique personalities, who lend the area its distinctive vibe. A great example would be Winnie or Winifred Darlington, a local lady who agreed to be a supporting character in the final scene. She was buying oranges from the grocery store, and she just embodied so much of the kind of brilliant people that you find in Brixton. When Stephen the bomber bumped into her, that was such a Brixton response that she gave she did not just put up with it, but shout out after him and tell him his manners. I remember when we filmed that it felt almost like déjà vu, because I have seen the same kind of thing happened so many times in Brixton. I think that says something about the spirit of the place; that will not be pushed around and has its own voice in the midst of all of London’s craziness.

The film’s centrepiece was shot in Brixton Village. Can you talk through some of the challenges and benefits of filming in the village?

Brixton village was such a gift. I had originally written the final scene to happen on a tube train, but when we went to London transport and asked them about the possibility of doing that, suffice to say we were definitely not gonna have enough budget for what they needed. Plus when they asked us what the subject matter was and we said that there would be a suicide bomber with a full vest on display, I think that definitely ruled it out!

It did not take me long to think of Brixton Village as the perfect alternative (I was walking through it to work every day!) and like so many of these things, in retrospect, it really could not have been anywhere else. It had the same sense of an enclosed space, but somewhere that would be busy and full of lots of people, with a diverse crowd. What was really great was that because it is privately owned, that meant that it was much easier to manage when it came to having a bomb vest on display. We spoke to the local police and checked with them, and they said since it was not on public land, it was something that they were happy for us to manage, but obviously helpful for them to be aware. We filmed on a Monday when a lot of the village stalls/shops are closed, which meant that we did not disrupt Their businesses. And those that were open, we made deals with them so that they would not lose out, and we found them all to be incredibly accommodating and very understanding of our creative efforts! One lovely touch was that we got Oowee Vegan to cater for the day of the shoot in Brixton village, when we had over 50 people there, so that was great business for them, and meant that we fed all of our casting crew, some properly, delicious (vegan and sustainable) food! Diana from Brixton Village was incredibly helpful in making the whole thing work for us.

Have you got any advice for other filmmakers in Brixton who would like to set their work locally?

I would say go for it! You really could not ask for a better location for any story. This is the third short film I have shot in the area and each time it has added that extra something that takes the film to the next level.

I would also say remember that you are not alone if you are trying to do something creative like that in Brixton. There are so many like-minded people around and lots of goodwill to support and encourage you. I spoke with Make It In Brixton early on and they were incredibly helpful in connecting us to the right people and opening up areas and avenues for us to be able to do what we needed in the area. A big part of any filmmaking is just to daring to ask, and in Brixton, it is that much easier to ask because there is that basic mindset amongst most of the people that live there.

I have found this once again, when it came to organising our upcoming screening on 12th December – it has been amazing to see how much support local businesses and organisations have given to us for that event, so that it will be as much of a celebration of Brixton’s creativity and spirit as the film was to make in the first place. We have three local drinks sponsors Brixton Brewery, Market Row Rum, and Brixton Gin. We have food from the Clink Bakery (based in Brixton prison). We also have pizzas courtesy of Wildfarmed (regenerative farmed flour). We have the Brixton Chamber Orchestra playing some tunes, and an excerpt from our original score by Thomas Bell. All of which is supported by Brixton Bid’s Community Fund and also the brilliant people at Squire & Partners. It’s quite a Brixton tour de force!!

Lastly, we have performances from two alumni of the Brixton Youth Theatre, one of whom was actually a runner on our film, Aziza Brown. – We had reached out to Brixton Youth Theatre when it came to casting, and also to offer paid opportunities to young people from the area so that they might get experience on a film set and get their foot in the door of the film industry. So there’s a tip for you too!

If you are thinking of filming in Brixton I would recommend the same approach – draw on local talent, resources and support. Brixton will blow you away. Plus do get in touch with me and I would love to help in any way I can.

The Stupid Boy will be screened at Ritzy Picturehouse on December 12. You can buy tickets here.
Find Phil @philcdunn and The Stupid Boy @authentive