An Interview with Abraham Adeyemi
Abraham Adeyemi is an award-winning writer, director and playwright. In 2020 his short film No More Wings won best narrative short at Tribeca Film Festival. I spoke with Abraham about growing up in South London, No More Wings, his work as a playwright, and his upcoming projects.
Did you always want to pursue a career in the film industry?
Not always. Once upon a time, around 2011 my trajectory was very different. I always wanted to be a lawyer. Since childhood I’d always said that I want to be a lawyer. That was very much where I was heading and at sixteen I thought law was a good idea, but maybe also banking. I did internships for both. It was when I was about nineteen that I changed my mind. The two main motivations behind that was probably the university I went to and the people I was around and just being surrounded by people who were quite driven and determined. I don’t know if it’s that, or being around driven and determined people who weren’t traditionally driven. It wasn’t about 9-5, not a corporate driven 9-5. And a friend of mine who passed away and the implications of losing someone at a young age and how it makes you reconsider the trajectory of life you are going on and what you are doing with it, quite morbidly, that you never know when you are going to die. Ten years later you are still alive and that person isn’t. Hopefully I’ll still be here in ten years, twenty, and thirty and so on, but if God forbid I died tomorrow I wouldn’t feel like I held back. I think at that point I was holding back and I was saying to myself you can always do this at this point in your life. Whereas now my perspective is quite different and I think tomorrow isn’t promised, so do it now.
Was there anyone who particularly influenced you at the beginning?
There’s a few people, mostly friends and family and some industry people too. I think of a friend I’d made at the time who was a year older than me, from a similar background: a black guy from an estate in East London and he’d just sold a script to the BBC. I thought if he can do it why can’t I? So that definitely played a part. I had friends who were just really driven and a friend called Femi, who doesn’t live in the country anymore. I think as a friendship group we always describe that person as who we consider to be the bar of excellence and what you kind of aspire to be, so I think he played a part.
My uncle is a doctor and I was always inspired by him because I imagine you don’t have the best amount of support to pursue that as a career and it always amazes me. I don’t believe that anyone is self-made, but I think my uncle is the closest to it in that he just didn’t have the support he just really grinded to achieve.
Industry wise it’s just people’s work I watched which has inspired me: the works of John Singleton, Woody Allen, Aaron Sorkin, and David O’ Russell. People like that and also some of my peers. I’ve got a friend called Koby. We grew up in the same area and were friends before either of us had any interest in film. Now we’re both doing pretty well. Koby directed half of a BBC series called Noughts + Crosses, an adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s book. That’s inspiring to me. Someone who I’ve sat in my Mum’s house with many times and now we are both doing incredible things.
Kanye West is probably my biggest inspiration, I’m a massive fan of his creativity and dedication. I always think back to a lyric on his first album when he talks about how he made five beats a day for three summers. It’s like a really arrogant lyric because the next line is I deserve to do these numbers and I think of myself like that as well. As any of my friends would tell you, I’m a hard worker. When things are going well like right now I feel like I do deserve it because anyone who knows me would never doubt how hard I’ve worked and the sacrifice I’ve taken to get here.
You’ve been commissioned to write a series for Channel 4?
Yes and no. They have a programme called 4Screenwriting and I was in last year’s cohort. What that comes with is every writer on it gets commissioned to write a pilot. I wrote a pilot and that’s done and dusted. We’ll see what happens with it as a whole series. What typically happens with Channel 4, broadcasters in general in the UK, is that they don’t physically commission the development of a series. You have to get it picked up by a production company first and then if a production company wants it they take it to broadcasters and what not. It was great to have Channel 4s support and backing. Also, equally because of Channel 4s label on it, it meant that loads of production companies read it and were interested. That’s just sitting on my laptop now until further notice while I keep busy with other things.
Has it been delayed due to COVID?
Yes, actually. It’s a weird one because it’s a really big budget show. I’m going to explain it with all the non-Covid stuff then add the COVID complications to it. So in a non-COVID world the chances of a writer without any TV credits having their first show picked up are pretty small. It gets even smaller if it’s a really big budget show, which mine is. When you additionally add the fact that the script is written, a production company would more likely pick it up if you had a pitch, or as has happened to me previously, a number of pitches have been picked up and are in development and we’re working towards a script. It’s a much bigger investment for a production company if you already have the script because they are not just paying for you to develop a treatment or a pitch, they are paying for the actual script you have written which is a lot more. On top of that the next steps are very expensive as well because if the next step is doing a writers room, you are looking at probably the initial investment in total being at least £100,000. Again, when you bring this back to first time writers it is a pretty big investment.
When you add in the COVID implications which is impacting everyone, not just first-time writers, production companies are very hesitant to commit to anything that has such a big budget when they don’t know what direction the world is going in. There is no certainty in what the next steps are, how long it’s going to take, or if things will change or go back to normal. If it would be a risk to go with an A-lister, talk less of a person who has no credits and hasn’t proven themselves, it’s definitely impacting in that way. For a short period I was disheartened by it, but now I think you know what this isn’t something that should surprise me. In the right time like so many writers in my position projects will hopefully get picked up. As frustrating as it is that I wanted it to be picked up right now because I love it and it’s my favourite passion project, it’s not the end of the world if it means someone picks it up in a year’s time, two years, or three, five or even ten. I’d cry if it was ten but that does happen. I don’t know if you watched The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix, but that’s a series that the writer has been trying to get made for thirty years, so sometimes it’s just a timing thing. Equally I think in some ways I have benefited from timing as well, so it swings in roundabouts.
Could you talk more about the premise of the series?
I'm keeping my cards close to my chest on that one...
You’re also a playwright…
I consider myself a retired playwright, but I did spend quite a number of years writing plays. Film and TV was always the ambition. I observed quite quickly, especially in the UK that a number of writing talents were all being poached from theatre so it became very clear to me that while I was struggling to make a break as a film or TV writer that I could be strategic about it and start writing for theatre and hope it would open doors for me in film and TV, which it did. Also, as well as opening doors it made me a significantly better screenwriter and writer as a whole. Theatre is really an art. I find it interesting when I speak to writers who find TV and film harder to write. At least for me theatre is much more difficult and I take pride in having been able to write it somewhat well because I know I needed to work really hard to get to the standard I got as opposed to film and TV which I think came slightly more naturally to me.
What’s the biggest contrast between the two?
With film and TV you can change scene, change location and have big flashy things that make it exciting and distract an audience from the fallacies or failings of whatever you are writing. With theatre you are caught in and consumed by the moment. As someone who is an avid theatre goer, I’ve watched plays where within the first five minutes my attention has gone and I’m not sold or captivated. Once you lose a theatre audience I think that’s it you can’t get them back, whereas film and TV you can always find a way to pull someone back in, back into the story I think.
You’ve ventured into directing with No More Wings. Is this something you’d like to continue to pursue?
I would love to continue directing and it is something I’ve continued to pursue. I mentioned earlier I was working on a TV series, it was directing work I was doing on that series. It took me by surprise that it was something I wanted to continue with and I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did. When I went into it I said to myself I was only going to do it once and that was it, but I caught the directing bug and I’ve become very fond of it.
I’m also very particular in what I will and won’t direct. On a primary level, especially on film it’s mostly all my own projects. With TV I’m actually more interested in directing other people’s work rather than my own. I think I have to love it and that’s what I love with my current directing experience is that I’m directing on something I genuinely love and I can’t imagine what it would be like if it was something I didn’t like because it is really exhausting and time consuming with really long days. It’s very different to writing, the complete opposite actually in that I don’t have to talk to anyone during the day when I’m writing.
When I’m directing I have to talk to many people and am generally expected to have all the answers. Some people can do and direct things they don’t love, I just don’t think I’m that kind of director. It’s a long commitment for many months and it impacts your own life as well as the people around you. With that in mind my director choices had to be led by doing shows that I’d love to do and be a part of. When you have all those feelings I honestly think it means you’ll do your best and make it better. I was reading a script just before we got on the phone. I’ve been asked to consider whether or not I want to direct it. I haven’t got an opinion yet. I’m only ten pages in, but as I was reading I was thinking to myself that I need to feel like I can bring more than just directing what I see on the page. If I can’t bring more then what is the point in being a part of this? It’s not fair on anyone.
When you are writing your own work do you envision yourself directing the project?
Not as much as people might think. I hope I don’t in a weird way and I say this because I think of my process of writing and directing No More Wings. When I was writing it I didn’t know I was going to end up directing it. I knew I was writing a script which I was going to submit to a competition and if I won I’d end up directing it, but I didn’t think I was going to win. I was just writing it like a writer would. Once I’d found out that I had won the competition, I then had to redraft the script a few more times to make it a shooting script.
I don’t know how my process might change over the years and I’m definitely open to it changing, but as it stands I really enjoyed doing it in that way. When I was writing I only focused on the writing and once it’s time to direct I’ll then go and focus on redrafting it. With No More Wings, I rewrote it from a director’s perspective knowing I would be shooting it. I’ve got my first feature in development at the moment and I’m trying to develop it in the same way. I don’t want to think about directing it at this point. It’s inevitable that I’ll think about it in some way. First and foremost I want to think about the writing and all the words and then cross the directing bridge later.
How did growing up in south London influence No More Wings?
It influenced it massively. The film is of course set there. More specifically, it’s about two boys who went to the same secondary school and ended up differently. That’s something that’s pretty relatable. I grew up in South London, I went to a grammar school and I have friends that ended up one way and friends that turned out another way. Even in more of the texture of the film when I think of the character who had dreams of being a footballer and dreams of being a musician, I think those were things that a lot of people around me aspired to. And then equally you had people who came from, particularly I think, African backgrounds, who were second generation immigrants and may have had those kind of dreams shut down for more 'traditional' career paths.
It has been quite fresh on my mind because I have been reading an article that a Cambridge graduate had written, who is a British-Ghanaian, who spoke about how growing up, being more creative, doing arts, sports, hadn't really been encouraged in his household. Whether that’s about how much those things might cost, or the time element, but also the safety net of education, which is as long as you have education you can get anywhere in life and things like that. That was definitely something that was very present, in that you’ve got a character who was very focused on study and education because you need this to get where I’m going. They could have both achieved their dreams, it’s just the one that aligned with education was more focused, but he had the same mentality as the other character who didn’t really have focus, who jumped from dream to dream. He was very impatient and didn't understand that any sort of endeavour in life requires dedication and long-term dedication to get gratification. It could have been different for him. Those are the things I think of when I think of where I grew up and how that influenced and impacted that. It’s very much for me unequivocally the South London that I know.
Background and identity seem like a recurring theme in your work…
Background, identity, home. Those things are definitely very big. I think a lot of my work is about home to be honest and where you consider home and how you decide where home is. A lot of my work is about duality as well. I always say that so much of my existence is about duality, whether it be that I was born in the UK, but have Nigerian parents. Those two things largely inform who I am. I think of how I grew up on a very multicultural estate, but went to a school in the suburbs with predominantly white people, those were two very different backgrounds that impacted who I am. Duality is definitely a big thing to me and really shines a lot in my work.
You’ve got a feature in development. Is this also UK based?
Yes, primarily. There might be a few scenes that are in another country, but I won’t know that until I write the script. I don’t even remember if I put it in the treatment, but I knew it was in my mind. I was thinking it might be nice if they go to Spain, Barcelona specifically. I’m really enjoying working on it. It’s another one of my passion projects.
You’ve previously offered some screenwriting workshops. Can you tell me more about this?
Yes, I have! I love doing screenwriting workshops. I did a playwriting one just before Christmas on Zoom and I did a screenwriting one maybe a week before the pandemic started. I went to Cambridge to do one as well. I really love doing them. I look forward to when the pandemic is over doing more of them. The one that I did on Zoom was quite strange. I enjoyed it, but there’s nothing like being in a room with human beings. One of the biggest difficulties of it is not having more than one person talking at a time and you also naturally can’t really interrupt people. It’s often polite pauses and waiting and it’s not how humans interact. I always say to people when I first meet them that I’m quite a big interrupter and never being rude, it’s just how I am. It works and we talk and have back and forth conversations, but it’s a lot more difficult on Zoom. If I’m doing a workshop where I’m talking for an hour and a half. I do enjoy doing the workshops, they are fun to carry out and hopefully imparts some knowledge to people. I think I demystify it all and maybe break down some stereotypes people assume. I make people realise it’s not as scary as it seems. I often say that I genuinely think anyone can do what I do. Not to play down any talent I might have, just an understanding. My perspective towards life is I just think of it like the gym, which is keep going consistently and you will eventually get better and you’ll get stronger. That applies to absolutely everything. Like writing, you keep doing it and you’ll be better than you were yesterday and then better than you were last week, last month. Discipline, routine and consistency.