Adjani is a budding, driven, award winning writer and director who hails from Jamaica. Before graduating from the Met Film School, he created and ran a production company focusing on adverts and corporate videos. During this time he wrote and directed a 13-episode web series, which amassed over 40,000 views in three months.
In 2013, Adjani dissolved his business and moved to the UK to pursue his Masters in Directing Film. His graduation film, His Father’s Son, screened at numerous film festivals internationally, including Cannes, Blackstar and the Montreal World Film festival.
He is the writer, producer and lead actor for Dreaming Whilst Black.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
I consciously knew I wanted to be a director at twenty two but my subconsciousness knew from as early as 13 years-old.
In the summer of 2011 my cousin Henry from England came to Jamaica to film some projects. Seeing him create stories from what seemed like random shots ignited a desire to tell stories visually. From June onwards I followed him around being his assistant. By July we were creating a comedy sketch web series. In September when he left, we had set up a production company and I’ve been directing ever since.
However this wasn’t my first experience with film, this passion was a sleeping giant that was awoken from nearly a decade’s long sleep. When I was thirteen my mother bought me a 4megapixel digital camera for Christmas which could record and playback videos backwards as well (this was EPIC shit at the time). We spent the next two school terms making renditions of The Matrix, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and all the other Kung-Fu that we watched at the time (Jamaicans love Kung-Fu Films). We would get friends to do a fight sequence with swords (sticks) backwards, then afterwards throw the sticks away. When replayed backwards, it would look like the swords were summoned, then an epic fight sequence would ensue.
We didn’t know how to take the footage off of the SD Card so these were one-take films. We continued to push the envelope for the rest of the year with our reverse films; jumping out of trees and off rooftops, throwing sticks and rocks, making epic Kung-Fu films until some asshole stole the camera out of my bag close to the end of the year.
The following year at career’s day I decided to pursue architecture because I had no idea film was a feasible career; worse one for a young Jamaican boy from the country. Only people from big countries like America and China did that stuff. Film just didn’t seem like a real job.
When I decide to leave a budding architecture career to “chase behind people with my camera” it was met with much distress from the older generation of my family. How would I make money? Why throw away all the years spent building an architecture career? How would I make money? Money was the main concern, a valid concern as well being that I had no answer to these questions. All I knew was that racking my brain creating ideas, 12-hour shoot days and sleepless nights editing felt better than sitting comfortably in an architecture firm drawing lines.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
As previously mentioned I made a comedy-sketch web series that summer when my cousin Henry came to visit. However the euphoria of completing each video was always short-lived by the disappointment that the films were never as good as I’d want them to be. As Ira Glass once said, in the beginning there is a massive gap between your taste and your skill level. All we had was a Canon 5D with the stock lens, a tripod and a slider. Because of our obvious limitations, we only made silent films that were set in the day. This way we could get around not having any lights or sound equipment.
Each week, for 15 weeks, we released a comedy sketch on Vimeo and promoted them on Facebook. The videos were normally made in 3-4 days. We would come up with an idea one day, shoot it the next day with friends and take a day or two to edit. Each week our films got progressively better as we experimented, made mistakes and learnt on a weekly basis. By the time we released our last episode, I was approached by a prominent director in Jamaica and offered a job as an editing assistant.
It was at this job where I learnt about pacing, mise-en-scene and other tools that I would later incorporate into the short films I would continue to make while working in postproduction. I worked for the director’s production company for the next three years, moving from an editor’s assistant to his senior editor. During that time I went from music videos and informercials to reality shows that were broadcasted in the US and UK.
Fun Fact: when I got offered the job I had no idea how to edit because it was Henry who edited all our comedy sketches. The day I got offered the job I called Henry over Skype and told him he had a weekend to teach me how to use Final Cut Pro 7 because I start working as an editor’s assistant on Monday.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
The biggest obstacle I feel directors face when starting out is:
One the creative opportunities to grow as an artist and two the financial opportunities to showcase your abilities for clients/financiers to build a career.
When I just started, my biggest obstacle was learning from my mistakes. Being that I didn’t know any filmmakers or anyone in the industry I didn’t have a mentor or guide to help critique my films to not repeat mistakes. Many of my first films were trial and error, trying new ways to fix old problems and not quite figuring it out. At some point this became frustrating because even though we didn’t spend money on these films, it costed us favours and time, which we ran out of faster than the rate of my growth as a filmmaker. I would watch youtube tutorials and read all the articles I could find on 3-Act Structures and all the elements of visual storytelling.
When seeking directing work, because all my films were silent films (and looked budget) we weren’t getting many opportunities. We got a few, but not enough to survive on so I remained living on my aunt’s couch for much longer than I was welcome. To supplement my income and contribute to the house I would do photography for parties.
Because there were no financial rewards from our shorts nor any film funding opportunities to make better work, film became draining. This is when I understood the power of film. One evening while browsing on Facebook an old high school friend reached out asking what happened for our weekly sketches. After explaining that we’d stopped, he was really disappointed. He went on to thanking me for making them throughout the summer. He was working in America on an immigrant exchange programme and said that our videos were the only time he smiled during the week. This touched me deeply. It still holds weight today when I think back on it. What was a fun project for us, was an important staple to keeping this person’s spirits high. I finally realised the power of film, and why I needed to keep going and become a director (who’s paid).
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
In short, repetition. Watching films is great but nothing will supplement being behind a camera making creative decisions and stitching those together in an edit.
I’ve never been a cinephile. Up until a few years ago I had never seen the “classics” of cinema. My love for film didn’t come from a love for movies, but a love of storytelling and realising that film is the best medium for me to do so. When I started making films, anytime I’d watch a film that I loved, I’d rewatch it and try to dissect what about a scene or moment made me feel a certain way, then try to recreate it. Outside of the web series films I made, we made loads of “opening scenes,” shots and montages. These were ways of testing how to evoke emotions through the use of visuals, montage and sound combined.
As my career progressed I kept experimenting, while watching films with an analytical eye to see what elements about them grabbed me and why. The goal here was to learn as quickly and efficiently as possible. During my three years working as an editor I did this, while learning on the job and saving up money to do short courses here and there when I could. After the three years I felt my growth was becoming stunted, so decided to go to film school to further my education.
The debate about going to film school or not will forever be ongoing. After breaking my neck (and bank) to go, I can say that film school isn’t necessary, but the elements of it are. During my 1-year masters programme I directed 7 films, all of which were critiqued and challenged at every step from concept to completion. Having tutors (or someone experienced) to dissect and analyse my work at every turn was critical to my development. Because of my lack of formal film education, I read many of the books on the reading list. Having a year to focus on experimenting with my craft under mentorship while reading really helped refine my voice as a filmmaker.
Exposure to foreign films, independent films and shorts outside of the mainstream Hollywood films helped me find films and filmmakers who tell the types of stories I like telling in a way I like telling them. This way I could study films that were more in line with my style as a storyteller.
However, the best advice I got while in film school, was from Chung-hoon Chung (the cinematographer of Oldboy). He said, “if you want to make good films don’t study film; study life. Study psychology, philosophy, music, poetry, visual arts, architecture, etc. Films are not about films, they are about life. So in order to make a good film you have to understand life.”
This advice has changed the trajectory of how I’ve honed my craft since.
Outside of watching films (I still don’t watch that much) I consume other forms of emotional storytelling ie, novels, poetry, theatre. I also study historical figures and various elements of psychology and human relationships in order to understand why people behave the way they do.
In Mastery by Robert Greene he says creativity is the brain taking two pieces of random information, creating a new pathway and connection between them creating a new piece of information. Based on that logic, and the advice from Chung, I try to read and learn far and wide, to expand my knowledge bank as much as possible so I can be as creative as possible. This is how I hone my craft.
How did you get your first break?
At various stages of my career I’ve been lucky to get my “first break” by people who believed in me. However as a friend once told me, “luck is where opportunity meets preparation.”
My first consistent paying job in the film industry was as an assistant editor for one of the best directors in Jamaica at the time. He randomly reached out to my cousin (whom, they had mutual friends) and offered me a job. From making sketches in my aunt’s house to being the right hand of someone at the top of the game was definitely a lucky break.
Two month into the job after many teething pains of me actually learning how to edit, I asked him why he kept me on being that he now knows that I’m not actually good with any of the programmes. He replied, “let’s be clear, your web series was shit, but I had never seen anyone consistently put out content for such a long period of time before.” He continued to say he didn’t need someone who was good, he needed someone who was passionate and eager to learn. So in retrospect, if I didn’t make that web series I wouldn’t have gotten that opportunity which is what catapulted my growth as a filmmaker. How he saw the web series in the first place I still don’t know but making the work is what made it possible for him to see.
As I’m writing this (2020), I’m yet to have my “break” but I believe I’m very close. Currently I’m preparing to do a table read with TV Execs for a new 6x30min comedy series for streaming platform. If this goes well, it will be my first big break in the film industry. This opportunity has come from my idea being optioned by a production company, who I was introduced to through an agent. However once again, this luck is not random.
In 2016 while working on a feature film with a friend of mine, I came up with an idea for a web series after watching Master of None. I spent the next 6 months going to the British Library to turn this idea into scripts. Two years after coming up with what was a cool idea, we (my friend and I who started a production company) premiered Dreaming Whilst Black in Leicester Square and 5 other countries at the same time. This international release was an accumulation of friends I had made over the years who believed in me and wanted to help promote the work. After promoting the web series as much as possible online, we submitted the series to film festivals. By the end of 2019 Dreaming Whilst Black was named the 2nd Highest Ranked web series in the world with 36 Awards from 33 Film Festivals.
However this web series wasn’t a viral hit. The agent who introduced it to the production company saw it through a mutual friend. I met that friend when trying to make a documentary and interviewed him as the potential cinematographer. The project fell through but we became friends. That friend then went on to become a director, win FilmLondon, get signed and being the good person he is, showed his new agent my work. Those random events led to my current position.
I have been incredibly lucky throughout my journey so far to be presented the opportunities I’ve been given. However it would be misleading to say that these solely came without my own efforts. People can deduce what they will, whether God, or the universe aligning with my purpose, but as is says in James 2:17 – “…faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” I cannot control when luck will come my way. All I can do is prepare to meet the opportunity, so I focus on what’s within my power: the work.
TV Credits: Dreaming Whilst Black (2018).
Film Credits: His Father’s Son (2015).
Photograph: Jecoliah Parker