Noel Anthony Clarke is a talented actor, screenwriter, director, producer and comic book author, best known for his roles in classic TV shows Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and Doctor Who. Noel is also the creator behind the highly acclaimed film Kidulthood and its sequels, Adulthood and Brotherhood, which he produced, directed and starred in.
Noel began his writing career in the early 2000’s with the screenplay for the film Kidulthood, released in 2006. The sequel, Adulthood, soon followed. In 2009, Noel won a BAFTA in recognition of his emerging talent, with the academy giving him the Orange Rising Star Award.
In 2007 Noel and his business partner, Jason Maza, set up their production company ‘Unstoppable Film & Television’, which prides itself on giving a platform to new talent and filmmakers from diverse and ethnic backgrounds. Striving and continuing to push the boundaries of independent film and more importantly, advance those movies into an international market. Recently, they became part of the All3Media group, which has expanded their slate to include scripted TV.
Since 2007, Unstoppable has produced films such as Adulthood, The Knot, 188.8.131.52, Storage 24, The Hooligan Factory and 2014 EIFF’s We Are Monster, Legacy, Scottish Mussell, Brotherhood and 10×10. The latest addition to the list is The Fight which premiered at LFF 2018.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
I realised I wanted to be a director probably quite late in terms of where I was in my life, because I’d been solely focused on writing and acting. I knew I wanted to be an actor from a very early age and I suppose I always thought I would direct eventually, but I thought acting would be able to sustain my life. I started to become interested in directing when we were making Kidulthood. The film’s director [Menhaj Huda] had me there on set everyday for authenticity. I was by his side, watching and learning from him. He had directed a lot of stuff before, so he knew what he was doing and I was there really to offer advice as the writer. However, being next to him everyday, watching him work, I’d sometimes think ‘that’s maybe not how I would have done that scene’. I privately started thinking about how I would do things but in the end I just put it down to a difference of opinion, and to be honest I was just so grateful to sit with Huds [Huda] and learn from him everyday.
Then when I wrote the second film Adulthood, and the first person I gave it to was Huds. I wanted him to direct it and I figured he would. But then he said he couldn’t do it because he had other jobs coming up and he was heading to LA. The distributors were then worried that without Huds, they didn’t know any directors that could take on the material. Classic stuff they’d get in trouble for now.
I couldn’t understand why my destiny was in the hands of other people. They were literally saying “Huds directed this phenomenon that you wrote. If he can’t do the second one, we’re at a loss”. So I went away and started thinking of other people who could direct it. Then one day, in a meeting, one of the execs said, “Have you ever thought about doing it?” I told him I hadn’t but he followed up by saying “Well we’re at a loss to find people. You’ve been acting for a while now. You were on set every day on the first one, everybody knows you, you know the material. Why don’t you do it?”
I remember coming home and telling my girlfriend at the time about the suggestion. In my mind I had a rough plan where I saw myself directing in 15 years time, when I was able. And she said, ‘well, you should think about it because only five years ago, I was having to loan you money for travel cards to get to acting auditions. You’re saying in fifteen years you’re gonna direct. How do you even know you’ll even be in a place where you’ll have the opportunity to direct in 15 years?’
She was so smart and astute, and from that moment I knew I had to do it.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
After deciding I was going to do it I called the executive producer and said I wanted to do it. However, they told me I had to do a test first by directing a short, which they’d pay for. If I did a good job and passed, then I could direct the feature. So this is what I did.
It was a short in the sense that you could just shoot from scenes from the actual movie. So we shoot a ten-minute sequence from the movie. It was the sequence where Sam leaves Lexie’s house and gets attacked by Plan B and Omen. I went up to the point where you realise that Omen is my brother. I cast the actors from the film and approached it like we were actually making the feature.
That then got submitted to the executives and they were satisfied. I was fortunate really because it nearly got messed up due to the clapper loader putting the film in the camera back to front. This meant the rushes all came out blue and grainy, and the DoP Brian Tufano had to change a whole bunch of stuff in the grade, just to make it visible. I remember the distributor worryingly asking if the blue grainy look was how I proposed to shoot the film, and having to explain it was a mistake. I was also asked to back all this up with a report about the overall film, mistakes that were made, and how I’d deal with them moving forward. For example, I could see when I edited it together that there was a shot missing that I needed, so I made them aware of that.
I learned so much through doing this test. Things about shooting coverage, camera techniques. but also when I shot this section again in the film, I did it slightly differently, because I had learned from the first time. But that’s part of the process.
Of course, nobody has seen the test film, but no one was supposed to see it. Maybe in a 100 years, when everyone’s dead and gone, they’ll show them, as they’re all locked in a vault somewhere. But the whole point of making them, is that they never get seen. Back then the Film Council (who where involved in Adulthood) gave a lot of directors chances to do a test, to see if they could make a feature film. It literally was, if you pass, you get your movie, if you don’t, you don’t. I was involved in another movie where we had this girl director to direct this movie called Liberation, and we got it all set up, and they were going to do it, and she didn’t pass it, and they didn’t do the movie. So it was a very real thing.
In the end I passed the test for Adulthood and I got to make the film. Also, that smart, astute girlfriend is now my wife.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
In terms of Kidulthood, there weren’t really any bad experiences, apart from people constantly telling us the film would never get made, and some people that said it should never get made. There was one woman at a distributor who was considering it in 2003, she thought about doing it, and then was like “You would need to change so much because kids don’t behave like this and my kid’s don’t talk like this”. I remember saying to her that of course her kids didn’t talk like that, as they probably lived in a six-bedroom house in Hampstead. At the time I remember her being slightly annoyed about the comment but afterward she also made sure that I never got a meeting with that distributor again, during the whole time she worked there. So that was a bad experience I suppose, as she was at that financier and distributor for 15 years, and I couldn’t get a meeting with them, even after the success of Kidulthood.
With Kidulthood I was confident in what I’d written but I had no expectations. So then we got the film made, and it was a huge success, it was a bonus. With Adulthood when Huds didn’t want to do it, and then the distributor initially didn’t want to do it, and even one of the producers was saying it will never be as successful as the first one, and he walked off in all but name, this made me start to question myself and shook my confidence a little. However, I quickly decided that if these people weren’t going to help me then it was all on my shoulders, which meant that if it didn’t work I’d have a story to tell my grandkids one day, but if it did work, none of them could take the credit for it, it would be my success. Fortunately, it all worked out and was a success and nobody can take the credit for it. I had a great cast and Brian Tufano DoP’d it but I had written it, starred in it, directed it – every shot, every montage was my choice. I can still tell you to this day where I got the ideas for the montages. For example there’s an emotional montage near the end where the screen moves and it goes around the characters. That came about because the iPhone had just come out and you could just move around the screen of the phone. I felt the audience would be using their phones in the same way and so I said to the editor to make this emotional montage (with the Shystie track) move as if someone was doing it on an iPhone. The editor was unsure how to do it without doing it being in blocks. But I knew it couldn’t be like the traditional moving images in, as we had to literally make it feel as if somebody’s doing it himself or herself. We managed to figure it out and it worked really well.
Again, there were no real bad experiences on Adulthood, it was just the pressure of feeling like it was all on my shoulders. I knew that if it failed, I would most likely have been done. Too have such a big failure compared to the first one, and then the added fact that to the audience you’ve not only sullied the first film but you’ve also acted in it, you’ve starred in it, you’ve written and directed it. You feel like the vultures are waiting to go ‘ah! Your ego was so big! I gave you enough rope, and you’ve hung yourself.’ That’s what it felt like people where waiting for, and so there was that constant pressure.
I felt some of this when I did 184.108.40.206. I was already trying to break out of the hood stuff and I loved 220.127.116.11. It’s one of my favourite films I’ve directed and if it weren’t for that film, I probably wouldn’t still be about. The reason I love it so much is because it was me trying to show people that I could do different things. We had Hollywood stars in it Emma Roberts, Kevin Smith, Helen McCrory, Mandy Patinkin. You still have the element of street culture but hopefully it’s very different. It’s four female leads, there’s a black girl, Shanika Warren-Markland, who’s up there with all these American actors, but I was trying then to do things differently. I mean, you put that film out now with four female leads, a black girl protagonist who is also gay, it would be described as being groundbreaking. But at the time, people were like expecting another hood movie. This film, however, was out of sequence, it was clever, inspired by films like Go, Pulp Fiction and Amores Perros. So when I put it out instead of the 3.3million box office that Adulthood made, it only made 1million. Now, for an indie film this is not a failure, but considering the one before made 3.3million everyone jumped on it as some sort of failure and my box office as leading man went down. Then I did Storage 24, which I wrote but didn’t direct, and when that came out it only does about £500,000 or something like that, in the UK, so again my value goes down.
My audience was just not into these films. With Storage 24 I remember getting messages from people saying, “Bro. I’m not really feeling this new film, man. Why are you not busting some heads in the area. Like what’s all this alien business?”
I was confused. Surely people don’t want to see me do the same thing again, but the systematic, institutionalised racism is like, they want to see you put on a hood, swing a bat and cuss someone. Go do that. It’s difficult as for me, I think its gotten harder and harder in some ways to break away from that.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
I think I have a very standard style. I don’t necessarily look to do tricks and stuff like that all the time. I’m definitely a steadicam lover, getting into The Anomaly, there’s a lot of steadicam. I like scenes that are done in one shot and develop throughout. In Brotherhood, there’s a sequence where we burst into the house at the end, and it’s all one steadicam shot but it works with for the energy of the scene and wasn’t done for the sake of it.
I’ve honed my own style though over time and I now feel I know my style, but that’s all come from the mistakes; both the ones I’ve made but also the ones I’ve seen first-hand as a writer and actor. For example, being in Storage 24, as much as I love Johannes (director), I’d be watching it and thinking how I would do it differently. With my own work, like The Anomaly, I’m constantly looking back and critiquing myself, going ‘Okay, why did I make that choice’ and ‘actually, I love this moment’. The film might not be good enough but actually there are plenty of moments I think are great and other moments I won’t do again in that way. I also watch everything. I watch so many films. I’ve been taking, my oldest, who is now 12, to the cinema with me since he was 18 months. The other two follow suit. As soon as there’s a film trailer on TV they shout at me because they know that we’ll go to the cinema to see it. And so honing my craft and my style has come from watching mistakes that I’ve made and seeing things, and then learning about what I do best, I guess.
I still really want to do a film in the same vein as something like Amélie or a Little Miss Sunshine. I would love to put my take on one of those things, but I love to push things and be slightly edgy. So the films I’ve made, in terms of the Hood films and now Bulletproof, organically suit me more in terms of my style. They’re a bit gritty. I don’t want to see gross, graphic violence, but I don’t want to shy away from it. I don’t want to see porn but I also don’t want to pull the curtain. A journalist said at the opening of Brotherhood, as during the opening of the film there is a changing-room scene and these guys walk through completely naked, “Clarke has full frontal male nudity in the first film to let you people know that he’s not messing around with you’. And that’s exactly what I wanted. It’s not that I wanted to see mens’ willy’s, I wanted the audience to understand straight away that they’re not just going to sit in this film and go ‘yeah brap brap brap.” And the way to do that straight away was to make them feel uncomfortable, and let them know they’re watching something that is going to be different, that shows these characters at a different stage of their lives.
How did you get your first break?
So, I was acting and I hadn’t done Doctor Who, this was way before that in 2000. I’d just started reading a lot of screenplays, because I was getting more into my writing. I’d always been writing but just not on a computer. First it was writing handwritten scripts and then I eventually I got a computer and I would just write in Word. And then someone said to me if you want to write professionally get Final Draft. So I got Final Draft and it was expensive, I mean at the time it cost like three months wages, maybe more. I remember it being around £340, and I was only getting like £60 a month as a lifeguard at the sports centre part time. And then once I had it, I just didn’t know what to do. Faber & Faber used to publish screenplays at the time and so I just went there and I would buy every screenplay I could get my hands on. I bought Pulp Fiction, American Beauty, Chasing Amy, Clerks, Go and then I’d go and watch the films. Then I’d re-read the screenplay, or read and watch simultaneously. Or I’d read two at a time and check for patterns. After a while I started writing.
I wrote a film with a friend of mine called Remembering Jessie, that was the first thing I ever wrote. Then I wrote a horror, or I started writing a horror called The Needle Man, and then we wrote a wedding film called The Knot, which we made years, years later. Then I wrote Kidulthood.
I initially had writing partners on the others, and we were writing a music film romcom called Players. We were all trying to complete a first pass quickly, within a week or so. So we’d plan the film together and then each writer would go away and write 25 pages, before we’d bring it all together in a finished script. However, after a week we’d all meet up again and I’d have done my 25 pages, and the other guy would have done 10, the other guy would have done 0. So I just went fuck it, and I decide to write Kidulthood on my own. Thank God I did. And actually, weirdly, if you scroll in the roller, you’ll see these guys have additional material credits, when they did absolutely nothing. But at the time I was naive enough to think that we could all write together, and it’ll be beautiful and lovely, and I was so adamant that they needed credits. But they did absolutely nothing.
So I wrote Kidulthood. Then I was in a play and I gave it to one of the actors who sent it to Huds and I also showed it to Rikki Beadle-Blair, my mentor, who thought it was great and pushed me to get an agent. Huds then e-mailed and really wanted to make the film because he had just done a short called Jump Boy. I took his advice on what we could do next and his agent at the time was at Independent Talent, and they called me, and said that they wanted to option the script and I didn’t really know anything about this stuff. However, the assistant of that agent was allowed to take on clients and I got an email that said, “I would love to rep you for writing. I read your script, I think it’s great.” And that’s how the writing agent came about. This agent now runs his own company, 42, and is one of the biggest agents in the country. He was instrumental in getting that film made. Instrumental in putting it together. But that’s how the agent thing happened.
Directing Film Credits: Adulthood (2008), 18.104.22.168. (2010), The Anomaly (2014), Brotherhood (2016).