Rebecca Johnson is a writer/director based in London. Her debut feature Honeytrap premiered at the London Film Festival 2014, where she was nominated for the Best British Newcomer Award. It was released in the UK in May to widespread critical acclaim including four-star reviews in The Guardian and Total Film.
Honeytrap had its US premiere at SXSW in 2015, where Rebecca secured US representation, and went on to screen at other festivals including Montreal and Urban World in New York. The film has just secured US distribution with Ava DuVernay’s Array and will be day and date released in the US in Autumn 2016.
Rebecca originally trained in Fine Art and then went on to make numerous documentary and drama shorts including 2009’s multi-award-winning Top Girl, which played at more than thirty festivals including Berlin, Rotterdam and Clermont Ferrand. Top Girl and Honeytrap came out of more than a decade making films with young people in her local community of Brixton through her not-for-profit company Fierce Productions.
Rebecca is currently writing Ramuna, a female-led, YA, fantasy/revenge novel. She is attached to direct Underneath, a female-led action thriller set on a diamond trawler off the coast of South Africa.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
I always knew I wanted to be an artist of some kind but I didn’t decide on narrative filmmaking until I finished art school. I studied Fine Art at Sheffield Hallam and there were good things and not so good things about the degree. We were left to our own devices almost entirely. On the one hand, that meant I lost my way artistically and did a lot of partying! But on the other, it hammered home the point that to be an artist, you have to be self-motivated. You have to make something happen because no one else will. I experimented with photography and video and made a 16mm film for my graduation, but I also made sculpture and painted. Art school was about making art, and as an artist you could feel free to work in any medium, whichever was best suited to what you wanted to express. So the concept of ‘being a director’ was never a thing for me. The not so good thing about studying Fine Art was that narrative filmmaking wasn’t encouraged and was in fact semi-frowned upon as less intellectual. But in a way that was a positive because it made me all the more certain that telling stories was what I wanted to do. And it also meant I read lots of semiotics and film theory which I’d probably never have done otherwise. Some of that stuff is very dense but it does give you a valuable grounding in how to read images. And one book I’d strongly recommend, which isn’t dense at all, is John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. It gives you a very clear understanding about how a social value system is constructed through art. It was written in the ‘70s but it still feels extremely contemporary and relevant today.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
My art school graduation film was pretty crap but I learned a lot making it. There are so many factors involved in filmmaking that every time you do it, whatever the outcome, you acquire skills which gradually become things which you don’t have to think about – the organisational and managerial aspects – and the more these become second nature, the more you can stay focused on the heart of what you’re doing. Because making a film is such a huge endeavour, there’s a tremendous pressure on creating a masterpiece from the off. And fantastic if you pull that off. But making art of any kind is a development process. Finding your voice, finding what you want to say and how you want to say it. That’s the challenge: connecting with something deep inside, something which might even be buried under layers of denial, which is going to guide you in telling the story. Because it’s all about how you tell the story, what you show, when you show it, whose eyes you are seeing through: creating an emotional through line which is surprising but also rings profoundly true. Otherwise, you can tell a story but no matter how pretty you make it look, it’s empty. It leaves viewers feeling unsatisfied and you feel unsatisfied in making it.
About five years after I left art school, having moved to South London and kept myself afloat doing various day jobs, I made a 35mm short called That Skinking Feeling. We funded it with a pre-internet crowdfunding scheme, designing a really beautiful folding flyer which gave info about the film and asked for patrons to become shareholders. I was temping as a receptionist at a legal chambers and there was this massive compendium called Debrett’s People of Today which listed tons of rich people, what they were interested in and what charities they gave to. It also had their addresses. So we sent these leaflets to thousands of people and amazingly, quite a lot of them gave us money. The film was a modern day reworking of The Little Mermaid: heartfelt with some beautiful moments but my storytelling was still a bit clunky. But it did win a couple of prizes, including a Best Story prize from Bigas Luna, which I was very proud of. And it was technically ambitious so I had fun with things I’d not done before like VFX and shooting underwater. I had great actors in it and managed to persuade Michael Nyman to write the score. So a better film but certainly not a masterpiece. It got me down to the last twelve applying for the National Film and Television School MA but I wasn’t one of the six who got in. It got me onto a multi-camera training course at the BBC, which was meant to set me up to direct Eastenders, but I didn’t get asked to direct any episodes. I felt frustrated at the near misses – both of which I’d wanted so badly. But in the next few years I came to realise that it was for the best in both cases. I’d done my time as a student and needed to find my own way. And while soaps can be an excellent way of learning your craft, I think they would have grounded me in bad habits at that formative stage.
I was skint and went back to temping to pay off my debts and then, by chance, a friend asked me to help out on a project for teenagers who weren’t in school, and I found what became my calling for the next decade. I went pretty off the rails as a teenager and I really connected with these kids who were struggling with issues ten times bigger than those I’d had to deal with. I felt I had something to give them way beyond filmmaking or drama work, though these were the tools. I set up my own not-for-profit company and pulled in theatre people to help me with improvisation workshops. I learned a lot about performance, about working together with people of disparate backgrounds and mixed ages, about mixing actors with non-actors and the magic that can create. I saw amazing transformations. I found stories I connected with deeply and felt driven to tell. I connected with the community around me. It was an intensely rewarding time. And eventually after lots of raw, process-led projects, I made my calling card short Top Girl and then my debut feature Honeytrap.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
Like anyone, I’ve faced setbacks, rejections and disappointments. But the truth is that the biggest setbacks are usually in part self-created, even though that can be hard to accept, and there’s always something you can learn from any rejection or difficult experience. There’s always a way through but you have it find it in yourself. The biggest challenge is writing, which as a new director you will probably have to do if you want to direct a feature or even a short. I’m now directing TV, which is wonderful but I didn’t get my break until I’d made the work which, still now, defines me. When you’re struggling to connect with your material, you can feel really lost. But you just have to keep going until you find your way in. That’s what I’m doing again now on my second feature. Even though I’ve done it before, I still feel like I’m at the bottom of a mountain. But that’s why filmmaking is such an incredibly rewarding adventure. At the end of it, you’ve created a mountain!
How did you get your first break?
Top Girl was my first big break. It got me a lot of attention, went to tons of festivals, including most of the major European ones, and won prizes. It got me an agent and onto various lists like Screen International Stars of Tomorrow. It’s still shown at festivals more than a decade later. But it wasn’t until I made my feature Honeytrap that I finally made the leap into making a living as a director. Honeytrap addressed the same themes as Top Girl – a girl in a man’s word struggling for status – but on a much bigger, more dramatic canvas. It’s the story of a girl who sets up a boy to be murdered. It’s based on a real case but, after more than a decade of community work in South London, I knew many young people who’d been caught up in similar situations, both as victims and aggressors – and I realised that the aggressors were themselves victims too.
Honeytrap had a minimal theatrical release but that was enough to get a lot of press. The Guardian made it Film of the Week and I was nominated for Best British Newcomer at the BFI London Film Festival. But I still didn’t get asked to meet for any TV jobs. One reason I was given was that people didn’t see how my experience in making the film correlated with directing actors on a TV set. Because my cast were young and black and the style was so naturalistic, people sometimes presumed the actors were all just playing themselves but in fact I’d spent three years on the script, my lead was the amazing Jessica Sula who had been in Skins and all the main roles were played by actors. I think the truth was that an all black film just didn’t connect in many peoples’ minds with what was on British TV so they couldn’t see me as a British TV director. This was a time when the industry was engrained with racism, albeit often unconscious. Thankfully the landscape has changed very much for the better.
But anyway, here in the UK, there was just this block and I felt my window of opportunity slipping away. In the six months after the film was released, nothing – not one meeting. But then Honeytrap got into South by South West and everything changed. I was scouted by US managers and signed with them and they brought me out to LA for dozens of meetings. I signed with a US agent and they got me dozens more meetings. Ava DuVernay released Honeytrap through her company Array and it’s still on US Netflix. I had never imagined that a tiny budget British film would open doors for me in the US but I got my first TV gig there on The Magicians and I was thrown right in at the deep end with the biggest budget episode of a big budget show, complete with a choreographed musical number, a sword fight and a sloth! It was a baptism of fire in some ways but absolutely wonderful. That set me up for a bunch more shows, including Supergirl, Impulse, and Fort Salem, all shows with a considerable amount of action and FX so I really got the chance to play and learn new tricks. And then finally I got to direct British TV, so kind of a topsy turvy way round. People often assume I’ve moved to the US because I’ve worked more over there than in the UK. But I haven’t. I’ll continue to go wherever I need to for projects, wherever that may be. But although I love the adventure of directing in different countries, home will always be South London.
TV Credits: Supergirl (2016), The Magicians (2017), Call The Midwife (2017), Impulse (2017), The Rook (2018), The flash (2018), Motherland: For Salem (2019).
Film Credits: That Sinking Feeling (2001), Balling for Brixton (2005), Home Turf (2008), Sw9gga Like Us (2009), Top Girl (2009), Electric (2010), Honeytrap (2015).
Photograph: Jeon Seung Hwan