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Plan B talks about his mix of hip-hop, music and cinema
12:21pm Friday 18th May 2012 in Film news and reviews
Ben Drew – better known as Plan B – is adding film director to his list of talents. Ahead of his Dalby Forest concert, he tells STEVE PRATT about his mix of hip-hop, music and cinema.
POP stars with acting ambitions are common enough, although few make a go of it. Those who want to direct are rare. Ben Drew – or award-winning musician Plan B to give him his other name – is one of them.
He has already had acting roles in Anuvahood and Harry Brown (with Michael Caine), and this autumn will be seen in the big screen Sweeney partnering Ray Winstone. Before that his directorial feature Ill Manors will be seen in cinemas.
Music is a key element, with parts narrated by hip-hop songs. “It’s what makes the film unique and also allows me to tell back stories and condense information into a small amount of time,” he says.
“I wanted to do that because I grew up entertaining myself on music videos and I wanted to make a film that gave me both – you know, the entertainment value I get from watching music videos on YouTube but also movies.”
When he was around 20 he wrote a film script, Trigger, based on a story that happened to him and his family. “We went to the off-licence and one of my friends took a BB gun out in the street and a plainclothes police officer saw us and my house got raided by armed police,” he says.
A company offered him a £1m budget to make a film of it but the deal floundered when he said he wanted to direct it.
“I realise that I can’t expect people to trust me with that kind of money until I can prove that I can direct. It’s the same in music. I used to tell people that I wrote songs and people would just dismiss me until I went out and bought a guitar and learnt how to use it and started performing live.
“I knew this was no different so I used the last £2,000 from my recording advance, which was all the money I had in the world at the time, as well as the £2,000 my grandfather had left me when he died, and I made Michelle.
“When I showed this company the short film, we didn’t end up making that into a feature. We did Trigger. But I wanted to make a feature version of Michelle, which within four months of making Michelle in November 2007, I had Ill Manors written.”
He found all the “bit characters” in the short film so interesting that he wanted to explore them further. He wrote about 13 short stories, which he cut down to six. He wrote the music for the film but only has a tiny cameo on screen.
“I didn’t make a film because I wanted a starring role. I made a film because I wanted to tell a story and to prove that I could direct.
“But the music was really hard. I wrote the film in a way that certain parts were scripted but certain parts were always going to have music over them. So, the parts that had music over them I didn’t bother writing a script. We’d turn up on set and I’d tell the guys the situation and let them improv.
“The problem with that was when they started to improv, magic would happen, which messed up the whole structure of the film, because I then wanted to keep those scenes in the film which meant the music had to change. So, it was like chicken and egg... I didn’t want to write the song until I’d edited the scene. But then I couldn’t really edit the scene until I had the song. So, it’s been a bit of a nightmare in that sense.”
So which came first for him – music or film? “I was a soul singer first and I’d write love songs. But I was 15 at the time and, to be honest, I’d never experienced love, so the words were kind of meaningless.
“With hip-hop music, it allowed me to talk about political and social things but also to tell stories.”
A feature film was a logical progression but it had to be done his way. “I love the way I make hip-hop and I refuse to make pop-rap. I don’t refuse to make mainstream music, which is why I did a soul record. There was no reason why soul music couldn’t get played on the radio and I still wanted to have a relationship with my record label.
“But there’s no point in my trying to release underground hip-hop music on a major label. That part of my talent, or part of my art, had to live somewhere else and feature film was the perfect vehicle for it.”
He’s not going to make excuses for doing something heartfelt and independent and then something more mainstream for someone else like The Sweeney.
“As well, if I do a song for The Sweeney, for instance, there’s every chance that the song will be charted and go top ten. The promotion for the film will feed the single and vice versa. That’s what happened with Harry Brown and End Credits.
“But all that stuff is a bonus. It’s kind of when the stars align for you and give you the best possible chance for your work to be as successful as possible. And anyone who puts 110 per cent into their work deserves as much success as they can get.
“So, yeah, some cynical people may see that the only reason I’m doing that is part of a strategy to become more successful but I just see it as a bonus.
“If I’m going to be working as hard as I’ve been working for the last two years – non-stop, solid, no personal life, no break – then I want what I’ve been working on to be as successful as possible.”
• Plan B forest tour plays Dalby Forest, near Pickering, on June 30. All tickets have now been sold. Ill Manors opens on June 6.