Growing up in South London in the 1980s writer and first time director Amma Asante recalls “the part of London I lived in seems so diverse now. It wasn’t then. We were one of two black families living on a very long street.” Looking at the new multi-cultural generation around her, Asante was moved to contemplate a story that would have meaning for her own young niece and nephew, half English, half Welsh, half Black, half White.
It was crucial to Asante that her depiction of race issues should not have a one sided perspective. “I didn’t want to create an idea of ‘those good people from abroad, they know how to bring up their kids,’ she explains. “I wanted to say, it’s all of us. This affects everyone.”
Specifically by placing her story within a community where there are in fact few black people and race hate is used as language to express general angst, Asante was able to make a far more reaching comment on social issues. She elaborates, “I was trying to say it’s all of us. Hassan could be anyone in many ways. It’s about using verbal violence. It’s about not having a voice that contributes to the world you live in that creates this kind of feeling.”
A WAY OF LIFE was developed as a feature film through ITV Wales and Tantrum Films.
Producer, Charlie Hanson had worked with Amma Asante many times before, including her first BBC2 drama TV series Brothers And Sisters. “What appealed to me about A WAY OF LIFE,” he says, “was that it was completely different to anything she had written before”
Initially Asante had intended an established director to take on A WAY OF LIFE after the writing stage. It soon became clear however that her strong connection to the story and understanding of the characters meant that Amma should assume the directing role herself. “Eventually her financiers said stop pursuing other directors,” recalls Asante, “just do it.”
In a project where a 17-year-old girl must carry the action in 110 scenes out of 114, handling a baby, and holding the audience, the pressure of casting the right actress was immense.
Nathan Jones who plays Gavin, Leigh-Anne’s brother, and Sara Gregory, who plays Julie Osman, Gavin’s girlfriend and Leigh-Anne’s despised half Turkish neighbour were cast fairly quickly. “It was chemistry on screen!” says Jones of his relationship with Gregory. Jones, a martial arts world champion who jokingly describes himself as the Welsh Bruce Lee, recalls the audition process to be “a bit like Pop Idol.” Intrigued by the script segment he had been given, he asked to read the full draft in his waiting time and was struck that Asante had put “blood, sweat and tears” into the story.
Months and months passed, with the team seeing up to 60 prospective teens a day. One rainy Saturday morning in Aberdare, in a workshop consisting almost entirely of 12-year-olds, Asante found her Leigh-Anne. “Steph was sat in the back and she was so much older than the rest, and she had a good face,” she remembers. “Different to what I’d imagined Leigh-Anne to look like. But she really got the script.
Having been through the stage school system herself, and with a good understanding of its tendency to ‘factory produce’ young actors, Asante was keen to cast teenagers with a different approach. Gary Sheppeard (Robbie) for example, was cast on a scowl. “He walked in and scowled at me, I thought ‘interesting!’” laughs Asante.
Producer, Peter Edwards explains. “One of the things which has given me great pleasure is the real feeling of this being a Welsh film, with something important to say to the rest of the world. The authenticity of it I think has had an impact on the kind of casting and the style of acting as well, which then creates credibility.”
To strengthen Asante’s vision of a new multicultural Britain the young actors were cast in roles that didn’t necessarily tie in with their racial backgrounds. Dean Wong who plays Stephen remembers his self doubt when auditioning, “To be honest, I was supposed to be playing a 15-year-old half Asian kid. And I’m thinking, I am never gonna get this at all.” Asante explains the similar thinking behind the casting of Sara Gregory, and Oliver Haden who plays her father: “Oliver Haden is of Turkish Cypriot descent, he was born in the UK. But Sara Gregory who plays his daughter isn’t. Yet she could be half Turkish, she could be half anything.”
Oscar nominee, Brenda Blethyn (Secrets and Lies, Little Voice) came on board the project when she was sent the script by Charlie Hanson, an old friend. Struck by the originality of the idea she immediately said yes. Blethyn plays Annette, the grandmother of Leigh-Anne’s daughter. Their relationship on screen is heated with Leigh-Anne attacking Annette verbally and physically. Blethyn describes her co-star as “a raw talent. It’s a huge role for this young girl to be taking on. It’s a very emotional journey; it’s like a roller coaster. You’ve got to pull it from every part of you.”
In many ways directing the established professional actors was a greater challenge to Asante than working with the unschooled teens. “Of course,” she laughs, “when Brenda turned up she was fantastic. Very concerned that she should give me what I want and brought so much of her own talent to the piece.”
Within A WAY OF LIFE it is the oppression of poverty, displaced as fears of immigration and loss of community identity, that motivate the teenagers’ feelings of race hate. The focus of this hate is a British-Turkish neighbour, Hassan, played by Oliver Haden, whose actual racial origins don’t tie with the racist insults the teenagers hurl at him. “I wanted to look at racism as a symptom rather than a cause. I wanted to tell a story that was not black and white. The easiest way to do that was to not make it black and white. At the same time Oliver Haden’s insight as a British-Turkish-Cypriot lent a further dimension to the character of Hassan. “ When I think of Hassan now, I think of the character that Oliver Haden created and I think that’s a great tribute to him actually.”
A WAY OF LIFE is book-ended by a brutal killing that is visually confrontational and difficult to watch. In contrast to this, the story of Leigh-Anne, her friends, and their day to day struggles is realised in a subtle palette, underlining the message that ugly things happen in beautiful places.
A WAY OF LIFE was filmed entirely on location in Wales, primarily in Barry, Swansea, Cardiff and Pontypridd in the Welsh valleys.
Producer, Patrick Cassavetti summarises, “because of Amma’s commitment to making it here in South Wales – we’ve worked closely within the fabric of local culture. She created a very strong sense of place; albeit that it was made up of different locations, she created a patchwork that had a reality, and had an atmosphere that was very germane to the piece that we were making.”