It’s not everyday you see a brand new musical released on Netflix, let alone one set in modern day London. Starring Michaela Coel and Arinzé Kene, Been So Long is a vibrant, romantic, charmingly sincere piece (read our review here).
Based on Che Walker’s stage production of the same name from 2009, with songs by Arthur Darvill, it’s the second feature film by Tinge Krishnan. 17 years after her BAFTA winning short film Shadowcan, and seven years after her directorial debut, Junkhearts, screened at the London Film Festival, she returned to the festival this month to premiere the musical. We sat down with her to talk about the making of such an ambitious project.
It’s been seven years since Junkhearts. Why the long gap until this picture happened?
I was actually thinking that the other day! It’s gone really quickly! I was pregnant when I did Junkhearts, so my son’s seven now, and I think small children make time go fast. I’ve done a bit of TV since, so going out to the States to do that was lovely.
So when did Been So Long start to come together?
It seemed like it was quite a quick development process for this, but there was almost a year hold-off. We actually delivered it last December, but because of the timing, they were really keen to launch it for the London Film Festival, so they kind of held back because they wanted to launch in London a film about London. We’ve been doing bits and bobs on it all the time since, so it’s been a good few months, but as a director, you’re always really involved and after the finishing of it, there’s a whole other process of, you know, deciding how to launch it. Netflix has been very inclusive with us as filmmakers so it’s been really good.
This feels a lot more uplifting than Junkhearts. Was that a conscious move on your part?
Yeah, there’s a degree to which with previous pieces, say Shadow Scan and Junkhearts, I think it’s like honing the craft, the craft of working with camera, performance and sound, and I think what I worked with was almost the palette of despair, you know, so you’re getting your colours and your tools and your connections to different emotional things. I think, post-tsunami [in 2004], it did feel very important for me to connect with a sense of hope and uplift, so that sense of journeying through trauma and coming out into something that’s more vibrant and alive, and so, you know, Junkhearts, that was something I worked on a bit in Junkhearts. Some of it had worked, some of it hadn’t worked, and it’s just kind of continuing to push as a creative and, yes, definitely, the idea of having something that may, at times, touch upon despair, real sadness, anger or real grief, but also come through into something, which feels expansive and hopeful.
A musical seems like the perfect form to explore that range…
Yeah, yeah, it really is. You know, with a song, you can sometimes express things, or with music, and I think that’s something I learned in Junkhearts with the score, when I was working with Christopher Nicholas Bangs; we learned that you can shape an emotional beat with music, and music goes right to the amygdala, right? So it bypasses the prefrontal cortex and you can access emotions that you can’t access with words. So with Been So Long, and the songs we were gifted from the original stage musical – and Che’s original, Che has that whole grittiness meets poetry meets magic – all those elements could come together.
Did you see the stage show back when it was on in 2009?
I didn’t see the stage show, but I think, in some ways, that’s quite good. I was quite tabula rasa with it, and I imemdiately, when I was given the scripts, and Arthur’s songs, those were the things that inspired me and I immediately started getting imagery and emotional tones and stuff, and possibilities, which were maybe different to the stage version. In that way, I think it was quite fortuitous. I love Che’s work, it’s incredible, everything I’ve seen of his has blown me away, but that must have just been the universe working in a particular way!
Was there a question of ever taking out any of the songs?
There was an artist who contributed a completely new song, which is What U Sayin, which was great. And he also did some production and writing on, you know, rewriting on Primus Humanus, but otherwise, the songs remained the same, and they were musically arranged and music production was done by Christopher Nicholas Bangs. So it was a real collaboration.
Did you go into the film looking for actors who could sing or singers who could act?
This was a really interesting conversation during the casting process. For me, as a director, it’s always going for actors first, people who can act, and going for Michaela was, for me, like, I find comedians incredible. There’s something about comedians where they’re just touching really deep emotions but they’re able to lift it into something really amazing. We were really thrilled when she connected to it. I’d heard her sing, I’d seen different videos of her singing, and I loved the quality of her voice. It’s gorgeous, very real, you know.
Arinzé Kene reprises his role from the stage show – was that planned?
It was fortuitous, because not everyone involved in the original came into the film in the end. Arinzé’s amanazing – he’s a real Renaissance man, you know! Do you know what I mean? He’s got this play called Misty [currently at the Trafalgar Studios], which is incredible, it’s phenomenal, he’s a phenomenal actor, a very good human being, and an incredbile singer! He could be in the room now and he could just blast amazing music right now from his vocal chords, like the Carling Black Label man!
There’s this lovely shot halfway through the film on Primrose Hill, which I loved. It felt almost like Britain’s answer to La La Land!
When we were prepping, we were aware of La La Land – when we were looking for financing, there was definitely a buzz about it, and there was enough helpful buzz for people to be open to the idea of a musical. But I did reach out to Damien Chazelle at some point, we emailed and he gave some really nice advice about the process, he was really generous and sharing. When La La Land did come out, it was like a helpful inspiration, a helpful touchstone in terms of colours – I remember now, we did look at it for the palette, because we wanted a vibrant palette. They’d gone for that almost Technicolor old musical style; we were going for something different, that was a little more organic, and a little more raw.
It’s so nice to see something that’s set in London, and feels real, but also has a positive vibe
Our DoP [Catherine Derry] was really clear that she wanted things to be vibrant. Our production designer, as well, was really clear that he wanted things to be vibrant. He had a colour wheel and everyone had a colour and it was structured, but very beautiful, so all the colours had resonance and meaning. We shot on anamorphic lenses, so it had that old-school, very classical feel to it, as well.
The opening sequence down the streets of Camden is impressive – how much of a challenge was that to film?
We actually shot that in East London! We made our market there, but what we did to cheat was we blended it with stuff where we went into real Camden, and shot on long lenses, so we used all the passers-by, we didn’t shut anything down, so we got the real streets and the real feel. It was really cool! So you could get little interactions, so George [Mackay] was sat on his dustbin for real, and the funny thing is, he blended right in – Gill was really Camden! No one really blinked an eye. That’s how Camden he was!
At what point did Netflix get involved?
They came in during the editing process. So we were editing, we had initially made the film with BFI and Film4, who were the original partners. They provided the finance for production. And then Netflix came in during editing and they bought it at Cannes. So our sales agent, Film Constellation, bought out a reel to Cannes and brokered this deal with Netflix.
What was your reaction when you heard?
I had my head right in the edit, you know? So they were like ‘Netflix has bought it’ and I was like ‘That sounds like a good thing!’ [Laughs] They were really lovely. We had some calls on the phone and they’re really non-prescriptive, they really listen to filmmakers, they give you tons of freedom as a filmmaker, they really trust their filmmakers, so yeah, incredible process.
Does the access that Netflix provides to people who can’t necessarily get to cinemas to see it appeal?
Yeah, it does. Anyone in the world can see it – it’s mind-blowing! It’ll be interesting to see who will watch it, because apparently, sometimes, it’s not who you think it’s going to be. So that’ll be interesting to see how it connects and who it connects with.
Finally, do you stream much yourself? What’s on your watchlist?
Loads, yeah! The whole family’s on Netflix, right? The last thing I got really into The Sinner, actually. That really got me, but there’s so much on there that’s great. And The OA. I was really obsessed by The OA! I can’t wait for Season 2.
Been So Long is currently touring the UK as part of Birds’ Eye View’s Reclaim The Frame. For tickets, click here..
Been So Long is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.99 monthly subscription.