Unapologetically confronting toxic masculinity and wholeheartedly embracing being labeled as the title femme gay man, is a powerful motivator for the strong willed and determined anti-hero in the new short film, ‘Femme.’ The main character of Jordan, who’s played by acclaimed Shakespearean theater actor, Paapa Essiedu, fearlessly strives to overcome the hyper-masculine fantasies that are often celebrated in societies around the world. Through his bold protagonist, the British performer shows that the queer voice is just as important, and needs to be recognized just as much, as the masculinity that often takes prevalence in movies.
The LGBTQ-inspired, 18-minute horror thriller was written and directed by first-time filmmakers, Ng Choon Ping and Sam H. Freeman. Hailing from the United Kingdom, ‘Femme’ had its World premiere this past March in the Narrative Shorts section of this year’s SXSW.
‘Femme’ follows Jordan Paapa Essiedu), a femme gay man who’s proud of his identity. But every time he steps out of the house with his lipstick on, he remembers his dad’s stark warning: the world will always be a dangerous place for a boy like him.
After suffering heartbreak at a nightclub, Jordan meets Wes (Harris Dickinson), a drug dealer, out on the street. Wes is flirtatious, masculine and exactly the kind of boy Jordan’s dad warned him about. But Jordan decides to throw caution to the wind, and gets in Wes’s car. While their interaction is initially playful, the night ultimately takes a dangerous turn.
Ping and Freeman generously took the time during SXSW in March to talk about writing and directing ‘Feeme’ during an exclusive interview over Zoom. Among other things, the filmmakers discussed that they were driven to pen the script because they were disappointed that queer characters rarely play a major part in heist thrillers, so they wanted to show that gay protagonists can be just as courageous in such plotlines.
The duo also mentioned that once they started casting the drama, they felt that Essiedu would be the perfect fit to play Jordan, due to his experience acting in diverse, provocative theater production and on television shows, and were appreciative when he agreed to star in the short. Ping and Freeman also shared their gratitude that the movie had its World Premiere during this year’s SXSW, and despite being disappointed that they weren’t able to attend their first festival as filmmakers in person, they were thankful they were still able to connect with other filmmakers and audiences through virtual screenings and events.
ShockYa (SY): Together, you co-wrote the screenplay for the new short film, ‘Femme.’ What was the inspiration in penning the screenplay, and what was the process like of creating the story together for the thriller?
Ng Choon Ping (NCP): We were housemates, and have been friends forever. Then one day Sam said, “Do you want to make a film?” I said, “Yes, let’s do it,” and that’s kind of how it started.
Sam H. Freeman (SHF): We were talking about doing something together for awhile. Ng’s background is in theater directing, and my background’s in screenwriting, but neither of us had made a film before. But we combined our skill sets to become one film director. (Freeman and Ping both laugh.)
At the time, I had just seen the film, ‘Uncut Gems,’ and was still thinking about it when I got home. Then when Ng and I sat down together, after also watching the film ‘Good Time,’ we decided we wanted to make a Safdie Brothers-inspired project.
We were talking about how we liked that heist thriller type of film, but felt like queer, gay characters never really play a central role in those films; they just don’t really exist in that world. Or if they do, they’re off to the side. These films are so hyper-masculine that there often isn’t space for us. So our initial concept was to play with that, and we asked, what would a gay character in this type of film look like?
We then went in and pitched the idea to some producers we had a working relationship with, and they really loved it as a feature film idea, which is what we were talking about. We were like, we would like to make a feature, but they said they would give us the money to turn the idea into a short first, and we’d then go from there.
SY: Besides writing the script, you also served as the directors on the movie. How did working on the screenplay influence your helming style on the set? How would you describe your overall directorial style?
NCP: In some ways, we just dropped straight into directing, but in other ways, we had quite a long time to prepare and talk. We talked to each other the whole time. There was so much pre-production that we pretty much went into the shoot knowing exactly what we wanted.
Of course, neither of us have shot a film before, so everyday was a bit of a surprise. But it was really enjoyable, and we spoke all the time. Whenever one of us had a note to give, we had to quickly say, “I’m going to do this,” and the other would say, “Go ahead.” During the shoot, we would huddle together around the little monitors, and people thought we were a pair of Siamese twins.
SHF: We would then disappear together when we needed space to talk about what we were doing. Like I said, we’ve never made a film before, so we were always learning, as there was a lot that we didn’t know.
So we were relying on the fact that we felt that we had a good grasp of the story and storytelling. So we did a lot of prep during every step of making the film, and knew exactly what type of film we were telling, both visually and through the characters.
When we didn’t know a technical term, or how we were going to deal with lighting, we would talk to our DoP (Director of Photography, James Rhodes). That way, at every point we’d be able to say, this is what we’re creating. I think that really helped, as I felt prepared, even though we were learning so much everyday.
We leaned on our team for the technical aspects, and we absorbed so much. So there was never a point where someone asked us, “What is this about?” We worked really hard to be completely prepared, and developed our skill sets.
NCP: We did try to learn the technical language and use it during the shoot. (Pings laughs.) But the DoP, James said, “Just tell me the story, and I will translate it for you into my work.” (Freeman laughs.) That meant that we could always talk, in terms of story. It was a real collaboration between us and our vision, and the cast and crew members saying, “I see your vision, and this is how you do it.”
SHF: The DoP, James really became like the third member of our team, as we were always with him. It was really a lot of fun, especially coming from a writing background, as there’s obviously so much more that happens after that. So that was obviously a joyful experience for me. We had a singular vision from the beginning to end, and overall, the experience was satisfying and thrilling.
NCP: It was the same thing, but in the other direction for me. As a theater director, I would receive a script, and then try to implement the vision into the production.
SY: ‘Femme’ stars Paapa Essiedu as Jordan, the short’s gay anti-hero. What was the casting process like for the drama?
SHF: While we were writing the script, we started making a list of people who would be good for the role of Jordan. Once we had the list, a friend of mine who had worked with Paapa before threw his name into the mix.
Ng and I were both big admirers of his, particularly with his stage work. He’s huge over here (in England) in theater; he played Hamlet in the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company), and is renowned for his work. When his name came up, we were both so excited about the idea of working with him. But since we were making our first short film, we wondered…
NCP: …Do we dare think that he will say yes? (Freeman and Ping both laugh.)
SHF: But our producers were like, we’ll just try and see what happens. The worst thing that could happen is that he’ll say no.
He came back with an answer rather quickly. We were just going into lockdown at the time, so the filming was quite delayed because of that. But he said, “I want to do it, so let’s get on a Zoom call,” and we couldn’t believe our luck.
But he brought so much to it. We had these prep Zoom calls with him before hand, even though this is a short film.
He had just done (the BBC drama television series,) ‘I May Destroy You’ before this film, so everyone was talking about him. We actually cast him before ‘I May Destroy You’ came out, so it was a bit of fortune. We then watched the show and thought, wow, he’s amazing.
But the amount of work and prep he put into the short was also phenomenal. He looked at the script from every angle, and every take was gold.
NCP: We could have easily done one take and said, “That’s it.” But he brought something different and wonderful to every single take. I really think he was another co-creator because we would just chat, and he would bring something different that would take the vision more real, better and fleshed out.
SHF: Yes, it was a real privilege to work with him.
SY: Once Paapa and the rest of the actors were cast, what was the experience like of working with them to create the dynamic between their characters?k
SHF: Outside of Paapa, we ended up with a great cast. Casting Harris was similar to Paapa; we went, “Well, Paapa signed on, so why not try our luck again?” (Ping laughs.) With the shooting coming up, Ping and I took a little break and went away together when lockdown started to ease.
We then had a casting director come on board, Daniel Hubbard, who we thought did a great job. He told us, “Harris is available,” so we were like, “Why not? Let’s try it!” (Ping laughs.) It was then really late at night where we were…
NCP: …Yes, we were in transit because we hadn’t reached our island yet.
SHF: We then had to rush to jump on a Zoom call with Harris. All of the actors who played the friends were also dream people, and we kept going, “I can’t believe our luck. People keep signing on to do this with us, and we’re getting the people we wanted.”
NCP: Do you remember when we were trying to get Harris, we said, “He’s amazing, but maybe we shouldn’t be so delusional that we send him the script.” Then our casting director said, “Let’s just do it.” Harris then came back and said, “Let’s do it,” and everything fell into place the week before we began filming.
SHF: Yes, that was very satisfying. Once we had them, we couldn’t really meet up with them too much, obviously, because there was still a pandemic going on.
So we met most of the actors in person during the costume fitting. We’d sit on a couch and they’d come out in different outfits. (Ping laughs.) We had the costume director there, and she found the sparkly piece that Paapa wears, which kind of becomes its own character in the film.
NCP: Yes, I feel like we should name it as a cast member!
SHF: Yes, it was incredible. So that was the first time we met them, and then we had a read-through the day before we started filming; we set up a table outside, in my garden, and everyone came over so that we could do the read-through.
There was some drama, though, because our original DoP, who we loved and is amazing, had just been on set with someone who had COVID, so she had to drop out the day before. But she then put us in touch with James. We were freaking out though, because then we were going to have a different DoP show up on the first day of shooting, and we had never met him.
NCP: It’s like we had run out of karma after we cast Paapa and Harris, and we thought we were starting to pay for it.
SHF: Yes, exactly. Everyone said, “Something drastic is going to happen,” but we said, “We’ve been lucky so far.” (Ping laughs.)
But when James turned up on the first day of shooting, he had a vision that really matched ours. He’s amazing, and we just clicked. He turned up and made things happen on the spot.
We can’t praise him enough, honestly, because we’re really happy with how the movie looks; it’s exactly how it looked in our heads. He really collaborated with us to make the movie the best version it can be.
So there was a really good vibe on set with everyone, and I don’t know if that was mainly because everyone had just been in lockdown, and it was the first time we were all back on set, and we were all happy to be back at work.
So it was really joyful because it felt like everyone was really invested in the project, and wanted to make something special. So that was a great experience for us as first-time filmmakers.
SY: ‘Femme’ (had) its World Premiere in the Narrative Shorts Competition section of SXSW 2021. What does it mean to you to show the film during the festival?
NCP: Of course, we felt that it would have been nice to fly to Austin and really absorb a festival atmosphere. Just like this is our first film, this is our first film festival as filmmakers. The good thing is that we don’t have a past experience to compare it to, so an online one is as good as any.
SHF: Yes, exactly. We were disappointed that we didn’t get a week away, in Texas, which would have been amazing. But we’re really thrilled to be at SXSW; it’s a dream festival for us to have gotten into.
It feels like our vibes match with the festival, and it’s a great festival for our film. So we were very excited when they told us that they were going to screen it. SXSW was definitely at the top of our wish list, so we’re really excited. It’s a shame that it’s online, but we’re still pretty excited.
NCP: We have been able to take part in a Zoom call with other filmmakers who (were) also programmed at SXSW. It was just so exciting to see so many people from across the world on the Zoom call, and see all of our work in the same space. It feels like a really lovely community of filmmakers.