Trying to cram in every movie that you want to see during the Edinburgh International Film Festival is difficult. Trying to also get interviews and spend some time with the film-makers can be even harder. Thankfully, Leeshon Alexander and Antony Petrou, in town with We Are Monster, were able to spare some time for me, in between numerous other interviews they had lined up for the day, and I was able to talk to them about their movie. The film is based on a shocking real-life incident that saw a murderous racist, Robert Stewart, sharing a room with a young Asian boy, Zahid Mubarek, in Feltham Young Offenders Institute. The final result was as seemingly inevitable as it was completely avoidable, and Leeshon and Antony have crafted a film that not only seeks to look at the many mistakes that were made in the situation, and the attitude of the staff involved, but also wants to get the case back to a level of public awareness that might one day lead to some actual justice for the family of Zahid.
Antony directed the movie, while Leeshon wrote the script and gave himself the lead role, and I had the pleasure of their company for twenty minutes on the day that they were also anxious to be attending the first public screening of the movie in the festival.
FlickFeast – You guys had worked together before?
Antony Petrou – We worked on a short film together called Senet.
Leeshon Alexander – A long short. We tried to make a feature, couldn’t. Had no money, couldn’t make it, so made it a short. So, yeah, we’ve been friends for about four or five years.
FF – Were you friends before you worked together?
LA – No, he auditioned me for that film. And then we got on well. Had a similiar taste in movies, similiar ambitions. While being an actor and a director, we had similiar ambitions for what kind of films we wanted to make. Got on well enough to work together again.
FF – How did you discover the true story that We Are Monster is based on?
LA – Technically, my dad. Tony and I were looking to make a film together, to actually raise the money and make a low-budget feature properly, to avoid the trouble we had trying to get Senet going, and I was looking for a good acting role. We both had a passion for politics, and political subjects, and social subjects, and we thought “right, let’s research” and my dad was researching and he came across it. I remembered it, as I grew up near Feltham, where the Young Offenders Institute is. And Tony remembered it as well, and we were both suddenly like “wow, that’s the story which we need to tell”. Then you approach it from one angle as a writer, and you think it’s a good story, and then you look at it as an actor and think it’s a great role. He [Antony] then thought, as a director, it was a great piece to direct, and then suddenly you get wrapped up in a story that you realise is way more important than us doing a bit of acting and a bit of directing. This is fourteen years on, and still nothing’s changed in the prison service. All the people got away with this thing, nobody’s been punished for it. The prison guards, and the head of the prison, nobody. The family is still waiting for some kind of justice and you kind of then just get blown away by doing this whole thing, so it just envelopes your life. Something for us, it’s a passion project as well. It’s your baby, you want people to see it. Obviously, you want people to like the film but you also want people to give a shit about the case, because it’s got to be back out there again. I can’t believe that it’s just not been talked about for eight years.
FF – As Leeshon wrote the script with himself in mind for the role, did he have to convince you of that, Antony?
AP – No, no, I knew he was good enough to play it.
LA – He was the one man who thought I was good enough to play it.
AP – No. Leeshon is great, working with him is great, and I had no doubt from day one. I think that a lot of people have mentioned that he’s playing two characters in this film, but I think he plays three. He’s playing Stewart within Feltham, then he’s playing alter ego, and then he’s playing Stewart with alter ego, when he’s different again. So I think he’s playing three roles and he does it so well. I think it carries the film. If his performance wasn’t right then I don’t think we would have had a film.
FF – Yeah, I mentioned that it felt like a one-man film at times. Not to the detriment of the other cast members, but it just felt that the focus should be right there on Robert and his victim.
LA – It’s a real psychological evaluation of this guy. We’re not trying to say this is exactly how it was. It’s for people to make up their own minds. We’re showing reasons as to how society can contribute to making monsters, be it parenting, upbringing, schooling, psychiatrist reports, prison staff, ignorance and uncaring attitudes, racist attitudes. Combine all of those elements, add in someone who obviously had some kind of biological mental issues – they talk about it being 50/50 nature and nurture – but we know that if he had those problems then the nurture certainly wasn’t there to keep him on the right track. We know that there are plenty of people with mental health problems that don’t go around putting tattoos on their foreheads with celtic crosses and RIP, battering Asian boys. It’s tragic all over, it’s one big mess, and what gets on our nerves is that it’s not been covered enough. That was the idea with the film, to bring this back into public awareness. We met with Zahid’s uncle last week, and the trust, and we were saying to them that the Stephen Lawrence case, rightly so, had huge national press. But the accusations that were aimed at the police force were the same that were levelled at the prison service after this case – institutionally racist, criticised across the board – and yet the press wasn’t the same. Is it to do with the fact that it was a prisoner who got murdered, as opposed to a man on the street? We want Stephen Lawrence to get all that press, as it’s so important, but at the same time this should have had more press as well. It’s just kind of been forgotten, and I don’t really know why.
FF – I admit that I don’t remember hearing about it.
LA – Right, there you go. There was some national coverage, but not much. Bearing in mind that it went all the way to the House Of Lords.
FF – You’ve already answered part of my next question, but how many hard facts did you have, how much did you infer, and how much was creative license?
LA – You’ve got to get some of these facts right, first off, because you’ve got to be sensitive anyway. This is real, there’s a guy who really got murdered. All of the events, shall we say, that occur were real. Even those moments when [Zahid] Mubarek goes to ask to be moved after he supposedly saw him [Robert] talking to a wall. That really happened. They didn’t move him, but he requested it. Waking up in the middle of the night to find Robert staring at him, the flashbacks to the situation when Robert scratched his face out of a photo as a kid really happened. He was really screaming. They caught him in a classroom, scratching out his own face because he thought he was ugly, because his parents didn’t love him, they’d tried to put him up for adoption. Every little bit was real. Obviously, we don’t know the absolute setting. Tony’s taken his artistic license for making the set, and then what’s fictionalised is, obviously, the interaction between Robert and his alter ego. We can’t know. People still don’t know whether he was being manipulative, or whether he really does have that personality disorder. People can’t be 100% with him so we just had to create our own idea of how he would be when he’s on his own, and that gives it the narrative. Otherwise, you would just end up with a twenty minute movie.
AP – All of the letters that we quote were actually spot on.
FF – And all the reports filed, but ignored, would be there?
LA – Yeah, yeah, exactly, and they did just put it away. And all the comments about some nurse at Hindley said that him and his mate were really dangerous, none of it was passed on. None of it went anywhere. Haphazardly run, shoddy. Definitely a racist undertone to all the guards. We don’t play on it overly, but we created enough to suggest that they just don’t care, and they’re dismissive of an Asian boy. Because he’s Asian. They’re just not interested, so there’s definitely racist undertones to what’s going on there, and that was based on reality. Feltham was accused of racism in The House Of Lords. So we’ve covered it, facts-wise, and it was pretty accurate. It’s as accurate as you can get. As I said though, when you make a psychological piece of the mind I know that someone who was best friends with [Robert] Stewart then they could turn around and say “no, he wasn’t quite like that” but we’re making something which is also not a reality. Tony constructed something that is almost a theatrical style for the alter ego.
FF – Was the film always structured as it is now? Kind of beginning at the end and then showing the build-up can sometimes remove tension, but I thought it really added to it in this case.
AP – Yeah. We wanted to do that from day one, wanted to show it at the beginning and then work, showing how he got to that point, or our interpretation of it.
LA – I think it kind of removes, or it’s sometimes good to remove, any element of it possibly being a thriller. We’re not sitting there thinking is he going to kill? We know he kills. So you don’t have to worry about that now, you can just sit there and watch how it happens. I guess that’s Tony’s skill as a director, keeping you engaged even while you know what’s going to happen. Other films have done it before, it’s not like we’re the first people to do that, but I also think that because people do know about it there’s no point trying to pretend that it’s an is he or isn’t he going to kill him situation. Get that out the way, and then we can focus on the psychological aspect, the drama.
AP – I think that opening scene set the film up stylistically anyway. I wanted to make it feel a bit theatrical at times.
LA [jokingly] – Unashamedly arthouse.
AP – I didn’t want it to be a typical prison drama. The greys and the blues, and the grittiness, and the language, the stereotypical inmates and guards. I didn’t want that. I wanted it to be more about a conflict within the mind. I want people to feel a bit warm and uncomfortable watching it, that’s why I used the oranges and browns.
FF – Well, you did that. So the little details were all deliberate, such as the orange car on the driving magazine, titled Orange Devil?
AP – Yeah. I wanted subtle things. I don’t know if people noticed the pencil that the alter ego had throughout and then at the end he’s holding on to that. At the moment that he’s at his lowest, he reminds him about being a kid. Then you realise that the pencil was used to scratch out the photo.
LA – And the projector showing the flashbacks is obviously tied in with his most traumatic moment, when he was a young boy, when there was a projector running in the classroom. Little things that we hope people get, perhaps on a second watch. Some people will pick them up, some won’t. It’s not essential to the story, but it’s important for the psychological aspect of the film. With everyone, when you trace back certain traumatic moments in your life, there are always triggers. Trigger moments from childhood, and that was his when he was 7. We chose that, we chose to make that his trigger moment.
FF – Last question. With the performances from Leeshon, did you ever want to blend them together, or were you always going to keep the shots separate?
AP – I never wanted to show them together. It never crossed my mind. Not even a dirty shot, where you have a body double in. I didn’t ever want to do that. I wanted to keep them separate. When I was shooting them together I’d change the camera styles, I took it off sticks and put it on a bungee. I didn’t want that hand-held movement. I just wanted it to be very subtle. I don’t know if you noticed that, nobody has mentioned that yet and I hope someone notices it.
LA – The one thing that I’m hoping that you shouldn’t notice is that Tony never had the chance to shoot two actors in a two shot, or in a wide together. It’s actually really hard, and for the film to work you shouldn’t ever notice that they’re not ever in the same shot. Because you should just feel like they’re just talking. But it’s something that’s difficult, while we were filming. So I was doing one shot and then coming back two days later to do the return exchange.
AP – And because of budget you can’t just shoot all of alter ego and then go back.
LA – So I would play one and then go back, and it was an 18-day shoot, and it was gruelling. But I loved it, absolutely loved it.
FF – Which I’m hoping will be how you describe your weekend here in Edinburgh. Good luck with the public screening later, and thanks for fitting me into your busy schedule.