“Not growing a tree, but a forest” INTERVIEW: Theresa Ikoko, writer of ROCKS

Still from ROCKS, courtesy of Altitude

Rocks is a film we have been waiting for, and those who made it have had us in mind the entire time. Theresa Ikoko wrote and bought Rocks to life, in collaboration with Director Sarah Gavron, Associate Director Anu Henriques – and a shining cast of first time actors including (but definitely not limited to) Bukky Bakray, Kosar Ali, and D’angelo Osei Kissiedu.

I spoke to Theresa, and found so much love and insight beyond the statistic of a 75% female crew, cast, and creative team – a statistic which puts so much of the industry to shame. 

Though she was at the end of a long press day, she still had jokes and grace to share with myself, instilling 20 minutes of the magic which I am sure were abundant in the 2 years of hard work that made Rocks.

If you have not seen the film – then why are you even reading Screen Queens right now?! Sorry, we are in the middle of a pandemic, so recommending a cinema trip now feels a bit mad. If you do feel safe enough to do so, then I wanna say this film is definitely worth it. If you want more information, or to experience it vicariously through a review, Ferdosa luckily saw it a year ago, and wrote about it here.  

This interview has been edited for clarity

SQ: I read that the writing process was collaborative yet also based on your own experience, and I wanted to know how both those worked together 

Theresa: We had come together as a creative collective to tell a story about being a girl in London today and we were not quite sure how it was gonna start. Doing workshops, meeting loads of girls – like hundreds of girls – talking amongst ourselves, bonding, exploring what it is to be a girl now, what it was to be a girl when we were in school. We hadn’t even written a word yet: so that was just nine months of magic. We couldn’t quite translate that to paper. 

I’d been working on this story that was a love letter to my sister. It was about the joy of having sisters who will preserve your childhood for you and preserve your joy when you’re tired of doing so. Particularly about sacrifices made by black and brown women who often carry the weight of the world, of their communities, families, siblings, schools, of expectations, of generational baggage.

Everything. Yeah, everything

Literally.

I only shared it because I felt safe and I wanted to. I felt like I wanted to give them [the cast] something, because I was so happy and wanted to be a part of this thing and give something of myself. You put something on the table and everybody matched it; I see your heart and I raise you mine. 

That is felt through the film, what has been expanded and shared from the workshops and collaboration. Though there is a clear story, you can so see in the weight and intention in each interaction and facial expression and word 

I love that you’ve used that word [intention]. I’ve literally rinsed that word and I’ve said it a million times. Everyone is tired of me. 

I try to keep that one with me everywhere!

I just think to be intentional about the way we tell stories, about who we tell stories for, and how we’re creating them. We had grips and gaffers on set, pausing to take it in what they were seeing, and really happy to be there. So you’re right, what you’re seeing is love. Layers and layers of it. 

One thing I intended to do for my one sister, the story I always use is that I wanted to plant a seed and grow a tree for her. What we ended up doing was not growing a tree but a forest, for her, and for you and for them everybody who would want to take a walk through.

That is so lush. So many women I know, including myself, have worked on sets where they have felt “I don’t even want to be working here”

Exactly. So it wouldn’t make sense to do all this work to make safe and edifying and creative spaces – to translate it to a set that didn’t work like that, or look like them, taking away that safety. We chose to have 75% women in the crew, so that looked like the community that we were working for and with. 

Do you think you’d like to work like that again?

Definitely. They were so talented, they were first time actors. We were just very lucky – every great actor has to have a first time. They – by the grace of god – would have been found, or found their way at some point. We’re just very fortunate it got to be us.

Sarah and Anu put so much in place, in elements of directing. They wouldn’t call action, they would just start rolling. So, they would do very long first takes to allow them to warm up into it.

There were scenes that had me thinking “Did they mean to be filming now?” Everyone was chatting and playing on their phones.

I love bringing this up because there was one of my favourite moments ever: They did things they were not supposed to do. For example the food fight scene, it was for blocking and emotions… but they went mad. The mischief  – is actually them being mischievous. They knew damn well they were not supposed to be throwing food there. 

I love that you give them all this space, development, room, and comfort on set, and they are like “no, we are still going to annoy you.”

Give ‘em an inch!

…and they can really say I told you so. That take made the final cut.

How was seeing the finished product?

It was tough to be honest. [We] spent so long with it just belonging to us. It was when Maya (Maffioli) started editing it – that I started, to be honest, getting nervous. Like “oh gosh we have to tell a story that can make this two years of absolute pure magic and perfection” 

Has lockdown changed the experience and emotions of the release for you?

I do think the timing of this is good, [because] people who have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 will be galvanised by this fire in their belly. And it will offer a balm, a soothing balm for those who need moments of stillness, moments of peace, moments of just tender loving care.

Timing wise I hope the film can offer new things I never would have thought of in a million years.

Was the release, distribution, and exhibition a conscious part from an early stage? It is not always ensured that films are accessible to young black people in the UK.

We were very mindful that the people who would see themselves in this film, who have been particularly under-served by arts and entertainment in this country, would get to see this film.

It’s for you. So please, please do feel loved by it, and receive it because it’s yours now. You’ve got no choice (laughs) 

Rocks is currently screening at cinemas across the UK (September 2020)

by Reba Martin

Reba Martin is a freelance Writer, Artist, and Programmer based between Bristol and Edinburgh. Her top recommended Netflix Category is “Wacky 80’s Movies With a Strong Female Lead”. Letterboxd / @discorebekah

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