‘Promise’ dir. David Alexander

A young couple struggle to stop their family falling apart.

Writer-Director: David Alexander
Producers: Nuala O’leary & David Alexander
DOP: Mike Bates
Key Cast: Akemnji Ndifemyan, Jackson Edwards, Tahirah Sharif

C8: Where did the idea for ‘Promise’ come from? What inspired it?

DA: The original screenplay opened with the lead character on a bus in the early hours of the morning, a fresh bruise on the side of his face, heading towards the hospital where his girlfriend was about to go into labour. That was the image and the character that first came to me. Down the line the actual specifics of the plot changed a lot, but what remained consistent was my desire to make a film about a character with deep internal emotional conflicts. And I think that came from a feeling that as we grow older we often tend to try and push our emotions under the carpet, like being an “adult” often means pretending we don’t feel anything anymore. And I’m of the opinion that that just doesn’t work, and that often those internal conflicts and denied emotions just bubble up to the surface and manifest themselves in a whole host of external problems that in the end haunt our lives.

C8: How long did the script take you to write?

DA: It actually took quite awhile. In fact I’ve never written so many drafts of a short film script in my life. Initially the idea was for a feature and so was much longer, then when I got the opportunity to make it as a short I spent a long time exploring the different possible narratives, even though the core theme and heart of the story remained the same.

C8: What was the biggest challenge you faced during the screenwriting process?  

DA: Keeping the energy and the enthusiasm going for the project whilst continuously redrafting the script was a challenge. But in hindsight it taught me that going back and fourth on script drafts and splitting hairs about every tiny little detail of a script can be pointless. I believe it’s really important to know what the soul of the piece is. Like what you want to say and why you wanted to make the film. But the actual reality of what ends up on screen can be incredibly practical and sometimes very different. Like I believe that more often than not you can’t really feel the truth of a moment or an idea or a performance until it’s actually in front of you.

C8: The acting style is very natural. How did you work with actors both ahead of the shoot and during the production?

DA: The two leads are both very good working actors, so with them doing takes and talking it through was easy enough. But with Jackson (the son) there was no real point trying to direct him as he was to young, so instead I just set up scenarios where he and Akemnji (the dad) could move and interact in a real way and just filmed that. I also made the decision early on the go handheld throughout, which allowed the actors a certain freedom i.e. they didn’t have to worry about marks, etc.

C8: Did you run into any obstacles while filming? How did you overcome them?

DA: We had the usual worries, time and money etc. But by and large it was a such a small crew, mostly made up of friends and family, that the vibe was really easy going. Like it was all love and I think you can feel that in the final film. That said we didn’t apply for any permissions, shot it all on the fly, and had to blag quite a bit with the local residents, so that definitely kept us on our toes.

C8: The film received support from several film organisations. How did you bring this support together?

DA: The UK Film Council have always been great in supporting new talent. Like really great. They helped me get out to Tribeca, where I won an artist award with a grant attached to it from the 46664 Nelson Mandela Foundation, which I used to shoot “Promise”. I also got a small short film bursary from Working Title Films, thanks to Matt Wilkinson, who was working there at the time. I didn’t actually do much beyond express how much the project meant to me, the funding came together really via the goodwill of a few good people whose support I’m really grateful for.

C8: You attended the Tribeca Film Festival in 2010 as part of the Tribeca All Access filmmaker program. What was this experience like?

DA: I’m a big fan of NYC, and so being out there for Tribeca was incredible. And being part of All Access was great as they really want to support new talent, which is really important and commendable as the industry is pretty tough. Whilst out there I had to pitch my project to various execs, which was a pretty funny experience. Like for a long time I gave myself a hard time about trying to play this game of summing up my movie in a short, snazzy, elevator style pitch. And now I think that that’s just such bullshit, and also potentially quite detrimental to young filmmakers. Like sure you should be able to talk about your movie and not ramble on for hours, but also feeling like you have to appease every person who might in a semi-interested way ask you what your movie is about is bullshit.

C8: What knowledge from this program would you pass on to emerging filmmakers?

DA: Try and be yourself. Like look deeply at what work and what filmmakers really speak to you and inspire you. Like some filmmakers will make a movie every year, whilst some will labour over a script and make a movie every several years. Some will focus on commercial genre movies, some on more peripheral art house cinema. Like I no longer believe that there is one cohesive industry out there, or one right way to go about things. And if you’re looking for that you can allow yourself to be pushed and pulled all over the place. And being at All Access taught me that I had to stick to my guns and value and protect my own opinion and viewpoint. Like it won’t be for everyone, but it’s who I am and it’s what I’ve got.

C8: What had you done in your career up until this point and what have you done since?

DA: Prior to ‘Promise’ I’d written and directed two other short films and worked in production on a few different features. I’d also been producing photography and writing consistently since my late teens. Post ‘Promise’ I directed another short for Film London and then just spent a bit of time travelling and writing. Like in the last few years I’ve visited Kenya, Sierra Leone, Malawi, Tokyo, Paris, Marseille, Valencia, Madrid, New York, Los Angeles, Switzerland, Finland and Scotland. All of which was in aid of both cleansing my palette and growing as a person, which I think ultimately was really important for my development as a filmmaker.

C8: What’s next for you? Any exciting projects on the horizon?

DA: I’m developing my first feature. You never know what’s going to happen but I’m hopeful that if I get to tell this story, it can be something that encapsulates all my desires as a filmmaker and all my thoughts and reflections on adolescence and that time in our lives. It’s kind of the end product of a long creative sabbatical. And alongside that I’m just really keen to start making new work. So I’m actively looking for opportunities to direct new stuff, like I’d be quite up for shooting another short this year. And at the same time I’m writing, adapting an old short script into a short story, and also planning a new collection of photography, connected to my feature project. And I’m keen to travel, as always! But I’m trying to focus and put my head down and into my work this year. And it feels like the right time and the right thing to be doing right now.