How YouTuber Rapman got to direct the feature film, ‘Blue Story’…….

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With a story that could be ripped-from-the-news-headlines urban drama, Blue Story marks the remarkable feature debut of rapper – YouTuber Rapman aka  Andrew Onwubolu. Born and raised in South-East London, YouTuber Rapman made a series of short films released on YouTube that he wrote, directed, starred in, as well as  providing music and lyrics to. Inspired by the storytelling style of rappers such as 2Pac, Eminem, and the Notorious BIG, Rapman’s shorts were a combination of music video and narrative filmmaking, shot on the streets of South-East London and featuring his very own rap narration. “I didn’t know how to write a film but I knew how to tell a story, and I knew how to tell a film,” he says. “My raps were always storytelling. My gift is telling stories.” He modestly claims.

Rapman’s first success came with 2014’s Blue Story, a three-part, semi-autobiographical tale based on his childhood in Lewisham. “My mum sent me to school in Camberwell, next door to Peckham, where the notorious gang, the Peckham Boys, resided. Obviously, parents look at Ofsted reports when they decide which school to put their children in. But there are no reports that can tell you if the two areas are in a postcode war. When my mum sent me there, she was thinking, they get great results at GSCE, it’ll be a great school for me, not knowing that the area I’m living in, and the school I’m going to, is run by two different gangs that are in a real, deep blood feud. That generation, they don’t understand postcode wars and rivalry, so they can’t be blamed. So I just wrote a story based on my life.”

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Not that YouTuber Rapman was part of a gang but, much like Timmy and Marco, the school friends at the heart of Blue Story, he witnessed the effects of violence first-hand and used his personal experience as the basis of his story. “The whole going to the school and getting accused of being a gang member is all true, up to getting jumped by the boy and his friends,” he reveals. “The rest of it tells things that happened between the two gangs, but is not connected to me.” Released on YouTube, the Blue Story trilogy made a ripple rather than a splash. “I was very unknown at the time, I literally had a couple of hundred followers. People knew me in my local area, and from other areas in South London, but it started picking up a bit of a vibe. After doing Blue Story the trilogy, all the fans that liked me for my rap style wanted more stories, so I made many other shorts similar to Blue Story, and then they took off last year …”

In 2018, YouTuber Rapman wrote and directed the three-part Shiro’s Story. Inspired by a true-life story of a Lewisham man who uncovers a shocking family secret, Shiro’s Story starred Joivan Wade (The First Purge) and Percelle Ascott (The Innocents), with the actors mouthing his long-form raps and Rapman appearing on screen as a kind of Greek chorus. And once again, it was shot on the streets of London, guerrilla-style, by Rapman and a small group of friends. While the Blue Story trilogy earned Rapman a local following, Shiro’s Story rocketed him to global stardom, when the first two instalments clocked up a combined 7million views on YouTube and later won Video Of The Year at the 2018 GRM Daily Rated Awards. “Shiro’s Story is what got everyone knocking on my door,” he reflects, “but there was a big journey from Blue Story to Shiro’s Story. After five years of making shorts, something about Shiro’s Story connected.”

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Rapman suddenly found himself in huge demand on both sides of the Atlantic, signing a “life-changing” deal with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation who now manage him in film and TV as well as providing him with his own record label to release his own music and that of other artists. “After Shiro’s Story, I was contacted by every single production house in the UK to adapt it into a TV show or series,” he explains. “Everyone was meeting me, giving me the reason why they should be the ones to make it and get it to wherever I wanted it to be, whether that be Netflix or Amazon. It was getting a bit daunting, everyone saying the same thing over and over — why they should make Shiro’s Story.”

It was at one such meeting that YouTuber Rapman met with veteran British film producer Damian Jones whose credits include Belle, Kidulthood and Adulthood. “I thought Shiro’s Story was very impressive and really distinct,” says Jones. “I guess you could call it a hybrid of short film and music video, but I had not seen storytelling done like that in terms of his rap narration and his voice over, in terms of him appearing on camera and the rap coming out of actors’ mouths. I thought it was really clever and original and completely engaging. Production value-wise it looked top notch, too; it was shot with flair and distinction and style. But it was the voiceover, the rap narration, that was the real calling card for me, because I had not seen that before. Ever.

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‘One of the guys who we got to help on Shiro’s Story said a guy called Damian Jones wants to meet,” remembers Rapman. “He said, ‘He’s the real deal, he makes a lot of good movies, and probably could help you, if not with Shiro’s Story then with the film you want to get made.’ So I went to meet him, waiting to hear the same pitch about Shiro’s Story. The only difference was, he said, ‘What else have you got?” I thought, Wow! Out of all the people I’d met, all the companies, all the head of productions, this is the first person to ask, ‘What else have I got?’ I was like, ‘You know what, I’ve got this script …’

The script was for a feature-length version of Blue Story. “I finished the Blue Story trilogy in 2014 and I wrote the film in 2015, but I didn’t know how to make a movie, I didn’t know how to get it off the ground, so I sent the script to Damian.” Jones read it immediately and flipped for it. With a single reservation: Jones felt the draft was missing one, vital ingredient. “The thing it didn’t have, and what I think is his amazing storytelling ability, is the rap narration. I asked him to put that into the script. Not necessarily the raps — the detailed lyrics themselves — but that he would introduce it and rap narration would appear, either as a voiceover or on camera with him in it, during certain points in the movie.” YouTuber Rapman was more than happy to oblige. “At the point I wrote it, there wasn’t a Shiro’s Story. Blue Story was still very underground and I didn’t know if the world would understand this whole rap narration thing, if they would think it’s cool, or if they would think it’s irritating, or they don’t understand my rap style,” he says. “I wrote it as a traditional script ’cos I always wanted to make movies. I was kind of like, ‘You sure?’ ’Cos I was worried they wouldn’t they take me seriously as a filmmaker, like, it’s just an hour and a half music video. Damian said, ‘Your USP is so, so powerful, it makes it so much easier to get the film made. It makes it so much more special. It stands out more.’”

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“It’s a different way to tell stories,” concurs Joy Gharoro-Akpojotor, whom Damian Jones brought on board to produce the project with him. “Raps has got an important voice. There’s something interesting about what he’s trying to do, the way he approaches his work, combining music and drama in a way that appeals to young people. Because, when you watch Blue Story, what would normally be eight-minute scene, he can tell you in a minute, and you still get the emotional connection.”

At this point, only parts one and two of Shiro’s Story were available online, and Jones decided to wait for the final chapter to drop on YouTube before taking Blue Story out into the market. And when it clocked up an impressive 7 million views in the first couple of days, Jones decision to wait paid major dividends, as he found himself presiding over a bidding war between financers and studios eager to be involved with YouTuber Rapman’s debut feature. “I’m very pleased to say it blew up as predicted, and because of the heat and the subject matter and the success of his previous work, which was there for all to see,” says Jones. “There’s an authenticity to the story, based on his own experiences, and, given the current climate in London and elsewhere in the UK, it’s very on point. It was a message that needed to be told by someone who knew how to tell it. And then, obviously, he’s got a huge fan base, and people wanted to capitalise on that.”

“When I read the screenplay for Blue Story, it immediately struck me as something fresh and original and would make for a credible and standout cinema experience and the end product most definitely accomplishes that,” says John Fletcher. “Rapman’s filmmaking does not hold back and for a first time feature is extremely mature and accomplished. This film and its message deserves the platform it is being given.” Within a couple of weeks, Jones had set Blue Story up with BBC Films and Paramount UK. “And we were in production rapidly.”

So rapidly, in fact, that YouTuber Rapman couldn’t quite believe it. “Three days later he’s telling me we got offers. I didn’t know if he was serious, if the film could get made as quick as he’s talking. I didn’t take it all in because I had so much going on, and I wasn’t really banking my all on his making Blue Story. I was just thinking, if this Damian guy’s not the real deal, I could always take the money I make from this TV deal for Shiro’s Story and make my film later. That was always in the back of my head, just in case this Damian guy wasn’t serious, but it turns out he was.”

When it came to casting “Rapman was adamant to be true to the world he was depicting and that was differentiated and reflected in the various gang make-ups,” says Jones. Casting director Isabella Odoffin approached all the major UK acting agencies, as well as initiating an open casting call. “We needed to do open casting. There’s a pool of established actors who we know could possibly deliver this kind of film. However, we had a lot of boxes to tick; they had to be able to feel young enough to play school age as well as being able to play up. Most actors are now above that: they’ve grown up, we’ve seen them do that in previous films, perhaps. We felt that we needed to start afresh and find the next new wave of young actors. “There was an open call-out on social media, which Raps retweeted and it went on Instagram. I had over 6000 submission. That is huge! It took a very long time to go through that and it was an ongoing process. Even when submissions closed they continued to pour in, which is testament to just how excited everyone was at the prospect of auditioning.” Jones adds, “In the end, we went mostly with professional actors, even if they were relatively inexperienced and in the infancy of their careers, but their talent had been spotted early on.”

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When it came to casting Blue Story’s two main characters, Timmy and Marco, Rapman was very specific on his actors’ ethnic origin, skin colour and professional experience. “I never wanted a big name to play any of the lead roles,” he reveals. “I wanted Timmy to be African and I wanted Marco to be Caribbean. There was always a little rivalry back when we were kids, a Caribbean/African kind of thing. That was the one thing set in stone. Timmy would have to be African and Marco Caribbean. I always associated African with more dark skin, while Caribbean was more fair-skinned — which is not always the case, but back in the day that’s how you saw it.”

When it came to his Marco, YouTuber Rapman initially couldn’t find the image he had in mind. “I remember, we saw loads of potential Marco’s who looked traditionally Caribbean and were all missing something and just not connecting with me. Then, on the second day, Isabella brings in a guy who’s reading for Marco and I looked at her like, ‘This guy’s darker than me! What are you doing bringing this guy in here?’ She saw me looking and just looked away, ’cos the guy auditioned and he blew me away.” His name was Micheal Ward and Rapman remembers asking him what London estate he grew up on? And was completely surprised by his response. “He was like, ‘No, I’m from Essex.’” Rapman couldn’t believe how Ward could so brilliantly mimic the type of gang member he was after, until Ward explained he used to go to a lot of parties in South and East London, where he mixed with real-life Marcos, although he had never belonged to a gang nor came from a poor background. “I couldn’t believe he pulled it off so well. I said, ‘Man, you are so good. What are you doing right now?’ And he said, ‘I’m the lead in the new Top Boy series’, and I said, ‘Of course you are, of course you are.’ No surprises they found him, as well. When he left the room, I said to Isabella, ‘That’s my Marco.’ We had another four actors to see that day, but I already had my eye on Micheal playing that character, so we put the offer in as soon as possible.” But Micheal was initially reticent to audition for the role: “People who knew I was acting were sending me [the call out for auditions] on Instagram, DMing it to me and saying, ‘You should audition for this.’ And initially I wasn’t going to. At first it was, like, two or three people and I thought, ‘No, because I’m in Top Boy, I’m not going to do it.’ And then it became loads and loads so I just thought, let me send it to my agent at least and see what he says, and we went for it from that.” But it was by no means a done deal by this point. ‘It wasn’t something that I really wanted to do at first but YouTuber Rapman is someone that I’ve wanted to work with for a long time. I also feel like these stories need to be told … as an actor you want to be involved in big projects and I just felt that this was something big … the message is so powerful that a lot of people are going to want to be involved … It’s [a message] that doesn’t just stretch across the country, it stretches across the globe! These are stories that can be translated across the world.”

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Unfortunately, Ward’s contract with Netflix’s Top Boy prohibited him from playing the lead in anything else, much less in a project with notionally similar subject matter. “There was a big back and forth with Netflix and Cowboy Films [the production company behind Top Boy], saying, ‘No, we’ve got the rights to him. He can’t do the film,’” recalls Rapman, “and I’m like, ‘Are you for real?’” To make matters worse, the news arrived two weeks before Blue Story as due to start filming. “We’re panicking,” YouTuber Rapman recalls, “and Damian’s like, ‘Let’s get somebody else.’ I’m like, ‘No way.’ Before we saw Micheal we saw 50 actors and none of them came anywhere near, so we need to fight.” As it turned out, YouTuber Rapman wasn’t the only one taking no for an answer. Ward was desperate to play Marco and wrote to Netflix and Cowboy Films making his feelings clear. “He fought for it. The letter he wrote made a massive difference,” says Rapman. “I don’t think they wanted to alienate him because he’s set to be a massive star, and he was so passionate they had to let him do it.”

No less nerve-wracking was the casting of Marco’s best friend-turned-mortal enemy, Timmy, which also went down to the wire. “Timmy took the longest,” noted Isabella. “He is the centre of the story and it was quite a process trying to find Timmy. There are nuanced traits within his character and it required a real search.” “Two weeks before filming, we don’t have a lead character, we don’t have a Timmy,” YouTuber Rapman notes. “We either saw someone who was great at playing the gangster version but couldn’t play the softer side, or someone that was amazing at the softer side but didn’t look convincing when heartless and angry.” Understandably, Rapman was concerned. “If Timmy doesn’t sell, the whole film doesn’t sell. We’re stressing now. We’ve gone to all the top agencies, and they’ve sent all their best people, but it’s just not clicking.” “Raps wanted somebody who was street, but, at the same time, somebody who could act and just embody this character,” recalls producer Joy Gharoro-Akpojotor. “Isabella was doing a lot of street casting and going to all the most random places to find actors.” “We were desperate,’” YouTuber Rapman explains. “I remember sitting there thinking, Please, give me someone. And then Stephen came through the door.”

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“I actually was a fan of Rapman a couple of years ago,” says Stephen. “He doesn’t know this but I actually sent him an email a couple of months before I got the role of Timmy just congratulating him on Shiro Story. So yeah,” he laughs, “I’ve known about Rapman for a while!” Stephen Odubola’s acting experience was limited to appearing in couple of shorts, but YouTuber Rapman was immediately impressed by his look and presence. “He was amazing at the tough boy part — there was a real darkness in him,” he reveals. “But he didn’t connect with the softness straight away.” Nevertheless, YouTuber Rapman had Odubola read that day with both Ward and Junior Afolabi Salokun, who plays Lewisham gang leader Madder. “He got there at one and didn’t leave till six. He and Micheal just bounced off each other — it was amazing. And whenever people would do a scene with Madder, they always got completely overshadowed. But with Stephen, it was like a pit bull versus a Rottweiler.” Stephen laughed at the comparison: “I’m guessing Junior’s the pit bull? I completely understand why! Once the crazy scene happens with Karla, Timmy is just out to get revenge. He’s angry … yeah, I could compare him to a Rottweiler [in some ways] … when he’s angry and when he finds the opportunity for revenge, he’s there.

“I can cut to both personalities that Timmy possesses because when I was I younger I wasn’t always the best behaved kid, so I can kind of relate to being the bad guy or just tapping into the angry side. But I do also have my innocent moments. I feel like I can relate to both and when I got the role of Timmy I just had to find it within myself.”

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The step-up from making YouTube shorts, guerrilla-style, with a group of friends, to directing a £1.3m feature film with a crew of 40-50 people looking to you for guidance and leadership might have been daunting, but YouTuber Rapman took it all in his inimitable style. “Raps doesn’t have a problem leading from the front,” laughs producer Damian Jones. “But you’ve got to be able to delegate and empower and run departments and his confidence is very impressive. He knew the story he wanted to tell and people just got on board with it and we had excellent designers, costume and production, and makeup and hair, so it was a team effort. We couldn’t afford a cinematographer who’d shot a bunch of movies or a First Assistant Director who’d done a thousand, but everyone pulled through and we got it all done, and the movie speaks for itself.”

Jones says the crew was 75% BAME, with a good many, like YouTuber Rapman, graduating up from shorts or super low-budget features. “My job was to make sure he had the right people around him, so everyone I brought in — the costume designer, production designer — were all people who were experienced, and who could guide and elevate him,” explains producer Joy Gharoro-Akpojotor. “Even Isabella, the casting director, was someone I’d worked with before. She had experience with first-time directors, and had the time and the space to help him understand what it was he was looking for. Similarly, our production designer Gini Godwin, would come in and show him something different at every point, so he had options, and he understood that. Ultimately, the people around him were always going to be more experienced, but understood they would have to guide him along the way, to help him get to his vision.”

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“I learnt so much,” says YouTuber Rapman. “You get the costume department saying, ‘Raps, does that look fine?’ You’ve got the art department saying, ‘Does that look fine?’ The DP comes up to you and says, ‘How about this shot?’ I didn’t realise there were so much decisions to make, because in everything I’ve done, I’ve done everything. And because I’ve done everything myself, I’m used to making a decision. But I know you have clashes sometimes because the heads of department have got their name riding on it as well, it’s not just mine. I learnt that it’s a lot of responsibility, but I’ve always had responsibility for my projects, so that wasn’t much of a shock.”

What was a shock was having to wait for permission to film on the streets of London. “I’m the type of guy who says to the cast, ‘The road’s clear, run in the street, let’s get the shot and come back. Quick, quick, quick…’” he laughs. “You can’t do that when it’s a producer’s money you’re using. There are a lot of restrictions and that’s a good thing and bad thing for someone like me who really likes to run wild. I felt at certain times, ‘We have to get permission for that? Can’t we just do it? No one’s looking Can’t we just get the shot?’ But you can’t do it like that. So, I learnt planning. I learnt loads. It was my film school. I feel I could go on a £20 million set now and do my thing. I feel like I’m ready to do anything.”

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The production filmed for four weeks at the start of 2019 in London, including a number of days shooting scenes at YouTuber Rapman’s former school, Sacred Heart Catholic, in Camberwell, “where he is a bit of a folk hero,” notes Jones. “All the kids are extras in the movie.” The blue in Blue Story refers to Lewisham, which is nicknamed “the blue borough because it’s always been blue,” says YouTuber Rapman. “The bins are blue, when you’d get a letter in the post it would be blue, it’s just the colour of the area”. Ironically, given where the story’s set and where Rapman was brought up, the production was prohibited for filming scenes involving gun or knife crime or any gang-related violence there. “We got shut down, saying we couldn’t shoot any of it in South London, none of it in Lewisham, none of it in Peckham, any sort of gang violence we were not allowed to shoot in South,” explains Rapman, “and I’m like, ‘What? How are we going to do this film, based on the real areas, if we can’t go to the real areas?’”

“It came down to politics,” explains Gharoro-Akpojotor. “At a time when there was a spike in gun and knife crime in South London, and the council thought the film would add into that. Our argument was we were trying to tell young kids not to do it and we weren’t going to physically show people being stabbed. You see guns going off, but it wasn’t going to glorify violence, because Raps is trying to be more positive in his storytelling, using a genre that’s usually seen in a negative light, and the whole point is to deter young people from joining gangs and stopping knife crime.” But the South London authorities could not be persuaded and the production had to scramble around for alternative locations even as they were shooting. “They took me to one estate in Kent, but it didn’t look anything like South London,” recalls YouTuber Rapman. “I’m stressed about it, thinking this movie’s not going to work, no one’s going to believe it if it looks like this.”

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Ultimately a solution was reached, with all the exterior gang scenes shot in Enfield, North London. “Luckily, we got these estates in North London and they’re not very different, they didn’t look far off from Lewisham and Peckham. So it worked, because North London and South London is very similar.” Not that North London was immune to the sensitive issues detailed in the film. Far from it, in fact. “It was a bit of a tricky situation because they had their own stuff happening when we were shooting,” notes Gharoro-Akpojotor. “But the community were very supportive.” Both north and south, Gharoro-Akpojotor had to employ local fixers and security to help smooth over concerns from local residents as well as the neighbourhood gangs. “One time we were shooting around a school and we didn’t realise that particular location was gang turf,” she explains. “We had been there for a while and our security felt we had got to the point where we had overstayed our welcome and let us know we had to stop in an hour and leave. And we had a couple of situations where we did have local gangs come out and be like, ‘What are you doing here?’ But we had good security, so whenever there was an issue they would deal with the people, because they knew who was who.”

YouTuber Rapman recalls filming the scene, late one night, in which Timmy is beaten up at a bus stop by several youths wearing masks and balaclavas, when members of the local gang took an interest in what was going on, thinking it was for real. “From a distance, it looks like a big gang fight, and a group of gang members started arriving in cars and on mopeds. No one saw it except for me. I was across the road, looking at my monitor, and they pulled up their hoodies, pulled down their masks, and said, ‘Rapman, what are you doing right there?’ ‘We’re making a movie, bro.’ ‘Ah. We got a phone call from the locals saying gang members from the other side are here troubling somebody from our area.’ I said, ‘No, brother, this is just a film scene.’ ‘Ah. Ok, ok. We love your stuff. You’re ok, Rapman. You can film round here.’ They signalled to the gang behind him and drove off. There was like five in each car. I didn’t even see all of them. Luckily, they had the respect for me and what I do, and they let us carrying on filming.”

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In the end, says YouTuber Rapman, the biggest difference between making his Blue Story trilogy and the feature version was the time and money involved. “I didn’t realise how much work a director has to do in a feature. I always wondered why the director gets so much props for a successful movie, more than a writer, more than the lead actor, and I realised that the director is in every part of the process. I wrote it myself. I was in the casting process. Three months of my life was in the editing room. But being on set, it didn’t feel much different; other than there was more people. And that didn’t overwhelm me, to be honest. I didn’t feel the pressure as much as I felt honoured, really honoured, to know I’m the captain of this ship. So, if it fails, I’ll hold up my hands, and if it’s successful, I’ll hold up my hands, equally.”

With Blue Story in the can, YouTuber Rapman is already setting his sights on the future. Namely: to be the next Ryan Coogler. “I ain’t gonna lie, I really want to follow the path of Coogler. He did Fruitville Station on a similar budget to Blue Story, then went on to do Creed, and then he went on to do Black Panther. I wanna go that path but I wanna tell British stories. I feel a story like this can translate over there. I mean, look at The King’s Speech, that’s a British story and it blew up all over the world. So even if I’m making movies with Hollywood, I’ll still be telling stories that happen in Britain, on the streets of London. I just want them to be told at the biggest level, and if someone in the UK can give me that budget, I’ll happily do it over here, and if someone in the States gives me the money, I’ll do it over there. But I feel we can get our stories told, on a big budget, in a big way. I don’t feel hood films have to be limited. And it’s not just hood films I wanna do. All the stories I wanna tell, I want them to be from British beginnings. That’s my plan’

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