We wanted to make a working-class film that could be joyful—let the characters exist beyond their hardships and their traumas.
Charlotte Regan’s feature debut, Scrapper, which was filmed on the grounds of Limes Farm, a council estate in Essex, England, centers on 12-year-old Georgie (newcomer Lola Campbell), who has lost her mother to an unnamed illness, and whose father, Jason (Harris Dickinson), resurfaces after a long absence hoping to reconnect. Such location and story fundamentals might suggest a Ken Loachian kitchen sink drama, especially as the film opens with little Georgie stealing a bike to the tune of “Turn the Page,” one of The Streets’ most urgent, working-class anthems. But these expectations are subverted with the filmmaker’s otherwise sunnier take on the tough-luck tales that have largely defined British social realism. Remaining upbeat with a pastel aesthetic and an overflow of charm, Scrapper counters a genre and milieu traditionally dominated by the doldrums.
Regan, who hails from Islington, North London, picked up directing at just 15 years old making no to low-budget music videos for local rappers in her area, and went on to helm more than 200 to date. Stereophonics, Mumford & Sons, Wilkinson, and Wretch 32 are among the artists she has made critically acclaimed videos for in the last couple of years. In the lead up to Scrapper, she directed a series of award-winning short films, beginning with Standby, which screened at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, before going on to garner a BAFTA nomination. In 2020, Regan was named a Screen International Star of Tomorrow. This year, Scrapper world premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it picked up the World Cinema Dramatic Grand Jury Prize. After that win in Park City, the film opened Sundance’s UK edition in July. She’s a one to watch.
Scrapper opens in select theaters on August 25th via Kino Lorber.
Scrapper addressed a bit of a question mark I’d been carrying around. Michael Fassbender had casually mentioned to me in the late 2000s that he was keen on setting up his own production company, and he even wondered if I had any ideas on what to call it. Of course, I didn’t think much of it at the time because a lot of actors start “production companies.” Now I know that he had gone on to set up DMC with the aim of promoting new voices in cinema. According to your producer, Theo [Barrowclough], Michael even gave this directive: “It’s up to you to find the next Steve McQueen and Andrea Arnold.” That’s you!
Ooh, I hope not! [laughs] That’s high pressure! I was probably just the only person that hit it off as much with Theo. They were great. Theo’s gone somewhere else now, but they’re a great company.
So what was the true genesis?
I started Scrapper years before DMC was on board. It was with iFeatures, which is a scheme in the UK where you work on a treatment and, at the end of the process, the BBC and the BFI decide if they wanna develop it or not. So that was a really long time ago. Then I met Theo and we made some short films together. We just got on great so we decided to carry on working together.
On the subject of Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank and the long line of movies that have been filed under kitchen sink realism, Scrapper feels somewhat reactionary as it’s taking a world we’re used to seeing portrayed in a certain light to a more uplifting place. Theo at one time even said, “We wanted to try and push Scrapper to be very un-British in some ways.” The film is glass half full, not half empty, which seems to reflect your own experience. That’s intentional.
That was always at the center. We wanted to make a working-class film that could be joyful—let the characters exist beyond their hardships and their traumas, I suppose. Everyone’s experience and upbringing is different, and what was kind of lacking from some of those films was the world I grew up in, which was just so darkly funny and community-orientated. Watching a lot of working-class cinema, I always felt like, “Where’s that love and joy I grew up in?” So we always had that at the center of it, no matter how much the story changed. That was driving us, for sure.
I’d guess that you get asked this often because, if nothing else, you also wrote the script: how autobiographical is this? You’ve communicated in the past that it’s nothing that happened to you personally. Even so, the setting and the situations are likely very familiar.
I think that just comes with being a new writer. You’re naturally inclined to write a world and characters you recognize because you don’t yet know how to write in other voices. Lots of people when they meet Lola [Campbell] will say, “She’s just like you!” or “The dialogue is just like the things you would say!” But I think that is just the nature of me not having written much, and I can’t help but put my humor on the page. I don’t yet know how to master writing and do other forms of humor, I guess. In that same regard, the grief and journey you see is for sure very personal.
I understand that you filmed on Limes Farm, a council estate just outside of London. Did you ever consider shooting where you had come up, perhaps for familiarity and/or easy access?
Very briefly. The place I grew up in felt massive and like its own world because it’s like that when you’re a kid. But when you go back there now, it’s actually quite a small place, and we wanted to capture that kid’s feeling of having a massive world to themselves. It went through different forms. Initially, it was written to be set in a tower block, but we wanted it to speak to working-class kids across the UK and tower blocks are very London-centric so we wanted to avoid that a little bit.
Since this is your feature debut, and one with a lot of acclaim now, people must want to know about you more than ever before. And I’m totally aware that I’m asking you this as I am myself asking you potentially intrusive questions: is there a part of you that wants to keep a private life distant from the thing you created? Does it all take some getting used to?
I mean, everyone’s been super nice with it. The questions never feel like they’re crossing the line or anything. But yeah, it’s just a thing of the comparisons to the film. My life is quite a common thing and something I was always keen to make [into a film]. It’s just something in British cinema in particular that we seem to like to do. A lot of my friends have experienced this, having made debuts where we’re so encouraged to tell personal stories within films. Then as soon as they come out, it’s always like, “based on.” My friends have all experienced it, which is a weird thing because, you know, your upbringing isn’t just your own. I have lots of family members as well who are reading that kind of stuff. So I guess that’s when I find it weird, when the comparisons are being made. My mom’s like, “What do you mean? I was there the whole time!” [laughs]
In your on-camera interviews, there’s sometimes this feeling that reporters are expecting to hear a sob story, and you’re quite simply like, “It was happy times! It was magical!” Assumptions are made and, in some ways, I think the film is out to correct that very thing.
For sure. I mean, I’m sure we struggled like most working-class people do, or even middle-class people. Everyone struggles in some regard. But I don’t remember it being anything other than joyful. And I suppose that is a credit to my mom and how she raised me: even when we had less, she made me feel like we had just as much as other people. So it’s just that childlike perspective that we wanted to capture with the film, where they just see everything as being great, you know?
Totally. And I don’t know if Jason and Georgie were modeled after specific individuals, but maybe their situation—this coming-of-age in reverse, where the adult is stunted and the child is made to grow up too fast—is just something a lot of us can relate to or have been around.
They were modeled after a lot of people I was around growing up. I think it’s the dad that a lot of people were surrounded by and recognize. It’s not all about my dad, but he was for sure that dad who knew how to be a friend before he knew how to be a parent. And I find that can often be the case especially in the UK. It seems like a very “British man” kind of thing where they can’t really communicate any emotions, but they know how to be around and play and have a good time. So I think they’re bits of different people I’ve grown up around, and elements of my dad, for sure.
In your adolescent years, you started making music videos for your rapper friends. Did you harbor aspirations of becoming a music video director then? What did you have in mind?
I dunno, really. I didn’t think about it too much in that way, like, “What do I wanna do?” I wasn’t too good in school or that smart, so I was just really happy to be doing anything at all. That sounds terrible… [laughs] I just enjoyed it. I also enjoyed music more than I enjoyed filmmaking at first.
My favorite bit in that story is how much you loved rap, and I would imagine that you still do. Isn’t it true that you wanted to rap? It makes me wonder how far you might’ve taken it.
I was shocking. I went to the studio a few times and recorded three or four songs with my friends. The reading in the room instantly told me that I was not good enough to pursue it. Luckily, they needed someone to do their videos and I had a camera. So it was like, “You do that,” I suppose.
Did you save any of those recordings?
Maybe on my old laptops. Not that they’ll ever surface! [laughs] They’re absolutely shocking.
You’ve directed over 200 music videos. Needless to say, that’s a lot of hours put in—learning by doing, trial and error, whathaveyou. I’ve always believed that directors who know gear is a step above. And since you’ve previously discussed your love of building relationships, I was reminded of how invaluable that skill is as well, and how we maybe don’t focus on nurturing that as much as it relates to a director’s job, including in academic settings.
To me, that’s the most important one by far. I would take that over technical knowledge any day ‘cause that’s what allows you to communicate with heads of departments or to get along with people and try and get them to help you create something or to get them on the same page as you. Maybe this is a bit of a romantic thought, but me and Theo have always said that we’d much rather make projects where we treat people well and everyone has a good experience, rather than be these epic auteurs who treat people like shit or who can be a little bit too aggy in their vision, you know? I think people skills just come from surrounding yourself with the right people. Molly [Manning Walker], our DP, and Elena [Muntoni], our production designer—they’re very much the same. The key thing to them is that their respective teams feel appreciated and they’ve had a good time on the job, which I think just creates a different atmosphere and a different kind of form.
Theo is like a brother to you. You’ve been friends with Elena since you were 12. You’ve described Scrapper as a “family-orientated shoot.” Inviting your friends and close confidantes into a sandbox in which to create with you is the dream scenario that you’ve been living out. Is there ever a worry as you move on to bigger things that, that might not always be possible?
Hopefully, you can always take elements from those shoots with you. I did an Apple show [The Buccaneers] last year. It was much more sprawling and a much bigger production. I still managed to find it in those places. You find the people you can be vulnerable with and connect with. I think film sets in general encourage that kind of lifestyle ‘cause people are living away from home more than they’re with their families. You kind of find each other amongst those experiences.
You’d worked with Harris [Dickinson] before on the short Oats & Barley, but I understand he still went through the normal casting process. In terms of his casting, I wonder if you were also looking to find somebody who could potentially take Lola and Alin [Uzun] under his wing because I don’t think all actors are suited for that kind of responsibility.
No, I definitely agree. Harris is just one of the most selfless human beings I know. He’s so kind and you can’t say that about everyone. Acting is such a self-reflective job, where you have to obsess over yourself and, in a way, be selfish at times to do your best work. But Harris doesn’t have any of that. He comes into a scene thinking about the kids’ performances as much as his own, and how he can adapt to better their performances. This comes with working with street-cast young people as well: you can’t train them or tell them what to do. So you have to be quite reactive, and Harris was incredible. Obviously, he’s an amazing actor, but I think as soon as we met him and spoke to him about it and went through some scenes, we totally got the impression that he also knew that the kids were the key element of this film and he needed to support ‘em. We couldn’t have done it without him. Alin in particular absolutely idolized him and copied everything he did.
I would imagine that Harris empathized with their situation as well because he was in their very position at one time in his career. Maybe not as young as 12 years old, but he made his feature debut with Beach Rats, which is arguably challenging material.
For sure. I’m sure he did emphasize. You probably know more about his career than me. [laughs] We hang out and I consider him my friend, but we’re just not the type of people to talk about that kind of thing. We are pretty boring in that regard. We just play bad golf or talk about rap music.
There’s always this talk about how working with children might be challenging, whether it’s due to their lack of experience or discipline, or the restrictions put on their working hours. But your take has remained positive, and your process obviously revolved entirely around letting kids be the kids they are. What do you love most about working with young talent?
I think it’s exactly what Harris loved about it, which is the reactiveness of the shoot and the energy that feeds into the set. The whole day has to cater to them and the mood they’re in, really. If Lola comes in a bad mood, there’s not much you can do about that. She’s a kid. She’s not a working professional who’s on a salary and expected to perform. And they see magic in everything. They just look around and think of every day as an adventure, which reminds me of the most joyful days on set and why we all got into filmmaking, you know? We’re not saving lives or doing anything mad end of world-y and kids kind of help you get a grip and remember that, I guess.
Why was it important to cast kids with no prior film experience? What’s at stake otherwise?
That’s just always been my preference and what I’ve done on short films and music videos. I find that kids aren’t acting—they’re existing. That’s not to say that they’re playing themselves ‘cause Lola and Alin aren’t the characters that are written in the script. But I just don’t think you can push them into being someone they totally aren’t. I find that when I get into auditioning young people with more experience, it can tend to be a little bit more theatrical or they’re a little bit more self-aware. They kind of know where the camera is and they know that they’re being asked to perform. Whereas with street casting, it’s all kind of new and I think the camera picks up on that energy.
You’ve previously spoken about Lola’s amazing self-tape. You knew right away she was perfect for this. But it also seemed to require a period in which to get her out of her shell. How far into the shoot did you film the train station improv? Was that saved for later?
Yeah, yeah. In that regard, life was kind of imitating art in lots of ways because Lola was super suspicious of all new people—and that includes Harris. So even though they did rehearsal, she was still cautious of him and not sure what she thought about him. Luckily, we shot semi-chronologically as much as we could within the constraints of day-to-day filming. It meant that we saved that kind of stuff where her and Harris had to be at their most connected for the last days. I think the train station was the second to our last day. Our final day was when they’re dancing together in the hanger. It kind of worked out perfectly ‘cause, by then, they were super close.
I’m remembering the time you brought up Danny Boyle and what he had to say about his love of going through the different motions in filmmaking, from prep to shoot to post. Danny once told me, “Some people say that your first film is your best work and in a funny kind of way I find that to be true. It may not be your most successful or your most technically accomplished, but that freshness—you will never see that again.” You’re at your first feature now. What do you make of what he said? And do you have sophomore feature jitters?
I think I remember reading that quote, and it’s always given me mad fear. [laughs] Even now, as we’re releasing it, you can’t help but hear loads of people’s opinions. At the minute, I’m writing another film and I’m starting to think, “Oh god, will people like this?” Whereas with Scrapper, I don’t think me and Theo really thought about that. We were just like, “This is what we wanna make and that’s that.” So I do kind of agree with that, and I can see how making your first film can change your writing style going forward. Hopefully, the second one’s not total shit. But everyone makes a bad one sometimes, don’t they? [laughs] Maybe it’ll be my bad one. Who knows?
In regards to making the film you love and not the one you think people might want or what you think might get traction on the festival circuit, hopefully, that shift in thinking is one all filmmakers come around to sooner rather than later. When did that truth crystalize for you?
I think it just comes from enjoying the making of it. The best day I had on Scrapper was that day at the train station where everyone was so totally in sync. It was an incredible atmosphere. Me, Theo, and Molly cling onto those moments, reminding ourselves that those things are the highlights of a project. Obviously, the film’s success and people connecting to it in their own way feel incredible, too, but it is the making of it that feels like the real privilege. Hopefully, we get to carry on doing it.