LBB> Can you tell us about when you initially came up with the idea for ‘Photo Booth’?
Roxy> The project was the culmination of a lot of different threads; research into British immigration laws, stories about couples having to go through the process of proving their marriages to the Home Office, an interest in depicting mixed-race or interracial couples on screen, and reflecting on my family and their stories of coming to the UK in light of the intensity in recent years of British politics of denigrating ‘immigration’ and ‘immigrants’ - whether that be as a result of the many different refugee crises caused by British foreign policy, deliberate negative sentiments stoked during the Brexit campaign, or the targeted attacks on Asian men and women.
LBB> Why was it so important for you to highlight and represent mixed-race couples?
Roxy> I am frustrated with the film industry’s failure to invest in interracial onscreen couples, and the unique narratives and dynamics these relationships can hold. I’m also frustrated on behalf of certain actors who have to wake up every day and face a job that already requires a very thick skin, but who still have to give their best whilst knowing that they just simply won’t be considered for roles as they don’t fit the ‘vision’ of a project because of their ethnicity.
LBB> Can you tell us about the inspiration behind Mina and Feras' characters?
Roxy> First and foremost, my focus was on creating characters that would celebrate the immigrant generation of my parents - not just in terms of portraying a migration story - but a specific ‘first generation’ paradoxical personality. They are street-smart but naive, thick-skinned but still vulnerable. I thought it was really important to make sure that these characters came across as flawed – they make jokes that aren’t funny, they are irritable, and they don’t necessarily do anything ‘noble’ or ‘admirable’ on screen – so as not to rely on a constructed virtuosity to get audiences to see them as people we should root for.
LBB> How long did it take to create the script and did you have any last-minute changes while filming?
Roxy> The first draft probably took me a few days to write, but I had been developing the characters and the beats for a while before I worked on the dialogue. The process of refining the script continued through pre-production, casting, rehearsals, and adapted to feedback from HODs as they joined the project, and actors Lorraine Tai and Elham Ehsas’ interpretations of the characters.
The script was always intended to be adaptable in this way as it’s primarily dialogue. During filming, for example, it was never scripted for the interrupter to come into the booth at the end but this is something we worked on with actor Anton Saunders on the day, who came up with many different interpretations of who his character was and what his need was for photos in the booth. I think what he came up with was brilliant and can’t think of how the film would have ended otherwise without him.
LBB> What was the process of casting like and why were Elham Ehsas and Lorraine Tai the perfect fit?
Roxy> I was so lucky to work with casting director Lara Manwaring, who was very supportive of me as a first-time narrative director, and made sure to facilitate in-person auditions as we knew that the film would hinge on the chemistry between the couple. We were casting during 2020 in the pandemic, and so it was a challenge to try and gauge chemistry between actors when they were sat socially distanced and very far apart!
We didn’t specify particular ethnicities for Mina or Feras and so we saw actors from different Asian backgrounds, and as a filmmaker, it was such an amazing opportunity to meet so many talented Asian actors and connect with them whilst discussing the characters’ stories. However, it was also disappointing hearing the actors discuss how rarely they had the opportunity to go up for leads, let alone romantic leads. With Elham and Lorraine though it ultimately felt like fate, they have both had first-hand experience of moving abroad from their birth countries, they were both based in Brent where I live and grew up, and Lorraine was in fact pregnant during the audition process (though we didn’t know this until we offered her the role!) and filming just as Mina was meant to be - so the baby bump you see on screen is her own.
LBB> How did you come up with the setting of a photo booth and why was it the best space to use?
Roxy> I’d used the photo booth setting in a music video for the artist Lyves that I’d directed in 2019, which was meant to be set in the 1970s and about a ‘fading’ relationship and after that, I fell in love with it as a creative setting. By setting the film in a photo booth, I felt that it offered the opportunity to present these characters in a neutral space, so you are focused on their quirks and personalities - rather than taking in who they are from a location such as a workplace, where they’re living, or where they hang out. However, it meant that I also didn’t have to smooth the edges or dim down at all who they were as ‘outsiders’ because that naturally comes to the surface wherever they are.
The film takes place in one shot and was filmed in one take, so you could see the breadth of who they are even in the space of a few seconds. The argument they have with one another is about how detrimental it is that they are consistently judged based on their appearances as ‘other’ in British society, so I liked the idea of us looking at them ‘through’ the camera lens - to use the idea of how one presents themselves to the world versus what they’re like when they think no one is watching - and emphasise how Mina and Feras’ ability to stay together will depend on a stranger’s judgement of the strength of their love, just as we are doing by watching this snapshot of their day.
LBB> Were there any challenges with creating the feel of 1970s London and how did you achieve the look?
Roxy> I achieved the look with an amazing set of HODs: our production designer Soraya Gilanni Viljoen, costume designer Emma Lipop, make-up artist Grace Ellington, hair stylist Tomoko Fushimi, cinematographer Jeremy Valender and colourist Thomas Mangham.
What you don’t get to see on screen is that Soraya constructed a full replica of a 1970s photo booth for us. It helped the actors with the performance, and also really brought things to life for all of us on set. With our colour palette and textile choices, we were paying attention, especially to details like the grain of the fabrics - so they had textures that would place us in the period, and help the frame feel alive without overwhelming things. We made sure nothing felt too modern or reflected too much light under our lamps. From the get-go, we also knew that we didn’t want to pursue anything that would feel too on the nose for 1970s fashion, which guided us through our wardrobe, makeup and hair choices, along with references we were pulling that we thought would relate to Mina and Feras, their personal tastes and aspirations.
We thought we’d also let our details do some subtle period placement like the watch on Feras’ wrist, or the fact he’s drinking soda from a glass bottle, or that he ends up smoking indoors around his pregnant wife! Lastly, with our grade, it was quite tough with the one shot, as our backdrop shifted significantly through the shot - so it meant we had to find a single look that would work for both ‘worlds’ and we knew that for two characters that are visceral with their emotions we’d want to flood the frame with colour. We looked to period studio photography for inspiration on the highlights and the film grain, the latter of which we added as we’d shot digitally without the budget to shoot authentically on film.
LBB> We know the piece was shot in one take, but how long did the editing process take and were there any challenges?
Roxy> The greatest challenge for the edit would always be trying to find one take that would tell the story that felt truest to the emotional core of the script. In filming, I wanted to give the actors the freedom to try something new every time we reset, so every take was different. However sometimes that meant, whilst we were watching something exciting, it didn’t quite hit the beats I felt we needed for the overall story to land, the right shift in power dynamics or inferred change between the couple. What I was especially interested in was how Mina and Feras came back together in the booth after the interruption. I wanted it to be clear that each one in the couple definitely had an opinion on what had just happened, but they don’t tell the other directly, instead, it's communicated in their body language rather than anything too explicit. I worked with long-time collaborators editor Ross Leppard and sound designer Guy Chase in post-production, and usually, when we’re working on our documentaries together the edit process takes a month - so this one did breeze by in comparison. What did require more fine-tuning than people might think with a one-take film was our soundscape, and deciding where we were ‘placing’ our booth, shaping the story of what was happening off-screen.
LBB> What is the main thing that you want the audience to take away from this film?
Roxy> I hope people just feel invested in the characters and their story, and I would like fellow filmmakers to consider Elham and Lorraine as the leads for their next project!
LBB> Would you like to share anything else?
Roxy> I’d like to say a big thank you to our producer Elly Camisa. Making the film wouldn’t have been possible without Elly and her commitment as a producer to the script and bringing the idea to life in a thoughtful way and with her own vision for how the film should come together. She brought an amazing team onto the project, facilitated rehearsals during a pandemic, and instilled a great atmosphere on set. Also a big thank you to executive producers Aneil Karia and Scott O’Donnell who gave us both the encouragement and support to make the film.