Harsh truths: Get to know ‘Yard Kings’ filmmaker Vasco Alexandre
Vasco Alexandre wants to give a voice to the voiceless. The Portuguese native spent three years studying Media communication in Lisbon before traveling around the world and working a series of odd jobs. While documenting his trips, Alexandre discovered he had a passion for directing, and decided to enroll in the film program at London’s Middlesex University.
Alexandre accepted a bursary in Madrid during his second year of study, where he won the Best Short Film award at the CEU San Pablo University. More recently, Alexandre wrote and directed the short film Yard Kings. The film deals with child abuse in the London area, and has already earned rave reviews from critics in addition to various festival awards.
Yard Kings is Vasco Alexandre’s debut, and Film Daily was fortunate enough to chat with the filmmaker about his writing process, his experience working with first-time actors, and his difficulty editing during the COVID lockdown. Here’s what he had to say:
Tell us about your history in filmmaking. How did you start your journey?
Like most kids, there was a time I did not know what to do with my career. I tried to study Economics and Science but got pretty bored by working on the same subject all the time. I was curious about many other topics such as psychology, literature, sociology and history, etc.
Storytelling naturally became a clear interest once I realized I could be free enough to work on different subjects throughout my career. I found my place and got involved in anything I could to make films.
I studied Audiovisual Communications, worked in the industry for a short period, created my own small production company and explored promotional content, short-films, short-docs and music videos. However, I lacked some life experience in order to tell decent stories, so I travelled for a while to get out of my comfort zone.
Your first industry position was as an assistant director. Did you learn things as an AD that later proved helpful in your career?
Absolutely. As a director, sometimes on-set can be pretty tough to solve unforeseen issues with the schedule and having worked as an AD gives me a certain advantage.
You worked a series of different jobs around the world before you resumed your directing career. What caused the break, and how did the experience change your approach to storytelling?
Emotions are displayed, experienced and labelled in different ways across cultures. Understanding people’s nature at that level is crucial to create films that most people can relate too, no matter cultural differences. I got really into this idea and travelled around the world for a while.
I put myself in different environments like living and working with a Moroccan family in a surf camp or spending some time in Mozambique, teaching Portuguese and coaching soccer to kids in a small community. I believe this sort of experience improved my storytelling capacities.
That time ‘alone’ made me aware of myself, increased my communication skills and gave me decent storage of memories, which I can access to interpret the text and convey authenticity. Then I knew I was ready to make films and moved to London to begin my Directing journey.
Have you worked with mentors in the past? How would you recommend people go about finding them?
There is a massive debate about film schools. Many filmmakers say it’s not worth it and can learn everything on their own or work in the industry. I guess it depends on your craft. Talking from my experience, film school allowed me to commit mistakes safely without being judged professionally.
Most importantly, it allowed me to be advised and guided by experienced personalities in the film industry. If filmmakers are not looking to have that experience, and I guess editors might not need it, many online programs and film festivals offer mentorship schemes.
In the last case scenario, filmmakers could contact professionals in the industry and directly ask them for advice. You can even end up going on their sets and learn from them. For sure, there will be somebody who will be happy to share their knowledge.
Your new film, Yard Kings, is about a girl who tries to escape an abusive household. What was the inspiration behind the story?
Although we made the film before lockdown, I can’t imagine a better time to tell this story. Hotlines are lighting up with abuse reports, and the violence has been more frequent, more severe and more dangerous in the past year. Told through the eyes of one of the biggest losers in a violent relationship (children), Yard Kings observes a 9-year old girl’s reality as a fly on the wall.
Exposing that reality and giving a voice to those children was our motivation. It is a personal topic for me, and it was challenging to portray a social issue outside of my cultural zone. However, London is a complicated city, filled with all kinds of truths and contradictions, and I wanted to find my own emotional connection to it since my time there was such a significant chapter of my life.
The main child actors in the film were street-cast. Did their inexperience pose any unique challenges during production?
It was not a priority, but I was open to working with a non-experienced cast if that would add to the realism we pretended. Although we rehearsed several times, there were always some issues on-set and the crew had to adapt to it. For instance, Elle could not get into character with the Alexa Mini so close to her face. For a 9-year-old, such gear seems to be out of a sci-fi movie!
So we changed lenses quite often and shot the action from other positions. We also allowed the kids to touch the gear and clap the slate to get familiarized with it. In the end, it was fine; children are great actors naturally. It’s part of a child’s routine to adapt their behavior to different stimuli.
How big a role did authenticity play in the creation of the Yard Kings film?
Authenticity was our biggest priority at every stage of the creative process. We used to say as a joke ‘make it gritty’! We worked on a few elements to achieve that effect, such as the location storytelling capacity or the decision of not giving the audience more information than the main character because there are no parallel actions.
And then, of course, the camera work; handheld and shaky. Hopefully, all these elements create a film world that most people are familiar with.
You stated that the child actors collaborated in the writing process of the film. How much did the Yard Kings script change from the page to the final product?
Yes, that’s right! As a Portuguese native speaker, I am not familiarized with the English slang used by kids of their generation. We invited them to adapt the dialogue to their way of speaking, and some changes were made since the script allowed certain freedom at the dialogue level. This helped them to have more space to improvise when playing the role.
How often do you take an actor’s input into consideration when directing?
It really depends on the script. In this case, they were allowed to be creative and play with the character. Each actor requires a different approach, and it’s part of my job to figure it out in order to get the best performances and a healthy working relationship.
In this film, both kids had different reactions to directions: little Dave wanted more freedom, while Elle had a better response when I micromanaged her. I prefer not to give such specific directions and, for this to work out, I had to talk with both of them separately.
Regarding the adult cast, I suggested to Caroline in the rehearsals to bring up her own acting choices to see what she had prepared before any directions. Her decisions for the character were brilliant and we just had to adjust it a bit. I usually do not micro-adjust emotional levels (e.g. 10% less sadness) or say what the audience should feel like at any moment because it limits the performance.
You finished making Yard Kings during the first COVD-19 lockdown. What were the biggest production challenges you faced as a result of the lockdown?
Reshooting was our biggest issue. We couldn’t get out with the gear, so part of some scenes were improvised in the editing room. ADR, color and sound were made overseas via online platforms. It was tough!
You shot most of Yard Kings outdoors, which means you had to contend with the temperamental UK weather. How did you work around weather issues during the film’s production?
Working with the elements is part of shooting in the UK, and the weather was one of the most significant issues during the shoot since most of the locations were exteriors. I am happy the crew managed to shoot around it instead of rescheduling.
We woke up every day and asked the universe to be kind to us. This uncertainty made me rethink my priority shots and prepare a plan B,C,D,E…
Yard Kings has received multiple award nominations from notable festivals. Are you surprised by the overwhelmingly positive response to the film?
Unbelievable! We were confident about the film, but we didn’t expect such a positive response. I can only be happy for the crew to be recognized since they made such an effort to finalize the film in such challenging conditions.
Is there a particular message or theme you want fans to take from Yard Kings?
Yes, sometimes it is good to see the world through the eyes of a child. As adults, if we can incorporate this child-like behavior into our daily lives, we can learn to live more from the heart.
As we grow, we become more analytical, and relationships become more challenging. Sometimes we get even trapped in situations a child wouldn’t be, such as Lisa in the film.
Who are your biggest directorial influences?
I always watch Andrea Arnold’s films before a shooting day. She was a big inspiration for Yard Kings, and some of her scenes were often brought to the table as references. Then, my childhood influence was the Argentinian Gaspar Noé. I was obsessed with his films. His camera movements are unique and the photography is just crazy. Other influences include Wong Kar-Wai, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Darren Aronofsky.
What has been your biggest success?
To keep the focus and deliver the best results, both academically and professionally when changing countries frequently. I lived in Portugal, Spain, England, and I am currently in Scotland.
How about your biggest failure? What did you learn?
One of my first projects was a mess back then when I was a kid. I remember this one-take short film that I was always trying to pull off, even though I did not have enough experience. It was not a big crew on-set, and we were all friends having fun. However, it was a waste of time for the cast.
I learned not to have such a big ego! I remember another time when we had a big club scene with about 30 extras for a commercial, shot on film, and in the end, the film got damaged. We couldn’t reshoot it and it was a disaster.
Which part of directing do you still geek out about the most?
The editing room is the only place where I can really control every aspect of the process. Directors are control freaks! I also enjoy the research process. When I am working on a story idea, I get so immersed in the film world that every aspect of my life somehow contributes to that creative process.
If I am walking in the street and seeing something as banal as a couple talking to each other in a coffee shop, I might take some inspiration from that to my story. Everything becomes a potential source of material.
Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?
I am looking to do something completely different now – clean and fresh photography in a futuristic world. Maybe a sci-fi. I am still checking possibilities, but I would love to do a comedy also.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
I can only advise aspiring directors. I know it is a cliché, but it is for a reason: have films under your belt. Just make films, even if it is with a DSLR. Then, be personal with your stories. Do not go on-set if you are not the storekeeper.
Other people’s opinions can take over your vision if it is not strong enough, and then the film is ruined. Follow your instinct.
What is your favorite film of all time?
The one-take German film Victoria by [director] Sebastian Schipper with the Spanish actress Laia Costa. I think it is one of the most fantastic camera-work I have ever seen at this production level and Laia’s performance is just something else. She is an amazing actress. Sebastian makes us believe it is possible to fall in love in only 2 hours, which is pretty mind-blowing.