In the process of creating, it is often the external pressures involved which shape and influence the work, be that for better or worse. It is for this reason that when art is made using a collaborative DIY approach, rare gems of originality can be uncovered outside the mainstream.
This is precisely what happened in the making of the British independent film, DEMON, a self-proclaimed millennial noir.
Ahead of the film’s release, we chatted with lead actor Ryan Walker-Edwards and co-writer George Louis Bartlett about independent filmmaking, their links to Birmingham and, of course, DEMON:
The film follows the character of Ralph, a young Jamaican Brummie (played by Ryan) who is forced to flee London after an unpaid train fine comes back to haunt him. Writers George and Theo Macdonald capture the zeitgeist of our modern times perfectly, drawing on the fear and anxiety tied into debt and survival as a young person.
The team behind DEMON refused the overbearing bureaucracy that often plagues the mainstream film industry, in favour of the freedom and self-reliance of independent film making. Both Ryan and George relish this – handpicking a team of creatives from all over the UK and beyond: “Rather than waiting for a magic hand to provide us with the opportunity or pluck our idea from obscurity, we decided to build a network of likeminded people to make our events happen.”
In making their independent masterpiece, the team experienced the highs and lows, holding themselves accountable regardless: “We weren’t making the film for anybody but ourselves, when we failed, we did so on our own terms—whether it was on set, or during the edit. This allowed us to be free and takes chances, experiment and expand the realm of possibilities.”
Through this self-sufficiency, the team have created a rare and uniquely captivating film, combining innovative storytelling with a relevant and timely screenplay.
Much of the film mirrors the struggles of young people, discussing the seemingly never-ending debt which haunts many in an era of pay-cheque-to-pay-cheque living. George and Theo were keen to cover these issues in a way that felt honest, without the social realism demanded of many modern filmmakers: “We didn’t want to make a social realist drama about a guy with debt issues, which naturally seemed to evoke and kind of noir-ish paranoia, yet exist as genuine scenarios in contemporary British life.”
DEMON succeeds in this, telling a modern story in an exciting and obscure way, that blends modern struggles of millennial existence with the classic cinematic history of film making. This is precisely why it holds the Millennial Noir status, as George explained: “The term was coined by Theo after we watched Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 film DETOUR. We wanted to make the film feel less contemporary as a way of engaging the audience more with the themes and characters.”
This unique take on storytelling extends to their portrayal of emotion on screen and the presentation of grief and trauma. Through Ralph’s escape from London, we see him try and combat his external and inner demons which are centred around unspoken traumas surrounding his father. George and Ryan explain the desired subtlety in their exploration of trauma stating: “This strand of the film is deeply rooted inside of the character, but not so apparent on the screen—or at least not dramatised. Most traumas are not; they’re usually stored deep within us somewhere, and play in ghostly flashes like cutscenes from a VHS tape.”
For George, this exploration of financial anxiety is both relevant and personal in capturing the zeitgeist of millennial existence: “Both I and Theo wanted to explore the anxiety-inducing nature of privately hired debt collection agencies and the way in which bailiffs tend to pressure individuals into a kind of psychological submission through a cyclical nightmare of ‘added charges.’ The film is also inspired by an experience I had with a train fine I forgot to pay when I lived in Germany.”
A Brummie in London seems to be the ultimate antithesis, and one which DEMON extensively hinges on. As Birmingham begins to warp into a heaving metropolis, much akin to London, something about its residents and its subcultures remain unique and untarnished.
George goes on to explain that Ralph’s Brummie heritage became crucial in fleshing out the character’s outsider status: “Ralph is an outsider, firstly in London, but also then in the world of the motel, bombarded by the ‘exoticized’ intrigue and passive aggressions of strangers. Ralph is also innocent and unapologetic in his idiosyncrasies. I think these two elements both draw on the energies of the people of Birmingham.”
In creating the film, George found himself unexpectedly attached to Ralph: “We were in some ways driven by the practicalities of …telling Ralph’s story, which became ever more important as the filmmaking progressed… I care more about Ralph now than I do when we first started shooting.”
Our interview comes at a strange time for the film industry, as cinemas remain closed and the release of many much-anticipated films are significantly delayed. However, George is cautiously optimistic, citing the ingenuity of the outliers of film institutions: “Innovation in British cinema will almost certainly not come from inside the institutions. Change will come from the outliers, underdogs, obsessives, neurotics and mutants who are struggling outside of the parametres of the game.”
George even hinted at a post-quarantine renaissance in film-making: “We should be preparing for art after the pandemic and be beginning to incorporate our physical and emotional experiences of this huge event into our work…ignoring the massive social change this country is going through would be lying to audiences.”