First of all, the story is so outlandish, I had to know where it came from. “It was just something that came naturally over time, I suppose,” Charlotte began. “The person Drug Runner is based on is a friend, and I always felt like it was a story that was never told: the reasons behind people getting involved in things like drug dealing, without making the character a villain, because he was just a normal, everyday kid.”
I enquired if Charlotte had introduced her friend to the actors, in order to more accurately capture the protagonist. Her method was clever: “I interviewed my friend about 3 times, and those interviews were more like general chats that went on for an hour or two each time. He knew the intention was never to use his voice, so he was happy to chat openly. From that, I had to then make a decision on what sections to use...as we didn’t quite have the budget for a 6+ hour film!”
I was curious if she ever shared these interviews with her cast. “I didn’t let my voice-over actor, Alfie, listen to the recordings. I never wanted him to try and completely re-create the speech pattern and style. Alfie is such an incredible and intuitive actor, and I wanted him to have his own take on how it should be said.”
So if she didn’t introduce the source and she didn’t share the recordings, how did she prepare her cast? Charlotte explained how both the actor and the voice-actor took the original testimony, and made it their own. “Alfie and the visual actor, Mitchell, were both sent the transcribed script/interview responses beforehand. They are both incredibly natural actors who put their own spin on things...they know how to be subtle yet impactful. Mitchell, in particular; it’s rare to find that subtleness in such a young actor, but he has natural instincts entirely. Often, his first take will be better than any take where I have given him direction!”
Much of the visuals from Drug Runner were reminiscent of the grime music videos Charlotte has directed. I asked if any of these stood out as being particularly inspirational when planning Drug Runner. She responded, “No, not really. They were all a big influence on the current work. Doing a lot of stuff always helps, as you learn about the different roles, the process--everything.”
One of the things that really blew me away in Drug Runner was the lighting. Lighting is everything in this film. I mentioned this to Charlotte, and she explained why she planned the lighting the way she did.
“The intention was always to make it a very colourful piece,” Charlotte explained. “Especially initially, when he’s falling into that world and loving it all. The person it’s based on always spoke about his housing estate as if it was a big community, and that’s something I wanted to replicate. We always see de-saturated, gloomy council estates, when the truth is, if you have lived in one from a young age...they’re vibrant. Staying true to how he felt about places and people was always important.”
Production was completed in one day last December, with a small amount of cutaways shot the day before. “We used an Alexa Mini and a Blackmagic. I think it was just convenient in terms of size, me and the Director of Photography like how the picture looks once its graded. No big reasons for kit selection, to be honest, I am not that techy and will happily shoot with whatever camera the DOP would prefer.”
In terms of filming the cutaways, Charlotte explained there was no second-unit due to budget. “Me and Arran, the Director of Photography, and the camera team shot those a day before filming the main stuff, with a small crew, and as little kit as we could afford to have.”
Drug Runner’s post-production process was something I would have found difficult--Charlotte conducted the edit herself. The edit style was powerful in conveying what it felt like to live The Kid’s life, but it’s so hard to edit something you’ve shot yourself. I asked Charlotte if she had a clear vision beforehand, or did she play with different techniques before finding what she liked?
“Usually I would say no, that the edit completely changed the video. But with this, because of the script/interview dialogue and the very literal style, it was literally edited almost exactly as it was storyboarded. I wanted it to start off quite matter-of-fact, giving people clear insight into The Kid’s position. After that, it was just about knowing when to let things breathe and when to cut quickly, which comes with many re-edits, and a great team giving you honest feedback.”
I enquired further about the re-edits: how did she maintain a fresh perspective when she’s already seen the film go from her brain, to a storyboard, through filming, and then into multiple rounds of edits? She answered in good humour.
“Who knows! I’ve yet to discover this secret. Something I do is watch it with other people, there is something about hearing how an audience (even if that is just your mate or nan) responds to something. And you have to be honest and harsh with yourself. If more than one person has a note--no matter how much you love the bit they are talking about, you have to cut it or change it, as obviously it’s nagging at multiple people. I think you just have to not be precious about things.”
Charlotte went on to discuss several people that gave particularly helpful feedback. One of them is Adam Neale, from Drug Runner’s production company, Bold Content Video. I quickly chatted with him about their involvement with the Charlotte and Drug Runner: Adam said, “Charlotte and I are both big film fans and have a love for the craft of cinema. One of our company’s founding goals is to help talented young filmmakers get projects made, so we put some money towards the budget. I helped out by offering advice on script development, whilst our in-house team helped out with logistics….we were blown away when we saw the first assembly.”
With this first impression on the edit in mind, I asked Charlotte if there anything from the original concept that she didn’t quite achieve the way she had planned. Just like any good filmmaker, she answered: of course.
“There were one or two bits left out that I wish we had achieved in a different way...there always is. But I think that is why shooting as much as you can is so important; it helps you know what to try and avoid going onto the next one.”
Evolving the Documentary Genre
I delved a little deeper about what Drug Runner means in terms of documentary. One of the things Adam had mentioned was that he was “...fascinated by evolving the genre of documentary, and Drug Runner seemed like the ideal opportunity to do this.”
I mentioned to Charlotte this idea, and again, her humbleness shone through: “No plan to evolve any genres! I just like to tell stories that are exciting and that I feel motivated to tell. This style is interesting to me and the people I work with. We love the approach of fiction filmmaking, but we love the truth of documentary stories, so it’s a nice way to merge those two things.”
Charlotte also made a very interesting statement about blurring the line between reality, and what we remember as reality: “...don’t get me wrong, I’m not putting this piece out there saying it’s 100% literal. Whilst the person its based on is a friend of mine, who knows what he was and wasn’t exaggerating. We are close enough for him to be honest, but as we all know, stories, even in our own minds, grow and change over time. That was the intention with the shooting style, to show it’s his world, mentally and physically. Some visual elements are exaggerated, but no doubt he was exaggerating things in the interview. I think that’s the thing with documentaries, they are always influenced in some way, but again, they have to be.”
Advice for Other Filmmakers
I asked Charlotte what advice she would offer to other filmmakers who just want to make amazing films. Did she have any problems with Drug Runner that she had overcome?
“It’s a weird topic for most people; a 15-year-old cocaine dealer is hardly something that everyone would be jumping to see. For a while, I kept putting this idea off, thinking no one would want to see it. It’s a struggle we all have, I’m sure, just in trusting our own voices and ideas. But everyone is helped by finding people you trust and want to work with, who will actually give you honest opinions. It’s a collaborative process, always.”