In conversation with: Adura Onashile – writer director of ‘Girl’

GMAC recently had the exciting opportunity to speak with writer/director Adura Onashile about her feature debut ‘Girl’. As a woman of colour and someone who didn’t have a background in film, we hope our participants and alumni will be invigorated by Adura’s journey and her words of wisdom as they embark on their own creative paths.

GMAC: Hi Adura, congratulations on Girl being out in the world! We got to have a little sneak preview of the film and it’s just beautiful, so visually poetic. It must be really exciting to have it out there. 

Adura: It is. It’s a quiet film in many ways and an intimate film. It’s really lovely that there’s space for it in a theatrical release and you know, it’s just a nice way to celebrate all the hard work of all the crew and the cast. It’s pretty cool.  

GMAC: I don’t know if you know much about us at all?  

Adura: I know GMAC, you guys do Little Pictures! 

GMAC: We do! We have a whole host of programmes, and this conversation is really for the talented people from underrepresented backgrounds who take part in those programmes. We’re hoping they’ll feel inspired and encouraged by you and your work. So, we know Girl was supported through Screen Scotland’s film development Production Fund, could you tell us a little bit about the process of that? 

Adura: Yeah, so I initially, I was part of Short Circuit, but it wasn’t called Short Circuit at the time, that was where I made my short film called Expensive Shit. I should probably go back a step into how I got into film, I’d written the play Expensive Shit, and the producers, Rosie Crerar and Ciara Barry came to see the show at the Fringe. And I got an email that just said, “we think you could write for screen”, and I thought, “well, I’ll give anything a go”. Film has always been something that’s been a big part of my life but I didn’t know anybody who worked in film. I didn’t grow up thinking it was something I could ever be a part of. So, for this email to drop into my inbox was like, “what! of course, yes, I will go on this journey!” And we went on the journey of adapting the play into the short film, and then directing the short film.  

Those five shoot days just before the first lockdown in 2020 I was blissed out, I didn’t ultimately know what I was doing, but I knew the story and I had people around me who I trusted and who knew what they were doing. It’s great collaboration that made it happen. From doing that I started writing the feature, which is a big deal when you when you’re first in the position of getting into film, because when you don’t have a background in it and when you’re doing it as a black woman as well it can feel, you know, a little isolating because you’re on set and there’s nobody else that really looks like you although in Expensive Shit my lead character is a black women as well. There’s a lot of impostor syndrome that happens and it becomes really important to surround yourself by really strong people.  

Because the short did quite well, I knew I’d be writing the feature with Barry Crerar, and we went on a programme called AI features, which was a development programme I’m so grateful for. It basically takes you from treatment stage to first draft stage over a year, and you get masterclasses with different filmmakers and things like that. I think that was where I a lot of the fears I had about writing a feature sort of got pushed to the side, because I was nurtured through this process and supported through it. At the end of that process, BBC films, took on the script, and wanted and helped me develop it to a third draft – which is actually eight drafts, they say they say it’s three drafts, but you do way more than that. And I remember, when we finally got the green light, I was like, “what, why, really – whose made a mistake!?” But it was a long one – five years of writing. 

GMAC: I think that’s really useful for our talent, or people who haven’t even come through our doors yet to hear that, you know what seems like an overnight success is actually five years of work. Our next question relates to what you were saying about being the only woman of colour on set, I saw a piece in The Guardian, where the lead actor in Girl Déborah said, she believes young people want to see more of their real lives reflected in cinema, which means more representation for minorities and different body shapes. What you think we can do to support a more diverse film as industry in Scotland? 

Adura: Wow, that’s a big question. Well, obviously, what GMAC is doing is the beginning. You know, the film industry is tough, it’s really tough. And it’s tough, because generally, there’s very little time to do what you’ve got to do and it costs a lot of money, so that creates an environment where people are often pushed to the edge and stressed. And when people are pushed to the edge and stressed, they don’t mind their P’s and Q’s as much, and when you add the fact that there’s not very many people of colour in the industry it can feel even more isolating. I think it’s difficult for everyone, but it can feel even more isolating. So, it becomes super important to get people around you that you trust, and that you feel safe with. I always say that you should have someone outside of the process that has nothing to do with the film but is part of the film industry that you can talk to. That’s really important, especially if you’re a young person of colour coming into this industry. It’s one thing to have representation, it’s another thing to understand what it takes to make everybody feel like they’re part of the process, and that they’re all equal and that their contributions is important. I think that’s the bit we’re still maybe lacking in. 

GMAC: Absolutely. We have a lot of participants from diverse backgrounds who are starting out in their creative journeys, and it would be great to hear any advice you have for writer/directors at the very beginning of that journey. 

Adura: I think I’d say, what is it you want to say that’s burning? What do you feel is missing in the world that you need to say? You’re not seeing it anywhere and you just need to say it. Find something that you’re really passionate about, because the process is a really long one to making the film that you ultimately want to make. So, it’s always worth having something that, you know no matter what happens, you can keep coming back to and going, “I love this idea, I’m going to make it work”.

The other thing is to be alright with being told what to do for a while, sometimes when you have a burning passion for something, you can be like, “but I want to make this my way because I know it and it’s important to me”. That’s true, but there’s also a whole system around you and a whole way of working and if you don’t know it yet you need time to learn it. And learning just means being able to ask, don’t be afraid to ask. Sometimes, when we walk onto film sets, and you’re the writer/director you feel like you need to know everything and you can’t ask anybody anything, but actually we’re all just human beings – the crew are really experienced, or probably more experienced than you in what they do and we’re all on the same level as artists. Your job as the writer/director is to hold on to the story, that’s your main job so that whenever people come up to you and go, “Oh, should this umbrella be blue or green?” you can go, “yeah, the character’s favourite colour is green, so it has to be green.” You know? That’s a really simple way of putting it. You hold on to your part of it and let everybody else do their part as well. That’s a lot of advice – sorry, I can’t stop!  

GMAC: You’ve already touched on this a bit, but I wanted to talk a little bit about your short film Expensive Shit. Could you talk about your process of getting to the point of making the short film because I know you’re a performer as well, so how did you end up at the Fringe with this play? How did you get to that stage? 

Adura: I had worked as an actor for a few years and always knew I wanted to make my own work. Before I made Exensive Shit, I had written a one woman play for myself called HeLa, based on a true story, and we did that at the Fringe. I quite enjoyed adapting a book, writing the play, and I really enjoyed performing. When we finished with that, I was like, “well, you know, I’m not really a writer, but I’m gonna give this a go because I’ve always wanted to write about toilet attendants” – again – something I’m really passionate about, there’s still toilet tenants in Glasgow clubs today. Mostly, they’re Nigerian, mostly they’re paid on tips. It’s an economy that makes no sense and is rife for exploitation and I knew I wanted to write about it, but basically thought nobody’s ever gonna let me write a play again so I’m going to throw everything at it.

I heard about The Shimmy Club in Glasgow and I’d always wanted to write a play with music and dance, so, I made the character have a background in Fela Kuti’s shrine in Lagos, Fela Kuti was a musician in Nigeria in the 70s, 80s and 90s. I put all of that together and maybe that’s what made it a bit of a mad play, because it had these very these different aspects, but when you don’t come from a background of writing you can take risks in ways that people who have gone to school to learn how to write, don’t take. Your filmmakers at GMAC should remember this, sometimes because they haven’t been to film school, they have a vantage point that is actually really interesting and they’ll put things together in a different way, especially because they haven’t been to film school and they should hold onto that. So yeah, I wrote this play, it was totally mad and it made no sense, jumping from one place to the other but it was vibrant, it was lively, and we put it all on at the Fringe. I think a lot of people were like, “wow, this is wild. One minute, we’re in this dark world of dodginess and men behind two-way mirrors and then in the next moment, we’re dancing and singing at the top of our voices in a completely different location.” I think putting two very different things together was what appealed to people.

Of course, when we made it into a short film, we had to change the Nigeria setting because basing any of it in Nigeria was not going to happen, so it became one location which was the club and the story of one night there. So that’s the thing about short films is the time becomes compressed, and you’re often just in one location because can’t be going all over the place. The physical restrictions of turning the play into a short film allowed me to make choices about what to cut in a really, really easy way. It couldn’t happen in three months, it had to happen over one night – and then suddenly you’re asking yourself, what can happen on one night to make this as dramatic as possible? 

GMAC: I guess that leads into another question about the benefits of coming through that sort of development. Were there any challenges you found when stepping up from doing your first short film to you first feature? 

Adura: Yeah, absolutely. It was a baptism of fire. There’s no, there’s no way around, it’s a leap, you go from a four-day shoot to an eight-week shoot, you go from a team of maybe 30, to hundreds of people, you’re then managing relationships that feel much more extended than you’ve ever done on a short film. On the short film, it felt like I could really be just with my actors most of the time and I prepped with Costume Design and Production Design beforehand, so that on the shoot, I could spend most of my time with my actors. On a feature, you’re all over the place all of the time, locations are calling you at the same time as your costume designer wants to know stuff at the same time as your production designer and your cinematographer. I mean, you’re holding all these things at the same time and sometimes it becomes very difficult to hold on to that small part of you that’s like, “this is a story I want to tell, hold on to the story, hold on to the story”.

Managing all of these relationships felt difficult, and I’ll be really honest with you, another thing that felt difficult is that on the short film I felt like I had more control, but as we moved into the feature film, it felt like “oh, right, there’s so much that’s outside my hands now.” And I was coming to terms with that and letting my darlings go in terms of the story, because you can’t do everything in the same way. That was tough for me to deal with. We also shot during COVID, so we shut down a couple of times, so those sorts of transitions were really, really hard to navigate. Looking back, the thing that really sort of held me together was understanding my relationship to the actors, because ultimately if the actors aren’t doing what they should be doing, there’ll be nothing to shoot properly, there’ll be no story to tell. And that relationship felt strong, all the way through the shoot so I held on to that, that’s really important to me. 

GMAC: It sounds like a huge transition in so many ways. Just to wrap up, what’s next for you? 

Adura: I’d love to make another film, but I’m also trying to get into the TV space because it’s really hard to make a living out of making films as a writer/director; the lead up time is really long so lot of people end up directing episodes for TV and stuff like that. I haven’t been lucky enough to do that yet, but I’d love to get into that space. I’d love to get back on set and continue to direct, it’s what I love doing so it feels sad not to have done it since Girl – so hopefully sometime soon.