British filmmaker Shola Amoo returns to screens this week with his sophomore effort The Last Tree. The coming-of-age tale tells the story of Femi, a Nigerian boy fostered in Lincolnshire who struggles to reconnect with his culture after he moves in with his biological mother.
Ahead of The Last Tree’s UK cinema release, we sat down with Shola and his star Sam Adewunmi to talk about everything from semi-autobiographical filmmaking to fostering and maintaining UK talent, and much more. Have a read below.
The line between the semi auto-biographical and the fictional is also present in your first film, A Moving Image. What do you like about making movies this way?
Shola Amoo: I just love how authentic it is. There’s a truth to the work that almost becomes undeniable because you’re working from such a truthful place. There are many similarities [between A Moving Image and The Last Tree]: even though aesthetically that truth is rendered very differently, the way we worked on The Last Tree so much was documentary-esque filmmaking to some degree. The way I shoot fiction is that I’m always trying to eliminate performance anyway until it’s seamless like a documentary. So there’s such synergy between the two projects and I feel like that’s the foundation of all the work.
I know that your experiences were fused with other stories of people who have gone through this. What was the most surprising thing you learned while finding out about them?
Shola Amoo: There’s such range in this world of fostering, particularly from that Nigerian perspective. I know stories of people who didn’t go back home. Stories of people who had a choice and decided not to. All of that stuff I found really interesting.
Sam, if Shola were to make a movie about your life, what is the thing you’d love him to focus on?
Sam Adewunmi: I guess it’d be similar to The Last Tree. While this movie is focused on Femi’s perspective I’d love to see a film about the first generation who came here and their experiences and how they handled having to raise children here and find work. I know so many people that had really important degrees where they come from and then they come here and have to start again with really menial jobs. They were overqualified, but that was all that was available to them. So I guess it wouldn’t be my life, but it would be the lives of aunties and mothers and uncles.
Tai Golding plays Femi when he’s young before it transitions to Sam. What conversations did you have with Tai about synching up those characters and performances?
Sam Adewunmi: I’m glad you recognised the transition because we didn’t really talk much about Femi as a character. This was Tai’s first film, and he’s so good and so grounded. That’s what I observed in him and tried to sync up for myself. Having known how Shola was working with him I just wanted to see what he was like and get to know him on a personal and emotional level. And through that, I was able to understand Femi’s childhood and incorporate my own ideas for the character as well.
Shola Amoo: All the younger kids in this movie never saw a script. So they were cast and we were building the character with them. I didn’t want to restrict young performers with the confines of the script. I liked all the raw, natural acting I was seeing so it was just about developing that further.
This film is told through Femi’s eyes, and I love that. But if you had the opportunity to tell this story through another character’s eyes, which character would you be most intrigued to do that with?
Shola Amoo: Definitely Femi’s mother, played by Gbemisola Ikumelo. That first generation individuals coming to a foreign land narrative is crazy and expansive. Working several jobs, raising kids in a foreign space who are culturally a little bit different even if at home you’re instilling a certain kind of dogma. I’d be very interested in doing or seeing something like that.
There are various points during the film where Femi receives advice, and although it’s coming from a place of love he’s not receptive to it. Sam, I’m sure you were much more receptive to Shola – what’s the best piece of advice, or constructive criticism that he gave to you?
Sam Adewunmi: I don’t know how early it was in the process, but Shola very briefly said to me “I trust you to make the right decision”. It’s not something I’d heard on the set before. You’d think the director wants to put the film together in a specific way but he was just like “what do you think about this? Cool, adjust that”, and that gave me a lot of confidence and freedom to do my thing.
[Mild spoilers ahead]: Can you talk a bit about Femi’s Dad? To be a preacher who hasn’t treated his ex-wife well despite being extremely well off… it’s not a character we often see on screen.
Shola Amoo: It’s based on a real person that came out of my interaction with other people when I was doing my research, amalgamated with other personal things. The hypocrisy of the character was so interesting to me. The idea of being such a stately, godly figure, but lacking in so much simultaneously… Also what was interesting is the break in the relationship between his mother and father. What that represents to me spiritually is interesting as well. Him being very much of the Christian cloth, and her having more traditional Yoruba leanings, and that being a site of conflict. All of that coalesces, and Femi has to make a hard decision at the end of the movie.
Shola, you’re an NTFS graduate. You’ve been brought up in UK film programmes. So many UK creatives in this industry are moving to the US. What should be done to help improve things here?
Shola Amoo: Opportunities. Fewer schemes, more investment. More jobs, in a sense. You do scheme after scheme after scheme and I’m not sure if that’s actually as useful as throwing them into a job and getting them making what they should be making. We see a lot of actors leaving these shores in search of better characterisation. I remember someone – maybe David Oyelowo? – saying that we don’t get dominant black characters here. If we get more opportunities to the creators they can create more of those characters that retain those actors. It trickles down. It’s less about dialogue and more about financing, straight up. Enabling these projects, supporting these creatives, and letting them build these great characters for actors to want to stay here and maintain their work here.
Sam Adewunmi: Talent is international. You can work anywhere once you’ve got a skill like filmmaking or acting. I don’t know if we have to look at it as retaining. I think it’s actually just about creating more. When you look at some of our biggest stars at the moment, someone like Daniel Kaluuya – he was doing lots of plays before he did Get Out, and now he’s doing a lot of stuff in America. But I don’t think he’s the sort of person to not do a film in the UK if there’s a really good script here and there’s an opportunity for him to play a character. Like Shola said, it’s just about creating more opportunities.
The Last Tree is released in UK cinemas from 27 September.