This Wednesday May 6th saw the YouTube premiere of a new LGBTQ short film from British renaissance man Leon Lopez, Hey Google, which addresses isolation and loneliness due to social distancing measures. The actor, filmmaker and musician, has directed 10 shorts, the feature Soft Lad, as well as multiple episodes of long-running British soaps Hollyoaks and Emmerdale. As an actor, he’s appeared on the West End alongside Luke Evans in Rent and his many screen credits include recurring roles on Brookside, Eastenders and Doctors.
Hey Google’s lead actor, Saeed Farhat, is also a fimmaker and worked in assistant directing roles on the series The Grass Is Always Grindr and Lopez’s Soft Lad. Saeed has appeared on screen in several shorts and the French television series Le Bureau des Légendes.
Following the Hey Google’s release The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with Leon Lopez and Saeed Farhat about making a film dealing with lockdown while being in lockdown, our evolving relationship with technology and the LGBTQ+ films that have had the biggest impact on them.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Leon, congratulations on Hey Google; it’s funny, sweet and moving, with a lot to say about the situation so many of us around the world are experiencing right now.
I know you were due to start shooting some episodes of Emmerdale as a director when the UK’s lockdown began, but have you found ways to be creative during this period before making Hey Google?
Leon Lopez: “Thank you! To be honest, I’m a bit of a jack of all trades, so I’ve been writing songs and doing some editing work. Also a friend set up an initiative called Virtual Collaborators which uses video technology like Skype and Zoom to team up writers with actors and directors. I offered to be part of that and directed two short films. It got me hungry to make something else. I always travel with my camera and as I still act a little I have some small lights and a microphone with me in case I have to shoot a self-tape. One of my best friends, Saeed, who I am living with in Leeds is an actor, so I decided to write Hey Google for him. Initially I wanted it to be funny and about our relationship with virtual assistants. But I’m not good at funny and it quickly turned dark. I have been hearing a lot about people’s issues around not being able to visit loved ones in hospital and that’s really affected me, and then the film kind of wrote itself. My other friend Terry George, who I also live with, is a bit of a public figure in Leeds and he agreed to be in the film as the newsreader. He owns the apartment I stay at here in Leeds, it’s a block of short term let apartments called The Bells and it’s so beautiful, and he let us film here, so it all kind of fell into place really.”
Saeed, what about you, have you found ways to keep yourself busy and creative juices flowing during this time?
Saeed Farhat: “Yes, I’m also a filmmaker, specialising in music videos, commercials and lifestyle. So I’ve been using this time to add to my skills, work on my website, and I’ve been putting the final touches to various projects that I shot before lockdown.”
Leon, Hey Google is clearly related to what many of us are experiencing right now, but was there anything in particular that inspired it and why did you want to make the film?
Leon Lopez: “So many friends and loved ones have been struggling to visit people at hospital or been stuck at home alone. I know people who have had heart attacks and their loved ones have not been able to go to with them. And I just thought these are the stories we need to remember when this is all over. And I wanted to make something that showed how much we need that social interaction. And the idea of the Google home assistant came from us speaking to one we have here everyday. We’ve kind of built up a relationship with the device and I wanted to remember that too.”
Saeed, I loved your performance in the film. Tell us a bit about what your character is going through. How far could you relate to what he’s going through?
Saeed Farhat: “The character is struggling to adapt to his new lifestyle during quarantine. He’s finding new ways to deal with loneliness and missing his loved ones. Coming from a Syrian background, where my country has been in a war for many years, I have had similar experiences with not being able to see my family or loved ones due to restrictions on travel. I’ve also lost loved ones who I haven’t had the chance to see or been able to say goodbye to, because of the situation there. During the past 10 years I’ve had to find different ways to adapt, and this all related to what my character Nader in Hey Google has to deal with. The thing that differed here, and what I felt was important to show, is how Nader is only a short distance away from the people whom he cares for, and that frustration this must have caused him to not being able to just step outside and go to see them.”
Leon, tell me about how the reality of social distancing impacted the filmmaking process. How different was it to previous films you’ve made?
Leon Lopez: “Well, the hardest part was that I had no crew. I was lighting the film, monitoring sound, as well as being the cameraman, and directing the whole thing. I’m used to doing a lot on my own sets, as we never have a big budget for any of my indie shorts, but this was probably the most I’ve ever had to do. It was handy that Saeed, Terry and I live together. So the social distancing side of it wasn’t really an issue. And I think shooting a film about lockdown, whilst locked down, in some ways made this story easier as we were shooting the experience we are actually living it. I started writing the film on Tuesday last week, and finished it on Wednesday. Saeed had a couple of days to learn it, and then we shot it on Friday May 1st and Saturday May 2nd and the edit was finished by Monday. With some final tweaks done on the Tuesday before it launched on the 6th.”
Saeed, tell us a bit about working with Leon, you’re in every scene of the film, so what was the process like?
Saeed Farhat: “Working with a very professional director who is also a friend of many years, has made it so much easier for me to express myself. I think when a director has a very clear vision of what they want it makes the process so much faster. Though we had to reshoot a scene because I woke up in a different pair of shorts than what I went to bed in! But I can’t blame Leon for that as he had so many jobs to do, so maybe I should take responsibility for that myself! However, I did try to take some pressure off him by helping to shoot when I wasn’t acting, so I got to shoot Terry’s news report, which was fun.”
Leon, tell us about working with your two cast members, Saeed and Terry, who as you mentioned you’re currently living with. There’s also another actor we only hear, he sounds familiar…!
Leon Lopez: “I wrote the parts specifically for the guys. Initially I wasn’t going to have an actual news report in it, and just use Terry’s voice for that. But then I thought why not? I also thought that the iconic news image of this lockdown experience is seeing the newsreaders with the boom ‘socially distanced’ from them. I wanted to try and get that image in the film and this seemed the perfect way to do that. As Saeed just mentioned, he actually camera operated that section. So we all pitched in. Oh yeah, and the voice of Sam is me! I thought it best to keep it in-house! I recorded that section before we shot, so I could play it to Saeed during shoot for timing purposes.”
I like how the film depicts our relationship with technology, there’s a touch of 2001 A Space Odyssey in there. What did you want to say about that and what’s your own relationship with that kind of technology – you mentioned that you speak to your Google home assistant a lot.
Leon Lopez: “Yeah, we are obsessed with Google home hub here! We cook and bake all the time and so we use it to set alarms and timers, to play recipes and show YouTube videos, settle arguments, and play music. It’s become part of the household. So I really wanted to explore what it would be like if that was the only friend you had during lockdown. I’m actually going to get my mum one for her birthday!”
And Saeed, what did you make of that aspect of the film?
Saeed Farhat: “Assistant devices have become a very important part of our daily lives and we rely on them for almost everything. Some people, like my character Nader, have decided to create a deeper connection with a machine to help them through hard times. My experience playing the character made me realise that there is no greater connection than the ones you have with your loved ones. Even after they are gone. If it wasn’t for a machine though, Nader wouldn’t have had the hope that he has at the end of the film.”
And finally, Leon, we always like to ask everyone about their favourite LGBTQ+ film, TV series, play, book, artwork, piece of music or person; something or someone that’s really resonated with you over the years and why. Or something more current, or both!
Leon Lopez: “In terms of film, what inspired me to start doing all of this was Weekend by Andrew Haigh. Then his TV show Looking renewed my inspiration. So I guess he had a big impact on my work. I also love Todd Haynes’ Carol. But the biggest impact on my career was probably the musical Rent. I saw it on Broadway 20 years ago, then I got to play the part of Collins in the West End revival, and I’ve actually played him a few times since then. It’s not exclusively LGBTQ, but seeing the love story of Collins and Angel on stage when I was just 20 years-old and considering coming out really changed my life.”
And Saeed, what’s had an impact on you in terms of LGBTQ+ culture?
Saeed Farhat: “I would say Bohemian Rhapsody has become my favourite. It’s made me understand the struggle that gay people went through during that period of time. When people died, sick and alone. The movie was a big wake up call and reminded me to keep an eye on those who are struggling, wherever they are, no matter their sexuality, religion or race.”
Leon Lopez’s short film Hey Google starring Saeed Farhat is now available to watch on YouTube.