Exclusive Interview: “we are queer creators pushing our way into a straight space” filmmakers Ng Choon Ping & Sam H. Freeman on their SXSW short Femme

Among the queer highlights at last month’s SXSW Online 2021 was the short film Femme, by co-writers-directors Ng Choon Ping and Sam H. Freeman. The film stars I May Destroy You’s Paapa Essiedu as Jordan, a femme queer man in London who leaves the safety of a night out clubbing with his friends and gets into the car of drug dealer, Wes (Beach Rats’ Harris Dickinson), entering a hyper-masculine space where he immediately stands out and feels increasingly threatened. The visually striking film skillfully subverts the crime thriller genre resulting in a masterclass in tension and an auspicious debut by the filmmakers. Read our ★★★★★ review of the film.

The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Ng Choon Ping and Sam H. Freeman about what inspired Femme, how its theme reflects their own creative journeys, which crime thriller movies influenced their approach, and wanting to expand the roles that queer actors are cast in.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Congratulations on the film and the world premiere being at SXSW Online 2021. How was your virtual festival experience?

Sam H. Freeman: “We were very excited to be there, and also gutted that we didn’t get to go on a trip to Texas, especially as it was our first ever film festival. SXSW worked really hard to create a space where we could all meet each other virtually though, they went all out with that. There were virtual restaurants, karaoke rooms, and even a virtual disco which was quite surreal!”

How did you each get into filmmaking and come to collaborate together on Femme?

Sam: “We’ve been friends for a long time and last year we were like, why don’t we make a film? Neither of us had ever done it before, but Ping has a history in theatre directing and I have a history in screenwriting. I had a connection at Agile, who made the film. I knew that they were interested in giving writers a chance to direct so we went in together and pitched a feature film. They loved the concept, but we were pitching to co-write and co-direct, so they were like, okay, we’re going buy into it enough that we’re going to give you producers and let you make a short so that you can prove to us, and the industry, that you can do it.”

Asha Reid as Alicia and Paapa Essiedu as Jordan in Femme.

How far did your own personal experiences inspire the film?

Ng Choon Ping: “Growing up gay in Singapore was difficult at times. I went to a boys school and being in a predominantly straight space like that means that in every moment there’s a decision to be made about how to blend in and not court hostility. I brought some of the emotions from that experience to the project. That moment of absolute rage that we see in the film is of course not how I want to express my rage in real life, it’s a fantasy, but in that fictional form it was certainly quite a cathartic experience to be able to express it in those images, figuratively.”

Sam: “I grew up in South London and went to school with a lot of people who very much were those boys that we see in the house in the film, they had that same energy. So those characters are definitely based on people that I knew growing up. The original concept for the film was the idea that being gay in an aggressively heterosexual space can lead to feeling a need to fit in, or a fear of not fitting in, or being called out, or laughed at, or worse. It’s that feeling that we often carry with us in daily life in certain situations. We wanted to tell a story about that and felt that a twist on the genre of film that Femme fits into—the hyper-masculine crime thriller like Good Time, Uncut Gems, or Taxi Driver, the kinds of movies that filmmakers like Scorsese and Nicolas Winding Refn have made, a genre which is exclusively the domain of straight male heroes—would be the perfect way to tell a story about heterophobia essentially, that fear that we sometimes feel as queer people.”

Ping: “What we chose to do with this was more like a double step, in that we are queer creators pushing our way into a straight space on so many levels; a straight space in life, and also a straight space in terms of genre.”

Sam: “Yeah, battling our own creative heterophobia in a way, that idea that it’s not a space for us. There was something very energizing about that as a kind of ‘fuck you!’ I feel like people who know me wouldn’t necessarily guess that this would be the film I would make, and I like that.”

Paapa Essiedu as Jordan in Femme.

I love how you take us from the safely of the queer club at the beginning of the film to such a stark contrast, where Jordan feels very unsafe. I think a lot of homophobia is rooted in misogyny, and that’s amplified here with a femme queer character. Why was that aspect of toxic masculinity something that you wanted to explore?

Sam: “That was definitely behind the choice of making Jordan femme, because as much as the film is about being gay or straight, it is also about masculinity, it goes beyond sexuality in that way. All of the characters in the house are all battling with the same ideas from different angles and that is why there is that other character that suddenly gets his own POV at a vital point in the film. All of those characters are pretending to be something that they’re not basically, they’re all struggling. The drug dealer, Wes, who Jordan gets into the car with, is pretending to be something he’s not. The guy who doesn’t want to go back to the house is also pretending to be something he’s not. Jordan feels a pressure to try to pretend to be something he’s not, but he can’t because he’s so openly identified himself as being queer, that’s why it’s scary, but I think that’s what creates so much of the fear, he can’t pretend his way out of this because he’s wearing it on his body.”

Ping: “He thinks he’s safe walking around Dalston and then suddenly he’s not in a place where he’s safe anymore. I think that was the engine of the film that really appealed to us.”

Harris Dickinson as Wes in Femme.

It’s an incredible cast with Paapa Essiedu and Harris Dickinson in the leads, who are exceptional in the film, how did the cast come together?

Ping: “We had a wonderful casting director, Dan Hubbard, but also we were asking friends for suggestions and Sam’s friend the actress Asha Reid said, ‘I worked with Paapa Essiedu before and I think he’d be great for this.’ And we were like, ‘Oh my God, yes, but dare we dream that he will say yes?!’ When he did everything fell into place.”

Sam: “Yeah, once Paapa had said yes we could really dream big. I’d actually thought that Jordan was going to be hard for us to cast because it’s quite an intense role, but in fact it was the Wes character that was more tricky to cast because it was quite hard to find someone who could be both that charming and that intimidating. Then we thought of Harris, and knew that he’d be incredible, but we didn’t think there would be any way that he would ever do it, but then we got very lucky again and he said yes. We also tried to make sure that everyone we cast was from London because we wanted actors who understood these characters from their own lived in experience.”

Following Russell T Davies talking about his casting process for It’s A Sin, there’s been quite a big discussion in the media, particularly in the the UK, about casting queer actors in queer roles, what’s your take on that as filmmakers?

Ping: “What Russell T Davies did with It’s A Sin was a joyous personal choice, but I didn’t read that as him laying down principals for everyone else. I’m just speaking for myself, but I think that the authenticity argument is both a rabbit hole and a red herring. I think the point is about representation not authenticity. Ultimately, it is about there being more roles generally for queer actors, rather than queer people playing queer roles. I can see how people prosecute the authenticity argument in order to reach the representation goal, but along the way it’s become caught up in this maelstrom of which roles belong to whom. As you can see in Femme, Paapa plays the character amazingly, so it’s obviously not a prerequisite for playing this role authentically. If we are being honest with ourselves that the point is not about authenticity but about representation, then essentially what we are talking about is that we want queer people to play lots of roles, not just queer roles, but we want them to play straight roles and whatever they want to play and to not have to hide their private lives in order to play them.”

Sam: “Exactly, for most of my friends who are queer and are actors, I feel like that’s the thing for them. The argument about queer roles for queer people I have always felt comes from the idea that people in Hollywood in particular and television in general, didn’t want to cast queer actors in straight roles, and so then there’s a real audacity to casting straight actors when queer roles do come up. But for most actors, the whole reason that they get into it in the first place is that they want to play things that are not themselves, to experience other things. In what we go on to make, I really want to concentrate on casting queer actors in non-queer roles, allowing them to play something that’s completely out of their experience. I think that’s the really revolutionary thing we should be aiming for, and also obviously also casting them in queer roles as well.”

Paapa Essiedu as Jordan in Femme.

The film looks stunning, what were your guiding principals for the visual style when it came to costumes, production design, and of course your cinematography?

Ping: Let’s talk about James Rhodes our brilliant DOP, who took on our vision for the film really quickly and embodied it, and really ran with what we were saying in our amateurish sort of way, with us being new to the filmmaking process. He really was the third creative in our vision.”

Sam: “He was really bold with his choices. We said, these are the references, this is the colour palette that we want to use, and he took everything and just went for it.”

What were some of those references?

Ping: “The Safdie brothers’ Good Time, which made us realise that there can be three different lights in a space and it’s both heightened but also gritty and real. Sometimes when you say gritty people give you browns and greys, but we felt this was expressionist in the way that it conveyed the emotion of being in that space. So we were really happy to use that as a reference to shape our story.”

Sam: “Also we like the idea that in the same way that the clothes become something amazing and strong in the space of the club, suddenly those clothes become terrifying in the house and we reflect tat in the lighting too.”

Ping: “We want to give a shout out to our stylist, George Buxton, who chose that top for us that Jordan wears and that really tied everything together.”

Sam: “It’s a character in its own right that top.”

Paapa Essiedu as Jordan in Femme.

The Todrick Hall track FAG that you use for the end credits fits really well. What about your score, what did you want to do with that element of the film?

Sam: “We really studied the lighting in those films that we mentioned because we wanted to make sure that the reference was clear. Similarly when it came to the music we started out with this idea of a synth 80s vibe then actually backed away from it a bit. When we found our composer Suvi-Eeva Äikäs we felt like she did a bit of that but it felt her own, it felt modern. We wanted to take that reference but make it feel very today and make it feel London which Suvi-Eeva really did.”

Ping: “It was about using the score to carry the emotion as well. 50% of it was image and 50% of it was the score and sound design. So it was very score and sound design heavy. It was about being very upfront about how we wanted people to feel in each moment, rather than saying, ‘feel whatever you want to feel it’s open to interpretation.’ We were sticking very close to the thriller genre.”

Sam: “We had a rule that the score was about what’s going on inside Jordan’s head and the diegetic music is about the world outside. There are moments in the film that those things overlap with each other and they’re particularly intense emotional moments.”

You mentioned that you made this film to prove yourselves as filmmakers, so will there be a Femme feature or will your feature be something else entirely?

Ping: “Yes, there’s going to be a feature. It will be based in the world of Femme, but in the same way that we made the story of Femme fit into the short film form, the feature is going to be a story that fits a feature film form.”

Sam: “It’s a completely different plot, the characters are recognizable and the themes are the same, but it’s not an extension of the story, it’s not after the end of Femme or before it.”

RuPaul on the set of Drag Race. Photo credit: Mathu Andersen. VH1.

Finally, what’s your favorite LGBTQ+ piece of culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+? Someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years and why?

Ping: “RuPaul’s Drag Race. We watch Drag Race together all the time. It’s a radical identity in a radical art form brought into the mainstream. I think that is in part how we see what we want to do, in that we want to break into the mainstream as ourselves, instead of having to adapt ourselves, and to bring a queer voice into the mainstream and not have to explain it, not have to apologize for it, and not be limited to coming out stories or romance stories, but to have queer people do the whole range of movie stories and genres.”

Murray Bartlett, Jonathan Groff, and Frankie J. Alvarez in Andrew Haigh’s Looking. Photo credit: John P. Johnson / HBO Max.

Sam: “The first thing that came into my head was Looking on HBO just because it’s an amazing TV series which I love. I think Andrew Haigh is brilliant, and Weekend is amazing. It is obviously a very queer story set in a queer space, and it doesn’t shy away from that or try to soften that, but it’s also so universal, anyone can relate to what they’re going through.”

By James Kleinmann

Femme, co-written and co-directed by Ng Choon Ping and Sam H. Freeman, received its world premiere at SXSW Online 2021.

Femme Official Poster

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