“Rocks,” directed by Sarah Gavron, is nominated for seven BAFTAs as well as a BAFTA EE Rising Star Award for its lead Bukky Bakray. Variety sat down with Gavron, nominated in the directing and British film categories, Theresa Ikoko, nominated alongside co-writer Claire Wilson for debut and original screenplay, Bakray, leading actress nominee, and Lucy Pardee, casting nominee, to discuss the film’s evolution and process.
“Rocks” was shot in the summer of 2018, with the prep beginning more than a year before that, but even now the “Rocks” women-majority crew is a tightly knit team, often completing each others’ sentences. The key word here is team. The crew is at pains to emphasize that “Rocks” is more than a “Sarah Gavron Film,” and acknowledges the contribution of everyone, including the associate director Anuradha Henriques, casting associate Jessica Straker, and the cast themselves in shaping the story and characters.
For Ikoko, the script is by way of gratitude to one of her five sisters, her favorite, for being an “unnecessarily good big sister.”
“Black and Brown girls who tend to be adultized by a culture or community or society, I wanted to put in a snow globe, their childhood, and hold it up to the light and show all the joy and beauty of it to remind them that it’s valid,” says Ikoko.
In the film, high school girl Bakray, playing the titular “Rocks,” has to learn adult skills quickly when her mother leaves and she is left in sole charge of her seven-year-old brother.
“We decided to build the casting right from the outset, rather than the writers writing a script and then us going out and saying, ‘Oh, let’s find girls who looked like this who come from this background.” We didn’t do any of that,” says Gavron.
The crew, led by casting director Pardee, visited some 14 schools in London, and became part of the rhythm of the establishments, looking for groups of friends. An audition process involving 1,300 girls followed and they were whittled down to a group of 10, who became key collaborators, including Bakray.
“Bukky brought it,” says Pardee. “It is a really, really tricky thing to do if you’ve never acted before to just turn up to a casting and she showed genuine truthful emotion. And that is so rare. So, so, so rare that she like knocked my socks off.”
Bakray initially did not fully register what “Rocks” was about, attending workshop after workshop until she got a sense of the narrative. “I had a click in my brain and I kind of felt really anxious, ’cause I was like, this is the first time I really had really wanted to be a part of something,” says Bakray. “And I know things always go wrong for me. And I know if this went wrong, then I didn’t know what I would do with myself.”
In the event, nothing went wrong, and Bakray was cast along with Kosar Ali (BAFTA nominee for supporting actress) and the rest of the multi-racial ensemble.
“These ladies saw something in me I would have never seen,” says Bakray. “Like I swear to you, my life, the trajectory was never going to go in this way. I would have never believed in myself to be a performer, to act. It seemed like those careers, like trying to be an astronaut, so far-fetched, it kind of sounds hysterical.”
The workshop process paid off and the shoot went smoothly, with the cast already used to the drill and getting used to the presence of large movie cameras. Gavron’s decision to shoot the narrative chronologically also helped.
The film had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in 2019 and on the back of that and several other festivals, including a home premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, “Rocks” was gearing for an April 2020 theatrical release when the pandemic struck.
The release campaign was struck down as it was just taking off and thereafter it was a question of waiting out the various U.K. lockdowns, says distributor Altitude’s head of distribution Lia Devlin. Cinemas eventually reopened, albeit with reduced capacities, and a date was set for September 2020.
“Fortunately the industry and media hadn’t forgotten about ‘Rocks,’ and in fact, global events around Black Lives Matter, had reinforced the importance of the film’s message in telling underrepresented stories making the film more urgent,” says Devlin.
The U.K./Ireland theatrical release was followed by a Netflix premiere.
The BAFTA nominations are just the latest accolades for “Rocks,” which has been richly awarded, including at the British Independent Film Awards, the San Sebastian, Dublin, Les Arcs and Brussels film festivals, and at the London Critics Circle Film Awards.
The BAFTA awards take place Apr. 10 and 11.