Shola Amoo is one of the most promising British filmmakers working today. A headstrong visual artist whose films raise important questions about UK identity, he channels his own story of displacement into The Last Tree, a stunning fictional debut about a young boy who is taken from his foster home in rural Lincolnshire to London by his biological mother.
The Last Tree has such a distinct and assured aesthetic to it. Could you tell us how you achieved the film’s look, in collaboration with your regular cinematographer Stil Williams?
We had a concept that we were working to: ethereal days and dreamy nights. Stil and I had last worked on a short film together called Dear Mr Shakespeare, which was documentary-esque but also had a very highly stylised approach to it. We really wanted to take that to the next level with The Last Tree, while creating a very distinct look for the film’s three different environments: Lincolnshire, London and Lagos. We wanted to be able to follow Femi on this journey through these different worlds, which meant switching between the fluid, widescreen landscapes of Lincolnshire and the choppier, handheld look of London after he makes the move down. It was also very important to us that the aesthetic captured black skin on screen. We’ve seen it done well in African American cinema, but we really haven’t seen this very much in British film.
The film premiered at Sundance, what was it like to take the film over to Utah and show it to people for the first time?
We opened the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the festival, which was surreal but an honour to share with everyone involved in making the film. We were unveiling our film to the world, so there’s always a degree of nerves, but seeing it on that big screen in Park City was really an amazing moment. We got some incredible reactions to the film, I really enjoyed sharing it with people.
The performances from the actors that play Femi at different stages in his life are very authentic. How did you work with them to create what we see on the screen?
We went through a vigorous casting period to make sure that we got the right actors. These were people who were not just great for the roles, but were open to improvisation and discovering things during the process of filming. I come from documentary filmmaking, so I prefer to keep things close to reality. 90% of the cast were found through discovery casting. It was important for there to be fluidity and a looseness to the film, so the younger kids didn’t have a script. It was really important to me that they discovered their roles for themselves. It was more about bringing the role to them than bringing them to the role.
The film touches on themes that are very relevant to Britain at this time. How do you hope that this film will be received by the public?
It’s an interesting time in the UK for a film like this to arrive. It’s a film that questions identity, and what identity is in relation to space. We’re having such a critical identity debate in the UK at the moment, and I feel like this film in a very loose, understated way addresses that. The Last Tree is a film about where I grew up and who I am as a person, but I also think that a lot of people watching it will be provoked to look into their own lives and ask who they really are.
The Last Tree is in cinemas from 27 September