Shot in Shanghai, but set in England in the 1980s, Forty Licks centers around a young woman named Ava (played by Jennifer Blair-Bianco) who, after being diagnosed with cancer and falling into debt, finds herself under the thumb of one of London’s biggest drug traffickers. In order to free herself from her predicament, she is forced to team up with a Mick Jagger-wannabe named Norrie (played by Jason Ray) who ends up giving her nothing but trouble.
For writer-director Phillipe Witana, the film represents an extension of both his love of British cinema as well as the powerful role music played in his own life when he was growing up.
“When I first set out to write this script, I wanted to include music as a central element,” Witana explains. “Also, as a kid, Bonnie & Clyde was such an iconic story that stuck with me for such a long time. I wanted to tell my version of a similar story, but around an era that was so iconic for me.”
What started out as an act of just writing dialogue between two people talking about music, Witana recalls, eventually evolved into a deeper story about a character’s unflinching passion for art, music, and expression. At the same time, however, he says the process forced him to confront the inherent challenge of trying to push for original ideas, avoid clichés, and come up with something that audiences hadn’t seen or heard before.
“I think for the writer or filmmaker, it’s really about finding your own unique way or perspective to tell a story,” he states. “There are plenty of films based around musically influenced themes, but I hoped my approach and the film’s overall message of uniting people through music would resonate with people and I wanted them to feel connected to the music.”
In our first read together, I knew he had the vibe I was going for.
In order to achieve this end, Witana says he knew first-and-foremost he would need to find actors whom audiences would truly believe had been affected by rock ‘n’ roll in a way that was influencing their decisions. After an open casting call failed to turn up the right talent for the lead roles, however, he ultimately decided to look a little closer to home.
“Jason was my flat mate at the time and he asked me if he could audition as Norrie. In our first read together, I knew he had the vibe I was going for,” he says. “Jennifer came from a mutual friend who recommended her and she later sent me a tape that was extremely well put together and I knew she would bring a level of needed professionalism in getting herself ready for the shoot.”
As Witana explains, the choice of leading actors ultimately paid off in a number of important and unexpected ways. In particular, he says the details both actors contributed led to some of his favorite moments in the film.
“For example, Jason’s character has this line where he’s quoting lyrics from a song, and at the end he gives the smallest gesture which I think is a total compliment to his character’s nuances and mannerisms,” he says. “Some of the most memorable moments in film are the most subtle and delicate ones, and this particular moment just reminded me of such times.”
As a further testament to the amount of readiness the actors—as well as the rest of the crew—brought to set, Witana points out that, despite serious working limitations, the final film didn’t deviate much from the original script and that, as a team, everyone was able to come together and deliver in the moment.
“We had maybe one hour to run through the performances with the actors before shooting, so there wasn’t a whole lot we had time to explore to see what might evolve from the rehearsal process,” he explains. “But, the location fit perfectly and everything else we made work. It was all pretty much in line with what I had envisioned, so I guess the whole process worked out.”
As a first-time director, Witana says Forty Licks was also the first time for him to experience first-hand the struggles involved in getting the production of a short film off the ground. And, while he admits it might not be perfect, he adds that the project gave him some valuable exposure to life at the creative helm of a narrative film.
“The process taught me a lot about the importance of pre-production and making sure everything is aligned when you’re ready to shoot,” he says. “Most things, like location and wardrobe, I just researched and asked around my network for professional advice. I probably learned more from this project than any other one I’ve done because it involved the most people and required the most preparation.”
The writer can take years to conjure something, and the story is what makes great films great and bad films bad.
To an even greater extent, he says, the process introduced him to the challenges of trying to put down on paper an effective and engaging story. Moreover, he says the experience of writing a short script taught him about the importance of tapping into collaborations, work-shopping ideas, and exploring and allowing new things to be discovered along the way.
“I’ve learned to really appreciate the writer and the writing process. It’s very difficult to conjure an interesting story arc with a good structure and characters with their own journey,” he stresses. “The writer can take years to conjure something, and the story is what makes great films great and bad films bad. So my appreciation for good writing and story is certainly something I’ll carry with me from here forward.”
Since wrapping up post-production late last year, Witana has been busy submitting the film to festivals–starting with a number in the UK–in hopes of promoting it as a proof-of-concept for a feature length project. At the same time, he says he is using the opportunity to continue to learn more about both the craft and the business of filmmaking.
“I’m still writing the feature script and hopefully I’ll be able to pitch the project to financiers at some point,” he says. “Like every filmmaker, I’m working to build my network and maybe at some point fate will present an opportunity to get the film made. Until then it’s really just developing the feature script to a point that will look interesting and lucrative to the right people, while be able to satisfy an audience.”
Meanwhile, Witana is keeping busy working on another short and shooting music videos for artists around Shanghai, as well as growing a mobile film school he has launched called ScreenWorks. And, while he emphasizes there is still a lot to learn, he says he believes he has come a long way in terms of his ability to tell a story and has taken a number of important steps closer to becoming the kind of person he wants to be as a filmmaker.
“I’m super proud of what I accomplished on Forty Licks, but I couldn’t have achieved that without the help of friends and an experienced team,” he concludes. “I have to thank BLNK media for their amazing production work, The Blarney Stone for letting us use their venue, the crew who gave their time to come and assist with the production, the extras, everyone involved with editing, and the two great actors who trusted me to tell this story.”