How to make real progress with Aki Omoshaybi

A close up of a man with a white circle of light behind him.

Filmmaker and actor Aki Omoshaybi wrote, secured funding for and starred in his directorial debut movie, Real, which premiered at the BFI London Film Festival. Here, he shares his creative journey

By Shannon Mahanty  Monday 9 March, 2020

‘It was football that introduced me to acting. I was born in London and fostered in Portsmouth as a baby. When I was 18, my friend in Hampshire Theatre Group suggested I audition for Zigger Zagger, a play about football hooliganism at Southampton’s club ground. We didn’t have many holidays, so the idea of being away for two weeks excited me. I auditioned and managed to land the lead part. It felt like getting all the attention for the first time, and that was uncomfortable, but at the same time I loved it. 

‘A few years later, I did a performing arts course at college, but didn’t really apply myself. I don’t want it to sound like a sob story, but I didn’t have enough money to eat, so I was always knackered and my mind was elsewhere. Although I didn’t grow up with my mum, we did have a relationship and after college I persuaded her to lend me the money to audition for drama school. Being working class and black, there weren’t many people like me in that environment back then. I didn’t get anywhere. I spent a year working in Portsmouth, and by the following year I realised I needed to sort my life out. My mates lent me money to audition again and I got a scholarship to The Arts Educational School. 

‘It wasn’t always an ambition of mine to make my own film, but I’m curious, and after drama school I’d been working as an actor for a few years when I got my first lead role in an independent film called Burning Men. I was talking to the director and started to think, “If these guys can do it, maybe I can.” I wanted to write something as a vehicle to showcase what I could do. In 2017, I used the money from Burning Men to write and direct a short called Spilt, and in the same year I began writing Real.
A man with a white circle of light behind him.
A man with a white circle of light behind him.
A man in a suit with a square reflection of light on the wall behind him.
‘The story was important to me. It’s about two people trying to fall in love against the hardships of being working class. So many people live in these circumstances and are just trying to get by; I wanted to tell that tale. We see so many middle-class love stories, with characters living in big townhouses, but rarely working-class ones. I also wanted to create a film with two black protagonists, where race wasn’t the issue. Real is a personal story and that was part of my drive to make it. Being fostered and growing up in Portsmouth, which was predominantly white, I felt like I didn’t fit in. Then, I’d visit my mum and feel the same because of the Nigerian culture; I was so westernised. In a way, I was constantly fighting for acceptance. 

‘After finishing the script for Real, I contacted some agents and got loads of rejections, but I didn’t stop. I researched schemes through production companies, made a business plan and sent it to potential investors. I had to pitch to stake my claim and really prove myself. Thankfully, investors took a risk. I’d done a commercial, so I put the money from that in as well, raising £50,000 in total. That seems a lot, but for a film it’s nothing; every producer laughs at you. They look at you and say “good luck”, and in their head they’re thinking, “This guy is mad!”. Nobody took me seriously because of the budget, but I was determined and decided, “Fine, up yours, I’ll do it myself.”
A man with a white circle of light behind him.
‘After I raised the money, I set up my own production company, Small Long Productions, and started looking for cast and crew. I’d seen some of Pippa Bennett-Warner’s work and reached out to her via Instagram, asking if she’d read for the film. She contacted me the next day, we met up and she just got it. The whole of the casting process was the same – reaching out and hassling people. I think I convinced them with the passionate way I talked about the project. I made it seem simple; yes, it’s a small budget but it’s just two weeks and something great might come out of it. Sometimes, when you don’t have the best tools, it pushes you to be more focused, more creative and there’s a hunger to it. That’s how I went about it. I only wanted to work with people who were hungry. 

‘Normally, films get sales agents who go to distributors to get the film released. I didn’t have the money, so I sent countless emails myself. With the company that eventually distributed the film, Verve, I knew this would be their type of thing, so I really bugged them. I emailed from November 2018 until April 2019. I’d say, “Look, you need to watch this film.” I know people don’t have a lot of time, so I made a three-minute promo with my editor to entice them. After sending that, they asked for a link to the film, then I got an email one Saturday morning saying that they wanted to take it on.

‘Making Real hasn’t been easy. It involved determination and resilience, because it takes so much out of you physically, mentally and emotionally. You have this vision, which a lot of people will doubt, but you have to rise above the noise, trust your gut and be willing to listen. I believe learning is in the doing and that’s how you improve. I hope people are inspired by the whole project, from the writing and directing to the making of the film. Real taught me that if you have the passion, you really can do it yourself.’

Images by Tom Andrew
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