Justice For Jamie
Just as the world was emerging from lockdowns, my son, Jay Penrake, was cast as one of the main actors in a new TV drama series that had the backing of a major network. “Finally!” we all exclaimed at home. After a few years of coming close to major parts in shows here in the UK, where we’re based, I was naturally very happy for him, if not also relieved to think this might put a pause on his waiting tables for a while.
So, this was to be his major break - and it would mean moving to the States for months at a time. An adventure! Even better, our manager in LA called to say I’d got a place on the writers’ team for the same show. Nice.
I’d been with the writers’ team – just four of us - for a few weeks when we heard the showrunner had been fired. The network was still backing the project, we were told, but Jay’s start date would have to be revised. Weeks became months and still no word. As 2023 came around, we began to wonder if this project had been put on ice, indefinitely.
We’d been here before with other projects, but this was the biggest disappointment yet. No use waiting around for the phone to ring, I told Jay. We should use this time now to do our own thing. Inevitably that would mean making a short film. If this was to help Jay’s career, it would have to test him as an actor. He’d have to be on-screen the whole time. He agreed. He was up for it.
Now, as a heads-up, one of the issues that has clearly made Jay’s progress slower than it might otherwise have been is that he’s half Japanese, half white British. I know, everyone has an excuse, right? But I've seen it for myself on numerous occasions. Either casting agents will want full Japanese, or full white British, but only rarely do they warm to half and half – at least in the UK.
Around this time Jay related to me some of his experiences at school that left him feeling out of place, confused as to his identity as half British, half Japanese. He often felt like an easy target for his peers, overlooked, mistrusted, underestimated. He said his other ‘half’ friends experienced similar challenges growing up. Whereas no one could get away with being racist to a black guy, he felt he was fair game for a lot of people, because he was mixed.
Out of this conversation came the seeds of an idea for a short screenplay that drew on Jay’s less happy experiences at school. This wouldn’t be just a short film with a part he could play, it would be a part that also reflected his own struggle to find a place in the world of film and TV today. I also wanted to write a short that gave other mixed-race guys a crack at boosting their exposure as actors and might even be empowering for mixed race actors everywhere.
Justice For Jamie is a short film about a group of friends who come up with a novel idea to help a friend of theirs who’s in urgent need of medical treatment - and some justice - following a racially motivated attack.
Around this time, early 2023, I’d been watching the Sam Levinson series Euphoria and loved the mood and style of the show. I noted the producers were not afraid of letting some dialogue scenes run for much longer than was typical for most TV shows, especially shows aimed at younger audiences. That scene with Zendaya and her sponsor in a diner was Kubrick-slow, for instance, but all the richer for it, too.
So that show alone encouraged me to write a piece that was dialogue-heavy yet dynamic and complex. Ironic and layered. To give what was essentially a one scene film some depth, I had the characters refer to video clips on their phones, which took us to different places without the need for boring exposition, scene changes or jolting flashbacks.
The script doesn't confine itself to the issue of racism alone. No, these three friends seeking justice for Jamie are of a generation that is losing faith in politics, the police, the health system, such as it is in the UK at the moment. The 'justice' alluded to in the title is achieved by clever use of AI technology and entrepreneurial endeavour. You can't help wondering by the end of the film if this sort of ingenuity might become a way of life for some people.
Some luck with the location
Part of the reason for making this short was to give the actors a showreel piece that would help them land some decent parts on paid projects. But I’d had a year without work, thanks to Covid, so this was going to be low budget and Jay was going to have to dip into his hard-earned tips to make this happen.
Nearly the entire short takes place in a restaurant. I suspected we wouldn’t find anything at all in London for under £750 a day. Jay was waiting tables at a Japanese restaurant in Soho – but I’d pretty much assumed we’d never be able to film there, because it was prime real estate. Unless, that is, we did an all-nighter. Jay said he’d ask his boss. Not only did we get a clear yes, we could film there for free, as long as we shot during a Sunday night. Wow. Super generous. And a shot in the arm to our efforts to get started.
Finding cast & crew
Looking for four young actors of mixed race with at least one decent piece on their showreel was quite a hunt. Even in London. I think I must have trawled through dozens of pages on mandy.com before we were fully cast. Still, we got there. To complete the line up, I drafted in my singer songwriter daughter, Saina, to play the waitress. Nothing like self-sufficiency, right!
As for crew, we’d have to keep it small. Shiona and I would direct and I’d double up as production manager and 1st AD. I’ve worked with a bunch of very good DPs, but I knew their fee would blow my budget, so I had to put out some ads. DP Will Poole sent in an impressive reel and we had a call. He loved the script and agreed to come on board for a price Jay and I could afford. Will brought in a focus puller and agreed that between them they would double up as gaffers. I found a great sound guy in Alex Vasco and, after one rehearsal, we were ready to book a date for the night shoot.
Prior to that, using my own flat and garden out back, Shiona and I shot some of the scenes which feature in the restaurant scene but are played out on a phone. And Jay put together the artwork that you also get to see on a phone.
Normally my preference for shooting is handheld. But, as Will pointed out, this was going to be hard to maintain throughout given the limited space we had to work in. So we went on sticks, relying on the edit to give the film its pace.
My preference was for primes, but Will had a set of cine zooms, so we went with those, partly to save on budget, partly to save on time. We got through about 12 pages in one night, which gave us about 2 takes per shot to work with in the edit. For sound design, Shiona and I spliced together some library clips, which worked a treat. Shiona did the grade and Alex’s business partner produced a final mix for us.
Launching on YouTube
With all my previous shorts, I’ve kept the finished film offline for at least six months, during which time I’d submit to film festivals. But this time around, in a bid to provide some near-immediate leverage for my son’s acting career, I've uploaded film and trailer to YouTube on a public link. I’m also hopeful that the film gives Jay’s UK agent and LA manager more to work with! Ditto for the actors he was working with.
Making stuff is what it's about
So often, as filmmakers, we'll tell ourselves that we've done enough short films and deserve something bigger. And every so often that big breakthrough comes along only to disintegrate mid-flight.
That's when you have to take the hit and focus your energy on making something that at least keeps you active and engaged. Although you won’t now be looking forward to a nice paycheck and perhaps a little limelight, you do get to do something creative with similarly passionate people. It may be just a short film, but at least you're not at the mercy of network politics - it's something you're in control of. And who knows, it might even serve as the key to a door just ahead of you that leads to greater opportunities.
We’d love if you'd watch Justice For Jamie, like (if you do), leave a comment and perhaps even reach out to look us up at our company Break Into Three if so inclined.
Cast:Leo Jay Penrake
Ian Eddie House
Reece Josh Mills
Adi Fenmore Ramorasata
Jamie James Mills
Waitress Saina Penake Crew:
Crew:Director of Photography William Poole
Focus Puller Alex Lobsang
Sound Alex Vasco
Make-up Beatrice Birolo
Sound design (music) Nic Penrake & Shiona Penrake
Sound mix Sigma Sonics
Colour Grade Shiona Penrake