Rita Osei is the director-producer of Bliss!, set in North East England and Norway.
Bliss! follows Tasha, a 16 year old girl with a seemingly indifferent mother and a violent stepdad, who travels to the land of the fjords to find her father, who she’s never met. The film combines gritty complexities about family relationships with a teens-eye view of how to tackle a problem: get on a boat and go and look for him!
Rita developed the screenplay, which is based on Alex Ferguson’s play of the same title, with Alex and the late filmmaker Jenny Wilkes. Rita worked on her first production job with Jenny back in 1997. At that time, Geronimo Pratt, the late leader of the Black Panthers, who was wrongly imprisoned for 27 years for the Santa Monica Tennis lawn murder of 1968, was being released from prison. Through her long friendship with Geronimo, Jenny had the first full access interview, and Rita coordinated the shooting of it.
I spoke to Rita about her vision for Bliss!, its journey to the big screen, how she got into filmmaking, and more. (Warning: quite spoilery if you haven’t seen the film…) You can also read my 4-star review of Bliss! here, or click down for interviews, more info and the trailer.
Sarah: I’ve just watched Bliss! for the second time, and this viewing I really noticed the magical aspects; those little details and sparkles, which if you turn around you’ll miss.
Rita Osei: It’s interesting you should say that because in November I was in Preston for the Great Northern Creative Expo, and showing Bliss!
Jan Harlan, the executive producer of most of Stanley Kubrick’s movies, was there, doing a talk after me. So obviously everyone’s wanting to see him because of the history. And he said – and I really agree with him – that the most unpleasant thing is that people think they’ve seen your film and they haven’t, because they don’t watch everything that you’ve put there. If you turn for a moment or look at your mobile phone you’ve missed such a vital piece of that story.
Not every film obviously. But you know, a film like Bliss!, if you miss the little details then it won’t make any sense.
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Just from the first credits, with the introduction, the surf, Marsden Rocks, and the music, you can feel confident and relax into it from the first frame. I loved that.
Thanks. You pointed out the magical elements, the murmuration and the map, which were added as part of my vision for the film. Those elements weren’t in the original script. There were quite a few things I had to do on the spot, for example the ferry-waving scene with the girls, I wrote the day before we shot it.
Originally Alex had written a beautiful scene set in the fairground at Shields, and at the last minute we weren’t able to shoot there so I had to come up with something that I felt had that same feel of the fairground. And because I’d done my research I knew that a lot of people in Shields go down to that point at 4.30 to watch the ferry go by, so I wrote that the day before we shot it.
“Bonny lasses” they shouted out!
And that was all real.
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I found an interview online with Alex Ferguson [writer of the play on which Bliss! is based] – it’s very difficult to find him online because of the other Alex Ferguson! – you based your film on his play, but did he help you craft the screenplay as well?
He wrote the screenplay for me. The play goes back to 2002 at the Customs House [in South Shields] and it was produced to help address teenage pregnancy in the area.
He was working with a group there wasn’t he?
Bold As Brass, that was his theatre group. He set that up. But aside from that the Customs House produced the play in response to what was happening at the time in South Tyneside – so the play had an educational element – to help to address teenage pregnancy in the area. That’s where the play comes from, it’s all about Jenny [Tasha’s sister], and Tasha’s a peripheral figure. It’s all Jenny’s story and it’s all about the family trying to move in on her as she moves out. We kept an element in the screenplay and the film.
Both the play and the film are loosely based on the experiences of one of the members of Bold As Brass, who’s been involved all the way through in some way. She came to the read-through when we were shooting the film, and she was really proud and happy. Then she took her mum to see the film when it was on at the Customs House. I remember her telling me “I’m a bit nervous about this bit, a bit nervous about that bit”. But there were a couple of bits that have been retained from the play, actual dialogue, so that was a really nice journey although it was a very difficult journey.
12 years in the making to watch her grow in real life, and where she is started in life and where she is now, you know?
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In the interview I read with him he said these teenagers thought a dad was someone who popped by at Christmas and gave you a fiver; and that’s in the film, Tasha says it.
Yes it’s a main scene for her.
I thought that was really interesting, fatherhood, because she wants her father but at the same time at the end of Bliss! really the family is regrouping to carry on as they are. And if she finds him, that’s great, but also finally her mum is stepping up and finding her strengths.
Absolutely. All that came from the development process, between myself, Alex and Jenny Wilkes, who was also a writer on the film. So the three of us have the story credit and Alex and Jenny have the screenplay credit, but it’s from his words, it’s his poetry, it’s the reason I could stick with the project for as long as I did.
He’s the heart of the writing, he really is.
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Do you see your film as a coming-of-age tale in a way? What I like about Tasha is that for her to actually go on the journey she has to have this childlike… naïvety is probably the wrong word because her upbringing means she’s not naïve… but she’s only got a photo where you can’t even see his face, and a country, and that’s it. And then off she goes.
Maybe by the end she wouldn’t have done it, because by then she’s grown up and moved along. Because you have to have that unshakable belief.
Absolutely. The play is all set in Shields, the Norway elements were developed later. I went to Norway on January 1st 2009 and took the famous fjord journey that Tasha takes, came back and told Jenny and Alex about it.
We talked about how we were going to make that work in the story. Being in Norway and going on that journey is what made me believe that the character could believe that she could find her dad.
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Where did you find your Tasha?
Freya Parks plays Tasha. We had done workshops in the North East at the Customs House with about 200 girls, over two or three sessions. It was a great process and I really wanted to find the lead character in Shields street casting. But it became apparent that we would need an actress who was experienced with being on a set, and all that comes with that.
Bliss! was shot in four weeks, three weeks in the UK and one week in Norway. There was hardly any rehearsal, to be honest. A few days with a few of the characters, that’s all we had. We did get Debbie [Tasha’s younger sister] in that process in Shields. Chloe Cuskin who plays Debbie, she is native and she came to my workshops from age nine. Natasha Haws who plays Dasa also came to be in Bliss! through the Shields workshops.
When we got back to London I was working with Lucy Jenkins, the casting director, and I also asked everyone to go through all of the BAFTA screeners we’d all received and make a note of every single child of the right age. And that’s what we did. Freya had been in Jane Eyre.
She’s not a Geordie! Her accent was good!
Her accent’s amazing. She worked with a wonderful dialect coach, Marina Tyndall, who I’ve worked with twice in theatres before. Freya Parks is a London girl – she’s really RP.
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How much of a film industry is there in the North East now?
It’s growing now, but we shot the film in the summer of 2015. We worked with as many local people as we could and we got some great skilled team players.
Richard, my cinematographer, I only met about three months before shooting, so he was amazing and crewed up locally for me as much as possible. We’d also discussed making sure the crew was balanced female/male 50/50. I’m very proud of what we achieved doing so.
He did the Bill Nighy film Sometimes, Always, Never. I thought the cinematography on both was fantastic.
Richard is wonderful, he’s won two Baftas.
I really loved the colour. He does colour so well. I think I said in my review I get slightly tired of the North East “jutting crags and industry against the sky” trope, and he really brought out the colour and the flowers. There’s one scene that really struck me, when they’re on the cliff and it’s so beautiful with the grass and flowers, and the sky and the sea – they’re shades of purple, which is repeated in the poster.
I had a very particular vision for the colour. I chose every single location, and when Richard came on board he was great because he had to accept that I’d already chosen those locations. I was very clear that it was set in a landscape. It wasn’t a matter of going out and trying to find this and trying to find that. There were actual landmarks I wanted to capture, and so he had to be comfortable working with that. And of course when he saw it he thought it was amazing. Then we went to Norway together and he felt he had a great starting place in those beautiful vistas.
The purple comes from way back on my mood board. Al the purples are there: the lilac-y feeling, the powdery feeling was very early on. Freya is quite pale-skinned so it was about making sure she looked great and having the colours which were there from nature. But it also makes it magical with that tint on it.
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How has the film been resonating with different groups of people?
In Seville we watched it with 1,000 kids over two days between the ages of 13 and 16.
That was one of the most positive things I’ve ever experienced in my life! I had to record it because it was so overwhelming. The school kids saying how much they loved it, they picked up on the cinematography and said “now we know that the UK is not so dark always!” We were so blessed making Bliss!, everyday we needed a great big whacking blue sky, we got it. There was one day we needed rain in Norway and it rained that day. It was amazing.
A boy at the end of the Seville screening came up and said “I want to be a dad now. A real dad”. And that’s the thing. And they’re reading Spanish subtitles so for me it was always about being visual so it reached as many people as possible, regardless of the language. The images would carry the story. And the music is a massive part of the story telling.
We only focused on certain groups of people. Festivals, or when I go to university screenings, are the times I get direct feedback. When we were in Edinburgh [the international film festival] we had a great review from the Edinburgh Reporter. We also had a couple of bloggers who were really quite nasty – if you don’t like it, just say it’s not for you.
Then we got a wonderful review from Cineuropa which really meant a lot because they’re across Europe and it was really positive. So we had about 70% good and 30% not so good.
Bliss! got such a lovely review written by a stranger on IMDB which I treasure – the words he uses, not just the 10/10.
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What was the reaction like in the North East?
We had a cast and crew screening that was wonderful, and we had a Shields run for one week. They were so proud – they said we’d made Shields look like Hollywood! So that was wonderful. We had a lot support up there from the Shields Gazette. That’s all I really had. A lot of the people at the screenings knew the story, the journey, so were quite close to it.
Has it been shown in Norway?
Not yet actually, that would be really interesting. Initially we didn’t have the sales agent we have now, so there was a big period of time when there wasn’t really anything going on with it. It was in a bit of a limbo state. Fingers crossed it’ll get to Norway and the US.
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I think a lot of people even in Britain don’t know about the links between the North East of England and Scandinavia, apart from the Vikings. I remember growing up the Scandinavians would come over to the Metro Centre to shop as it was cheaper.
That’s the idea, that Karen [Tasha’s mum] met him [Tasha’s dad] on the booze cruise. A beer was like £15 when we were over there.
I can see it doing well in America. I think it would resonate with them, the looking for family and for roots.
That is the one place I’ve got feedback from – because through my membership of Film Fatales [a group for women film and TV directors] I got introduced to a couple of festivals. We screened in the State Historical Museum of Iowa (where Hilary Clinton had given her presidential speech to the state). It was quite something for us to be screened there. Someone compared Bliss! to Harry Potter because of how Tasha goes through all these different worlds.
Hélène Muddiman the composer is based in LA, and we are obviously very keen to get the film into America. She’s composed a wonderful soundtrack. We worked very closely together and spent two weeks doing the spotting process. My editor Kant Pan and I cut the film, and then I went through the film with Hélène and “spotted” the film with score and music.
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Did you already know Hélène?
Yes we’d worked together before. We met because of the UK Film Council in 2009 when I was living in Los Angeles. We were guests at their table for the screening of the BAFTAs. We just kept in touch, and we did a little experimental short film together called The Truce which I shot in Topanga in LA in 2010.
We did my mood board for Bliss! in 2014 and then started feeling out the vibe for the music. Freya had written a song and I chose a section of it, the I’m Sailing part, and Hélène composed the music to that.
We’ve previously spoken about inclusion and how Bliss! resonated with a child with autism whose mum contacted you, she said they were completely gripped by it.
That was really lovely. The mum said they can’t get her to sit down to watch films for any time, let alone watching a 90-minute film from start to finish. There is a pace to Bliss! which is very much what kids feel.
Also there’s a clarity to it. The story is clear, and the journey and the thread running through it. It doesn’t talk down to children.
That’s the balance, getting that right. Because it wasn’t aimed at adults, that pace was there and it wasn’t overwhelming in the sense that you can’t engage any more, you know?
One of the scenes, when Debbie, who’s just a child, falls in the water, how did you film that? It’s shot from a distance, did you find a small stunt woman?
Oh absolutely. Those waters, someone had drowned in them about six months to a year before. It’s really strong currents. There’s no way you could entertain the idea of putting a child in that. So absolutely, we had stunt doubles for both David Leon [stepdad Charlie] and Chloe Cuskin [Debbie].
Sadly for our family my brother drowned when I was six years old. And that’s why I know it’s an accident that can be real.
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Did that make it harder to film?
Yes. The high bits were shot in the Fish Quay in North Shields, and then we went right round to the South Shields side to do the other parts of it in shallower water. It wasn’t so much the jumping, or the falling for me, it was those shallow parts I found really difficult. So I had my stunt director go in the water – after I’d given my actors directions from a performance point of view – to work with them on the technical stuff in the stunt.
I thought it was really interesting with their mother Karen. She’s constantly rewriting history in her head isn’t she. When she says she wants a plaque put up to Charlie – who’s a terrible dad.
There’s a little glint in her eye that she knows that’s not appropriate. That’s kind of her beginning to start on that journey of change, to the woman that she wants to be.
She’s trying to pretend that she’s a good mother and then she becomes a good mother. So when Tasha gets back from Scandinavia and Karen is fussing over her, she’s been a very absent mother for a long time and now it’s all for show, but then she becomes a good mother, because finally she’s finding something she’s good at. She’s not been terrible, the fact is she’s there…
And she’s working two jobs.
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We always judge mums more harshly.
This is it – there’s this phrase at the moment: “unlikable female characters”. God how many unlikeable male characters are out there. And in the play, if were going to use that word, Karen was pretty much unlikeable. So I had to do a lot of work with Alex [Ferguson] that we made a woman who was true to what was going on.
Women in that scenario, we’re not going to be putting them down. We want to celebrate them. But we want to be truthful about what they’re going through and how they’re managing. I had a great time working with Montserrat [Lombard, who plays Karen].
Bliss! has a really nice ending but it’s not completely down pat. Some endings are so miserable and you think, “why did you have to do that to me!”
I wanted it to be uplifting. I didn’t want to tell them what to do as such, as like you say it would be talking down to them. It had to be on their terms to make that work as an ending, it had to be that Tasha had this option at the end to go if she wanted to but it’s also about her finding herself. It was a rites-of-passage journey from her to her in a way. It was her and the loneliness of the experience that made her connect much more with the environment, and all of the the magical elements that’s representing her intuition. She doesn’t have a supportive mother at the beginning necessarily but that makes her stronger. Her journey is through herself.
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How was it funded?
By GSP Studios, they rebranded as Goldfinch Studios, Premiere Pictures; and my company Sugar And Water Films put the first money in. I developed the project with initial funds from Northern Film & Media (NFM). Without NFM we would not have a film. That immediate money you get in development is the most important money, it really is.
Especially when you’ve got a tight shooting schedule with an independent, lower budget film, and you have to do everything in advance.
Absolutely. There’s no time for improvising lines and stuff, because there are so many scenes to get through. And in the small amount of rehearsal time I had, it was with Montserrat, Freya and Lauren Johns (Jenny) because that triangle is such an important relationship. Freya, Lauren and Montserrat had been attached since 2011 and we shot the film in 2015, so I’d had lots of conversations with them on how we were going to do this.
In terms of what you’re doing now, the film you’re working on – is this a short or a feature?
I’m developing many stories about the dreams of women. “Honey B. Mama From Stage To Screen To Blues Queen” is a visual film with documentary elements. It’s the story of Cleo Sylvestre’s career. She was the first Black actress to perform in a leading role at the National Theatre. Famously in 1964 she bunked off school to go and record Phil Spector’s To Know Him Is To Love Him for Andrew Loog Oldham. The backing musicians were The Rolling Stones!
At the age of 70 Cleo returned to singing and she’s now touring across London as Honey B. Mama & band, as well as acting and all the humanitarian work that she does. She was recently inducted into Screen Nation’s Hall of Fame with their Edric Connor Trailblazer Award. Previous recipients include Moira Stuart OBE, Sir Lenny Henry and Sir Trevor McDonald.
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How did you originally get into film?
At school, I went to a poetry workshop and it was being filmed for a documentary series for ITV. You know, the cliché, lights camera action – I was hooked. I crafted my first documentary when I was about 10 on Down Syndrome because one of the teaching assistants at school, her son had Down Syndrome. I wanted to know how life was for them, and it was because I cared about that woman, and not only about what she did for us at school.
Then I went to University of the Arts, Camberwell Art College, and I did a visual arts degree. After I graduated I went to work for Nick de Grunwald (who I’m still in touch with). He’s the son and nephew of the producers of The Millionairess. Peter Sellers would be running round his house when he was a kid. It was a wonderful environment for me to begin in Nick’s office, and to hear stories which would enrich my love of cinema. Although Nick was making documentaries, it was really helpful for me to hear what those wonderful people making such amazing films had been through and the process.
And then in 1999 I just made a film. 20 years ago. Wow. I produced it rather than directed it. The only female director I personally knew at the time was Patricia Murphy, and she was the exception and making commercials. In those days women still made the tea in companies as part of their job. Crazy.
I produced a short film called Threesome which was written and directed by Adam Ganz. It starred Lesley Vickerage, Stuart Laing and Hugh Quarshie. It was a great experience for me and that did really well. Sky Movies bought it, it played at Telluride and loads of other festivals. It also played before Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels at a festival in Victoria Park, on the biggest screen in Europe at the time, which was amazing. Sitting in the park with literally hundreds of people watching your film!
So I had positive experiences just getting on with it, and I funded that as well.
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To have kept going and kept your vision going for so long is very impressive when you look at the drop-out rate particularly for women.
Well I’m an artist so for me it’s a way of expression that’s essential to living. So it’s not like I can put it down and go and try something else. It doesn’t really work like that for me.
The idea is to make something that means something to you. If it doesn’t mean anything to you how can it mean anything to anyone else? Don’t get me wrong, I love escapism and I actually do see Bliss! as escapism in part, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to mean anything.
Trivial to say perhaps, but that’s what keeps you going, it meaning something.
You lived in LA for a while didn’t you?
I did (and I’m sure I will again), after Breakthrough Brits. Originally from the UK Film Council, and the brainchild of Marcia Williams, head of diversity there at the time. The first Breakthrough Brits showcase was focused on women and included Abi Morgan, Amma Asante, Emily Blunt, all wonderful creative people and now flourishing.
We were the 2008 class. It includes Kwame Kwei-Armah OBE who’s now the artistic director of the Young Vic; Zoe Stewart and Noel Clarke. There were 12 of us, we were showcased in the US and through meeting [producer] James Gibb, I was introduced to some of the people that financed Bliss!
So without that experience, I really believe that Bliss! wouldn’t be here either. After that felt I had to go to LA, as I’d been introduced to all these people. So I went to try it out to see what it would be like, and did that for about six months.
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Did you enjoy it?
I loved it, but the timing wasn’t great – that was when we had the collapse of the finance industry, so that was difficult as the money didn’t go as far. I love LA, I have a relationship with it and I hope to work there in the future. One of my mentors is Barry Spikings, the Oscar-winning producer of the Deer Hunter.
Can you end up with too many schemes, in the sense that it’s not actually effecting proper change?
That’s what’s good about what Film Fatales do. Nothing to do with the BFI, or anything government, just passionate people getting together and working together, people in the same position, and it’s all from members direct. All the great institutions, BAFTA, you look at United Artists, who started that – Charlie Chaplin. You know, it’s focusing on what you want rather than what you don’t want. That’s my way of doing things.
Breakthrough Brits was fantastic for me, which was National Lottery-funded. But you do need the BFI to be aware and keep coming back to the table, asking: who are the people still not getting those opportunities?
I worked for Time Warner for a long time, and was a founding member of their European diversity council. In 2004 I went along to a diversity forum of media people, and Marcia Williams from the UK Film Council was there. 15 years on and we’re only now as an industry starting to do the things we were discussing then. Onward!
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