Exclusive Interview with James Hattam, Writer and Creative Director of the Film ‘Steal Suffering’

Phi Magazine was proud to interview James Hattam, Writer and Creative Director of the upcoming student-led film Steal Suffering in our Battlegrounds Issue. James is also a third year PPE student at King’s College London. Here is the interview in full where you can read all about the project, its inspiration and how to get involved.

Steal Suffering is “a story about our pain and the places where we find hope”. What is the message that you are trying to share throughout the film’s narrative?

Our most pronounced commonality as humans is our ability to feel pain. At some point, everyone will experience loss, disappointment, pain, and grief. Suffering connects all of us and yet the ways that we understand and deal with it couldn’t be more different.

Our second most pronounced commonality is our longing for hope. We don’t want a world where we suffer, and so we live our lives trying to do something about it. I guess that these are the forces that carry the film; but not the message that it ultimately shares. The message of the film is that we need a hope greater than the one we already have.

We often look for hope in places where it doesn’t exist. We chase after alternative cures that never satisfy us – we fill the void, distract ourselves with something shinier, try and take control of the mess ourselves, but we only end up being more aware of our own fragility and our need for something bigger.

The final monologue in the film is based upon the message that Jesus offers to those who have experienced suffering but are looking for hope. The final scenes of the film are constructed around the story of the prodigal son (although we rerun it as the prodigal daughter). The story is a reflection of Christ’s plan for us; the hope that one-day we will have a divine homecoming, not to a cloud with an angel playing the harp, but to a world with no pain, no suffering, and no tears.

The screenplay features a variety of characters that understand and deal with their suffering in different ways. Is the message of the film one of acceptance to a variety of ways people deal with their own individual battles, or is this more of an olive branch to religion as a modern day believer?

It’s an acceptance of the fact that we are all in the same boat. We all suffer; we all want hope. The film isn’t just a creative way of telling people that they are wrong. I don’t like labelling things ‘Christian’ and ‘Un-Christian’. Someone once said that the word ‘Christian’ should only ever be used as a verb, because it makes an awful adjective! The film will resemble Danny Boyle’s ‘Trainspotting’ more than it will a Sunday school film project. It is better described as a mirror as opposed to a cultural autopsy carried out upon the world’s belief systems.

Bad directors tell their audiences exactly what to think. I don’t need to do that. I trust that God will carry the most important bits of the message through what we show on screen.Having said this, I am still a believer in objective truth (I know, incredibly old fashioned), which means that when I say that I believe Jesus is the only way to securing real hope, there can be no other substitute.

We all suffer; we all want hope; and that hope is Jesus. I suppose audiences will have to make up their own minds about the last part when the film is released in November. Not sure if that makes me an olive branch holder or not…

How did jazz inspire your writing of the screenplay?

I first stumbled upon the theme of jazz by accident if I’m honest. When I was younger I remember my Dad showing me a video of Al Jarreau performing ‘Take Five’ in concert. I remember Jarreau’s distorted acapella cover of the original Brubeck piece blowing my mind. That video sparked an interest in jazz music.

When I came to King’s I won a membership to Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in Soho. My interest in jazz soon became an obsession – before too long, the club was a bit of a second home (not always on the merit of the world class jazz, but also because it was free entry and I was skint!).

One night I was outside and I bumped into a homeless woman called Victoria. We started having a conversation and she told me a bit about herself. Realising that it was cold outside, I invited her into Ronnie’s with me to warm up. Hesitating at first, she looked me in the eyes and said, “I can’t come in because I smell too much”.

This was the moment that jazz and suffering collided for me, and I haven’t really been able to shake it since. The script began completely unintentionally with a poem that I noted down about this moment with Victoria. It was only later that I realised that jazz and human suffering were bonded together so tightly.

Everything from jazz’s history (notably its ties to slavery and oppression), to its musicality (a genre that joins beauty and grief like no other- listen to the tone of Chet Baker’s trumpet in ‘Alone Together’ or ‘Almost Blue’ to see this captured masterfully), to the tragedy experienced in jazz musicians’ lives (a quick Wikipedia search of any modern jazz star will most likely reveal a life spent battling drug addiction, alcoholism, or depression).

Jazz was rich in the themes that I wanted to write about, and I love listening to it. It wasn’t too long before the whole script was centred around it.

Where can we expect to see jazz in the film?

We steer clear of jazz stereotypes! I think lots of people switch off when anyone starts talking about jazz. It is used dynamically in the film, references are made explicitly to jazz icons, and the film is shot within a jazz club, but it is more jazz’s structure that is referenced. It is put best by a character in the film ‘Serge’ (not sure if this counts as quoting myself…), breaking the fourth wall; he describes the influence of jazz in the narrative as ‘the Trojan horse’ for another story that is being told.

The film isn’t for jazz nerds. Jazz will be there, but it won’t shout in your face. It won’t be vanilla either – expect something exciting and different!

In your promotional video ‘A Speech for Soho’, it seems like the shots have been carefully constructed to give the viewer a very immersive experience of London life. Is this coincidental, or is your experience of London life specifically linked to your upcoming film’s exploration of suffering?

It was the summer of my first year when the Grenfell Tower disaster happened. I had lived in halls in North West London not too far away from where Grenfell is. Like any Londoner, I felt especially confronted by the tragedy. It raised so many questions for me.

I began writing ‘A Speech for Soho’ reflecting on the tragedy that happened in our city. After Ronnie Scott’s gave us permission to film inside the club, it seemed right to marry the words and the visuals that primed the speech.

We will shoot the film ‘Steal Suffering’ itself in the Smoke though. Shooting should hopefully happen in one of my favourite jazz clubs and Victoria is from South East London, so we will be doing lots of filming around those parts especially!

You were able to raise over £19,000 for your project. Do you think this is because people relate closely to the themes of the screenplay (suffering, pain, God and hope)? Are they automatically invested in answering such questions? What message do you think such people are searching for in funding your project? What message do you hope to give them?

The £19,000 was a big moment for us as a team. It’s funny really, when we prayed together we felt that God was telling us to raise £19,000, but for a long time it seemed like way too much money and I never thought that we could do it. I eventually gave the go ahead on the total after receiving a message from someone that didn’t even know that we were fundraising, she sent me this message saying that she was moved by ‘A Speech for Soho’ and couldn’t get the number ’19’ out of her mind. That seemed like a pretty wild coincidence and here we are 3 months later – still amazed/perplexed at the fact that we have actually reached (and exceeded) that total!

To give an explanation of how I think we raised £19,000 would be impossible; in all honesty, it still doesn’t add up for me. Two days before we released our Kickstarter campaign I wanted to call it all off. I didn’t think that we could raise it and I thought that the release would flop and be an embarrassment. We had no big backers in the pipeline and expected that we would somehow make the 19k out of small donations. Less than a week later and we had raised more than £10,000 of our goal.

The Judeo–Christian belief system is one that knows God as provider. The Israelites ate manna that fell from the sky. Jesus turned a child’s lunch into a meal for thousands. This is the tradition that I grew up in, and the God that I believe in. We felt that God told us to make a film; I honestly believe that he helped us pay for it.

To anyone reading who is calling ‘bullsh*t’ on me now – I will give it to you, it does sound too good to be true. Did God himself insert his card details into our Kickstarter and give us the cash? Not as far as we know. I do believe that God likes to use people to give money to the things that he cares about though. I mean seriously, who in their right mind would give that much money to produce the debut film of a director that nobody has ever heard of?! I can’t explain the fundraising any other way.

You’ve been working on the short for some time now, how has it been seeing your words come to life and working together with a big talented team? When can we expect to see the finished product, and how can people who are interested in contributing/getting involved find out more?

They are all very talented aren’t they?! At least they know what they’re supposed to be doing!

On a serious note, for me the whole process so far has been the greatest privilege. I get to tell a story that I love with my best friends helping me to make it (cheesy but also very true) – I’m looking forward to the team growing in the future, and watching as people use their talents to make my little screenplay look very beautiful.

The film will be shot in late August/September, and released mid-November. We will have a screening in London; it’d be great to get some Phi Mag readers along to the premiere!

You can also get more info over at Steal Suffering’s website HERE. As well as their FACEBOOK and INSTAGRAM pages.

If you’d like to get involved, email info@stealsuffering.org . We’d love to meet you! We are currently recruiting for roles on our film team – if you’re good with a camera, lighting, or sound – hit us up!

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