London is a collection of countless factions. Above the Kingsland Road you can find the home-counties-cum-Stoke-Newington set on the prosecco brunch circuit. Near The Gherkin and the Cheesegrater building: the blue-suited bankers. Then you’ve got art students, people who enjoy indoor mini-golf, scooter-riding adults, Australians who practice circus tricks in the park – imagine a sub-sect and you'll probably find it.
But in all of this, teens are easily overlooked. Being a young Londoner is far more nuanced than shouty headlines about serious youth violence or Snapchat ruining everyone's concentration. And that's especially true when you live on the blocks. That's where new film Clued Up strolls in, filling the gap with the real-life complications you won't read in the Evening Standard. In it, 18-year-old actor-writer-director Callan Allen tells the story of Theo, a young mixed-ethnicity boy caught in the stereotype of being 'another black guy on the estate,' in the weeks leading up to the end of the school year.
With it, Callan's gone from acting in ads for brands like Lucozade, where he played a younger Anthony Joshua, and to films, like Channel 4’s Love Is Not Enough. But Clued Up marks new territory. It tackles knife crime, debt, drugs, mental health and bullying, taking a proper snapshot of life as a particular sort of young teen in London. It also holds some personal weight. Callan’s father passed away over the three-year course of the film's making, as did the mother of another cast member. Through all that Clued Up has become many things: a passion project, a demonstration of the power of pushing forward and an accurate portrait of the trials and tribulations of Callan’s age group, in this age, at this time.
Ahead of the film’s release on Friday the 14th of June, Callan and I caught up for a phone chat. And don't worry, we kept it spoiler-free, digging into the nuts’n’bolts of getting a film made at such a young age, what he wanted to portray and what viewers should take away Clued Up.
VICE: Alright mate. So tell me: how do you get a film made?
Callan Allen: I saw this film The Weekend on Netflix when I was 15. Then I emailed the director [Sheridan De Myers] and said, ‘Hey, what’s up?’. Actually, I was a bit more professional than that – it was, ‘Hey, good afternoon I’ve got a project that I’m working on, do you have any advice or anything?’.
Haha, the second one is a better way to do it.
But obviously when you’re that young no one takes you seriously. So I emailed him again when I finished up with everything, around November/December last year. This time he got back to me and gave me advice on how to approach networks and things – because they try to change your idea, etc, and he gave me a lot of advice on that side.
But how do you network a film?
At the same time I emailed Sheridan I hit up BBC, Channel 4, Sky – a lot of the big networks. No one got back to me. Then in June – when I had the poster, the trailer, the rough-cut of the film – they really liked it.
Well, networks are networks, and they wanted to change it into a series – so you’ll go, ‘oh great, that’s amazing’, until you realise they want to change the whole cast and this and that. I had to sit myself down and think: is this a good step for the project [to take it to TV]? In the end, it didn’t really feel like Clued Up – it just felt like any other teen show. So I decided to go down the digital route to keep the film true to how it is.
How do you feel Clued Up differs from those other teen shows?
When we first put out the trailers, people were saying it was a BTEC Waterloo Road, a BTEC Top Boy, we’ve already seen this – we don’t need to see anymore. But I don’t think it is that: drugs, drugs, knife crime – it’s not. It’s doing something that represents London how it is today. The drug dealer is merely a character arc in the film, he’s in it for four, five minutes total. For me, it was about teens discovering themselves. Some of it is gritty, some people might think it’s a hard pill to swallow if they’re adults, thinking ‘is that really what my child is going through’. But I’ve just left school, and what happens in the film happens all the time, whether it’s my school or other schools.
I liked the classroom scenes. I’m 27, so I left school over a decade ago, but they felt true to my experience as much they probably do for school kids today. There’s some horrible shit said, but it’s raw and real.
It takes people back. Whether you’re the quiet one in the corner or the one doing crazy stuff.
Were there moments you witnessed in your own life that you brought to the screen?
It’s funny because people think I’m an only child [like the character in the film] living with his mum. But I’m one of nine and I had a good upbringing. However there are things from the story I took from my own life. Especially when you’re a young male, you get the older boys who want to treat you as their apprentice [like the drug dealer character] and you want to go under their wing – like, they’re my young bro. It especially happens to a lot of young black boys. Not necessarily drugs either; I had an apprenticeship for a few months when I left school and had the same vibe there.
Obviously there were a few tragedies while filming – your dad passing, one of the main character’s mum passing. How do you carry on as a crew in the face of that? It’s admirable.
I didn’t know that Xheneta, who plays Jessica – her mum was ill and passed away at the end of February, 2018. Then literally two weeks later I got a call to say I needed to go to the hospital and see my Dad. There’d never been any illness in my family, I’ve been lucky my whole life, so as soon as I received that call I knew something was up. The way my brother called me, I knew Dad was going to pass away. Then before we got to the hospital he said “I need to tell you, we’ve got to say our goodbyes to Dad tonight.”
That’s a lot.
It changed me a lot as a person. Everyone in our family grieved in different ways. The first four or five days were crazy, it was snowing, I didn’t eat or sleep at all. I’d randomly burst out crying. My dad was so excited for the film and didn’t get to see it finished. So I remember thinking – and not in a horrible way – that I just needed to get on with it. Literally, we had his funeral then four days later we were back on set again. It brought the cast closer together.
It’s a hard time but you’ve come through to the other side. Props to you. So, last question – and I’m not going to ruin what happens – but do you feel the ending is positive?
I’m a fan of a good plot twist. Beside the actors in those specific scenes the cast themselves won’t know the twist until the film is released, which is exciting. Ultimately my character isn’t a nice boy to begin with but then you see there’s a lot more going on with him at home – same with all the characters really, they have a vulnerable vibe – and that’s something I wanted to bring across. Without sounding cheesy I want people to leave and feel something, whether that’s passion or awareness.
Sweet, man. Thanks for taking the time out to chat!