Behind the NSPCC's 'The Sh*t Kids Say'

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Memes are typically a funny thing, but a recent spot for British Children's Charity NSPCC, out of agency Inferno, turned the idea of "Sh*t Kids Say" into something very serious. The commercial was the first ad directed by Amanda Boyle, who's repped out of A+, Academy Films' digital/promo division.

Boyle is no stranger to drama and complex characterization. The director has already made waves behind the camera directing episodes of critically acclaimed British television shows Skins, Cast-Offs, Sirens and Misfits, which earned a BAFTA award. Screen International also dubbed her one of the U.K.'s "most exciting new directors for her fantastical, global short Hotel Infinity. Also on the branded front, she partnered with U.K. fashion label Mulberry on a quirky short film, "Skirt."

Here, Boyle discusses how nuance plays an important role in the film, the talented team it required for the spot's success as well as the suprisingly varied and inventive techniques she used to tease out the child actors' convincing performances. Also, she doesn't hesitate to share her thoughts on the important cause behind her work.

Creativity: How did you get involved with the NSPCC project?
Amanda Boyle: I pitched for it. When Academy emailed me the Inferno's agency script I was in the middle of editing a 30-minute film I'd just directed. We were in a strange bunker of an edit suite and I was totally fried, but from the first read I was immediately interested. The dilemmas at the heart of the film--when do you call when you are worried about a kid? How can you be certain if a child is at risk?--really grabbed me. I started writing the treatment sitting on the edit room floor with my fingers in my ears as my editor carried on cutting.

C: How did the idea of 'Shi*t kids say' evolve?
AB: The final film is very close to the original idea. Based on the "Shit people say" memes, it had the progression of children being overheard saying lines that were warm/witty to more ambiguous to dark. Inferno [creatives] Al Young and Tim Palmer had taken lines that their own children had said to them and built around that.

C: What were some of your most interesting challenges?
AB: The challenge was crafting the script with such young children and the delicate issue of the tone. What concerned me was that this shouldn't [inspire] a witch-hunt--"go spy on your neighbors, people"; instead it was looking at the very real problem of when you tell someone if you think a child is at risk. I was gripped by the uncertainties--in one context a line from a child would worry you, in another it wouldn't. I see the film as saying, "Would you call the NSPCC now? What about now? And now?" In our initial meeting both Inferno and I discussed the fact that it was vital the performances were incredibly real with both the camera and blocking subtly, implying that the viewer was listening in. I'd worked with newer and non-actors on several occasions and had also developed a more documentary style in some of the dramas I've directed; so I had a bank of experience to draw on.

Director Amanda Boyle
Director Amanda Boyle

Once I started casting I realized that for the naturalism to work, my crew and I had to understand why and where the lines were being said. I took each of the Inferno lines and gave it more of a context. I wrote a mini scene from the point of view of the person observing the child and gave a sense of what had happened before the line was said.

For instance a scene from an early draft of the script read like this:

In the London suburbs, an unseen Mum has just put a fish finger dinner on the kitchen table. Six-year-old AIDEN has been playing outside--the door is slightly ajar and he's now washing his hands in the sink. An unseen friend of his Mum's, who is joining them for dinner, has just asked AIDEN, when he was six. He's wearing an "I am six" badge.

AIDEN I was six on November 50th.

As he chatters on about what he did for his birthday we cut to the next scene.

These details helped give me, my team and the children acting a sense of where we were. All the edges of adults in the film were later played either by crew members or the children's parents.

At the same time we were honing the script, producer Noreen Khan and I were casting around the country. So what I heard children say and the way they said it fed back directly into the script. We were basically workshopping the script, making sure nothing felt like it had been written by an adult. The NSPCC were also invaluable in helping Inferno and I with insights into what warning signs there might be if a child is being neglected or abused. Although of course nothing is clear-cut.

C: Can you talk about what into the talent search?
AB: Casting for this project was key. I worked with Des Hamilton and his team. Des is known for finding Thomas Turgoose in Shane Meadow's "This is England." He's currently working with Lars Von Trier. We had casting sessions in London, Glasgow and Manchester. We wanted the children to be from across the country, from every background. I was very aware that I didn't want to stereotype. A lot of thought also went into the locations too--I wanted them to disappear, with the children to be the center of attention.

We all also discussed the documentary look a lot--how the camera should move; how to accentuate the fact that the children felt like they were themselves and not speaking lines. This is the third project I've done with director of photography George Steel. One of his many strengths is the way he captures performance and analyses the script. He got involved early on and was part of the defining of the scenes process. On my last film we got into a rhythm of really working out details in advance and that was carried through into this. Due to child licensing hours we have a very constrained shoot so that was invaluable.

The look of the film came from designer Sarah Finlay, who controlled the colour palate very subtly to help tie the different scenes together and helped each environment to feel authentic and Jo Thompson, our costume designer, who used clothes to give the characters very different personalities with added details to help the children (the first little girl is wearing a hidden t-shirt with a rabbit on).

Every scene we shot and every kid we worked with is in the film. So the film is very close to the script. Editor Julia Knight's skill was to cut the film so subliminally a viewer might start to piece together the story of what might be going on behind the scenes--the shaking of the Vodka doll, goes into the shouting girl in the park. She worked in subtext as well as choreographing the cuts by movement. There's one thing to pick a documentary style but there's another to have so many kids say so many different things in 93 seconds; so the edit was very delicate.

In many ways my team and I worked as we would do on a drama; I think the added rigors of commercials--presenting each prop to the client etc. . .and really discussing in detail the look and feel of the film with Academy, all helped to shape the piece.

C: Tell us about how it was made--were all the children in the video actors?
AB: Every scene was written, so every child is acting.

A few years ago I was lucky enough to have the director Stephen Frears' as a mentor. I asked him once how I should cast. He said just cast people who move you. Well it was absolutely the case with this job--every child in a very different way moved me in the casting. One of the girls when I asked her what music she liked said: "Kraftwerk"; another boy was just really cheeky. They were all very smart.

I then had one Sunday afternoon to rehearse with them. Spending half an hour or so with each of them. Getting to know them a bit more--finding out things we could chat about on the day to put them at ease. I got most of them used to improvising around the lines and listening for me to click my fingers when they should say their line. There are snippets of improvisation in the final film. I only gave one of the children their actual lines in advance, although all their parents knew what they were going to be saying. I just wanted to avoid them getting stuck in the way they were going to say it.

With children most of the time you're not trying to get them to act, you're trying to keep them not acting. I've seen in some of the comments on the NSPCC Facebook site that some viewers are a little concerned about how the children said the darker lines. A lot of thought went into how to how to get those performances whilst keeping it light on set. Some of the lines were repeated back in rote whilst I chatted to them; others like "I'm a little cow" were done with the actress drawing a cow and me singing the cow song. The girl who says the "Shut it!" line is experienced and practiced that line at home. I just gave her the context, I said she was on the rope ladder and the girl behind her had shaken the climbing frame. It was all just playing--a nightmare for Julia the editor as I'm talking over all the takes. Their parents were always nearby or near a monitor. All the children said afterwards they'd really enjoyed themselves and the team worked hard to make it fun for them. We were hula hooping, doing dances and bounding around. I spent most of the two-day shoot looking totally ridiculous.

C: Was it a harrowing project to work on?
AB: When I met with the NSPCC to talk to them about the project I was struck by the fact that most people worried about a child wait a month before calling them.

I could completely relate to that. I've been in a situation where I was worried about a child. Luckily, they were fine. I think particularly in the U.K. there's such a fear that if you speak up without being sure you might cause more harm than good. I suppose this campaign is about giving people the permission to get it wrong. That it's far better to check something out early, than wait until it's too late. It's letting the public know that the NSPCC have an information line.

Whilst working on this project I watched the incredible BBC/Open University series Protecting Our Children, which follows child protection teams over a year. I was so humbled by the unbelievable job that is done by professionals in this area. It's highly complex as there are so many issues that lead to cruelty. That's absolutely not condoning it, that's just to say it's a symptom of many factors that have to be looked at carefully.

One of the social workers in that documentary said that as a society we are judged by how we treat the most vulnerable people. When I was worrying if the film might be seen as witch-hunting; I came to the conclusion that actually the film is simply saying we have to be responsible adults, we need to look out for the children around us.

So no, although cruelty to children is unimaginable and the idea that children right now are suffering is shocking; working on this project wasn't harrowing--it was sobering and inspiring to see the tireless work that people in this field do.

My one message would be--if you're worried about a child, call the NSPCC early as they're experts. You can chat to them and they can put your mind at rest. It might be nothing but it might be something.

C: Have you done much commercial work in the past? How did you get into directing?
AB: This is my first commercial. My background is theatre, film and television.

After a few shorts, my big break was a TV series called Cast Offs and that definitely informed how I worked on this project. It was a series where all the leads happened to have a disability; the casting and writing processes were done pretty much at the same time. Since then I've worked mainly for Channel 4--the shows they do are bold and witty, with very talented younger casts and up and coming stars like Richard Madden and Kayvan Novak. Shows like Skins are exhilarating for a director because of the writers you work with. My last project with the production company Warp was slightly darker, more authored and a little more art house. As for my style, I'm fascinated by atmosphere, tone and details of performance.

C: What future projects are you working on? Any other ad work in the pipeline?
AB: I'm ultimately a drama director--I'm working with some fantastic collaborators on my first feature. I'm hungry to do that. I am also a massive fan of U.S. television--particularly Breaking Bad. The way it is breathlessly imaginative as it explores morality is very inspiring. I hope to get out to L.A. later in the year to meet the show's producers. The next three months are also filled with experimental film projects I'm doing with a collection of theatre companies--Fuel, Sound & Fury and the National Theatre. That said, if a commercial project comes along for something I feel passionate about I would certainly be interested. I work best when there's a challenge and when I can make a project, even in just a small way, my own.

Check out more of Amanda Boyle's work below:

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