Sebastian de Souza & Preston Thompson talk Kids in Love

Kids in Love made its world premiere at the 2016 Edinburgh International Film Festival. The film follows the disruption of Jack (Will Poulter)’s gap-year plans when he meets a beautiful girl (Alma Jodorowsky) and is drawn into young bohemian London. Broadway Baby’s Features Editor James T Harding was on hand to ask co-writers Sebastian De Souza (known for his acting roles on Skins, The Borgias, and Recovery Road) and his high-school friend Preston Thompson (who plays Cassius in the film) about their screenwriting collaboration and how they think we can fix the inaccurate portrayal of young people in drama and comedy.

Kids are actually misrepresented on film and TV, mostly

Seb: I met Preston through a mutual best friend of ours who I'd gone to school with. When we were 18, we discovered that we both share a real passion for film.

Preston: The amazing thing about Seb is that he's magic. He did Henry V when he was at school, when he was 15, and he got an acting agent. His first or second audition was Skins. He's been out there, on his own, doing his thing, since he was 16.

He started writing at the same time that I started writing. We both did one script by ourselves. We'd ask each other as confidants.

Seb: We had both written a screenplay each before. Neither were produced, but they were finished screenplays. We were into it, reading lots of screenplays and watching lots of films. We had a very minor understanding of how a conventional story arc in a film would be put together.

Preston: Then we came up with this idea to do this film. I found myself vapidly going through internet pages, and I found this picture. It was just two people holding hands. It was quite cheesy, but it was called We Were Just Kids in Love. I haven't seen it since that moment. We cut the 'We Were Just'.

Seb: I was working in Hungary at the time on a show called The Borgias, and he came to visit me. He said 'I've got these pages, these scenes.' I read them. I thought they were fantastic.

We came up with this story based around places that we had been to, people we thought were really interesting, and we tried to piece together some kind of a very higgledy piggledy puzzle. The characters are really deeply drawn from our own life experience.

Preston: We had our characters very early on. It was quite nice experience fitting it around them.

We didn't really know what writing in a pair meant. We tried a couple of times at the beginning with a laptop, pointing at words and going 'No no no, we can do better than that.' It becomes so frustrating and paralysing, that actually we divided it up. We blocked it out - the first fifty pages at first - and it was like, I'll take these three scenes, you take those three scenes.

Seb: We got forty pages into the script and thought, 'We don't have a story here.’

Preston: We stayed up on my final night in Budapest and planned out the remaining 60 pages, then I went back to London and we did it by email.

That's when it got really competitive. We finished the first draft in about ten days after than. It was quite ruthless. I loved to get my scenes in a day before he did. We gave each other notes and cobbled together.

Seb: Initially it was a very organic process. It came of really a very few words, and visuals we both had, a vibe really. Had we got really bogged down in story beats initially, I don't think we would have written the film.

Preston: We talked about edits, and if once of us felt really strongly. We have our own language of communicating and we both agreed on what the film should be like, so we never disagreed really. Somehow, when people read it, it sounded consistent. We talk or think in a similar way.

Seb: The development process was the best thing that's ever happened to me as a novice writer. So enlightening and educational. When Ealing Studios agreed to make the movie, it was nothing like it is now. Milo died in a fire at the end, for example. It would have been wildly over budget, impossible, and not useful to what is a really simple, lovely story.

Preston: We made mistakes in that first draft. We had this amazing development person at Ealing, Sophie Meyer. She said 'You know, the bulk of this scene is really good, but you're taking four pages when you could be economical and take a page and half to get to the essence of what you want.'

Seb: Sophie helped us strip it down to the bare bones and build it up again. We had a wishy washy thing, and we ended up with a real story. We realised that the most important thing was Jack.

Preston: We quite quickly realised that the theme of the movie is this idea of, what do you actually want to do? Being eighteen and being faced with the question, what do you actually want to do? We're so indoctrinated by our parents and by school and all that. That was the heart of the movie.

Seb: We strayed way too far into bohemia, the world of Evelyn and Milo. The reason (I hope) the story will resonate with people is that Jack is someone that we know. He was me, Preston, Will Poulter. We've all been 18 years old and had our parents say to us, 'We think you should…' This is a guy and a story that we all can connect with.

Preston: Then you're drafting together. You're not going off, and I'm editing a scene, he's editing a scene. That's when you sit down and laboriously go over the script. How do you make this scene have a natural structure to it that's surprising in a way?

Seb: My being an actor helped me a lot as a writer, regardless of whether I may or may not be a good actor. Being able to understand a bit about the process when one is on set, and how an actor might feel about being given certain lines or directions.

Everything that I do is very character driven, and that probably is to the detriment of the story. But I find, in the development process, you can find that story. But what you can't find, apart from in that spontaneous moment where you think, 'Here's this character, I've finally discovered who this person really is.' You can't mould that and shape that. That is that person. You can't force that.

Whereas there are cardinal rules of storytelling that you can apply those rules to characters that have come out of your heart, mind and soul.

Preston: I remember that cute thing of watching the film on the monitor. The first thing we shot is that scene when they're chugging, you know, charity mugging. We looked at it, it was on a wide shot, the master, the two of them when Alma shows up. We thought 'Oh my fucking God this is a proper film.’

Don't tell him this because he'll get flash, but Will Poulter and I were in the same year at school. We weren't friends, I didn't know him until we did the film, but I remember watching him when I was 14 in School of Comedy, and just thinking to myself. 'I want to do drama. That kid's my age.’ So for him to be speaking my dialogue, playing the lead, was quite a surreal experience.

Seb: I hope what we've proved with Kids in Love is that if you [pair] young people with people who’ve worked in the industry a long time and fuse them, you can get something really special.

Kids are actually misrepresented on film and TV, mostly. Kids are represented as adults think kids are, or should be, especially in America.

Preston: How often do you see a film where the seven main characters in it are all between 19 and 22? Everyone [acting in the film] has been in that place in life in the last two to three years, keenly aware of the pressures of that moment. It's pretty natural when it's a version of you. That's the frustration with how youth are portrayed. How often do 21-year-olds get to make a movie?

Seb: The real problem is it takes so long for anyone to have their voice heard, regardless of the opportunities they might get like the National Youth Theatre, arts-council grants, Channel 4's fantastic outreach projects. The real world says, 'Have you got a million quid to make this film?' 'Do you know so-and-so who's the commissioning editor at ITV?' ‘No? Well then you can't do it.’ Until you've staffed on TV shows, written on films, worked up to it.

I totally understand that if I want a lawyer, I want that lawyer to have learned their craft and to have worked with other lawyers under other lawyers, and to have worked up and up.

But here's the thing: When you're 18 years old, you’re having such a seminal experience. Your exposure to things, your perception of the world, is so original and so new and fantastic that you need to write it down there and then.

That voice needs to be heard there and then.

Preston: If you're a 40-year-old screenwriter writing about an 18-year-old falling in love, coming of age, you’re thinking in terms of, ‘What would an 18-year-old think like?’

We didn't have to do any of that. That was the easy bit. It may not be my exact perspective, but you have this real keen sense of the vocabulary and the way people behave because you are that age.

Lena Dunham captures young people as well as anyone. There are universal themes within Girls, but the characters are so themselves. If you showed me lines of dialogue, I could attribute them, they’re so clearly written. I think she's phenomenal, a brilliant writer. It’s amazing that HBO got behind a 24-year old!

Seb: But you can't wait twenty years to re-represent what you felt back then. Even the best writers are gonna struggle to feel that again, and to really find that voice, the voice of the 18-25 year old.

The great thing about Skins was that you had very experienced TV writers working with incredibly fresh writers who were coming up with all these very original, very real representations of what it was to be a young kid. I acted on the last two series. I thought it was great because I'd said some of this stuff, I'd felt some of this stuff. Even if I didn't take it as far as the kids do on Skins, I’d been there.

The first public screening of Kids in Love will be at Glastonbury, with a general release this Summer. You can follow the film @kidsinlovefilm and Sebastian @sebdesouza.

Photo credit: Edinburgh International Film Festival

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