December 11th see’s the release of the latest film by director Mo Ali titled Montana. I was lucky enough to attend the gala screening this past week.
(ALL MONTANA SET SHOTS COURTESY GARETH ROBERTS)
The movie is based ‘In the mean streets of London’s East End’, where a former Serbian commando and a fourteen-year old boy plot revenge against a powerful crime lord and his ruthless lieutenants. As our heroes prepare to take on their enemies, the boy is mentored in the dark arts of assassination and learns the true meaning of friendship, honour and respect.
Shooting on Montana lasted for six weeks taking in locations all over London. Yes! Only six weeks! Four weeks pre production – six weeks shoot – incredible, no?
Director Mo Ali confided in me ‘’ we worked in the noisiest, coldest, sootiest places in London, Hackney, Poplar, Brick Lane, White Chapel and a sugar mill in Greenwich. But we had to shoot them at night-time, so for two weeks we would shoot 24 hours a day with two different crews, with different actors. The weather was freezing for the entire shoot, being one of the worst winters in memory. The grit and the grime that colours the film is genuine’’
The film reminds me of early Guy Ritchie movies Snatch and Lock Stock with its action, thriller and cockney attitude- but for today’s generation, with todays pop culture influences and slanguage. Due to the fact that its directed by a black man and features a few well known BAME actors, no doubt this will be tagged an ‘’urban’’ film, but honestly, it sits in the genre of great grimy British movie too. Director Mo Ali isn’t phased by the urban label though ‘’ the Urban film brand, the word doesn’t bother me, the older generation sees it as negative, young kids love it, so I embrace it whatever’’.
Co-lead man McKell David is a very impressive young fourteen-year old, who plays the part of Montana. He’s a relative newcomer and also had smaller parts in My Brother the Devil, Black Mirror, but in Montana he discovers that the powerful crime lord and ruthless lieutenants, for whom he works, secretly killed his father.
At the same time Dimitrije (Lars Mikkelsen – The Killing, Borgen, Headhunter), a former Serbian commando, comes looking for the gangster in order to take revenge for the death of his wife and son. Realising that they share a bloody purpose, the commando now mentors the boy in the dark arts of assassination and relearns the value of life as he teaches the boy the true meaning of friendship, honour and respect.
You never know what you’ll get at screenings that haven’t had massive hype around them, billions poured into their marketing or the blessing of a massive picture house. So it was really refreshing that from the first few seconds into the movie until the very end, I was gripping my chair with emotions ranging from fear, anger, empathy, pain and laughter.
A thrilling and gritty revenge tale, MONTANA also stars multi-faceted Ashley Walters (Small Island, Hustle, Top Boy), Michelle Fairly (Game of Thrones, Philomena) and the erratic Adam Deacon (Babyon, Kidulthood, Adulthood). It’s directed by Mo Ali (Shank) and produced by Mark Foligno (Moon, The Kings Speech, The Rise).
I recall meeting Mo Ali many years ago when he was a music video director for urban music acts. He was a runner for a TV company before that and quickly leapt from music video director to feature film producer. From his infancy as a street kid in Saudi Arabia, to his childhood and adolescence on the estates of East London, he brings an understanding of the manner and language in which the youth communicate.
With his extreme drive and visual bravado, Mo has already directed over eighty music videos. Years ago, he could be found shooting free videos for independent and underground UK acts. He got his big break directing Lethal B’s “POW” video, as well as directed for acts including Tinchy Stryder, Chipmunk, Skepta, Jammer and many more.
His music video director days also influenced his making of Montana ‘’ I used my music video background to inject some visual excitement into Montana and, in particular the fight sequences with a limited budget. I incorporated many highly visual action sequences that added adrenalin and energy. An example of this is the very first scene where Dimitrije is introduced, escaping from torture and certain death’’
He smiles with the relief of someone’s that put in the graft and paid their dues ‘’ I look at my progression from TV runner to music videos to feature films, I’m happy and hungry, nothing holds me back, I’m not afraid to try anything new’’.
And this is new. Yes, the film does reference back to age themes of old crime lords, drug dealers, youth and hints of romance, but what makes it really topical and relevant to today is its acknowledgment of the eastern European influence the country now has, as well as British black stars that all hail from the capital. The last movie Mo made was Shank- about a group of young people that lived in apocalyptic London.
With the cast, Mo has also juxtaposed old skool, new school, classical and unknowns in Montana. Montana’s straight laced female copper is played by Michelle Fairley , an Irish stage and screen actress famous, most notably for her excellent portrayal of Catelyn Stark in the immensely successful television series ‘Game Of Thrones’. Fairley has also starred opposite Nicole Kidman in ‘The Others’, appeared in ‘Harry Potter’ and most recently can be seen in Oscar nominated ‘Philomena’ and also The Invisible Woman. So to reiterate, there’s no need to brand this an urban movie but if you must, you will.
As a youngster growing up in poplar, east London, Mo was a huge film fan that daydreamed about being an action superhero and describes Montana as homage to Luc Besson’s iconic LEON as well as giving a nod to films such as Karate Kid.
This nod to his favourite movies is apparent as Montana has moments of Karate Kid, Gladiator and Kidulthood – all made by directors that he himself greatly admires.
Not only was Mo brought up in East London, but also passion for his roots run deeper than simply immortalising it on the big screen in his movie ‘’I grew up in Poplar; the opening scene is exactly where I grew up. That opening walk that Montana does is me as a kid. I used to hang out on that balcony and daydream about my future life’.
(This is such a common story- directors and producers showcasing parts of their own life via younger actors and storylines; like Benny Medinas story portrayed by Will Smith in Fresh Prince of Bel Air)
Montana is full of action, crime, violence and stunts. Oftentimes when witnessing this outside the big budget Hollywood blockbusters, mass gun and explosive action can seem amateur, awkward and comical, but Montana captures the tone and technique of Israeli martial art krav maga perfectly. Krav maga is a self defence system developed for the military in Israel that consists of a wide combination of techniques sourced from boxing, muay thai, wing chun, judo, jujitsu, wrestling and grappling alongside realistic fight training. Krav Maga is also known for its focus on real-world situations and extremely efficient and brutal counter-attacks so perfectly paired with Montana.
Mo tells me ‘‘as the film is so stunt heavy, we set up a four-week boot camp for McKell and Lars. They went through intensive weapons training with armorer Matthew Strange, and stunts and martial arts training with stunt coordinator/second unit director Peter Predrero. Lars went on a strict diet and training regime to physically condition himself, and by the time we began shooting he was by his own admission in the best physical shape of his life. When we came to shoot, the majority of the stunts were performed by McKell and Lars’’.
Mo is full of admiration for the stunt coordination team ‘’ we had a great stunt coordinator that’s done a lot of Hollywood films, my input was as a music video director I had visuals I wanted too, so we had to train two people to become assassins, a master killer and a trainee killer. This took a lot of choreography. We had SAS trainees teach them how to shoot guns and only two weeks to teach them the fight choreography, which is an insanely short period of time. Both Lars and Mckell picked it up with extreme focus and performed like seasoned pro’s that you took seriously’’
Mo explained to me, that in order to show the learning and support between the trained assassin and the trainee, all the moves were first taught to Lars, who then taught his young charge McKell AKA Montana, Lars is a versatile, unique and acclaimed actor, treading the boards in over forty plays, appearing in numerous films and featured in television series including a BBC’s popular ‘Sherlock’ and Danish series ‘Forbrydelsen’, released worldwide as ‘The Killing. Developing a taste for performance after learning juggling and fire breathing, the now well-lauded actor and two friends travelled Europe performing on the streets of cities such as Paris, Munich.
Mo’s concept and Jeremy’s script required a cast that could deliver convincingly on the physical action sequences but also portray the emotional complexity of the central relationships.
Seeing young McKell in action is quite something. Mo reveals
‘’As there are not many ‘stars’ of that age, and none that fitted the character, we had to cast the net wide. We did open castings, approached drama schools and after school clubs, martial arts clubs and of course an open call to agents. I auditioned hundreds of young actors, but from the first time I met McKell David, I knew I’d found my Montana. ‘’our casting director was incredible and scoured London’s streets for hundreds of young boys. This kid with a Mohican walked in, very calm and controlled, I thought this kid looks great, I hope he can talk well too, he could! Then I thought can he take direction, he did it well again. I wondered ‘what’s his improve like, he had it all! I asked if he could box…. he said ‘’yeah I come from this area so you know that’s a given…’Certain people told me a kid with a Mohican wouldn’t work. But I was determined that I wanted a black or mixed race kid to prove anyone can be a hero’’.
Mckell David is indeed a powerful co lead and delivers a powerful and explosive performance well beyond his years. Mckell’s clearly a born go-getter. Hard working and determined, at the age of just twelve McKell began broadcasting a hidden camera comedy show via his own You Tube channel, where he pranked members of the public. The show got him noticed and was the perfect platform to allow his cheeky, confident but charming self strut into the consciousness of the UK and the US. To date, McKell has received over a million views online and over 12,500 fans on Facebook, both numbers continuing to rise as his profile as a film actor grows. 2012 saw the release of two films for McKell, ‘My Brother The Devil’ where he played ‘Demon’s Boy’, and Illegal Activity as ‘Leeroy’. Following these was ‘Our Girl’, released soon after in 2013 where he played the part of ‘Dean’.
With Montana, McKell tells me…
‘’ it was really exciting for me to get this so early in my career. I was 15 when I did this, I had been on film sets before but nothing this big, this was huge for me, and also gave me an opportunity to showcase what I could do as It was a really physical project. I got the script, loved it. I wanted this role really badly. Working with Lars, the irony is that off-screen we had our own story- what I learnt from him was amazing, he helped me out with my script lines too.
Working with Mo, I had little experience of film sets before Mo, he’s very direct, he’s both hard-core and soft and nurturing as a director, he always knows exactly what the shot should be and helped me get them in. The stunt guys made me feel really comfortable-Pete Pedro/Chris king- they were all 6 foot and massive, I was only 5.5’’, but they made me feel confident- luckily I’m very sporty anyway so it was just about remembering getting the movements right so I’m really grateful to crew and cast ’’
Mo did look back and acknowledge that the old adage ‘never work with animals or kids;’ didn’t prove true in his experience. His experience with the two young actors was very positive. ‘This girl Sinaed (who plays teenager Jess), she’s incredible, and mature for her age….both these kids are under age- McKell was 14 at time of filming, so legally only allowed a certain time on set. Mckell had to learn his fight sequences, imagine the pressure on them knowing they’re learning and performing on set in front of whole crew and set. Sinead would ask to retake stuff cos she knew she could do better’’.
The Montana crew knew they wanted to cast a European actor to play Dimitrije, and being huge fans of the hit Danish TV series ‘The Killing’, they were excited to offer the role to Lars Mikkelsen. Lars responded positively to the script, but had concerns, as this would be his first major English language role. He met Mo to discuss the project and committed there and then.
Mo reached out personally to Adam Deacon and Ashley Walters, both of whom he’d worked with before, and they both loved the script. Mo acknowledges ‘‘both deliver what I want on set. To get them is a privilege. Its good to have a part in keeping our cultural icons out there on screen. I would whisper ‘’Joe Pesci’’ in Adams ear. As long as he had a stack of red bull and Joe Pesci whispered in his ear he was good. He was buzzing from doing the fight sequence!’’. And Ashley is a laugh a minute, we had a scene where we were shooting a chasing sequence in a Est London cemetery at 4am and Ashley’s got them all singing R&B songs to stay warm!’’.
Young McKell even found working alongside Ashley and Adam mind blowing ‘I had watched their films before this, I was excited to work with them, I grew up listening to So Solid and Adam gave me so many banter moments in the middle of the night with him doing his Australian accent- it was good!’’.
I bring Mo and McKell back to the subject of being pigeon holed by labels like urban and diversity in the film industry. Mo explains it thus ‘‘They’’ only want us to do estate films, ‘’they’’ know who they are. Even British director Ridley Scott recently said that his biblical film Exodus wouldn’t be financed if the lead actor was called ‘Mohammad so-and-so’ . This film is a testament of not giving up. This will make kids from estates think if Mo Ali can do an action film so can I. To me it’s a father and son story with action, we don’t have father and mentor relationships anymore in the western world, were missing that, so that’s what Montana’s about’’
New about-to-blow star in the making McKell has the last word
‘’There’s so much competition out there; if you want it really badly the law of attraction will make it happen. In life you’ve got to breakdown barriers, the barriers like defining words like urban are here to stay. One of the new leads of Star Wars is a young black man from the UK. We’re all doing things!’’