Since graduating from the National Film & Television School in 2018, Myriam Raja has earned a BAFTA nomination for her short film Azaar, and directed an episode of the second season of Top Boy for Netflix before returning to the final season to direct a full block. We spoke to Myriam about crafting those first four episodes, the challenges she’s faced, and maintaining agency as a director. Read the full interview below.
Is genre something you are more drawn to as a director?
I think so. I was very into Tim Burton and horror films as a teenager. The first short film I made was a horror, so genre was definitely the first thing I began with. I think in part this is due to the mechanics being quite clear to understand and emulate, so it was great practice. It’s later when I went to study at Bournemouth Arts University that I made my first ever short film in Urdu, which is what I speak at home with my parents. It’s a very short, non-sentimental film about a girl who gets her period. I think that was a stepping stone to turning more inwards and asking myself ‘What are the stories I want to tell now?’
How did you become attached to Top Boy?
I shadowed on the set of season 1 of the Netflix reboot. I directed second unit on the final block, filming a police raid and improvising with the actors, which was a great experience. Following on from that, I was asked to direct an episode of season 2, which could have been quite intimidating, but it wasn’t because I knew a lot of the cast and crew from when I was a mentee. There was a sense of comradery on set and I could tell that people were happy to see me come back in a bigger role. The experience went really well and I was happy to be asked back to lead on the final season.
Tell me more about working with the crew.
On Season 2 I was very fortunate to work with Stuart Bentley who is an incredible DP and a great collaborator. We developed a great rapport and communication was very seamless, he was of course a lot more experienced than me but I never felt like my toes were stepped on at any point, he was instead very supportive. Charles Steel, Alasdair Flind and Tina Pawlik, the producers, were also great because they put a lot of trust in me and gave me a lot of creative agency. There was room to really expand on what the script had already laid out - for example I suggested a moment where Stef buys sweets for Tia’s little sister from a vending machine at the hospital - though it wasn’t scripted, the idea was supported and we were able to get a vending machine, some time to shoot it, and incorporate it in the scene.
On this final Season I was once again fortunate to have teamed up with another incredible DP, Federico Cesca. I had a great team of HOD’s around me - Natalie Humphries as costume designer, Alexandra Toomey as production designer and Shahnaz Dulaimy as editor. There is a very real sense of family around the crew of Top Boy on set, a great energy and you know everyone is very passionate about what we’re making. This makes a huge difference.
How did you approach working with the actors?
The range of actors on this show is quite wide - we have a lot of street casting, there are people who’ve never been in front of a camera before, and you often have scenes with lots of cast numbers, all with varying methods. For the younger actors it was a case of making them feel involved and letting them have agency, keeping it playful and light. In one scene, Tia (Conya Toccara) is having banter with another character though after a few takes the energy of course began to dip, so I pulled Conya aside and gave her an outrageous line to say to the other actors, when he least expects it. She found this very amusing and it was our little secret, immediately I could feel a shift in her attitude. But with all the actors, you have to gain their trust so they feel comfortable being vulnerable. One of the main techniques I used, especially with the younger or less experienced cast members, was to be standing next to the camera and talking to the actors while we were shooting so I could communicate and give notes more organically. It meant the crew would also be on their toes and we would reset within the take - by not calling for cut it felt like we weren’t interrupting the natural flow of the energy.
There’s a big scene where the estate is protesting immigration enforcement — how did you shoot this?
The protest scene was quite challenging because it was filmed on an actual housing estate, so the journey had to be mapped out very logically and we had certain restrictions. It was inspired by one that happened in Glasgow, and I looked at a lot of mobile phone footage of that on YouTube. We had a team of supporting actors from the community and Andy Gradwell, the first AD, was fantastic at getting everyone revved up and giving instructions. With the heat it was a tough one but I feel it all came through from the energy of the cast. It was important to retain a very grounded sense of realism with this sequence as it runs through the entire episode. It could have easily ended up feeling quite “cringey” and forced, which I was definitely afraid of and wanted to avoid. Top Boy has always touched on social issues surrounding immigration, gentrification, classes - it didn’t feel out of the narrative world to have this plot line, but I wanted it to feel embedded in the world and not shoe horned in.
By focusing on moments like showing the pain Kieron’s mum goes through, or the sense of injustice Mandy faces as she demands questions - it felt like I could keep it grounded with heart and emotion. The scene was shot handheld, with myself and Fede being in and amongst the crowd - we would go around and just capture as the action would unfold, wanting to keep the energy of the camera very raw and spontaneous. If I saw something really interesting in the moment, I would tap Fede on the shoulder and he’d quickly be able to capture it. The scene was then very much crafted in the edit, with lots of back and forth and trimming.
Could you talk about those choices that were made in terms of conveying the narrative beats and the emotional beats in scenes through visual language?
We aimed for a lot of naturalism, so we wouldn’t have lights around the actors too much or at least not have lights that would restrict the actors’ movements. Our episodes were also 100% shot on location, so you had to work within certain constraints but it also meant everything felt very real and exciting. Blocking was rarely pinned down, and there was a lot of improvisation, the actors fully collaborated on certain scenes and that gives the show its injection of rawness. Some scenes, however, were very measured and specific. In the scene when Dushane asks Jeffrey about Lizzy, we had the camera on a tracking dolly instead of handheld, and I was very specific with Ashley on when I wanted him to turn around, and the way he would drag a stool to sit on and how the camera would follow it.
We were never prescriptive with which scenes had to exclusively be handheld and which ones more stylized; I wanted the visual language to convey the emotional states of the characters. Another important thing with this final season was to bring back the element of colour - we were able to shoot during the summer and it was great to have the sun, the sweat, daylight, the vibrancy come through costume and painted walls. I wanted to come away from the ‘drab’ and ‘gritty’ look of London and previous season, and this was a sort of nod back to the visual language of the first ever Top Boy season directed by the amazing Yann Demange.
This season has fewer episodes than the previous ones. How did you find the change in pace?
When I directed episode 6 of the previous season, the pace was much slower and the episode runtime was longer, so I was able to hold on shots for longer. I did feel on this season there was a push for the pace to be quicker when it came to editing. We also removed quite a few scenes and of course there was nothing to replace those beats, so you end up with shorter runtimes. While we filmed our block, there weren’t any scripts for the final two
episodes and we had no idea where the characters and plot lines were heading. In a way it made everything feel very in the moment, but looking back I do think I would have made a few different decisions had I known where it was going.
What’s it like reading the feedback about the series?
It’s been great seeing the positive reviews of course but maybe right now I still feel very close to it. I find it difficult to watch anything back without being critical of my own work! I am very proud of the performances and I think it’s a great final season, though there will always be some elements I wish had been different. I also worry that most people probably binge something like this within 6 hours, which of course is the norm now, but how do you sit with the emotional weight of some of the storylines if you don’t give it time to digest? I think streamers and platforms have a responsibility to challenge audiences in that sense, and we shouldn’t worry so much about making everything very obvious.
What are you working on next?
I’m currently developing my debut feature.