Plan B: Smooth operator
Plan B made his name as a rapper, then topped the charts as a snappily dressed soul singer. Now he's making his directorial debut with a hip-hop movie. Charlotte Cripps meets an urban polymath
Tuesday 25 January 2011
His hit soul album The Defamation of Strickland Banks is currently in the Top 10 of the UK album charts. He had a leading role in the film Harry Brown, alongside Michael Caine. But the boy wants more. Now Plan B, rapper-turned-crooner, has decided to direct his first full-length feature film.
Ill Manors, an urban musical drama about respect and survival, is set on the streets of east London. It stars Four Lions and The Road to Guantanamo actor and musician Riz Ahmed as a petty drug dealer with a good heart, as well as My Summer of Love actress Natalie Press as an Eastern European prostitute who is forced into her job.
"With directing I am playing God," says the 27-year-old Plan B (real name Ben Drew). We meet at the Bafta headquarters in Piccadilly, where he has been sitting on the judging panel, alongside directors Tom Ford and Mike Newell, of the Orange Rising Star Award. A sharp dresser, ever since he morphed from an angry tracksuited rapper into his soul-based alter ego Strickland Banks, today he's wearing a blue glossy suit. His feet, in shiny black shoes, tap restlessly.
"I looked at the music video directors and I thought, 'If they can do it. I can do it.' I'm the one with all the stories and the vision," he says.
When did he decide he wanted to be a feature film director? "When I started rapping I knew I needed an angle – so I decided that it would be storytelling," he says. "It just grew from there."
At the age of 16, he did a BTEC National Diploma in media studies, where he learnt film editing. "I always wanted to do singing but my mum wanted me to have something to fall back on. The only other thing I was interested in was films."
He got some practice directing the music video "Pieces" for Chase and Status in 2008 and took roles in Noel Clarke's Adulthood and 126.96.36.199. mainly as a way to find out more about directing films. "I asked as many questions as I could on the film sets. With acting it's so internal. It's like a feeling. But when the director tells you to come and look at the monitor, and it hasn't worked you realise you don't know how well you are doing. With directing I know whether I've got it right."
He gets plenty out of playing hoodies in films, too. "I enjoy playing a horrible nasty character. It's boring being the good guy. Maybe it's also a kind of release. As I've got older and got involved in the music industry, I can't be fighting any more. I had to try and keep things under control. Now the film roles are the only place where I can let go of that anger."
Today, Plan B has everything to be cheerful about. His album, which shot to No 1 in April last year, has gone triple platinum and was one of the biggest selling albums in the UK last year by a British act. Next month he will perform at the Brit Awards, where he is nominated for British Male Solo Artist, British Single and British Album.
A passion for storytelling has always been an important part of his music making film a natural progression, he says. His much-lauded album tells the tale of the rise and fall of an invented soul singer Strickland Banks, who ends up in jail for a crime he didn't commit. It includes the snappy Top 10 hit single, "She Said". In the video he appears in character.
"He's a version of me, an alter-ego. Strickland is my age – 27. He looks like me, and he's from the East End. But he's a bit more on the sensitive side, whereas Plan B is quite dark. He's a chance for me not to have to be so serious, to go with my love of soul music. It is about creating a character that I could destroy, as well. So that I could do my whole storytelling thing."
His new film, due out later this year, and for which he still has to write the soundtrack, is only the beginning. "It's my calling card," he says.
It started about six years ago when he wrote a gangster film, Trigger. "The British version of The Godfather," he claims. He still hopes to make it once he has proved himself as a director.
"When I was 21 years old, the film company wanted to give me a million quid for it. Then they asked me who would direct it. I said, 'Me, obviously.' The room went quiet and I figured I'd better show them I can direct first." His dream cast includes Gary Oldman, Jason Isaacs, Terence Stamp and Ray Winstone and he has no doubts that he will direct it – "but it won't happen for about four years".
Anything seems possible for Plan B, who was originally heralded as the UK's answer to Eminem. He released his debut album Who Needs Actions When You Got Words in 2006. Songs such as "Sick 2 Def", "Kidz" and "Mama (Loves a Crackhead)" told tales of drugs, teenage violence, rape and grim inner-city hardship.
Born in Forest Gate, east London, Plan B taught himself how to play guitar at the age of 14. "When I first started writing songs seriously, and teaching myself how to play guitar, it was a soul song after soul song. Just pure love songs. I was 14, I'd never been in love, but I had a good understanding of what love might be. And almost every song had the word 'love' in its title." He began to rap once he realised that nobody wanted to hear a white boy from Forest Gate singing silly loves songs. "I went down that route of just rapping about myself."
For his next surprising step, he intends to move in a punk rock and dubstep direction. "I loved The Prodigy growing up. That industrial punk dance music," he tells me. "But I've got too much to finish first."
He is also making a Strickland Banks film, and is busy completing a hip-hop reworking of his hit album, The Ballad of Belmarsh, which will be released independently after being rejected by his label, before he moves to the next chapter of his music career.
In the meantime, he hopes that his new film will break the cliché of "broken Britain". "The whole point of my film is to show that, yes, these despicable crimes happen – they are largely because of ignorant, messed-up people who come from poor areas – but there is a reason for every crime that gets committed. There are some people who just make mistakes because they are misled. That's the character Riz plays as Aaron. You are in an environment where you are told you can't have a heart."
Plan B nearly got his "head kicked in" while making the film in September. "We were shooting outside Manor Park Tube station when one of my actors accidentally bumped into a local kid," he says. "He told me to get off his street. I tried to explain that I was just trying to tell a story about how I used to live and how he is living now." Luckily another gang of local boys came to the rescue and offered him protection. "We had security for the rest of the day. That's the positive thing."
The film also stars Ed Skrein, a British actor and rapper, who has appeared with Plan B twice before and who plays a cold-blooded drug dealer. In 2006 they worked together on Bizzness Woman, a music video/ film hybrid that Plan B developed with the director Mike Figgis and Skrein also appeared in Plan B's first short film Michelle, a pilot for Ill Manors, in 2008.
Since those early days, Plan B has taken to directing like a fish to water. "Maybe it's because people need me and they have to trust me. It's like managing a football team." His favourite film, he reveals, is Forrest Gump. "I really don't care if people think that's cheesy. It is so deep. It follows the most unlikely anti-hero in this idiot, who turns out not to be an idiot at all. I think Forrest Gump influenced my way of storytelling."
With luck, Plan B will continue to find the time to juggle all of his many projects. But as he says: "You either have talent to do something, or you don't. No one can tell you anything. You've got to take the initiative . The way I direct films is the way I make music. It is my unique expression. Nobody else has it."
Plan B (Ben Drew) sat on the Orange Wednesdays Rising Star jury panel. Vote for your favourite nominee now at www.orange.co.uk/bafta . The film 'Ill Manors' will be released later this year
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