Print by Fred Butler © WONDERKID.

Interview: WONDERKID

Philomena Epps

WONDERKID is a 20-minute short film, currently in production, that follows the inner turmoil of an anonymous young gay footballer as he comes to terms with his own identity and sexuality. The film provides an insight into the trauma caused by homophobia and challenges preconceptions about what it is to be ‘masculine’. Philomena Epps spoke to co-director Rhys Chapman about the journey so far and what the future holds.

What moved you to create WONDERKID and tackle homophobia in football?

When I set out as a filmmaker it was important to me that the work I created would educate an audience as well as just entertain. Being football mad, I’ve always wanted to make a film about a footballer. The more research I did into the game, the more I realised that homophobia was a huge issue that has lacked widespread attention. I knew that this was a story that needed to be told. As a result of not knowing who the gay players have been over the years, we haven’t been directly exposed to how that would affect a young person in the game, and how this could potentially lead to them unfulfilling their potential. With players like Casey Stoney, Robbie Rodgers, and Thomas Hitzleperger recently ‘coming out’, and more initiatives such as Rainbow Laces campaign and ‘Football v. Homophobia’ gaining momentum it seemed like a fitting time for this film to be made.

How do influential do you feel these initiatives are, such as groups tackling the abusive chants, or the Stonewall rainbow laces campaign you just mentioned?

Stonewall’s 2013 campaign definitely influenced me to start work on WONDERKID, and while the 2014 campaign was much bigger, I have mixed feelings about it. It was great to see Arsenal support the campaign, the advert played at halftime during an England game, and to open The Metro newspaper and see that 32 advertisers had shown their support. However, there was very little follow up after the weekend and only a few players laced up. It just felt like a clever marketing campaign for Paddy Power. Kick It Out (football’s equality and inclusion organisation) recently started working very hard with the LGBT football community. I’ve learned so much from their work. Several Premier League clubs also now have official LGBT supporters groups, some of which I have had the pleasure of spending a lot of time with. It’s great to see so many initiatives coming together and I’m seeing significantly more news articles on subject.

Could you expand a little more about your relationship with these other LGBT groups, such as the charity Galop, supporters groups like Gay Gooners and the Proud Lillywhites, and gay-friendly seven-a-side team Soho FC?

When I started this project, I knew that being straight would weaken my ability to tell this story effectively. The only way I could tackle that was to fully immerse myself in learning about LGBT issues and speaking with people that have experienced them first hand. Galop is London's LGBT anti-violence and abuse charity. They offered to provide us with advice and support with the film. I then started playing for Soho FC. Through Soho, I ended up meeting the Gay Gooners, and I went watch the Arsenal quite a lot with them. Through spending them with them, I met the Proud Lilywhites. Football is quite often a hostile environment and it has been great to see how much better it can be. Its been incredibly moving to meet people who have always loved football, but felt that its not for them because of the environment, come and play or watch their team, be themselves, and feel accepted. I feel like I am a part of something really special.

Do you think it’s a frontier to start breaking down other societal injustices?

Definitely, football is the most watched and played sport in the world. I know that if this institution took a stand and shifted to becoming a safe environment for gay players and fans, the positive effects will be huge. I think the subconscious of the nation needs to realise the extent of the damage homophobia causes. Education is the best way to make sure that it is taken seriously. In my opinion, both film and sport are the most powerful tools for social change, so to combine the two means that the possibilities are infinite. When football makes this change, it would be felt across all other walks of life and certainly pave the way for much more equality in the world. I’ve been spending a lot of time lately educating myself on trans issues. The trans community face a serious injustice. By breaking down the issue of homophobia, it can also lead to the work that needs to be addressed within the trans community, as they don’t have the support and security they need.

Crowdfunding is a phenomenon that has changed the landscape of production by allowing the most unexpected projects to become a reality. What was your experience like?

I was at university studying Arts Management when all the arts funding cuts happened, so I really feared for the worst. It’s great to see that crowdfunding has emerged as one positive from the cuts. It you’re just starting out and have a good idea, you can turn that idea into a reality without having to rely on governing bodies. It was important that our campaign was as much about raising awareness as raising the funds for a larger campaign. Our campaign set out to highlight homophobia in football to as many people as possible, and we saw Kickstarter as a platform that could do that. Together, creators and backers make projects happen. With this in mind it was vital we created a film that moved people and with that we hoped to not only raise the funds required to make the film but to also raise awareness about homophobia in football. You also have the ability to create an audience before starting, and we were able to reach a huge proportion our target audience. Through all the press and coverage we received we were not only able to fund the 20-minute film but managed to reach an audience of over 2 million.

Wonderkid has some very high profile supporters. How did the relationship with Ian McKellan and Kevin Spacey come about?

We were lucky enough early on in the project to receive support from Kevin Spacey. Spacey has a foundation to help get creative projects like WONDERKID off of the ground. I wrote to him and was lucky enough to receive their backing. I met Ian McKellen at last year’s Pride in London with the Gay Gooners. We approached him and told him what we were doing. McKellan was very positive at a time when we were struggling to get things going. He said if there was anything he could do to help then let him know. We sent him our Wembley promotional video with my narration. He was blown away and offered to lend us his magical voice. There is a lot of responsibility that comes with high profile backing, but the responsibility has only has filled us with confidence about what we are doing and driven us more.

Is your background in film? Who else is in your team and how did you all come together?

When I moved to London in 2009 I wanted to go to film school but I couldn’t afford it and stood no chance of receiving a scholarship. I found a degree called Arts Management, which is a business course, tailored for the arts. The course required students to undertake work placements and I used it as an opportunity to gain as much experience as possible before graduating. The degree focused heavily on arts marketing and social media. It seems counterintuitive but not studying film has actually helped me further my career as a director. Once I graduated I continued to intern and work weekends until I felt ready to start getting WONDERKID off of the ground. My team consists of producers Hannah Shipley and Morgan Faverty who have been with me right from the start, having responded to a short video I made as a call for a producer back in early 2014. We also have executive producer Stephen Whelan from Blink Productions / White Lodge, and Maria Sihaloho from John Doe who handles our PR. We get fantastic advice and production support from Valeria Bullo at Pathè, who is also helping us out as an associate producer. I wrote the story with help from short story writer Terence Corless. Independent Talent rep / NFTS graduate Matt Diss has written the screenplay. We also receive an overwhelming amount of support from The Telegraph, which is led by Ed Taylor. More recently Des Hamilton came on board to help us with casting.

With Des now on board, does this mean the project is in flux? What’s the plan for the next few months until the release – have you started casting and filming?

Yes, the project is very much moving forward. We scheduled our shoot for 5 days in July, after securing fantastic locations with W Hotel, Wembley Stadium, and Tottenham Hotspur. We have started work with Hamilton already, so should have some exciting news about cast very soon. We aim to premiere the film towards the end of the year with the help of Ed at The Telegraph. They have promised to ensure that the film is seen by as many of the key decision makers in the country and football as possible.

Considering your desire to educate and entertain, how have you found it to work between the creative and the social? What do you hope the impact of the film will be, in the short term and long term?

I believe that we have a responsibility to create films that can help people, that is something I take very seriously. The social aspect of WONDERKID has definitely elevated our film to a whole new level. I’ve learned so much from the campaigning side and it has really helped shape the story and how we intend to use the film once it is made. With film you can create an entire reality from scratch that for all intents and purposes is real to the observer in that moment. It’s essential to tackle issues that relate to people’s silent suffering on the big screen. Separating people from the outside world and placing them in the environment of a cinema can really enable the audience to become a part of that reality. The core message in this campaign is that everyone shares a basic human desire to love and be loved, and we should all be able to pursue that basic human right. We hope to create a realistic portrayal of the trauma caused by homophobia in football and make mass audience sympathise with this issue. By sitting there and thinking about their own behaviour, this will hopefully rouse action within them to bring about change. Through all the coverage we had from the 2-minute video narrated by McKellen, I don’t doubt that the film can really make a difference and I’m very proud to be a part of it. We have big plans for WONDERKID in the future and I fully intend to continue with the project until the institution of football becomes a safe place for everyone, and that fans and players alike are welcomed irrespective of who they might love. I am committed to spending the rest of my life making films that can help people in this way - you can hold me to that!

Watch the trailer here: