Rye Lane: Raine Allen-Miller in conversation with Vivian Oparah
Raine Allen-Miller’s feature directorial debut Rye Lane is, as she puts it, her “love letter to south London”. Gleefully playing with the hotch-potch of subcultures and artistic communities its diverse boroughs have to offer, Allen-Miller’s film is a Before Sunrise-style, not-quite-so-romantic comedy, in which a meet-cute occurs in the toilets of a gallery opening before traversing from the eponymous Peckham street to Brixton for a poorly planned revenge heist.
“It’s not an easy place to grow up, but it’s also really beautiful,” Allen-Miller says of her childhood in Croydon. A world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival felt especially rewarding for the director, who took pride in seeing the streets that shaped her celebrated on a global stage. “I thought it was important to shine a light on it, and it was wonderful to see somewhere like Rye Lane or Brixton Market projected on a screen in the mountains of Utah.”
For a film so indebted to the people and culture of the capital’s south, music was key to creating its candy coloured world. Allen-Miller enlisted the Lewisham-born experimental producer Kwes to helm the score, as well as actor and musician Vivian Oparah to play its free-spirited lead, Yas, who stars alongside David Jonsson. Like the happenstance meeting that opens Rye Lane, it was as if Allen-Miller and Oparah were cosmically brought together, as they came to discover on set; the former used to put on grime club nights, influencing the latter’s own musical career as producer and vocalist Bunny. Calling from different sides of the Atlantic (Oparah from Los Angeles, Allen-Miller from London), the two open up about their similar upbringings, creative intuition, and the realities of love.
Crack: Music plays such a pivotal role in Rye Lane, from Kwes’ score to the sequence where Yas and Dom steal back her A Tribe Called Quest record. What is your favourite music moment in the film?
Vivian Oparah: Definitely the remix of LGOYH at the end of the film, because that’s my favourite Kwes song. Kwes, Mica Levi and Tirzah birthed the south London sound. I think he’s amazing at capturing something that feels homely, but with a quirk, which is so honest.
Raine Allen-Miller: That whole sound is so uniquely London – it was really important for me to make a film that just sounded like that. I wanted to show a London that is gritty, and specifically show grime, in a more commercial way. I make playlists whenever I create anything and Kwes was 90 percent of the tracklist [when I was working on Rye Lane]. He just encompasses [the film] in so many ways, so he felt like the right person to collaborate with.
VO: There was a MySpace era that Kwes, Mica Levi, Jack Peñate and Kate Nash were a part of. It was an indie scene, but it was also adjacent to the grime scene that was coming up at the same time. As they’ve grown creatively, all of those artists still keep the heart of that sound in their music.
RAM: It’s so funny that you mentioned names like Jack Peñate because that era is when I went out. I used to run a club night called Local with my friends, because we were like, “Why does everything cool happen in east London?” So we did the night in Brixton, at this place called Club 43, and it was amazing. It was the most grimy, disgusting club ever.
VO: I must’ve been in secondary school around then. I wasn’t having a great time in school but going on the internet and seeing all these scenes that were bubbling, I thought, ‘Oh, there’s cool Black people completely defying genre’. That era is very important to me, and I constantly talk about it because it was an escape. It’s serendipitous because there’s clearly a thread between us.
RAM: Hearing music that makes you feel understood is a very special thing, and that’s what we wanted to do in the film. We wanted people to watch it and go, “Oh, that’s me.”
VO: I feel like we have similar brains. When I see something, I immediately hear what it sounds like. When you were creating the world of Rye Lane, is that what inspired the sound, or was it more the story and people in it?
RAM: Rye Lane was mapped out in my head very early on. Oddly, the colours, the world, and the sound were just this little ecosystem.
“Hearing music that makes you feel understood is a very special thing, and that’s what we wanted to do”
VO: There’s a weird interplay between [music and visuals] in my mind. The emotion that a visual evokes makes me think of a sound, or the other way around. I find it really difficult to reference from the same medium. Say you’re making a film and then watch another film to understand your own. I get paranoid that you’d just end up making the other film that you like.
RAM: Tone is such a specific thing that you can’t [reference]. If you reference a specific shot like, for example, the Spike Lee dolly shot, there’s no point in copying it.
VO: It’s the feeling you want to channel. If someone shows me music, [it could feel like] the first time you go outside after it’s finished raining. [Referencing] is almost harder in a way, and way more restrictive. It doesn’t give you any room to play as a creative, but sometimes abstracting the goal gives room for everyone to bring what they want to bring.
RAM: Some people can’t communicate that, but I think you can. I could say to you, “I want Yas to have a moment that [feels] like the song Genevieve [by Jai Paul],” and you’d know what I mean.
Crack: Raine, you’ve called this film your love letter to south London. Why was it important to tell this story?
RAM: I moved to south London when I was 12, and one of the first things I did was go to Nour Cash and Carry with my grandma to get Jamaican spices. Brixton Market, Rye Lane, all of those places are full of wonderful moments and people.
VO: South London is such a melting pot that even the everydayness of it feels artistic. I was super happy that it was being captured truthfully. You will walk down the road and there will be a woman in a rabbit costume smoking a cigarette. You’ll go to Peckham Market and there will be a cowboy moonwalking. That is the truth of the place and your point of view as an artist suits it so perfectly. But I’m interested in your early years. When you were a kid, what were your interests?
RAM: This is so embarrassing, but I used to do one-man shows. I did a full performance of Annie to my family once. I recreated the whole set and made my cousins be the stagehands. Now I want to know about young Viv. What were you inspired by?
VO: I used to read loads. When I [was] 10, my brothers started putting a lot of grime on my phone. We used to have bunk beds, and [my brothers] would put Lynx canisters in between the rails and get my sister and I to freestyle. Because I was so bookish, I was really good with words.
RAM: I also used to spit. For some reason, I managed to survive going to high school because I could kind of spit.
VO: I’m from Tottenham, so we were obsessed with Skepta, Chip [FKA Chipmunk] and BBK from a very young age. Now, when I look at the music I make, or the experimental electronic sounds I gravitate towards, it’s definitely all derivative of grime.
Crack: Rye Lane’s soundtrack is so integral in representing south London culture, but the film is also fundamentally a romantic comedy. What were you hoping to say with this film in terms of relationships?
RAM: I think you can make a huge point by not making a big point. We were keen to make something unapologetically joyful. It was important that it wasn’t cheesy, but what I liked is that by the end of the film, you don’t leave thinking, ‘And they lived happily ever after.’ It needed to feel real.
VO: Rye Lane doesn’t even feel that heavily about love. It’s more about self-love and how that can impact relationships. What’s romantic about it is falling in love with yourself and giving yourself a chance. Their relationship is left in an uncertain way; they kiss after they see each other, but who knows, they actually might not make sense anymore. Or maybe they do.
“Romance in film is so linear. That idea never resonated with my spirit. We have short-term friendships. Why can’t we have short-term relationships?”
RAM: There’s no way those two would be together forever. That evening, they have fun, have great sex, and then maybe just become good friends. When they’re 35, they’ll laugh about the fact that they went out.
VO: Romance in film is so linear; like, if you meet someone, that’s your partner. That idea never resonated with my spirit. We have short-term friendships. Why can’t we have short-term relationships? We’re so goal-oriented.
RAM: I recently watched that Pamela Anderson documentary and one of her sons says she’s been married a few times because she just really enjoys falling in love. If you genuinely enjoy it, then you’re not going to only do it once.
VO: It’s something that needs to be thought about and challenged more. There shouldn’t just be one set idea of [romance]. I don’t think the film aggressively challenges it, but I think it’s honest. In any type of relationship, who knows what’s going to happen? That’s the truth of romantic interaction.
Crack: Finally, what do you hope viewers will take away from Rye Lane, and the conditions in which it was made?
RAM: I hope everyone feels like there’s a piece of themselves in the film, and that the world [of the film] is inspired by everyone that worked on it, as well as the people of south London. I think there’s something really lovely about specificity in locations. Spike Lee does it really well – it’s his New York – and I wanted this to be my London. Our London.
Rye Lane is out in UK cinemas on 17 March