Dibb drew inspiration for some of the characters and situations in the film from the tales he heard during research. "I tried to persuade people to talk to me, openly, which obviously was a difficult thing to do given the fact that some of them were involved in the whole gun thing," he says. "It was amazing to discover how their lives were in some ways very na´ve, very innocent, at the same time they'd seen terrible things happen to them or their families."
Dibb worked closely with co-producer/script editor Mike Tait and producer Ruth Caleb to add meat to the basic outline, but for the process of refining and revising the script they hired author Catherine Johnson to work alongside Dibb. Johnson, then writer-in-residence at Holloway Women's Prison, has lived in and around Hackney for most of her life. "Working with Catherine was great, she's very good with kids and doesn't find it difficult to see the world from a kid's perspective," says Dibb. "She actually lived two doors away from me in Hackney, and she had a lot of attitude about the story."
Johnson, who describes herself as midwife to Saul's "baby," admits she was initially wary of the project. "When I looked at the outline at first, I thought why are you doing this and what are you trying to say?" "She kind of interrogated me and gave me a hard time about what we were going to do with it," recalls Dibb. "I just felt like she was someone who could make sure that it's a film that's not too sentimental but it's not sensational at the same time."
Soon convinced of the film's potential, Johnson decided to beef up the family angle, based on her own experience as a mother of two kids and a writer of teen fiction. "What I thought I could bring to the story was a down-to-earth quality," says Johnson. "I wanted it to be about kids, not about gangsters. These are just ordinary kids, who have fewer choices than a lot of other kids their age."
Workshops were an integral part of creating a snappy dialogue that captured the rhythms and patterns of the characters' speech. "There was no way in hell I was going to be able to write that and get it to sound authentic," says Dibb. "So I wanted to work on themes with people and allow them to interpret that in the way that they would speak, and then edit it down so you've got authentic dialogue. None of the people who were chosen were very far from the characters that they play. Even the actors have had some overlap into the world they're portraying." For the actors, working this way helped them gain trust not only in each other but also in the director who could not claim their ethnic heritage but at least shared a common vision of what they were trying to portray.
Photography and lighting
Bullet Boy was shot in widescreen on Super 16mm camera and then cropped to achieve what Dibb refers to as "a big cinematic look on a limited budget." Director of Photography Marcel Zyskind comments, "It was my first time working with Saul, and it's been cool because we communicate very well and he gives me a lot of freedom, too much sometimes! It's great to not be locked down by marks on the floor, tracks and dollies. Everything is handheld and Saul lets us move around freely, even doing 360 shots if possible. We also used fantastic open spaces. You have these big looming pylons and it's quite a contrast between the high rises and the streets and the big open fields. By the marshes and by the river it's quite picturesque, I think it will stand out like wow, is this really London? I love shooting in natural light, but obviously you can't control the sunshine and you can't always wait for a cloud to clear up so you have to work around it or live with it really. Sometimes we were very lucky with the natural lighting: for instance, we had a gorgeous sunset when we were filming the church scene. The light was so low and it was quite divine light, it was really beautiful."
The composed score was written by Robert Del Naja (from Massive Attack) and producer Neil Davidge (who produced Massive Attack's last two albums) - the first score they've ever done for a British film and obviously a real coup for the production. Having been shown a copy of a rough cut edit they were immediately interested and set to work straight away.
Dibb says of the choice of musicians, "Approaching Neil and Robert from Massive Attack was actually an inspired suggestion from Marc Boothe. In retrospect it seems an incredibly obvious one - their music is and has always been incredibly cinematic and creates a really interesting, particular sound. It simply draws you in to the mood they are trying to create and at the same time is always trying to do something different either in what they sample and/or the way they layer these sounds together. This has also made them very difficult to pigeonhole. I felt the film needed music that would contrast with the source material (hip hop, reggae, soul etc) but also feel contemporary and fresh without imposing itself too heavily on the film. We all believed they would be able to do this. Marc Boothe and I met with them and knew straight away that they had 'got' the film. They wanted to do something that was atmospheric, intriguing and ultimately moving but not in a way that dominated and dictated the overall feel. Working flat out for six weeks I think they achieved that and much, much more, adding an extra 20% to the overall effect of the film."