Hackney people: James Lucas
A profile of the film producer and writer who gets his artistic inspiration from living in the borough
IN February James Lucas was in LA, standing on a stage at the 87th Academy Awards ceremony, clutching his Oscar for best live-action short film and receiving rapturous applause. Tonight, he’s sitting at his kitchen table in London Fields, having just put his two young children to bed.
“I have a lot of love for Hackney,” says James. “I’ve been here 10 years now, it’s my adopted home, somewhere I’ve always felt a sense of belonging.”
James grew up in ‘small town New Zealand’ as an only child. He says: “I lost myself in films and books – their storytelling was a kind of companionship. My first film memory is watching ‘Alien’ on a pirated VHS.”
It seems remarkable that he went on to work for Ridley Scott, the blockbuster film’s British director, but it didn’t, he emphasises, happen overnight.
“Like everything else in life, you have to work hard. I went to film school, then got into the industry at entry level as a runner. I kept writing all the time. I look back at some of my early work and cringe, but you just have to keep writing, learning from your mistakes and getting better at it,” he says.
Eventually, he got a job at RSA, Ridley Scott’s commercial production company. It was there that he met Mat Kirkby, the man who became his co-writer and co-producer on Oscar-winning short ‘The Phone Call’. James recalls: “We found out that both our mothers had volunteered at crisis helplines, counselling. I dug out an old script of mine, based in a crisis call centre, and we reworked it.”
There was no grand, Oscar-winning ambition, James says: “We just wanted to make something we were creatively and artistically proud of.”
The pair secured Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent to star in the film. James enthuses: “We were so busy that we didn’t have time to be star-struck. But hearing these astonishingly talented actors speaking your words is pretty profound, I found it humbling.”
The duo applied to film festivals and were rejected from several before winning the best narrative short award at the Tribeca film festival in New York. It meant they were eligible to enter the Academy Awards.
“I relocated my whole family from Hackney to LA in the run up to the awards,” says James. “My wife, my two-year-old, my newborn and my mother-in-law. We had to campaign, network and attend official events for ‘The Phone Call’ – it was busy!”
Finally, the night of the ceremony arrived. He says: “It was an incredibly surreal thing, having grown up as a Kiwi lad watching the Oscars from afar on a small TV screen, to being there, in that theatre, so many years later. And winning. Well…
“Hearing our name called was one of the most incredible, euphoric moments of my life. All the stress and tension just drained from my body and I thought: it’s serious party time.”
So, what next? James has obtained the rights to the life story of former footballer Paul Gascoigne and is busy writing that. A project he describes as: 'Shakespearian in its highs and lows, a kind of British 'Raging Bull'.'
He is also developing two TV series concepts and a feature film successor to ‘The Phone Call’ called ‘An English Rhapsody’. And then there is another film, ‘Bohemian Bicycle Club’, which James describes as: "A love note to Hackney, exploring the place and the tribes that inhabit it, in a naturalistic and indie way."
The film is about a disillusioned advertising executive who gets drawn into a fledgling outlaw biker gang, inspired by the Black Skulls, who have a garage on Wilton Way, E8.
James says: “There are so many interesting tensions in Hackney. Other parts of London always feel a bit homogenous by comparison. When we first moved here, we were attracted by its vibrancy. And then once we’d bought the house, we discovered that my great-great grandparents were actually married in the church at the top of our road. So Hackney’s given me ancestors as well as artistic inspiration.”