We alighted at Brentford, off what must surely have been one of London’s slowest ever Overground trains, and were shown past security to a quaint little cinema in the heart of Sky TV’s HQ.
We were there for a special screening of a new short film called Wonderkid and to meet the film's director, Rhys Chapman.
With Brentford FC’s mascot bees buzzing about, and enjoying the delicious spread of mini-burgers from the cinema-themed concession stand, we asked Rhys about his film, its core themes, and what impact he hopes it will have on society and the Beautiful Game.
Corinthian: So tell us about Wonderkid?
Rhys Chapman: Wonderkid's a 30-minute short film which we’ve created to raise awareness of homophobia in football and to look at why there are no openly gay footballers in the male side of the game. Our hope is to get the average football fan talking about the issue and to become more open to it.
C: What drew you to that particular subject?
RC: Well, I’ve been a big football fan my whole life and I wanted to make something about a world I knew so decided to make the film about a professional player. My philosophy on narrative film is that because you create this reality on screen, for the audience, you should use it to shine a light on things that ordinarily they wouldn’t be exposed to so I looked for certain topics within football that I could do that with. I looked at racism, corruption, and homophobia seemed like something that no one was talking about.
C: So it wasn’t something you had dealt with before?
RC: No not really. I remember watching the news with my Dad when Justin Fashanu killed himself and I asked my Dad what it was all about and he kind of told me “You don’t want to know…” and I always remembered that when I started to do some research and realised that a story like Fashanu’s was the perfect thing to build a character struggle around while also doing exactly what I wanted to do - which was to shine a light on a subject people wouldn’t know about.
C: And it’s a very solitary struggle, isn’t it?
RC: Yes absolutely, very. We don’t know who the gay footballers are at the moment, and as such we’re not exposed to what they’re going through either. With black players in the 70’s, they couldn’t exactly hide their skin colour - it was very clear what they went through. But with homophobia and gay footballers, it’s more of an internal and hidden struggle, alone. So I’ve tried with the film to present an authentic and emotional portrayal of what a gay footballer would be going through at the top of the game. Hopefully it can generate some compassion for those guys going through these battles.
C: You must be very proud of how the main character’s been received in the film.
RC: Yeah, we’ve created an inspiring character that knows he’s gay and who wants to come out but it’s the environment of his profession that’s stopping him. It would’ve been very easy to have created a character that’s quite defeated and damaged and, while he does have issues, he’s quite inspiring and will not give up. He’s quite a likeable character and anyone who watches the film will want to see him succeed… and hence start thinking about the issues differently.
C: So you came to make the film from having always been a fan of the sport. Have you played your whole life as well?
RC: Yeah I’ve played my whole life. I was good when I was very young but I was really small and lost interest when everyone started growing before me. And I never really liked the environment, the parents screaming and fighting on the touchline and so walked away at about 11 or 12. But I still liked football as a fan and have started to play again now.
C: Who’s your team? Did you have an idol growing up?
RC: Arsenal’s my team but, funnily enough, Alan Shearer was my hero after Euro 96. Euro 96 is what got me into football. I was only 7 years old and I saw how the whole country came together, the whole mood of the population seemed to be lifted and there was a real unity among English people. It’s a really fond memory. I remember watching it all with my Dad and, yeah, Shearer was a big hero of mine.
C: And reflecting on how you didn’t like the environment as a kid, is the Corinthian Spirit something you’d say you believe in as well?
RC: I understand the culture of win at all costs, especially in the professional game, but that’s bred right through the game at every level now, you know, you see punch ups on Hackney Marshes on a Sunday. It’s not really what I play football for. So yes, the Corinthian Spirit is something I’d love to see come back to the game from the top to the bottom and I’d like to think it will; a more beautiful way of playing the Beautiful Game.
C: So who do you play for currently?
RC: Well through making the film I got involved with a team called Soho FC. They were formed three years ago by a gay couple called Gez and Aussie. I’m not actually gay but it was a 9-aside kick-about just to encourage gay people to come and play football and then we entered the London Unity League. The first game we played we played in bibs - we didn't have any kit - but we’ve been runners-up the last two years, hopefully we’ll go one better this year. They're a great bunch of lads.
C: What’s the London Unity League?
RC: It’s a gay-friendly league. Gay football's a big thing. I think there’s four national leagues, and a national cup. But what makes Soho FC slightly different is that the team’s made up of a 50/50 split of gay and straight players. So it’s more about integration, so half of my teammates are gay, half of my teammates are straight - but when you’re on the pitch you don’t think about it. And it’s been great. People come along and like the friendly environment, they find out more about the team, more about the gay players and become more understanding of the subject and now in the dressing room, the gay players talk about their relationships, the straight players talk about theirs, it’s a beautiful thing to be a part of and I hope it will become more the norm across all levels of football.
C: Was Wonderkid based on any issues you’ve encountered in your playing days then?
RC: In a way…I tried to make the characters as relatable to a straight football audience as possible so we didn’t really adhere to any stereotypes and looked to deal with problems that all athletes go through. And we’re living in a more disconnected world, people have less friends and communication is done more and more via the internet rather than face to face so we built on the character's loneliness and used these techniques to make the character as relatable as possible to as wide an audience as possible. And I’ve experienced many of those issues. As a footballer I was very superstitious. I struggled with OCD, depression, and anxiety so, yes, I’ve brought things from my own life to help give depth to the character. But I also spent a great deal of time speaking with gay footballers at an amateur level through Soho FC and LGBT fan groups about their experiences and used all that to try and give a huge amount of depth to the character and story.
C: Were you embraced by the football community?
RC: Not at first. If you consider there’s a huge amount of media training in football and people don’t like to say the wrong thing. Controversial subjects are avoided. But the more the project gained momentum and stature and publicity the more people were willing to speak to me. And so now the support we’ve had has been huge. People know that this is a problem. Although some may be slightly afraid of the subject, they understand this needs to change and are more open to talking about it. And I think because I’m from a football background rather than an LGBT background they perhaps feel that speaking to me is a safer route in to the subject if that makes sense…so yes, I'd say we have been fully embraced now!