Adjani Salmon on Dreaming Whilst Black: ‘As much as TV can reflect reality, I think TV can project reality’
Adjani Salmon introduces Dreaming Whilst Black ahead of its BBC Three launch in a new interview with Alex Moreland
“The web series – and the pilot, actually – was a great tool for finding my voice,” says Adjani Salmon, talking about the lengthy development process of his new series Dreaming Whilst Black. “Who am I, as an artist? What do I like to do?”
Dreaming Whilst Black follows Kwabena, an aspiring filmmaker in a dead-end job struggling to find the financing to turn his first script into his debut feature. The series, which arrives on BBC Three and iPlayer today as a six-part comedy, began life as a YouTube webseries created by and starring Adjani Salmon.
Salmon recently joined NationalWorld’s Alex Moreland to discuss the Dreaming Whilst Black, charting its initial development through to the award-winning pilot in 2021 to the full series now. Salmon explained how the series changed (and how it stayed the same) across the production process, spoke about his feelings of a kind of creative ‘survivor’s guilt’ and how that’s expressed in the series itself, and discussed some of the wider changes he’s seen in the industry across the past decade.
Just to set the scene for us a little bit, can you tell us where everything began with Dreaming Whilst Black, and take us through the journey from the webseries to the pilot in to now?
The journey began in 2016. I decided I wanted to make a web series because I felt like, you know, there were quite a few people coming out from the web series world – like Michael Dapaah from #SWIL, and from across the Atlantic, Insecure’s trailer had just come out, and I remembered Awkward Black Girl. This feels like this is the new way, so we started – Max, Natasha, Lau, Ali, you know, just homeschool friends, film school graduates who had not much else to do to be honest – we just decided, yeah, let's make a web series.
That ended up taking – what was supposed to be our summer project – ended up taking two years, just based on financial restraints. We'd save up money and shoot, and it came up 2018. We did decent numbers – we became that underground thing, like if you were in the industry as a runner you watched this show, but no one outside. [Laughs] It was like the best kept secret amongst the industry, and in 2019 [a BBC producer] saw it, and said this is amazing. We then went through the rounds of writing a pilot, doing your table read, get commissioned to shoot the pilot, TXing it – which got great reviews at the time, which turned into BAFTA, RTS, International Emmy noms, which turned into A24 full series commission. It just escalated, you know, this frustration of not getting our foot in just snowballed into this massive show that comments on the industry, and why it's so hard for us to get in. So, yes, now we're here, BBC Three.
Obviously, this is quite a personal project – does that make the development process more difficult? In the sense that, having put a lot of yourself into the show, I guess I’d imagine there’s an element of vulnerability to any sort of creative act – do things like delays or setbacks weigh more heavily, would you say?
To be honest, during the web series, yes. But I think – particularly with the show, because this feels like our third time, because the pilot was a whole other thing by itself, right, and the web series is a whole other thing by itself – I think a lot of the teething pains of waiting on delays and life came through the web series part of the journey.
Because it's a personal project, when Ali and I were writing early doors, sometimes I'd be like, “Oh, but I wouldn't do that” – and he would say, “but it's not you”. And actually, this character can do whatever we want to do that makes the story more interesting. So, we kind of used the web series as our great research tool, to just iron out the teething pains and find our voice and so on. So, by the time we got to writing the show, Kwabena isn't me and Kwabena very much isn't me, we've made distinct characteristics that aren't me – so by time, we're coming into the third outing in writing him, it very much felt him.
You know, any setbacks – outside of financial setbacks, because if they don't like the show you don't get paid [laughs] – outside of that, to be honest, have been for the best. I feel like, the more delays we had, the more time we had to write scripts. For us, I think we're great in drafting – like, a first draft of my script will probably be terrible, but draft 45 won a BAFTA, you know what I'm saying? So it actually helped us in continuing to draft: are we as funny or are we as dramatic as we want to be?
How do you think you’ve grown as an artist, in the time between the original webseries and now? I imagine that the version of the show you’ve made now is quite different to what you would’ve made in 2018 with similar resources.
Just life! And a maturity as well. As I said, the web series – and the pilot, actually – was a great tool into finding my voice. Who am I, as an artist? What do I like to do? Getting feedback – you know, the great thing about YouTube is it's like a feedback loop: you get the comments underneath. Having that fan base from the web series, when we went to the pilot, you know, everybody's in my comments. everybody's in my DMs, letting me know what they like – and what they didn't like, it's not always good, people have critiques!
But in taking all that in, and then my independent analysis of the show, has allowed me to really hone how much we can say, while still being funny at the same time. That’s something that we've continued to push further and further – the more you watch, ep four, ep five, ep six, really get into topical issues, while still being a comedy. I think that that's how we've grown, in being able to keep pushing the boundary of how dark can we make this show, but still give you a joke at the same time? I think definitely, that's how I have grown.
Across all of these different drafts, what would you say has changed most about the show?
To be honest, I think we've just become sharper writers. I do still think we have the same essence, even now when I watch the show – you know, when you're making stuff for YouTube, because it’s YouTube you kinda need really fast scenes. You want info info info, done in five minutes – I do actually still think we have the same essence. Actually, we have loads of super short scenes, which is probably not conducive to a TV show when you're talking about new locations and moving and so on. [Laughs]
There’s this running thread where your character will meet one of his contemporaries, someone from film school or similar, and they’re all enjoying a bit more success than he is, and there are some complex emotions around that – he feels like maybe he’s not keeping up with them, but also, they’re in a position where they’re able and want to help him. I was wondering if you could speak about that dynamic a bit, why it was something you wanted to depict?
Because I think that's our reality, my reality – you know, at the end of the day, I've said elsewhere, but a part of the feeling of this moment is feeling survivor's guilt. I don't think I’m particularly more talented than my friends, I just think that I made content that was, for whatever reason, just commercial at the time. But we've always been trying to help each other. Like, my friend Kobe, of our group, he got signed first, and he introduced his agent to all of us – I don't even know if he signed any of us, I don't think he did you know [laughs]. But it was like, I have an agent, let me introduce you to some people. And equally for myself, when I got signed, I was like, yo, by the way, these are my friends – we've always been trying to help each other up, and I think that's the best way.
I do think that there's sometimes a narrative of like, ‘only one’, or that everybody is your competitor: actually, no, everybody can be a champion. So I thought it was important, because… and I'm not saying that people don't backstab and shaft people, which I'm sure they do – I know they do, I'm not sure, I know – but I think, as much as TV can reflect reality, I think TV can project or suggest any reality. I think so it was important for us to show that helping each other does not limit yourself, like me helping you does not hurt me, so actually we should just help each other.
You’ve spoken in previous interviews about US shows like Atlanta and Insecure being a big influence, and part of the development of Dreaming Whilst Black being recognising the absence of anything like that in the UK. In the time you’ve spent making the show, the past six seven eight years, how do you think the UK film & television scene has changed?
For sure, there's been massive changes. Equally again, as I said, with friends coming up together, you notice that everybody's doing the same thing at the same time. Right? So, Champion has just come out, Riches came out last year, we were writing the same time Black Ops was writing. I definitely think there's a wave, actually, because I think one thing that's similar through all these shows actually is that – like, even Black Ops, which is a comedy comedy, it does touch on darker themes, even though they’re a sitcom, you know? Equally with Riches and Champion.
Those shows are also directed by Black talent, produced by Black talent, written by Black talent, same way as us, and so there's definitely that improvement – when we started in 2016, that to my knowledge was only done in an independent space, like The Intent and The Intent 2, or when Rapman released Shiro’s Story. Within us writing, that has changed, and I just think that we're a part of that change.
What have you been watching and enjoying recently? Just in your free time, if you’ve had any.
On an American front, I think Succession is probably some of the best writing ever in television. Honestly, like, it’s stressful how good it is – I kinda watch it and be like, “maybe one day I can write this…” [Laughs]
For a lot of Champion, I was surprised how much I enjoyed Champion, because I don't like musicals? Yeah, I'm not really a musical person, but I was like, yeah, let me just watch one ep… let me just watch a second… and next thing you know, the show's done, and I'm like, damn I really loved that.
Do you tend to binge watch shows that way, or do you prefer to space them out a bit?
No, I like to space out my shows. Well, I like it and I don't like it at the same time. For example, Succession, it's stressful sometimes to wait a week – but I'm happy, that's a part of the journey of, actually, “nah, give me something so good that I'm salivating for the next one”. I caught on succession late, when Season 2 was about to drop, and I remember binging season one, and then just feeling just like… what am I going to do now? So, I do like to take my time and savour a show when I know I’ll enjoy it.
When you were writing Dreaming Whilst Black, did you imagine people watching it weekly or binge watching it? Did that influence your approach at all?
It does slightly. That was based on network, in the sense that we knew were coming out on BBC Three, which is predominantly on iPlayer – well, at the time, it was solely on iPlayer. So we were thinking like, alright, cool – it did influence “how do we start” and “how do we end?” Netflix has gotten to a point now where – I remember watching, I think it was Dear White People – where the end of an ep and the start of an ep happened, and the music was in sync. Like, they literally timed it to the 54321, the music switch, and I remember us being like, whoa, like this is next level, fans of binging.
So, we have taken that into consideration, just to be like, okay, somebody's gonna watch this back-to-back, how do we end an ep? How we want to start an ep based on how we ended it? But, at the same time, I'm not being like married to that concept. In the edit, some stuff has changed, because, you know, in the script it's worked, but in the edit… But we do [think about that].
Finally, just to wrap everything up – what do you hope people take from their experience watching the show?
To be honest, I hope people get a well-rounded, emotional journey. I hope people feel like they've been on a real roller coaster of a journey, from the highs and laugh aloud moments to, in a later episode, the very like sombre, more thought-provoking moments. I hope people think about what they're laughing at? Because, you know, there's something behind it – there’s something behind most jokes – so I hope it becomes a talking point that people feel the compelled to talk about the themes of the show, the themes associated with the show and what the show does.
Dreaming Whilst Black begins on BBC Three on Monday 24 July at 10pm, with every episode available on BBC iPlayer as part of a boxset. You can read more of our coverage of Dreaming Whilst Black here, and check back soon for our interviews with stars Dani and babirye.
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