Idris Elba Discusses Writing Music, Operating Camera for Directorial Debut 'Yardie'

Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images
Idris Elba

In addition to carefully selecting the music for the reggae-themed film, Elba made an EP with songs from the characters' perspectives that is set to be released in May.

Idris Elba's acting experience was certainly useful while making his directorial debut Yardie, but so were his music chops, garnered from his years of moonlighting as a DJ.

Yardie, adapted from the Victor Headley novel of the same name, centers around a young Jamaican man unable to move on from the murder of his older brother and caught up in a life of crime. The film's journey through 1970s Kingston and 1980s London shines a light on the dawn of sound-system culture, meaning there's no shortage of reggae-infused beats throughout.

"Music — reggae music especially — has been in my bones since I was four," Elba said at the New York premiere of the film on Sunday at Crosby Hotel. "So when it came to picking tunes for this, I had it in my head."

In search of "obscure" songs that weren't necessarily classified as hits by the general population but rather by a subset of kids like him, Elba teamed up with Jamaican record label Studio One. Much of the music was hard to find, and obtaining permission for use was an entirely different challenge; however, Elba said he eventually found songs that "married to film" in a "romantic" way.

Then, once Dickon Hinchliffe composed Yardie's score, Elba became even more enamored with the film's sound. "[It] inspired me to make more music," Elba said. "Historically, I’ve made an album for my Mandela film, an EP for Luther. And it’s something that I’m going to continue to do for the rest of my career, which is called character albums."

These albums, according to Elba, have songs that speak to specific characters or storylines in a film. For example, he wrote "Stand by Me" for Yardie's main character and his love interest. "There's only person I want/A real Jamaican," Kranium and Tanika sing on the track, which was just released as a single and will also be a part of an EP out in May.

Elba isn't Jamaican himself but said he grew up around Jamaican culture and ultimately felt that he was "positioned to be able to tell this story."

“It was a book that I read when I was 14, one of the first books I read," he said. "It [had] a character that I could relate to living in London at the time."

Elba continued, "This film didn’t feel like too much of a departure for me for my directorial debut. I’ve been making movies for a very long time as an actor, and I wanted to step in as a director and I wanted to tell a story that came from my heart. And Yardie is it."

He joked that the most notable difference between acting and directing is the "size of his trailer" before reflecting on what he learned throughout the filmmaking process.

"You’re first in, last out as a director," Elba said. "You’re the smartest man in the room in terms of what the story is about and every aspect of the visual. As an actor, you sort of come in at a certain part of the process, and a lot of that work has already been done. As a director, you’re there from the beginning."

Due to what he called a "happy accident," Elba took on another new role for Yardie: B camera operator.

"We couldn’t afford, really, to have a two-camera setup, but some of the setups definitely needed that," he said. "I decided to learn very quickly how to operate."

Doing so actually gave him a new perspective on the film. "When you’re looking at someone through the iris and you’re following their movements, suddenly you can see where the floors are a lot quicker because you’re in tune with what they’re doing," Elba said. "That made the experience of directing this movie way better, because I was actually holding that second camera, and it was a blessing to be able to do that."

Yardie hits theaters Friday.