How we made: songwriter and actor Jimmy Cliff and actor Carl Bradshaw on The Harder They Come

'The director wanted everything to seem real: we spoke patois – and the ganja was real, too'

Jimmy Cliff, songwriter and actor

I was in the studio recording You Can Get It If You Really Want when the director Perry Henzell came in and asked if I could write some music for a film he was about to make. The next thing I knew, he was sending me the script and asking me to play the lead. I think he was taken aback by my self-confidence. I'd never acted before, and I was doing well as a singer, but I jumped at the opportunity.

My character, Ivanhoe Martin, was based on a 1940s Jamaican gangster, Rhyging, whose name struck terror into everybody. To play him, I drew on my experiences of living in Kingston and people I knew. And I loved the bad guys in the movies, which helped, too.

The musical part of the storyline was based on me. In those days, producers were really rough guys who controlled the music industry and paid artists very little. For the first song I recorded, I was offered a shilling. I refused, as Ivanhoe does in the film – but where he turned to crime, I found another producer instead.

Guns were just coming into the country, and some parts of Kingston were volatile, but Perry's connections made filming safe. He wanted everything to seem real, though. One of the actors playing a baddie was a convicted rapist. And the ganja was real, too.

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At first, the title track was Hard Road to Travel. But one day we were talking about Ivanhoe, and Perry said: "The harder they come, the harder they fall," about his story. The line leapt out at me, so I wrote the song around it.

Perry was criticised for showing poverty, but he wanted to depict Jamaica's hardship, not the tourist areas. He asked everyone to speak their natural patois rather than English. And he wouldn't instruct me how to act; he'd tell me to really dig into myself. The film was a gamble for us all.

Carl Bradshaw, actor

Henzell and the scriptwriter, Trevor Rhone, had come back from working in Europe and were keen to portray the cultural experience of the Jamaican people, who'd come through slavery and British colonisation and survived to achieve independence. They were desperate times.

I was a teacher, but got involved in the film as an extra. When I met Perry, there was no script. He asked me to make up a story for my character, so I gave him a line about some guy who'd owed me money for ages. The main weapons back then were sticks, razors and machetes. I picked up a big stone on set and said – this is Jamaican slang now – "All the while you lamps me" ["You're taking me for a fool"] and I was going to bash it over his head. After that, because I was street savvy, my part [as marijuana dealer Jose] grew and I became one of the stars.

We were all amateurs, but because it was the first Jamaican film made by Jamaicans, everyone wanted to be the best they could be. Perry was a great director. We often weren't aware the camera was there because he made the surroundings so natural. The church, the Rialto and the club were all real.

The Harder They Come did end up triggering the Jamaican film industry, but it took four years to get the film finished. [Island Records' founder] Chris Blackwell had to come to the rescue with money and connections. Outside Kingston, the film took off very slowly. When Perry first took it to England, there was no audience. He put up posters and gave away seats. Then the magic started.

• Jimmy Cliff's new album, Rebirth, is out now.


Interviews by Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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