“The thing everyone knows about me,” says Rita Ora on a bitterly cold afternoon in November 2019, “is that I’m a bit OCD about fashion.” Fourteen months later, of course, this will not be the first thing that springs to mind when people hear her name, if it ever was. The one fact everyone now knows about Ora is that she twice breached England’s Covid-19 regulations, first by failing to self-isolate after a trip to Cairo, where she had performed a private concert in November 2020, and then by throwing a party for 30 friends, immediately upon her return, in a London members’ club, in defiance of the six-person limit for indoor gatherings.
But when we meet in late 2019 on a film set in east London, the only explaining she needs to do concerns her outfit: leather aviator hat, fingerless gloves, black sleeveless trenchcoat and fishnets. This is her get-up as Dodge – the street urchin formerly known as the Artful Dodger – in Twist, a modern-day spin on Dickens. The singer, who at that point is about to turn 30, is one of two beneficiaries of gender-flipped casting in the movie: Bill Sikes has been reimagined as a snarling lesbian played by Lena Headey from Game of Thrones. Jude Law’s baby-faced 23-year-old son Raff is Oliver Twist, now a graffiti artist with a talent for parkour. Michael Caine is Fagin, David Walliams a smug art dealer. Leigh Francis, AKA Keith Lemon, has found time in his schedule to play a comedy traffic warden.
“I know the story off by heart,” says Ora, “so it was nice to be able to modernise it all, pick out the outfits, fix the hair. It’s all part of the character-building. I wanted Dodge to be a little tomboy and not be distracted with the feminine side of it. I wanted her to be almost genderless. It’s a vital opportunity to show that gender doesn’t matter. Dodge is one of the lads. She’s been around for a minute, you know?”
Also in the production office with us is Law, sandwiched on the sofa between Ora and the 26-year-old Franz Drameh, who plays Batesy, the gang’s resident hacker. All seem relieved that the end of the shoot is in sight. “Only nine days left,” says Ora. Law corrects her: “Nine and a half.” Twist is his debut, and he has trained hard for it: learning parkour with Sébastien Foucan of Casino Royale fame, working out, quitting smoking. “He’s been in the gym every day,” says Jason Maza, one of the film’s producers. “He was quite round, and now he’s more chiselled.” The director, Martin Owen, is impressed. “He looks like a different bloke,” he says. “Fit and sinewy. Jaw like a Cuban heel.”
Drameh is the most experienced of the youthful trio, with credits including Attack the Block and The Gentlemen, which was directed by Guy Ritchie. Ora has some film work under her belt, though Pokémon Detective Pikachu and several Fifty Shades movies have not prepared her for the demands of a co-lead. “This is my first film with a real solid sort of role. The hours are different to music, I’m not gonna lie. But it’s nice to dig deep to achieve the best interpretation. It’s like doing good in an exam. You’re like: ‘Wow, I created this person, and now everyone’s gonna see her!’”
Have previous film adaptations of Dickens given them any pointers on the material? “I watched the one with the songs,” says Law brightly. “And the one from 15 years ago. But this is so different.” Drameh chips in: “I haven’t looked back on nothing.” Ora sings from the same hymn-sheet: “Whenever I do things, I tend not to copy,” she says. Everyone nods.
Twist has taken the best part of a decade to reach the screen, as Ben Grass, another producer, explains outside in the street while we wait for a shot to be set up. “A couple of writer-directors, the Lynch brothers, pitched it to me and did a draft. Then my brother wrote it as a novel.” Grass commissioned a new draft in 2012 from John Wrathall, who wrote The Liability, a hitman thriller with Tim Roth. Sky finally pounced on Twist in 2018; later the project acquired another writer, Sally Collett. “Once you’ve got a significant partner like Sky,” says Grass, “the cast starts coming together and the momentum is unstoppable.”
Caine signed on three months before shooting began. “He sent a note after he’d wrapped his scenes saying it was one of the most fun sets he’d ever been on,” says Maza. The young cast members go into a tizzy at the mention of his name. “Absolute legend,” says Drameh. “He’s got the best banter,” says Ora. Law thinks he met Caine years ago, on the set of the Sleuth remake. “It was nice to recall the times he’d had with my dad but also to make our own friendship.” Having now acted with father and son, Caine gives his verdict on them: “There are no differences,” he tells me in a brief email. “Both handsome, both wonderful actors and both stars.”
The day’s filming is taken up with the scene in which Twist, pursued by the law, runs into Dodge and Batesy for the first time in a deserted backstreet in Bow. Locations have been chosen with an eye on the unusual. “Fagin’s lair is on the roof of the Truman brewery in Shoreditch,” says Grass. “The other night, we shot on the roof of the London Library in St James’s.” Owen knows what he doesn’t want. “That National Lampoon’s European Vacation thing: ‘Look, kids, the Houses of Parliament! Look kids, Big Ben!’ We wanted something organic and lived-in.” Most of all, he hopes the movie will punch above its weight. “I want it to feel inherently British but not low-budget. It has to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with films shot anywhere in the world.”
Twelve months later, much has changed. “I keep getting phone updates [of pictures] from on set this time a year ago,” Law says wistfully when I call him. “It feels like another world. A happy place.” He and Ora, who were dating while making the film, are no longer a couple; his 2020 activities have included recording with his band, Outer Stella Overdrive (featuring Damon Albarn’s nephewRudy on drums), and starring with his dad in a short film called The Hat, which won an award at the Raindance festival.
He watched Twist at home recently with his mum, Sadie Frost, and was thrilled when his name appeared in the opening credits sequence. “That was a big moment! It gives me a fire in my belly to go out and do more acting.” Does he think Owen may be trolling him, though, by positioning his name on the side of a bin during the credits? “That is true,” he laughs. “It’s like: ‘You’re in the rubbish, and now you’ve got to climb out.’”
Later, I catch up by phone with Owen. His biggest hurdle in making the film, he confesses, was overcoming the reservations of someone close to him: his mother. “She’s a massive fan of the book, and when I first told her I was doing it, she stared daggers at me.” Did Twist pass the test? “She really enjoyed it,” he says. “I always wanted people to get a warm, fuzzy feeling from it, and she said it gave her the same warmth that the book does.” Early critical assessments of Twist have been less forgiving. But what do iffy reviews and squelchy tomatoes matter so long as your mum is happy?
• This article was amended on 1 February 2021 because an earlier version referred to the band Outer Stella Overdrive “featuring Damon Albarn’s son Rudy on drums”. Rudy Albarn is Damon’s nephew.
• Twist is on Sky Cinema from 29 January