Jewish teen casts EastEnders icon Danny Dyer in his debut feature film

Noah Caplan wrote the script for Stepping Stone - about mental illness - when he was just 15


A Jewish teenager has persuaded TV hardman Danny Dyer to shed his tough-guy image and star in a film he directed about mental illness that was inspired by a family trauma.

The former EastEnders actor was so taken with the script - about four characters from different walks of life who have different mental health challenges - he even told the young writer-director, Noah Caplan, he would forgo his fee in order to get the film made.

Caplan wrote Stepping Stone, a 30-minute feature, at just 15 years old. It was inspired by the trauma of his younger sister, Valentina, falling 30ft head-first onto a marble floor in their Epping home in 2019. The effects on his family of the near-fatal accident, from which it took nine-year-old Valentina six months to recover, were profound.

“I developed PTSD, and another member of our family already suffering mental health problems fell into an even deeper depression and attempted suicide,” said Caplan, 19.

The young writer-director appealed to Dyer to appear in the film via Instagram, where he asked his followers to forward his pitch: “I felt as someone whose roles have epitomised toxic masculinity, casting him as a man opening up about his mental health would be very powerful.”

Caplan’s plea eventually reached Dyer’s wife Joanne, who alerted her husband to the project. Dyer, who has since opened up about his own mental health struggles, picked up the phone and called Caplan, who also appears in the film.

“He said: ‘I love everything about it - the script, the message, the character - I’m in, and don’t worry about the fee,’” Caplan recalled.

But as there was no contract, the young film-maker had no proof he had signed such a big star: “Many people didn’t believe a 15-year-old saying he had cast Danny Dyer.”

When approaches to television executives and brand sponsors for backing were unsuccessful - “as a charity film, there would be no return on investment” - members of the Jewish community came to the rescue.

“Sam Meadows, a mental health advocate who is Jewish, introduced me to her cousin, Jackie Green.

“Jackie was really passionate about my campaign to normalise conversations surrounding mental health, promised £5,000 and got another executive producer, Monique Blake, to match it.

“With that £10,000, I made a film by securing all the talent, Danny included, for free, and bargaining down huge names in the industry like cinematographer Simon Stolland to work for a fraction of their usual rate,” said a proud Caplan.

Shooting the film in one location to minimise transportation and permit costs, the teenager even schmoozed the catering from his mother, Janine: “We had her chicken soup and pasta salad on set for three days!”

Caplan, who has been writing scripts since he was six - his first endeavour was a children’s James Bond film - also found a Jewish mentor in Danny Fenton, the CEO  of TV production firm Zig Zag Productions.

“I worked as a runner for what was supposed to be two weeks’ work experience, but on my third day he offered me a job, and I took it after finishing my GCSEs.  We are now co-producing television shows for younger audiences,” said Caplan, whose own media platform, Yoof Media, produced Stepping Stone.

Caplan’s success in achieving such a high-profile debut can be credited largely to his unwavering persistence.

“I had not one contact in the industry when I started, or any kind of film-making education that didn’t come from a book or YouTube video,” he explained.

“I was lucky that I started writing scripts [when I was] very young and stuck with it - it’s a lot easier to pull favours when you’re young because people want to help.”

Stepping Stone, which was made in association with mental health charity Calm, will be released on ITV’s streaming platform, ITVX, on Monday, marking the start of Mental Health Awareness Week.

Caplan is hopeful that viewers suffering with poor mental health, particularly men, “who are always being told to ‘man up’ and often end up reaching for the suicide helpline” will be encouraged to seek help.

Improving funding for these life-saving helplines is essential, he believes; mental health charities say it can cost £10 or less to fund a helpline call that can save a life.

However, the young director added, the first step toward helping those experiencing mental illness should be “normalising conversations” around mental health issues in the community and the wider world.

Stepping Stone premieres on ITVX on 15 May

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive