Cultural Highlights (2022)


I don’t think I read a single thing that came out in 2022, so this is simply a list of the things I read that made me think, cry, laugh, feel seen, furiously turn down pages and seethe with envy.

Favourite Fiction Reads: My Phantoms – Gwendoline Riley, Beautiful World, Where Are You – Sally Rooney (would love to see another Element Pictures adaptation of this one, can see White Lotus’ Leo Woodall as Felix and Stacy Martin as Alice and James Norton as Simon and Aisling Franciosi as Eileen), Sorrow and Bliss – Meg Mason, America Is Not The Heart – Elaine Castillo, Oh William! – Elizabeth Strout, A Passage North – Anuk Arudpragasam

Favourite Short Story Collections: Self-Help – Lorrie Moore (just wow, I think I’ll be trying to get Lorrie Moore imitation stories out of my system for a while), Send Nudes – Saba Sams, Certain American States – Catherine Lacey, Whereabouts – Jhumpa Lahiri, Her Body and Other Parties – Carmen Maria Machado

Favourite Non-Fiction Reads: Happening – Annie Ernaux (also loved the film adaptation), Experiments in Imagining Otherwise – Lola Olufemi, Little Weirds – Jenny Slate, These Precious Days – Ann Patchett, Aftermath – Preti Taneja, On Freedom – Maggie Nelson

Reading intentions for 2023…

Trying to read a book a month that defies my usual boundaries or preferences, i.e. an author I’ve never read before, a genre I rarely dabble in, a subject matter new to me. Lining up some Emily St. John Mandel to get more acquainted with speculative fiction and thinking about getting Lizzy Stewart’s Alison to dip my toe into the world of graphic novels. Might even see about reading some crime novels and trying to squeeze some more male authors into the mix.


  1. Hold The Girl – Rina Sawayama
  2. Wet Leg – Wet Leg
  3. Dance Fever – Florence & The Machine
  4. Preacher’s Daughter – Ethel Cain
  5. Big Time – Angel Olsen
  6. RENAISSANCE – Beyoncé
  7. Harry House – Harry Styles
  8. SICK! – Earl Sweatshirt
  9. Lucky Me – Phoebe Green
  10. Surrender – Maggie Rogers
  11. Being Funny in a Foreign Language – The 1975
  12. Ramona Park Broke My Heart – Vince Staples

This was the year I succumbed to the hype around Harry Styles (purely on a musical level, to be clear); fell back in love with musicians who defined my late teens and early twenties: Florence and Earl (hello, names for hypothetical children); listened to a handful of songs on repeat: This Hell, King, That’s Where I Am and discovered a new love in the form of Ethel Cain.


Severance and Pachinko were early favourites, having watched them back in February and March and cementing Apple TV+ as the MV(S)P – most valuable streaming platform – of 2022, with HBO Max a close second. They felt to me like two of the most complete TV series I had ever watched. White Lotus meanwhile was a joy from start to finish and was even more joyous in that it felt like people were watching and speculating together.

There were a bunch of big shows I missed because I have yet to splash out for a Disney+ subscription: Andor, Moon Knight, Obi-Wan Kenobi. And I still haven’t watched a single episode of Better Call Saul because I still haven’t finished Breaking Bad.

In other TV watching news, I finally saw all six seasons of Line of Duty, Couples Therapy is genius and I’ve watched both seasons twice, The Crown was infinitely watchable and instantly forgettable.

And my favourite TV performances of the year include:

  • Julia Roberts and Betty Gilpin in Gaslit
  • Gabrielle Creevy in In My Skin (which was released in 2021, but I only saw this year. Hers and Gilpin’s casting in the upcoming Three Women adaptation is hugely exciting).
  • John Turturro, Britt Lower and Tramell Tillman in Severance
  • Alison Oliver in Conversations With Friends
  • The whole cast of Pachinko
  • Jeremy Allen White, Ebon Moss-Bacharach and Ayo Edebiri in The Bear
  • Gbemisola Ikumelo in A League of Their Own
  • Olivia Cooke and Emma D’Arcy in House of the Dragon
  • Meghann Fahy, Aubrey Plaza and Tom Hollander in The White Lotus
  • Amrit Kaur in The Sex Lives of College Girls


I always struggle with film lists because one of the privileges of working in the ‘industry’ is you get early, pre-theatrical release access to many films, so this list is indicative of what I saw this year, rather than what officially came out in cinemas this year.

The full list…

  1. Aftersun (Charlotte Wells, UK)
  2. The Worst Person in the World (Joachim Trier, Norway)
  3. Happening (Audrey Diwan, France)
  4. Close (Lukas Dhont, Belgium)
  5. Corsage (Marie Kreutzer, Austria)
  6. Godland (Hlynur Pálmason, Iceland)
  7. Decision To Leave (Park Chan Wook, South Korea)
  8. Alcarràs (Carla Simón, Spain)
  9. One Fine Morning (Mia Hansen-Løve, France)
  10. Compartment No. 6 (Juho Kwosmanen, Finland)
  11. Murina (Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović, Croatia)
  12. Blue Jean (Georgia Oakley, UK)
  13. The Quiet Girl (Colm Bairéad, Ireland)
  14. Broker (Hirokazu Kore-eda, South Korea)
  15. All The Beauty and the Bloodshed (Laura Poitras, US)
  16. The Blue Caftan (Maryam Touzani, Morocco)
  17. Bones and All (Luca Guadagnino, US)
  18. Fire of Love (Sara Dosa, US)
  19. Emily the Criminal (John Patton Ford, US)
  20. Marcel the Shell With Shoes On (Dean Fleischer Camp, US)
  21. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Japan)
  22. Everything Everywhere All At Once (The Daniels, US)

Film-watching intentions for 2023:

Thanks to BFI Southbank programming Sight & Sound’s 2022 Greatest Films of All Time Poll I should manage to tick off a few classics that have long been on my to-watch list, including the one that claim a number one spot: Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.

Elsewhere I’m going to try and pick a decade each month to theme my ‘first-time watches’ around, i.e. for January I’m time-traveling back to 2002 and aiming to watch 25th Hour, Infernal Affairs, Adaptation and Punch Drunk Love.


Podcasts I loved: (in no particular order)

Thresholds, an interview show with writers and artists, hosted by Jordan Kisner. Climavores, which explores how what we eat affects our planet. Ologies with Alie Ward, hands down one of the best podcast hosts out there and a gorgeous resource for learning about our weird and wild world. Still Processing, J Wortham and Wesley Morris’ cultural criticism podcast, which always holds space for empathy, evaluation and re-evaluation. Finding Our Way, a podcast about imagination, abolition, power and change. The Town with Matthew Belloni, my go-to for understanding the latest trends and headlines in Hollywood. Talk Easy with Sam Fragoso, probably my favourite interview podcast both for the calibre of guests he secures and the gentle way he probes their minds. Literary Friction and its hosts Carrie and Octavia are who I call upon for book chat and recommendations. Anthems, short, empowering manifestoes themed around a particular subject. I also regularly listen to Code Switch, The Ezra Klein Show, Death Sex & Money, The New Yorker: Fiction, Adam Buxton and Criticism Is Dead.

Newsletters I loved: (in no particular order)

Haley Nahman’s Maybe Baby. The Ann Friedman Weekly. Story Club with George Saunders. Nicole Donut about the writing process and creative practice. HEATED, Emily Atkin’s updates about the climate crisis. Austin Kleon’s creative inspiration. Dense Discovery.

Long-form writing I loved: (in no particular order)

Sophie Gilbert on the Will Smith slapping Chris Rock incident for The Atlantic. Jia Tolentino’s commentary on the overturning of Roe vs. Wade and abortion for The New Yorker. Sarah Polley’s piece for The Guardian about starring in a Terry Gilliam film as a child. A New Yorker piece on pickleball! The absolutely devastating piece Merope Mills wrote about losing her 13-year-old daughter for The Guardian. Simran Hans diving into the role of the critic-influencer for WePresent. No profile could quite top Jeremy Strong’s in The New Yorker (December 2021), but I continued to enjoy Michael Schulman’s work regardless, especially this piece on Elisabeth Moss. Imogen West-Knights on ‘the Queen of crime-solving’ for The Guardian. And although it came out five years ago, I did revisit Sam Knight’s piece about what happens when The Queen dies, also for The Guardian.

60 Things That Made My Year (2021)

Here’s to another year of finding the momentous and the magnificent in the smaller, the quieter and the everyday…

  1. Having a slow January; reading, watching, going on walks in Kent, phone-calls with friends
  2. Interviewing dialect coaches for an article in Sight & Sound
  3. Getting into and persevering with yoga for the first time ever (thanks Adriene!)
  4. Completing dry January and obviously feeling much better for it
  5. That Ann Patchett essay in Harper’s Magazine
  6. Producing 22 video essays for Prime Video UK; working with lots of talented writers, content creators & editors
  7. Listening to podcasts: Floodlines, The Just Enough Family, 9/12
  8. A birthday Zoom quiz
  9. Swam in the sea on my 28th birthday, had afternoon tea and watched The Godfather
  10. The miso aubergine dinner that Becky made for me (also Marek’s jackfruit burritos)
  11. Friday night martinis with Becky & Marek in the flat
  12. Alice getting me Swim in the Pond in the Rain for my birthday; getting into George Saunders in a big way; developing a newfound love of short stories
  13. Reading short story collections: Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, Lauren’s Groff’s Delicate Edible Birds, Elizabeth McCracken’s Souvenir Museum, Emma Cline’s Daddy, Nicole Krauss’ To Be A Man, Junot Diaz’s Drown, George Saunders’ Tenth of December
  14. Zoom dance & barre classes with Becky in the lounge
  15. Starting a newsletter; having people actually subscribe to it
  16. Having some really fun & invigorating podcast interviews; publishing 25 episodes of Best Girl Grip
  17. Bike rides around London
  18. Breakfast in the garden on crisp but sunny March & April mornings
  19. The vegan cinnamon babka from Good Egg in Stokey
  20. My indigo Sézane jacket
  21. Bingeing The US Office in its entirety
  22. Visiting The Garden Museum for the first time; that gorgeous burst of sunshine on an otherwise rainy day as Becky & I had coffee & cake in the courtyard 
  23. Having people over to the flat again; hosting dinners & parties
  24. Exploring Dalston: making the Red Hand my local (Great beers. Great date spot.) The cocktails at High Water (sublime). Having the Rio on my doorstep. Discovering the Dalston Curve Garden. 
  25. Watching Wimbledon
  26. Watching the Euros
  27. Watching Love Island
  28. Watching the Olympics
  29. Going properly freelance
  30. Doing a live podcast interview for the BFI’s Woman With a Movie Camera Summit with Molly Manning Walker
  31. Producing the Anime to Z podcast for Little Dot Studios; getting to work with Che Lingo & Bec Hill, record in an actual studio & work on something outside of my comfort zone
  32. Kew Gardens with Alice
  33. Digging a pond in Mum & Dad’s garden
  34. The dark chocolate sorbet at Romeo & Giulietta
  35. When Becky, Sam & Jake came to Deal: spike ball, a day on Broadstairs beach, the invigorating but slightly wild waves (RIP my sunglasses), Bloody Marys, strolling around charity shops, countless rounds of The Mound
  36. Playing crazy golf at a work social
  37. Dinner with Jess & Claire at Mildreds
  38. Dinner with Becky at Kin & Deum; the most delicious vegan Thai curry
  39. Dumpling dates with Caragh: Chinatown, My Neighbours the Dumplings, House of MoMo
  40. Joining the library
  41. The revival of roast club; doing the pub quiz at The Canonbury Tavern
  42. Cat & Andrew’s wedding! Dressing up! Dancing! Yard Sale pizza! A karaoke after party!
  43. Attending LFF in person. Seeing lots of my fave movies of the year in a cinema with an audience
  44. Getting back on the dating scene
  45. Seeing Caroline Polachek at the Roundhouse with Caitlin & Ella
  46. Getting a job with BFI NETWORK / ICO
  47. Solo cinema trips: The French Dispatch, But I’m a Cheerleader, CODA, Limbo, Tokyo Story in NFT1
  48. Cinema trips with friends: A Quiet Place 2, C’Mon C’Mon, Annette, No Time To Die
  49. Moving to Stoke Newington & into Claire’s flat
  50. The deer in Clissold Park
  51. Getting back into swimming at Clissold Leisure Centre
  52. Going to the theatre again: Civilisation, Old Bridge
  53. Delicious pasta & apple pie at Jake & Lou’s
  54. Having an absolute hoot at the BIFAs; feeling bold enough to wear a green velvet dress that had slashes up both sides
  55. Successfully pitching some freelance articles
  56. A barnstorming year for TV
  57. Getting 50k+ words of creative writing down on the page
  58. Having people say & write nice things about the pod & the newsletter
  59. Feeling some sense of momentum and dare I say it, progress, career & writing-wise
  60. Seeing friends thrive & survive & be awesome in all kinds of ways

75 Things That Made My Year (2020)

Every year, Austin Kleon puts together a list of 100 things that made his year and every year I read it and think ‘I should do that’.

More so than ever, 2020 felt like a year that I ought to make some effort to document the positive. Not to paper over the cracks that deserved to be taken seriously, but because it would be all too easy to look back and summarise it as thoroughly shit.

I didn’t quite make it to 100. I stopped keeping a diary between April and October and there are lots of days that passed without cause for mention, but here are 75 things that stood out to me as worthy of remembering.

  1. Making cacio e pepe for the first time (a vegan version). 
  2. Watching Paavo Järvi and the NHK Symphony Orchestra perform Rachmaninov’s symphony and Schumann’s Concerto for Cello at the Southbank Centre (for free with their under 30 scheme) and feeling cultured as fuck.
  3. Seeing Uncut Gems on 35mm at The PCC. 
  4. Brit Marling’s piece on the Strong Female Lead in The New York Times
  5. Seeing theatre: You Stupid Darkness!, Scenes with girls, Antigone, an online version of Lungs, a handful of things at The Vault Festival. 
  6. Going to an escape room for the first time. Delirious fun. 
  7. Getting to exhibitions whilst we could: Steve McQueen at Tate Modern, Among the Trees at Southbank Centre.
  8. Pottery painting with Tirion. 
  9. Making a zine and posting it to Becky.
  10. Playing with ink. Doing collages. Creating for fun. 
  11. Going for numerous walks around Finsbury Park, Woodberry Wetlands, Hampstead Heath. And then in Surrey around Norbury Park and seeing the lambs.
  12. Making banana bread. Obviously.
  13. Other food discoveries: scallion pancakes, the simple pleasures of beans on toast, blueberry clafoutis, chocolate babka
  14. Reading. Reading in the mornings for an hour before work. Devouring books in one sitting.
  15. Staying in the woods for the weekend with Alice; making pizzas from scratch, drinking hot chocolate by a fire, walking into Bath, going wild swimming, using a compost toilet.
  16. Haley Nahman’s newsletter. Particularly this one, and this one
  17. Buying myself a bike and cycling around on it: to Epping Forest, Victoria Park, London Fields Lido, to the Barbican, around Regents Park with Becky, all the way home to Surrey.
  18. Weekly zooms with my best friends. 
  19. Getting published: in Another Gaze and The Guardian.
  20. Thursday night dinners with Becky. 
  21. Sitting outside in our garden in the summer. Buying these chairs
  22. Watching squirrels whilst waiting for the kettle to boil.
  23. Getting a haircut.
  24. Lots of takeaway pizza from Yard Sale. 
  25. Watching lots of brilliant films.
  26. Watching lots of brilliant TV. 
  27. Rewatching ER. 
  28. Doing two live podcast recordings.
  29. Doing 30+ podcast interviews over Zoom. 
  30. Having regular development meetings for a film project.
  31. Baths. Hot ones in winter. Cold ones in summer.
  32. Feeling adult: getting home contents insurance, taking vitamins regularly, buying ethical loo roll, getting a Vanity Fair subscription. 
  33. New music. Dancing to Dua Lipa in my bedroom. Playing HAIM on a loop. 
  34. Finding zen by watching make-up tutorial videos on YouTube.
  35. Not wearing make-up for weeks, if not, months on end.
  36. Getting dressed up to stay indoors. 
  37. Getting a rowing machine.
  38. Being able to return to the gym & swimming pools. 
  39. Buying lilac joggers and living in them. 
  40. Moving my bedroom furniture around.
  41. Learning more about the abolitionist movement. Participating in the abolitionist futures reading group. 
  42. Simran Hans’ newsletter Treats
  43. Interviewing cool people for work. Rose Glass! Cathy Brady! Luna Carmoon! Elizabeth Karlsen! Jed Kurzel! Daniel Kaluuya
  44. Getting to produce a podcast for work.
  45. Dipping my toe into the world of video essays.
  46. Discovering Taskmaster.
  47. Going to pubs and sitting outdoors. Come rain, or shine. 
  48. Drinking tequila on the last night before the second lockdown. 
  49. Making dens in the living room to watch movies.
  50. Attending the London Film Festival online. Feeling part of something again. 
  51. Crazy golf with Becky.
  52. Going to the zoo!
  53. Attending a bajillion webinars & online events. 
  54. Writing a play and getting my friends to do a read-through. 
  55. Rediscovering old episodes of Desert Island Discs and The Adam Buxton podcast.
  56. Treating myself to the occasional food shop from Waitrose. Buying these vegan sausage rolls
  57. Doing puzzles.
  58. Getting back into journaling. 
  59. Dolly Alderton’s agony aunt column in The Sunday Times. 
  60. Caitlin Quinlan’s newsletter Details
  61. That Judith Butler interview in the New Statesman.
  62. The New York Times Spelling Bee.
  63. Writing a personal essay I’m proud of. 
  64. Catch-up walks with Caragh.
  65. Phone-calls with friends. (Feeling nostalgic for the hours spent on a landline when I was a teenager). 
  66. Playing Scrabble with my parents.
  67. Finding catharsis in cleaning. 
  68. Buying ping pong bats. Playing ping pong in the park. 
  69. AOC’s Twitter feed. 
  70. Joe & Kamala. 
  71. Panda videos on YouTube.
  72. Stanley Tucci’s Negroni cocktail video.
  73. Making a negroni.
  74. Getting to celebrate Christmas with my best friend & then my parents. 
  75. Visiting the White Cliffs of Dover on Boxing Day.

Composer Jed Kurzel: “I’ve always been a fan of limitations.”

Originally commissioned by and published on Film4 Online.

Directed by Justin Kurzel and backed by Film4, True History of the Kelly Gang takes a riotous and revisionist approach to retelling the story of the infamous Australian outlaw. Starring 1917’s George MacKay as legendary Ned, the resulting film is at once mythic and startlingly contemporary.

We got in touch with the other Kurzel — composer and musician Jed — to talk about scoring his brother’s film, embracing happy accidents and using landscape to make music. As well as working on the likes of Slow West, Macbeth and Assassin’s Creed.

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What was your path to becoming a film composer?

It was something I enthusiastically fell into. As a kid I was obsessed with music and film scores were a part of that. I was definitely one of those people who noticed the music in films and didn’t consider it a background thing. If I liked something I’d go out and find it. I’d been playing in bands and also making music for myself, which felt more in line with film music. Justin had heard a lot off of it over the years and when he began working on his first feature film Snowtown asked if I’d try making some music for it.

I thought it would be a one off thing…..I was wrong!

Where do you start when composing a score?

Great/interesting films know exactly what they want, they easily shrug off music that ‘sort of’ works and push you to look for something unexpected. They offer a lot of inspiring roads to go down. Sometimes the landscape or place of a film is enough of a launching off point, other times it might be an amazing performance. I also think some of the best scores have been written off picture, when a director embraces all the happy accidents and everything just works, there’s no need to question it.

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How do you and Justin work together? Does he express what he wants from the score?

We’ve developed a short hand over the years. I don’t think we ever have “meetings”. We’ll usually be talking about something completely unrelated to the film, if it’s Winter it’s probably Australian Rules Football, and eventually find ourselves on the topic of music.

We always listen to what the film wants in the edit. Filmmaking is such an ever-changing process from the script to the shooting to the edit that any pre-conceived ideas about the music usually become redundant by the time you get to the edit. I’ll start making music and send it to him and it becomes apparent pretty quickly what works and what doesn’t.

We’re very close and being brothers we’re afforded the luxury of being brutally honest with each other with minimal repercussions. It’s amazing how much time you save when you’re not tip-toeing around each other.

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Jed and Justin Kurzel (Photo: Kitty Gale for The Sydney Morning Herald)

The score for True History of the Kelly Gang resonates with menace but also playfulness, how did you go about achieving that balance?

I wanted some playfulness in the score to balance out the darker elements.

I’ve always been a fan of Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly paintings. They’re so ahead of their time and treat the folklore as comic and kind of ridiculous. Peter Carey’s book covers similar territory and I could also see elements of it in the film. I love Looney Tunes cartoons too, so I’m sure they went into the pot as well.

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“Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly paintings [are] so ahead of their time and treat the folklore as comic and kind of ridiculous.” (National Gallery of Australia)

Listening to ‘The Hold-Up’ is a particularly tense and clamorous experience, can you talk me through composing this piece and adding in all these different textures?

Australia is a loud place, particularly in the bush but even in the cities the birds are raucous. It’s one one of the first things people notice when they arrive. I love it, I think it’s has a huge influence on the general character of the people and the place.

Australian films generally turn all of this noise down in the mix, like it’s a nuisance. Justin made it a feature of the film, so we wanted the score to feel a part of that. ‘The Hold Up’ is an extension of this idea, that the music is somehow a product of the landscape. I wanted the strings to whistle and squawk like Magpies and the percussive elements to feel like they were built with bark.

I particularly love when soundtracks have specific compositions for different characters. What palette of sounds did you employ for composing ‘Mary’ (played by Thomasin McKenzie) and what do you think this conveys about her character?

It’s mainly viola and vibraphone with a kind of angelic string drone. It was one of those pieces I’d written off picture, we put it against the scene where Ned first meets Mary and it worked. I guess it conveys a sense of innocence lost amongst a pretty brutal landscape.

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The film has taken quite a punk rock approach to the story, did that factor into your score at all?

It’s weird, punk rock has so many different connotations these days. I’ve never really heard it as a sound, it’s more a way of life, 100% free expression no matter what anyone thinks. I attempt to factor that into everything I do…With varying results.

I felt some similarities between True History and Slow West, although the latter takes a more minimalist approach, did they compare for you at all?

They are pretty different scores, similar instruments but a different approach. I loved doing Slow West, John wanted something melodic and bit more structured, something he could whistle, with THOTKG I wanted to make something a Magpie could whistle.

I’d also love to talk about Macbeth — what were the main themes or emotions you were looking to draw out in that score? And how do you weave in a sense of landscape? Macbeth’s score sounded like it had Scottish timbre, and is that also something you were looking to create with THOTKG (but with Australia)?

Macbeth was very much a response to the landscape. The music worked best again when it felt like a product of the landscape, the sound of a curse or something conjured up by the witches. THOTKG and Macbeth definitely feel like companion pieces. There’s a nod to Scottish music in Macbeth but it’s not overt, it’s in there enough to give you a sense of place but its main purpose was creating a tone and acting as a kind of poison in the fabric of the film.

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THOTKG was similar in terms of responding to the landscape. It’s such a vast and incredible place, it’s humbling and makes you feel very small at the best of times. It also feels somewhat cursed due to it violent history. I guess these kind of environments are impossible to ignore when you’re approaching them musically.

Does the process differ at all when you’re working on studio projects like Alien: Covenant and Assassin’s Creed?

The process always feels the same. Every film feels like another mountain to climb no matter what the budget and they all come with their own surprises. It’s fantastic to be able to make music knowing you have a budget to be able to do anything but I’ve always been a fan of limitations too. Boundaries can force you into really tricky/interesting corners.

The genres of these two films are also quite different from your previous work, did they allow greater scope for experimentation?

Absolutely. I was lucky enough to work with two directors who encouraged experimentation on a canvas that size. They’re the best kind of directors to work with, unafraid and collaborative. They value the process almost more than the result and their enthusiasm is infectious.

What do you enjoy most about the composition process?

Happy accidents. Approaching something one way, making a mistake and suddenly finding that the mistake is the kernel of an entirely different approach. You can’t force it to happen but hope that it will….before the deadline.

Filmmaker Cathy Brady on a fiery debut and a head-spinning year

Originally commissioned by and published on Film4 Online

With her Film4-backed feature debut Wildfire showing at this year’s London Film Festival, we sat down with IFTA-winning writer-director Cathy Brady to discuss trauma, the Troubles and releasing a film in a turbulent 2020. By Nicole Davis.

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Nora-Jane Noone (left) and Nika McGuigan (right) star as two sisters who grew up on the fractious Irish border.

Wildfire began with a desire to unite two actors, with whom writer-director Cathy Brady had worked with separately in the past. Nora-Jane Noone had starred in Brady’s award-winning short film Small Change, whilst Nika McGuigan was a member of the cast for her darkly comic TV drama Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope.

Having seen their talents independently, Brady wondered how they might interact with each other. “They both had incredible range and were able to capture something vulnerable but with a fierce sense of strength and I think there’s such a unique polarity in those abilities that I thought ‘what would happen if I put these two elements together?’”

The answer is an explosive chemistry and a bracing feature debut.

Set in the Borderlands of Northern Ireland, where Brady is from, the film is rooted in the notion of “unspoken history and the idea of having to move on for the sake of peace” and how that dynamic might manifest in a community or even a family. “It came from a personal place before it became political”, Brady admits.

Although it was “more of a sense of energy, than an idea at that stage”, she knew she wanted the story to explore sibling dynamics and began researching cases around shared psychosis. “It was so crucial that if we were telling this story we’d have to grind the truth of that. We wanted the characters to be complex, because if they weren’t they would just be seen as diagnoses of their illness and that’s not the case, it never is.”

It was during Brady’s research that she came across the term ‘transgenerational trauma’; the notion that trauma leaves a legacy and can be passed onto the next generation, “if it isn’t somehow dealt with.”

“We can see the devastating consequences of that in Northern Ireland”, Brady continues, “as it has one of the highest rates of antidepressant usage in the world,” stats which were published in a report for The Detail in 2014. Similarly, the generation nicknamed ‘Ceasefire Babies’ — those who were too young to directly experience the intense violence of the Troubles — have suffered from soaring suicide rates. “More people in Northern Ireland have died as a result of suicide than those killed in the Troubles”, Brady tells me.

“Why is that generation in so much difficulty?” This question became a fire in Brady’s belly and Wildfire became the medium through which she would explore it.

“Northern Ireland, in one sense, is quite a pathologically secretive place, because the truth has historically been dangerous.” The film grapples with that idea of secrets buried deep, and the kind of peace that emerges from unploughed ground.

“In some instances of psychosis, the past can become the present.” That jumbled, fragmented frame of mind is something that Wildfire captures with visceral intensity and the whole film pulsates with a menacing, spectral quality.

It makes sense when Brady starts to tell me how the world of the film came into being. “We used a lot of music and imagery to develop the tone, atmosphere and energy of the film.” Brady put together a playlist that became “a universal access point” for the film’s tonal and visual language.

In one of the early workshops with Noone and McGuigan, Brady played ‘Land: Horses / Land of a Thousand Dances / La Mer’ from Patti Smith’s album Horses, a primordial 9-minute track, whose energy Brady wanted her actors to match. The ensuing dance, improvised by Brady’s two actors, very closely mirrors a dance scene that occurs in the film — honed alongside identical twin sister choreographers Junk Ensemble — a moment crackling with tension and intended symmetry. It served as something on an ‘a-ha’ moment for everyone on set. Brady recalls shooting it in the second week of production and feeling palpable excitement.

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Brady worked with identical twin sister choreographers Junk Ensemble on a pivotal dance sequence.

The filmmaking process hasn’t been one of pure excitement however. During post-production, Nika McGuigan tragically passed away after battling cancer. “It was a rollercoaster of a year”, Brady sighs.

“There were the highs of making your debut [feature], but then losing Nika was incredibly difficult. She was like a sister to me.” The irony of editing a film about tackling grief, whilst experiencing “the biggest grief of my life” is not lost on Brady. “It was a head spin.” She admits that it’s hard to put into words what the Wildfire journey has meant to her. Like the history it deals with, it has been turbulent. “I’m proud of the fact we got through it and finished the film. It’s a testament to Nika.”

On the topic of bumpy rides, I’m curious as to what the experience of releasing a film in the savage year that is 2020 has been like. As for many of us, it’s been a period of uncertainty. “I thought the film might go into the deep freezer.”

In fact, Wildfire recently enjoyed its World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, a moment which Brady describes as “bittersweet” as the team were informed of the film’s acceptance on the anniversary of Nika’s death. “Unfortunately none of us were there, but equally that could’ve been too hard.”

“I feel ready to sit and watch the film with an audience.” Although Wildfire’s audience at the BFI’s London Film Festival — where the film has its next appearance — won’t be in the same room as Brady, I hold out hope that it will be feverishly embraced.

Morfydd Clark: “The wild scenes were actually quite a nice release!”

Originally commissioned by and published on Film4 Online

With Rose Glass’ Film4-backed psychological thriller Saint Maud out now in UK cinemas, we spoke to its breakout lead actress Morfydd Clark about her divine performance…

Morfydd Clark is having something of a moment. Earlier this year she charmed audiences with her role as the dog-whispering love interest of Dev Patel’s David Copperfield in Armando Iannucci’s delicious Dickens adaptation. And now she can currently be seen in two films at UK cinemas; as Sally Hawkins’ younger self in Craig Robert’s audacious meditation on schizophrenia Eternal Beauty, and as religious live-in nurse Maud in the Rose Glass’ terrifying feature debut, Saint Maud.

We caught up with the actress to discuss the differences between period and contemporary drama, the importance of depicting mental health with sensitivity and why Florence Pugh ended up inspiring her performance as Maud…

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What was your initial reaction when reading the Saint Maud script? Was it an immediate ‘I have to do this’ moment?

Definitely. It was clear even before I read it that this was going to be something very special because my agent was so excited telling me about it. Then, when I read it, I was just engrossed. As a Dyslexic, I don’t find it easy to read long texts at once but I was so gripped by the story I couldn’t stop.

I immediately had a picture in my mind of this character and how I could portray her; often, you read a script and it’s brilliant but it’s just not yourself that you picture doing it. With Saint Maud, I thought that I had something to bring to the role, which is always a nice feeling! On the other hand, that comes with a lot of pressure on yourself not to mess up the audition!

I heard an interview where you mentioned Florence Pugh in Lady Macbeth inspired your performance, what other films did Rose give you to watch to set the tone for Saint Maud?

Rose gave me a lot of films to watch, some of which were quite daunting as someone who can be a bit of a wimp! Generally, they were all films that put you inside the head of another character completely — so Repulsion, Prevenge, Taxi Driver. I think that’s where the connection with Lady Macbethcomes: the way that it’s shot and her performance just places you so completely in her world that the tension is almost unbearable when you watch it, even when nothing particularly sinister is happening. I think William Oldroyd said that Lady Macbeth was a film about boredom and the equivalent for Saint Maud is definitely loneliness.

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Florence Pugh in her breakout role as Katherine in BAFTA-nominated gothic drama Lady Macbeth

Does your process or preparation change when you’re cast in an ensemble drama like The Personal History of David Copperfield, compared with a leading role in Saint Maud?

I don’t think so, really, apart from the fact that there’s obviously a lot more pressure! I’ve never been someone who takes a ‘method’ approach to acting or does anything radical to get into character, I just spend time thinking about them and how they might respond to situations I’m in. I think that I was lucky with Saint Maud because there was a big gap between me getting the role and starting filming, so I had a lot of time to mull over the character and build a detailed portrait of her for myself. It would have been very daunting without that hiatus.

Having also worked on several period dramas, did the contemporary setting of this film free you up at all? And if so, in what ways?

It’s funny because the film does have a contemporary setting, but Maud’s sort of created her own period drama for herself! I wouldn’t say that I found the setting freeing exactly — though of course the costumes are much more comfortable! — but more that I was more immediately able to connect with this character.

I think that Saint Maud is a very millennial story. Our generation, though “having it easy” in some material aspects, are put under a lot of pressure and encouraged to be limitlessly ambitious from an early age. We’ve also grown up through war, recession and now a pandemic, all in the shadow of climate change, so there’s an uncertainty and dread that never really goes away. And we’re also pretty isolated, often growing up far from where our parents grew up, and then ending up somewhere else again as adults. I think Maud combines all of those elements and pushes them to the extreme. She shares that “productivity” drive that so many millennials have but to the point of needing a divine mission. She’s banished uncertainty by putting absolute faith in God. And then she’s isolated in such an extreme way that her closest relationship is with God. In that way, I suppose it was freeing not to have to imagine the world this character lives in and the pressures she’s under, but more to think about how someone else might react to those pressures in a very extreme way.

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There are two sides to Maud which make her such an interesting character; one is this restrained shyness, she’s quite reclusive and almost fearful of other people and yet the other is this almost manic sense of imagination or delusion where she believes she’s on a morally or spiritually higher plane. Did you find one easier to access or portray than the other and how did you find balancing those two aspects of her personality?

I think the two go together really: her experience has taught her that people ignore and belittle her, but internally she has a certain arrogance and regard for herself (particularly in her religious convictions) and it’s the contradiction between those things that is really forcing her to breaking point. I think that actually quite a lot of women, especially teenage girls, can identify with that to some degree: it’s like the Mary Sue thing (the trope in fan fiction of people writing a seemingly average girl — presumably based on themselves — who turns out to be the one to save the day and have people falling in love with her left, right and centre). We all want to be special in some way, deep down, and we all want people to see us and know us. Maud, once again, takes that to an extreme — she is the Mary Sue in her own fan fiction with God and she’s living it, instead of writing it!

Was working on a horror film quite emotionally draining? How did you mentally psych yourself up the more “delusional” takes?

It was actually lovely! Rose, Oliver and Andrea (Kassman and Cornwell, the producers) created such a harmonious, supportive team that it was just a pleasure to shoot, even though the subject matter was so intense. For me, it was more of a strain portraying how contained and tense and focused Maud is all the time so the more wild scenes were actually quite a nice release!

Something I’ve always been interested in when it comes to acting, is the idea that you have to relinquish control of your performance to some extent — in the sense that you might not always know which take will end up in the final cut. Do you sometimes have a sense that you’ve given the ‘final edit’ performance, or do you just have to accept that when a director wants to move on they’ve got what they need, regardless if you feel like you’ve given everything?

I am constantly running away from responsibility and so this aspect of shooting suits me very well. I thought I’d be a control freak about it but it’s actually a relief to surrender the choices to someone else. I’m the worst judge of myself and would make a very bad film if I was in control.

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Left: in Craig Robert’s Eternal Beauty, Right: in Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield with Dev Patel

Given that Maud is a character whose mental health is precarious, did you feel a certain responsibility when manifesting that?

Absolutely, it was something that I thought about a lot — I really wanted Maud to be a rounded, sympathetic character who could not be defined simply by one mental illness or another. She has specific character traits and experiences — positive and negative — that lead her down a particular path, she isn’t just doing things because she’s “mad”. I was really lucky to be filming Saint MaudThe Personal History of David Copperfield and Eternal Beauty at the same time, which all portray mental illness in such different ways. I think the three films together actually say something about support and care and how they interact with mental illness: in David Copperfield, Mr Dick is surrounded with love and care; in Eternal Beauty, Jane has some support in her networks, particularly from her sister and nephew, and some relationships which are less supportive; in Saint Maud, Maud has no one and I think that’s why she goes down the route she does. The “horror” in the film for me isn’t Maud or any mental illness, it’s loneliness.

The filmmakers behind Pompeii on the joys of going back to basics and collaborating with friends

Originally commissioned by and published on Film4 Online

With Film4-backed short Pompeii now available to watch on Film4 on All4, we sat down with writers and directors Harry Lighton, Marco Alessi and Matthew Jacobs Morgan, as well as producer Sorcha Bacon to find out more about how they embraced iPhones, collaboration and chaos! By Nicole Davis.

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Pompeii was most recently shortlisted for Best British Short Film at the Iris Prize.

Where did the idea for this short film come from and why did you want to tell this story?

Matthew Jacobs Morgan: We were chatting at the London Film Festival a few years ago and agreed that we all wanted to work on something and from that point it was quite an organic process. Our friend Tam (Otamere Guobadia, who stars in the film) wrote an article that very much inspired the film. It was created in a very non-linear way, we kind of figured it out as we went along.

Harry Lighton: Tam’s article was making a very serious and valid point about divisions within the queer community and door club policies, but we thought it’d be fun to film something that didn’t require any of the usual apparatus of a film set, with our mates and a bunch of iPhones, but which was also fundamentally interesting and a bit different from other shorts out there.

Can you expand on the politics around the door club policy and the controversies that Pompeii explores?

Marco Alessi: Tam’s article in particular was criticising a specific venue in London which I think has now closed down, but is trying to re-open under the guise of being an inclusive place, when in fact it has a door policy that famously refuses entry to men that don’t appear masculine enough by their standards. That might be because you’re wearing a crop top, heels or excessive make-up.

It’s presenting itself as a queer space but has built up its clientele off the back of having a very narrow concept of what it means to be a gay man, and also what is sexually attractive in gay men. And that leads to femme-shaming and also the exclusion of trans people from queer spaces. It’s really sinister. That’s what we were channelling through his character.

You’re dealing with quite a complex, and at times heavy, topic, but there is a thread that runs throughout the film which celebrates queer expression and nightlife. How did you balance those two elements?

HL: What we set out to do was try and build that into the structure of the film, so it begins with a glimpse into the exuberance of going out with a group of mates, but progresses to that group splintering, and then people who are single — which I don’t think is exclusive to the queer community — are often left on their own, as people couple up or head to other venues to try and prolong the night. So the group is distilled down to two people, one of whom can very easily slide into this club which venerates macho, straight-acting guys and one of whom cannot, which allowed us to push it into that more sinister place.

How did having a triptych of directors work? Did you collaborate across all aspects of the filmmaking, or did you each write and direct segments?

Sorcha Bacon: It happened so organically. We made it in sections, so if we tried something out and it wasn’t quite working, we went with something different. Rather than writing a script, we all got involved in telling a story through action and playing around with different scenarios. It evolved as we were making it.

HL: We shot over three separate nights but across a six month timespan. That was probably the most liberating thing about shooting on iPhones, it’s almost budget-less, so it does enable you to shoot something, look at it all together, sit on it for a little bit, rewrite, discuss, argue, rewrite, reshoot, etc. That practical approach really enabled the collaboration.

MJM: One of the other reasons we had time on our side was that we just started making it ourselves, with barely any money. We were very lucky that Film4 came on board and helped us finish the film, but initially there was very little pressure.

On an aesthetic level, what were your influences and references? Did you look to other films that had been shot on iPhone? The obvious one being Sean Baker’s Tangerine.

HL: There’s a film called Cracked Screen (2016) by Trim (the first Snapchat-based film of its kind). Tangerine isn’t shot from the perspective of someone recording selfies, whereas Cracked Screen is told exclusively through a series of Snapchats captured by one individual character. So we saw that and thought it would be interesting to make a film that used multiple perspectives because that reflects how we use Instagram Stories; you’re zipping through lots of different experiences.

SB: We wanted to comment on our generation’s obsession with what you put on the Internet and how people decide what they choose to make public and what they keep to themselves.

MA: It was a massive headache as well to be honest. Everyone had their phones on this night out, and we paid for their entry to a club. We had a vague sense of the story, but within some very loose parameters we very much let them tell their own stories. The first edit we did had no centre and was pure chaos. And then once we started zoning in on Tam, the aesthetic emerged from that, we wanted to be true to the form of Instagram Stories. Julie Buckland, our editor, was incredibly patient with us!

Did all the Instagram Stories recreation happen in post-production?

MA: Yeah, we had an incredible motion graphics expert called James Malcolm and he whizzed it all up. Once we had finished the edit, we had to really lock it, because James then had to recreate the little bar at the top of Stories and we had to tell him when someone might have skipped the video or when they watched it to the end. It was really tricksy.

Were there any other limitations, or perhaps liberations, you encountered through working with the iPhone?

MJM: One of the liberations was that we had so much footage, so if something wasn’t quite working, we had a lot of other options. You don’t always have the luxury of that much coverage when you’re shooting in a more conventional way.

SB: On the other hand we had one roll of 16mm film to shoot almost a third of the film (for the scenes following Tam on his journey home from the club). We totally overshot on the phones because it’s such a democratic device that anyone can grab and go, but with 16mm it had to be super composed and you can’t mess it up.

HL: It’s also quite hard to film your self in a ‘selfie’ and remain in the moment whilst you’re acting, so it was nice to go back to 16mm and see what was going to be shot.

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The scenes following Tam’s journey home were shot on 16mm.

What did you learn from the experience of making this short?

SB: Working with your friends is really fun and making films should be joyful, which this was. It reignited a drive to make something with nothing. Yes we were lucky to have Film4 onboard, but we had to create something to the point where they wanted to come onboard. It was really exciting to go back to basics.

HL: I learnt about intimacy coordination. I’ve made a lot of films that have had weird sex scenes in them and growing up I had thought that the way to combat the awkwardness and get people into the moment was to narrow the thinking space around it. Like ‘you’ll come in, we’ll just do it without a rehearsal and GO!’ But it was amazing working with an intimacy co-ordinator for this and seeing how that methodical, choreographed process doesn’t suck out energy or vim from the performances, it just makes actor’s much more comfortable and means you can properly discuss those scenes rather than having an ‘ostrich in the sand’ moment.

MJM: It made me realise how much I love 16mm. We were so lucky to have it on this film, and what our DoP Molly Manning Walker shot is absolutely gorgeous. As Sorcha was saying, the process of shooting on 16mm does force you to distil exactly what you want from a shot. I also just love the texture of it and what you can do with colour. I hope it doesn’t fall to the wayside as a medium.

MA: My take home from Pompeii is to approach projects with greater looseness. I think I’ve always been quite rigid in terms of I wanted as a director, but some of the most exciting stuff in this film emerged from this looseness.

Speaking of take homes, is there something you hope audiences glean from their experience of watching the film?

MA: Part of what I love about Tam’s performance is that he’s so glittering and beautiful and loud and fun, and yet he’s still impacted by the various micro-aggressions that are directed towards him. So I hope we can make those more visible or recognisable, when they otherwise might go unnoticed, particularly in the chaos of a night out.

MJM: I guess I hope as well, that there are still inclusive spaces that exist and where people like Tam can be themselves.

SB: For me, I hope that people realise that divides exist in the LGBTQ+ community. It can be easy to put us under one banner but I hope it encourages people to think about nuance and that queer identity isn’t homogenous.

Behind-the-scenes of Luna Carmoon’s Shagbands

Originally commissioned by and published on Film4 Online

With Film4-backed short Shagbands now available to watch on Film4 on All4, we sat down with writer and director Luna Carmoon to find out more about the memories, mythology and mood boards that went into its making. By Nicole Davis.

Early on in our Zoom conversation, filmmaker Luna Carmoon admits a predilection — a fetish if you will — for collecting images. “I do a lot of image research jobs for people…Anyone will say I’ve got the most disgusting desktop.” As we discuss the process behind making her second short film Shagbands, which recently premiered at the BFI’s London Film Festival and can now be seen on Film4 on All4, the cultural references come in spades.

It occurred to me that the best way to frame this interview might be through those images, a sort of annotated scrapbook on how this fierce, surreal and visceral short came to life.

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Left: Frankie Box as Mona, Right: Ruby Stokes, Frankie Box, Leila Katia McCalla and Demi Butcher. Photo credit: Zora Kuettner

On the personal inspiration for the film

“Everything I write is based on real life.” One of the film’s most intense and claustrophobic scenes sees Frankie Box’s Mona folded up into a mattress, which actually happened to Luna growing up. Or as Luna describes it, “he sandwiched me up in the mattress and sat on me until I passed out.”

She describes the process of mining her own memories for material as “booky” and a bit “like trauma therapy”; a way to exorcise past experiences. “I think if it’s not that personal, why are you making the film?”

Set over one sizzling summer, during which four schoolgirls face strange sexual awakenings, Shagbands is very much a film made from blood, sweat and tears. The house that provided the location for some of the more intense scenes in the film was eerily similar to the one Luna had encountered in the past. “During one scene I was crying behind the monitor…I lived that.”

On the concept of shag bands

A strange playground phenomenon, like conkers or Pokémon trading cards, only laced with a perverse undertone, shag bands were essentially ‘sex bracelets’. As Hannah Ewens describes for Vice

They looked cheap, they didn’t match what you were wearing and there was nothing cool about them whatsoever. But they did have a non-aesthetic purpose: if someone snapped one off your wrist, it meant you had to shag them. Except you were probably 12, so no one was actually getting shagged.

For Luna the shag bands represented an odd “fake sexual vocality” that arose in this prepubescent phase, where innocence and adolescence start to chafe against one another. “I remember my mum buying me boob tubes.” She laughs about the memory of one falling down in a Sainsburys car park.

To Luna, the shag bands were “like a mythological law.” She was particularly interested in the assault cases that happened in their wake and the fact that boys would wear them as “a badge of honour.”

“It’s so weird that there was a physical object that embodies what it means to be policed and objectified as a young teenage girl.”

There was one point where older actors were considered to play the four schoolgirls, but Luna was determined to have them look around thirteen or fourteen to emphasise the brimming sense of danger.

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Photo credit: Zora Kuettner

On styling the early 00s

Luna cites her older sister as inspiration for the trends and fascinations of the early noughties. “She was super emo, but into UK garage and house…I used to snog her Pete Wentz poster until it got soggy.” She even sourced a Page 3 calendar from the era to adorn the walls of one character’s bedroom.

Luna delved back into a personal blog she has kept since the age of 11, unearthing images of “scene girls like Kiki Kannibal” who was famous for her raccoon tails.

“At the same time, I didn’t want it to be too over the top.” Luna praises Philippa Lowthorpe’s harrowing TV miniseries Three Girls for its on point encapsulation of the era. “She really captured how we dressed. It was so subtle, but so fantastic.”

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Left to right: MySpace influencer Kiki Kannibal; Philippa Lowthorpe’s Three Girls; Ruby Stokes and Frankie Box in Shagbands. Photo credit: Zora Kuettner.

On her creative process

Luna admits that her ideas come thick and fast, but that getting words on a page is more of a slow burn. “Usually I incubate something for a year”, hoarding materials and pictures and references until eventually it coagulates into something she’s willing to share with her producer Loran Dunn.

On her visual references

A self-described “mad freak” for images, Luna puts together slides for each Head of Department that serve as the basis for what she wants the film to look and feel like. She sent her lighting designer stills from Haley Wollens’ work, a stylist known for blending the ethereal with the provocative.

Boys Don’t Cry, the 1999 film for which Hilary Swank won her first Oscar, was likewise “a massive reference for lighting and colour. It’s got one of the most superb colour palettes and the lighting is just mental.”

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Haley Wollens’ is a freelance stylist and creative director.
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Stills from Kimberley Peirce’s 1999 film starring Hilary Swank and Chloe Sevigny Boys Don’t Cry.

Another useful reference in terms of how the film should sound was Mike Leigh’s Life is Sweet. Luna was keen to portray her South London dialect accurately, like the fast-paced back and forths between Claire Skinner’s Natalie and Jane Horrocks’ Nicola. “Me and my sister are just like them. I do a really good impression.”

Really good is an understatement.

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Jane Horrocks (left) and Claire Skinner (right) in Mike Leigh’s intimate portrait of a working-class family in a suburb just north of London

On what she learnt from making Shagbands…

Luna is steadfast about the fact that filmmaking should be inclusive. “You have to make opportunities for other people and open doors for them. I wouldn’t be in the industry if it wasn’t for shortFLIX (an initiative run by Creative England to give underrepresented talent the chance to make their first film).”

It sounds idealistic, but Luna wants each set of hers to feel like a family; a safe space to explore the weird and the wild. “I want every movie I make to feel like a school trip.” I start to sense that it might be Luna’s audience that has a lot to learn from her.

Director Bijan Sheibani on making a short film about motherhood and mental illness

Originally commissioned by and published on Film4 Online

The director behind theatre’s The Arrival, Barber Shop Chronicles and The Brothers Size talks about writing and directing a viscerally powerful short film. By Nicole Davis.

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Writer and director Bijan Sheibani in rehearsal for his debut play The Arrival, which premiered at the Bush Theatre in early 2020.

Bijan Sheibani, a writer and director of theatre and film — perhaps best known for directing Dance Nation by Clare Barron for the Almeida, The Brothers Size by Tarell McCraney for the Young Vic, Barber Shop Chroniclesby Inua Ellams for the National Theatre and most recently his debut play The Arrival for the Bush Theatre — is not interested in making anything with an easy answer.

We’re talking over Zoom about his short film Morning Song, which he created with support from Film4 and is currently available to watch on All4, and centres on a young woman’s experience of motherhood and mental illness. “My ideas can start quite vague and as something that I’m figuring out or thinking about. The thing that often sustains my interest when I’m trying to write is the thing that I don’t get or understand. It can be quite frustrating as a process, but ultimately that’s what drives me to revisit it. I think if an idea is really good, you’ll never figure it out. And that’s why it needs to be turned into a piece of art, so that everybody can look at it together and wonder.”

Sheibani’s personal connection to the material is evident, his mother having had the illness shortly after he was born. To bring his experience into a contemporary context, he “started researching and meeting people” who had been affected by Postpartum Psychosis through the charity Action on Postpartum Psychosis (APP for short), imbuing the script with remarkable sensitivity and intimacy.

I’m intrigued as to where you even begin with distilling an idea as complex and misunderstood as mental illness into something with a 15 minute running time. “The short form is so challenging because you want it to have weight but not heaviness. I visited a hospital in Birmingham and coming away after that, I felt like that was the location for the film.” Most importantly for Sheibani, the hospital could be a symbol for hope and positivity, a starting point for this young woman’s journey to recovery.

“I’d done so many different drafts and attempts at telling this story” and then the version that went on to become Morning Song was actually a “swift” process, Sheibani admits abashedly, (“I hate it when people say they wrote it really quickly, it’s so not useful when I’m trying to write something”), as if he’d been incubating the idea for so long it just had to come to out.

The story unravels onscreen with the same kind of visceral intent. There is a thrilling uncertainty and disorientation to the opening sequence which arose from Sheibani trying to get “into this young woman’s head and her feeling paranoid and vulnerable and unable to trust the people closest to her.”

It plays like a heist movie, which is retrospectively fitting when you consider that this young woman’s mind has been hijacked. “I wasn’t trying to make it purposefully suspenseful”, Sheibani muses, but the fact the audience doesn’t know who the man driving the car is, or why the woman in passenger seat hatches a plan to make a run for it, situates us in a similarly confused headspace. Before we even discover that she’s returning to a mother and baby unit for women with postpartum psychosis, our thinking has aligned with hers. The brief moment of freedom she experiences as she bolts from the car is a freedom we very much want for her.

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Scarlett Brookes plays a young woman battling her own mind in Bijan Sheibani’s Morning Song.

The visual language for Morning Song is something that transpired after several conversations with his cinematographer Molly Manning Walker (who also shot another short film available on All4: Pompeii). Sheibani was inspired by directors like Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold and Michael Haneke. “The way in which Ramsay and Arnold can evoke such tenderness and truth and the way that a character’s psychology is worn on their body is particularly incredible.”

“There’s a coldness there and a forensic eye that I find really compelling”, Sheibani says of Austrian director Haneke, known for provocative films such as Funny Games, Hidden and The White Ribbon. “I love the way he holds back information and is really careful about what he keeps offscreen. That’s something that’s very much in the language of theatre. It’s as much about what you’re imagining is happening, either offscreen or offstage.”

It provides the perfect segue to ask Sheibani how his extensive theatrical experience translated to directing a film. Did it feel like a natural step? “I have found it pretty comfortable. Having worked with lots of great playwrights my understanding of story structure and narrative lends itself really well to filmmaking. Likewise the experience that I’ve had with actors. In theatre you get a lot of time to rehearse, so you really come to understand what it means to direct an actor and what they find useful, or not.”

“The way you tell stories through image is completely different to the way you tell stories in theatre. Just the fact you can do a massive close-up in film opens up a completely different way of telling a story. This film was very much about trying to get as close to someone’s experience as possible.”

That experience is portrayed brilliantly by Scarlett Brookes, an actress whose credits include Othello and The Merchant of Venice at the RSC, as well as roles in TV series such as Kiri and Misfits. Sheibani sent her the research he’d done on postpartum psychosis and they talked through the script, but was equally in awe of “the speed at which she was able to take herself to these places”, ranging from determination, to confusion, to despair, to curiosity and beyond.

“I was keen for Scarlett to have freedom,” Sheibani continues. “That’s one of things I’ve tried to develop through my theatre work: you give the actor’s enough structure and enough of a framework, but ultimately you want them to have total freedom within that, because it’s only then that they can take the audience somewhere special.”

“The underbelly and the unconscious part is what I’m most interested in, finding a way of talking about the deeper and darker stuff and putting that out there. That’s what people like Andrea Arnold and Lynne Ramsay do so well.”

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It feels almost cruel to ask Sheibani what he hopes audiences might take away from Morning Song, given how much he’s iterated his resistance to neat resolution or easily packaged answers. I reframe it to ask what he himself has gotten from the experience.

“I guess something about keeping going. It can be easy to tell yourself that your weird idea is insignificant, so I hope a boldness and bravery is what I can take from it, and continue to apply to my work.”

I suspect Sheibani has answered both questions at once. The concept of perseverance through any mental health experience, however shameful or lonely it might feel, is exactly what Morning Song gets to the heart of.

“I hope that people will feel like they know a little bit more about what it’s like to go through it.”

Morning Song is now showing on Film4 on All4.


Action on Postpartum Psychosis is a national charity to support women and families affected by Postpartum Psychosis. Their workshops, conferences and arts events enable women to articulate their experience of PP and develop information to help other women and families. They facilitate ground-breaking research into the causes of PP at the universities of Birmingham and Cardiff and produce ‘Insider Guides’ and other expert literature to support affected families and health professionals caring for those with PP.

Director William Stefan Smith on making a short comedy about loneliness with Daniel Kaluuya

Originally commissioned by and published on Film4 Online.

With his Film4-backed short film Two Single Beds now on All4, we sat down with director William Stefan Smith to find out how his career got started, what he finds funny and what he’s learned from Armando Iannucci. By Nicole Davis.

Smith’s career began “with a passion for comedy.” He used to perform stand-up when he was an undergraduate, before touring the student comedy circuit. It was only during a BBC production trainee scheme that he became aware of producing, and later directing. “I had no access to it. I didn’t know it existed.”

That changed when he met Armando Iannucci in 2009 on the set of The Thick of It. “When I saw him direct, I began to think I’d love to do something like that.”

He went to NYU to study a Masters in Film Directing, at which point Smith realised he was “going for this.” Still, it was no guarantee of success. “I didn’t have much idea of what would happen after.” He followed his curiosity rather than a preordained plan.

That’s not to imply that it didn’t take graft and commitment. Smith recalls sending dozens of cold emails asking for opportunities to shadow directors. “I had no tact or etiquette, I’d ask straight out.” In his time off from work he would observe directors on set, absorbing the different ways they operated.

Iannucci left a particular impression. “He’s the collaboration king. He’s very good at identifying strengths in individuals and bringing them together to create something even better.”

Smith also admired his lack of preciousness about ideas. Iannucci would just “go with the best”, irrespective of if he had come up with it. “He’s not threatened and he always keeps his cool.” Particularly impressive was his ability to maintain a sense of calm on fast-paced political satire Veep. “It makes everyone around him think he’s got it together. He’s a genius.”

With those wisdoms in his back pocket, Smith got to directing his own material. Daniel Kaluuya, of Get Out, Sicario and Widows fame, approached Smith with an idea to make a short film set in the world of stand-up comedy. The incentive was to make something that would appeal to their peers, rather than tour film festivals. “That was the dream.”

The premise boils down to an encounter between two stand-up comedians who find refuge in a shared night away from home. It stemmed from a desire to tell a story that’s not often told about “two individuals navigating their way through a predominantly white space, that we could both identify with.”

How does one make the world of stand-up comedy cinematic I wonder? “Visually it was about supporting the emotional state of the two leads. They both feel like islands, for different reasons, but are going about it in different ways.” Two Single Beds is ultimately about the struggle, and risk, of being vulnerable with another person.

It makes sense that Smith referenced the paintings of Edward Hopper, an artist well-known for his melancholic depictions of isolation. “They’re both struggling with different things and we’re just capturing the moment when it erupts.” The liminality of the hotel room becomes the perfect arena for their transgressions to play out.

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Seraphina Beh stars as stand-up comedian June, opposite Daniel Kaluuya’s Jay

Starring opposite Kaluuya, as a fellow comedian, is Seraphina Beh, who more than holds her own against the Oscar-nominated actor, and now screenwriter. Shaheen Baig, the casting director who discovered Florence Pugh, Tom Holland and Juno Temple among others, was responsible for recommending Seraphina to the team.

“She just felt confident. She caught our eye,” recalls Smith of Seraphina’s read-through. Two Single Beds is particularly good at allowing its female lead to encompass many different emotional states. She’s tough and stern, funny and insecure. And if the film does nothing else but allow a young black woman that moment of truth, it will have achieved something.

“Everyone’s going to take something different away, I just hope there’s an emotional shift”, says Smith of what he hopes the audience get from watching his short film. During a year where we could all do well to have greater empathy, particularly for what it might be like to feel lonely, Two Single Beds is a welcome addition to the conversation.

Given that audiences might be in need of a laugh, I wonder what some of Smith’s favourite comedic films are. “I love the Coen brothers. Inside Llewyn Davis was one of the references for Two Single BedsHappiness by Todd Solondz. I wouldn’t recommend it to my Mum but I love films where they feel authored. Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt. Eddie Murphy’s Coming To America. Chris Morris’ Four Lions. Ice Cube’s Friday. And Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin deserves an honourable mention.”

On the topic of authorship and having a voice, it seems pertinent to ask whether Smith has found his. At what point did he feel like he had something to say? “The reason I quit stand-up was because I wasn’t sure I had anything new to say. When I watch good comedy, I feel like that person has got so much to tell the world.”

As a director, Smith is more sure of his taste and looks for projects that he can identify with on a personal level. “This year has been good for the fact I have read a lot of scripts and watched a lot films and reminded myself of what I’m interested in and what I like. Your voice comes from just trying things out for size.”

Two Single Beds was “a space for discovery”, says Smith. You could say he’s made his bed and now you can lie in it.