Author Sarah Pinborough has been writing stories since she was five years old. When she was little she didn’t sleep much at night because she was too aware of all the things that can come alive when darkness falls. She’s used that sense of unease in her six horror novels and in her latest endeavour, supernatural crime thriller trilogy The Dog-Faced Gods. The second volume, Shadow of the Soul, is out in April (Gollancz). Below, she tells us about her filmic alter ego. EITHNE FARRY
If I could choose to be a character in a horror film, I think it would have to be Ripley in the Alien movies. I have the box-set and never get tired of watching them, late at night, when I can’t sleep. For me, they’re up there with The Thing for the best ‘monster’ movies made. While mulling over my choice, I did almost pick Catherine Deneuve’s vampire in The Hunger – after all, she was beautiful, sexy, stylish and lived forever, but at the same time, she was a mass-murdering, cold-hearted dead vampire, and to be fair, that’s a bit of a downside.
Ellen Ripley, however, is atypical for a female in a horror film. She’s not a victim, and although Sigourney Weaver is gorgeous, it’s not that Hollywood blonde thing. She’s the one that kicks ass and saves the day – and I’ve always wanted to be the kind of woman that kicks ass, because in real life everything scares me! My favourite Ripley incarnation is Alien: Resurrection when she’s been cloned and has part of the Alien’s DNA. She’s strong and sensual and completely in control of herself and the rest of the survivors. She is Ã¼ber-cool and has blood that can melt metal. What more could a girl want?
Pretty women meet un-pretty fates. It’s a uniting feature of many horror movies. The ice-cool glamour of Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane meets an ice-cold end on the bathroom floor. Shelley Duval’s Wendy narrowly escapes from Jack Nicholson’s axe and impending ‘REDRUM’. Marilyn Burns’s Sally finds herself on a never-ending flight from a Texan chainsaw. Acts of evil become heightened by an actress’s beauty; the more sublime their looks, the more sadistic the punishment. Whereas a male protagonist provides a glimmer of hope (he might physically overpower the threat or use his intellect to detect or deter the danger), the woman is often left scrambling: running through corridors; trying to slam shut or rattle open doors. She’s a passive victim caught up in the audience’s voyeuristic fantasies. Or, more immediately, those of her director. Take Hitchcock and his ice-cool blonde.
So, is this clichéd view why so few women direct horror films? It is historically a man’s genre when it comes to filmmakers; a fact that Warp Films recognised when they set up their Darklight initiative back in 2006. The leader of this development programme, Caroline Cooper-Charles, saw how women were being ‘excluded as audience members as well as filmmakers’ and came up with a very specific target for the scheme: to get more women making horror films in the UK. Chatting over the phone, Cooper-Charles recalls how picking female filmmakers proved quite a tricky task. The majority of women sending in submissions had never worked in horror; there was nothing on anyone’s showreel to make her jump. Instead, Cooper-Charles focused on reels with atmospheric, creepy shorts; films that made her ‘squirm or feel uncomfortable’. The chosen directors were then assisted in developing their ideas over a course of 12 months. As Cooper-Charles said, ‘there are so few female filmmakers working in the genre that even if two films came out of the scheme, it would have been quite a massive achievement’.
A couple of years on and there are several films in pre- and post-production: a ‘quite bloody’ exploration of motherhood entitled Little Miss Piggy; an ultra-low-budget teen horror, Freefall; and a project still in early development set in the male-dominated world of banking and business. The latter has strong thriller elements, and another director on the scheme decided to move away from horror altogether to make a thriller. Throughout our conversation, Cooper-Charles often mentions the ‘psychological’ aspect of the women’s work; perhaps an explanation as to why many of the projects boiled over into thriller territory. Even the ‘bloody’ Little Miss Piggy is described as ‘sophisticated with a gore element’. Despite the aims of the initiative, there’s a little reluctance to associate women with out-and-out horror.
The Birds Eye View Festival will be showing a programme of horror shorts directed by women filmmakers on Saturday 12 March at the ICA (London) as part of their ‘Bloody Women’ strand. Three of the filmmakers will be discussing their films with Electric Sheep editor Virginie Sélavy on Resonance FM 104.4 on Tuesday 8 March from 5 to 5:30pm.
After our call, Cooper-Charles writes to tell me that she is producing a film written by Lucy Moore, one of the writers who was part of Darklight, and puts me in touch with the film’s director, China Moo-Young. The following week, Moo-Young and I meet up for a coffee to discuss her film, ‘a monster movie set in Bristol’. When I ask her why she thinks there are so few women working in horror, Moo-Young suggests that it is partly a question of role models – ‘you’ve probably got two examples of women genre directors, Catherine Hardwicke and Kathryn Bigelow… you’ve got your Jane Campions but in terms of genre, they’re your big two’ – and partly a matter of timing. Most filmmakers are making their most important films in their thirties and forties, a time when women may be engaged with childrearing and so unable to undertake the heavy commitments needed to make a feature.
But these two points are asides in a conversation that aims to avoid too much talk of gender, no matter how hard I try to steer the discussion: ‘I kind of think it’s a moot point,’ Moo-Young says, ‘ I’d like to get to a point where it isn’t an issue’. She is not interested in taking part in schemes aimed exclusively at women directors and won’t be bestowed or lumbered with the female filmmaker tag: ‘Kathryn Bigelow’s strength is that you don’t know that she’s a woman… I wouldn’t be doing my job if you could tell which gender directed the film.’
Moo-Young also tells me that psychological horror is her favourite variety of the genre. She likes John Carpenter’s work because it is ‘restrained’; his films ‘use music and mood more than out-and-out violence’. Horror films she admires – The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, Don’t Look Now, Jaws – are full of ‘well-drawn characters that don’t fall apart for the sake of the third act’. Ultimately, she loves horror because ‘it taps into human insecurities and fears; it’s about the strange and forbidden side of life’.
Cooper-Charles and Moo-Young are both extremely keen to emphasise the more thoughtful, intelligent aspects of horror; this careful explanation of their interest in the genre can be seen as a reaction against the sexist tendencies of horror and, in particular, slasher films. Although reluctant to talk about herself in terms of gender, Moo-Young concedes: ‘I wouldn’t ever want to generalise about fellow film directors – male or female – in terms of taste, but if a woman is a filmmaker working in horror, she’s probably not going to be making slasher films because she’ll have a female skew on violence towards women.’
This emphasis on psychological horror could also be a defence against genre snobbery; films that follow certain conventions or codes can easily be dismissed as less intelligent than other, less categorisable films. It is refreshing to talk to Moo-Young, not only because she steadfastly refuses to discuss being a woman in a discussion on gender, but also because she is very passionate about the horror genre and genre films in general. ‘I can’t really talk about it,’ she whispers, ‘but there’s a master document called the â€œbrainstorm of killsâ€, with lots of different ways people could be killed off’. She talks about ‘mapping fear’ and ‘hitting genre beats’ and, in addition to her horror film, she is developing two thrillers and a romantic comedy. She sees horror as providing an opportunity to subvert the normal rules of life. She talks about the closing of Let the Right One In providing a hugely satisfying ending for the audience but also an uneasy one: on the one hand, we want Eli and Oskar to be together; on the other, we anticipate Oskar’s dark future as he takes the place of her previous protector. In horror, often the good have to commit ordinarily immoral acts in order to survive, which disorientates and challenges the audience’s normal moral framework in interesting ways.
The importance of subversion makes the idea of female directors influencing the horror genre both a natural and exciting progression. Women can question the portrayal of female victims on screen and also, viewing the genre from an outside perspective, they can shake up a rule and convention-led art form. Those genre films that work most successfully and stand the test of time are generally those that offer something different from the tried-and-tested formula. It sounds as if Darklight has tried to champion work that fits this description. We’ll look forward to seeing the results.
Ingrid Pitt, who died late last year aged 73, was a beacon of bravura ghastliness, a frequent onscreen bather and Hammer’s most celebrated female star. With her fierce, distinctive beauty, trailblazing sexuality and formidable flair for conveying psychological complexity in even the most flimsy of material, she leaves an indelible impression on the horror genre. Off-screen, she survived a harrowing childhood – during which she was interned in a concentration camp – embraced her infamy as a horror icon and was a prolific writer and friend to her fans.
Her parents were fleeing Nazi Germany for England (via Poland) when Pitt (born Ingoushka Petrov) arrived on 21 November 1937. Her father was a Prussian scientist whose expertise the warmongering Nazis were eager to harness – despite his resistance – and her mother was a much-younger Lithuanian Jew. Born amid this global turmoil and into great personal danger, Pitt spent her infancy in hiding and on the run, before she and her mother were eventually captured, separated from her father and imprisoned in the Stutthof concentration camp for three torturous years. She said later: ‘Without doubt my entire life was overshadowed by my childhood and the tormenting acts of violence and hate I had to witness.’
Pitt’s acting career began post-war when, as a young woman, she talked her way into the prestigious Berliner Ensemble (based in East Berlin), where she was taken on to prepare hot drinks. The experience was short-lived, however, as she was forced to flee the Volkspolizei ahead of her first significant performance, a dramatic episode that culminated with her being fished out of a river by a US Lieutenant – a man who she eventually married. When her new husband was transferred back to America, Pitt followed. After giving birth to baby Steffanie and seeing her husband volunteer to fight in Vietnam she decided to give acting another go and joined the Playhouse, a touring American theatre company.
The experience was ultimately a miserable one and the desperate, virtually penniless single mother moved to Madrid. When a photograph of her sobbing at a bull fight was published in El Pueblo it was spotted by Ana Mariscal, one of the top Spanish directors who – unfazed by Pitt’s inability to speak Spanish – cast her as a boozy nymphomaniac American in Los duendes de AndalucÃa (1966). While working in Spain she also secured small roles in the English-language productions A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) and Dr Zhivago (1965).
After a stint working in a restaurant she was befriended by Willy Wilder (Billy’s brother) and offered the lead role in The Omegans (1968). After some TV work, including Ironside (1967), she won a role in Where Eagles Dare (1968) alongside Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton, a duo who had a (rather un-gentlemanly) bet as to which of them would bed her first. When they revealed this to her later, the provocative Pitt confounded and amused them by asking, ‘Who won?’
It was in England in 1970 with Roy Ward Baker’s The Vampire Lovers that Pitt really found her niche. The Vampire Lovers was made towards the tail-end of Hammer’s horror film production (though the company has been recently revived, of course). Hammer had been known and loved for their horror output since the late 50s, after the success of titles such as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958), and it had built on this reputation with its mastery of the macabre throughout the 1960s.
However, by 1970 Hammer was suffering the knock-on effect of the introduction of colour television and an audience fatigued with its Gothic horror shtick. In an effort to reinvigorate the brand and its fortunes the studio decided to go all out, so to speak, with one element always simmering fairly unsubtly under the surface of its productions – namely, sex. The Vampire Lovers was the first Hammer film to see whether upping the ante in this way would indeed sell. The Hammer publicity machine went into overdrive and Pitt was dubbed the ‘Queen of Horror’ and ‘The Most Beautiful Ghoul in the World!’
In The Vampire Lovers, Pitt plays Mircalla Karnstein, a lesbian vampire who tricks her way into the homes of aristocrats and preys on their daughters. She is quite the fervent seductress, as she says to one of her perky victims, ‘I want you to love me for all your life’. Despite the incessantly prurient nature of the piece and the frequent nudity, Pitt manages to bring sophistication and depth to the role, eliciting sympathy for the murderess and deftly conveying her loneliness and longing.
That same year, she also sent up her burgeoning scream queen persona by starring in Amicus Productions’ The House that Dripped Blood, Peter Duffell’s hugely enjoyable portmanteau picture, which brought together Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Joss Ackland and Denholm Elliott in a quartet of vignettes. Pitt is a billed star and features in the final (and the only comic) segment ‘The Cloak’ alongside Doctor Who’s Jon Pertwee. She plays Carla, a trampy horror actress and on/off-screen love interest of Pertwee’s veteran horror star Paul Henderson, who delivers the vignette’s suitably bloodthirsty punchline.
Shortly afterwards, Pitt was expected to reprise her role as Mircalla in the sequel to The Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire (1971), but, as she describes it: ‘I was lined up for Countess Dracula and after seeing the script for Lust [for a Vampire] with [my] character little more than a means for titillation I was glad of the excuse to get out of it.’
It was a fortuitous conflict as Ingrid Pitt’s most memorable role was to be that of the bloodthirsty Countess Elizabeth in the aforementioned Countess Dracula (1971). It’s a slightly misleading title as she doesn’t play a vampire as such – rather a fantastical version of real-life 16th-century murderess Countess Elizabeth Báthory. Branded a ‘devil woman’ and a ‘witch’ by the villagers, in Peter Sasdy’s film the ageing Countess is a depraved, conscienceless killer who discovers that the blood of young women has the power to restore her youth and beauty.
Armed with this knowledge, she callously slays her chambermaid and hurriedly arranges for her right-hand man and lover Captain Dobi (Nigel Green) to kidnap her long-absent daughter Ilona (Lesley-Anne Down) so that she can, without suspicion, assume her identity. Unfortunately, the de-ageing effects quickly wear off and her insatiable appetite fuels a desperate, murderous campaign. Fully exploiting the advantages of youth, she quickly takes a young lover, Imre Toth (Sandor Elès), much to the annoyance of Dobi.
Pitt is terrific in a multi-shaded role that allows her to develop her villainess into a full-blooded, nefarious icon, rivalling those of her male Hammer peers. She is alternately zealous, wanton, vivacious, pathetic and grasping. However, despite her charismatic, committed performance she suffered the indignity of having her voice dubbed in post-production.
Pitt’s most famous horror film is probably The Wicker Man (1973), although her role in it is very small. She plays, rather amusingly, a petulant employee of the office of the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages. However, despite her limited role and screen-time she still manages to appear sans attire in one farcical sequence where, Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) bursts in on her during his search for a missing girl, and is startled by the sight of her lying provocatively in a bath (a recurring motif in her horror films).
It is for these four films – The Vampire Lovers, The House that Dripped Blood, Countess Dracula and The Wicker Man – that Ingrid Pitt is best remembered. She wholeheartedly approved of being cast as baddies saying, ‘Being the anti-hero is great – they are always roles you can get your teeth into’.
Pitt continued working in less memorable film and TV roles (in such fare as Doctor Who, Wild Geese II and Smiley’s People) virtually up until her death on 23 November 2010, and was a regular and enthusiastic participant at fan conventions. Pitt was also a hard-working and accomplished author and columnist, publishing several books, including a frank and eventful autobiography Life’s a Scream in 1999, as well as The Peróns, Katarina and The Bedside Companion for Vampire Lovers, among many others.
Ingrid Pitt is and will remain one of the great female horror stars – a comely, unconventionally beautiful villainess who was smart, wickedly witty, compassionate and determined.
Underneath Venice, there is a hidden forest. The forest was cut down over a thousand years ago in what is now Slovenia and the trunks were driven into the marshy soil of the 117 islands on which Venice was then built. Under the water, deprived of oxygen, the wood petrifies. Venice is a labyrinth, built on a dark stolen wood that has slowly, over the centuries, turned to stone. A city perfect for the darkest of fairy tales. A little red figure sits in a church. A little red figure crosses a bridge. But (to paraphrase Shelley) if Little Red Riding Hood comes, can the wolf be far behind?
Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 horror film has one of those titles, like Eyes Wide Shut, that at first glance appear naff, but in which every word takes on a different meaning during and after a viewing of the film. It is a warning, but one that we most commonly expect to be ignored: ‘Don’t Look Now but someone is staring at us’. The Italian title gives us a giallo feel: A Venezia… un dicembre rosso shocking, which, translated, means ‘In Venice… a Shocking Red December’ – a time, a place, a colour and an emotion. But to concentrate for a moment on the place: Venice.
Venice has provided an exotic location for historical romps, a Klaus Kinski vampire film, an Al Pacino Shakespeare adaptation and picture postcard backgrounds to several 007s as well as the recent Johnny Depp excretion The Tourist. [I must here declare my bias. I almost got a job as an extra on this film, but was turned down as (apparently) I resembled the lead actor and would have only caused confusion.] Working in Venice the last 10 years, I got used to turning a corner and walking onto a film set. I even had the ambiguous pleasure of seeing Donald Sutherland (a very tall man) preparing his role for the remake of The Italian Job (hence the ambiguity) at Campo San Barnaba. And yet Nicolas Roeg’s Venice is different and its difference is of a piece with the oddness of Don’t Look Now, which despite its recent elevation from cult gem to National Treasure (Time Out’s Best British Film Ever™) stills retains a gritty, mucky unusualness that no amount of praise can polish off.
Fundamentally, Don’t Look Now is a dirty film; a film of spreading red stains, of dripping liquids, of mud and blood and breaking glass. It is a messy examination of entropy: things fall and fall apart and we try to restore what can’t be repaired and recover what has already been irretrievably lost. And this filthiness comes with the city of Venice. When we first see Venice (aside from a brief shot of the sunlight through the slats of the Venetian blinds), we are in a trench with John Baxter, the bereaved architect played brilliantly by Donald Sutherland. He is supervising the restoration of a church and the workmen are drilling into the foundation, the petrified forest of the city’s substrata. ‘Tutto marcio,’ the disgruntled Baxter tells the Italian worker. ‘It’s all rotten.’ In a crucial change to the Daphne du Maurier short story, John Baxter and his wife Laura are not holidaying in Venice, rather he is working. Venice, for Baxter, is a building site, and not a good one. The church, San NicolÃ² dei Mendicoli (Saint Nicholas of the Beggars), has an unassuming, perhaps beggarly exterior, and (in a city that is almost all faÃ§ade) has no great faÃ§ade. Tucked away in an unvisited corner of Venice, not far from the prison at Santa Marta, the church was in the process of being renovated in 1973, providing Roeg with the scaffolding he needed. Roeg’s Venice is a wintry, dirty workaday city; a city of hospitals, police offices and off-season hotels. It is a city with a rat problem (still very much the case), a city of lost gloves on windowsills and a baby doll abandoned on the steps down to the canal. In the final funereal shot of the film, we see a huge pile of bin bags in the background, also awaiting disposal.
Baxter’s work of putting the pieces back together reflects the piecing together of the Baxters’ lives after the death of their daughter. The Baxters live in rooms of middle-class clutter, strewn with books, papers and half-empty glasses, unable to find their cigarettes. This messiness and Baxter’s work are also reflected in Roeg’s justly famous non-linear editing, which mixes up the narrative in such a way as to make us uncertain as to where we are and (crucially) when we are at any given time in the film. The past pollutes the present, as indeed does the future. But this messiness is all the point and Baxter’s and the viewer’s analogous urge to bring it to some coherence is literally a doomed project. Ultimately, things fall apart. When Laura Baxter (Julie Christie) collapses onto the dinner table at the restaurant, Roeg’s slow motion, unlike Peckinpah’s epic beautifying of violence, prolongs the agony, the moment of helpless tragic knowledge when we grasp at a world that is slipping through our fingers, the glass rolling off the tilting table towards the tiled floor. While restoring a mosaic in the church, Baxter is almost killed, when a falling beam destroys the scaffolding on which he’s standing high above the floor of the church. The mosaic tiles he had been meticulously examining are scattered to the winds.
The source of all muck and chaos is the muddy English pond of Christine Baxter’s accidental death. There are very few moments of horror in the Horror genre that live up to the meaning of the word. John Baxter’s grief-filled bellow, the freezing brown water (Roeg makes sure we hear John gasp as he plunges into it), the slippery muddy slope and the hopeless struggle to carry the girl’s small body to safety are moments of bungling, tormented pain, absolutely stripped bare of any staged dignity. This is Conradian: ‘the horror’. Later in Venice, a woman’s body will be pulled, knickers dripping, the soles of her feet, from a canal in a similarly undignified end to a life. There is a murderer on the loose. However, the film refuses to comply to generic requirements. The police investigation is essentially a red (there’s that colour again) herring. We might understand at the end what we were seeing but we won’t understand why. There are no resolutions. [SPOILER] Baxter’s own death is just another meaningless death in a long line of meaningless deaths. The true horror is that all death (and all life) is ultimately meaningless.
The beam of wood falls for no reason, just as we never fully understand how Christine came to drown in the pond. There is no angry ghost, no curse, no original sin to be punished and no demonic presence. We might seek meaning, motivation, an explanation, the way Baxter chases his Little Red Riding Hood through the forests of Venice, but in a universe as arbitrary as this, death is deprived of such comforts and does not follow a narrative arc, and our Little Red Riding Hood could just as easily turn out to be the Wolf.
John Hough’s British horror film The Legend of Hell House (1973) concerns the attempt of a small group of psychics and parapsychologists to exorcise the spooks of a notorious haunted house, using the latest scientific equipment. The summoning of ghosts via scientific analysis and electronic equipment could stand as a reasonable description of the activities of the film’s composer, Delia Derbyshire (yes, and Brian Hodgson, but I think by now it is fairly safe to say that in most cases where we see both names credited, it’s Delia’s work that will be making our jaws drop).
By the time Hodgson and Derbyshire left the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, they had already collaborated on a number of other projects, moonlighting under the pseudonyms Nikki St. George and Li De La Russe. It was under these names that the pair worked on the first White Noise album (which shares with the Hell House soundtrack a tendency towards orgasmic breathiness) and on the Standard Music Library album that would later provide most of the music for ITV’s The Tomorrow People. But this was the first thing they worked on under their own names, and at Hodgson’s own Covent Garden studio, Electrophon.
Back at the Workshop, Derbyshire was known to have had a particular lampshade, favoured for its peculiar sonic properties. I don’t know whether she was able to take it with her when she left (in lieu, perhaps, of a gold watch) or if she found some sort of replacement, but one of the most uncanny sounds to be heard in The Legend of Hell House is distinctly reminiscent of those she found by removing the attack velocities from that lampshade (in the manner of Pierre Schaeffer’s cloche coupée) and leaving the dreamy susurrus of plaintively modulating noise to drift on in its wake. This sound, usually heard first pitched down then pitched up, is probably the film’s most common leitmotiv, acting almost like punctuation, denoting time passing, a sonic ellipsis.
Throughout the film, there is no meaningful distinction to be drawn between music and sound effects. Even the ostensible theme tune opens with a plangent woodwind motif that echoes the squeak of a rusty gate. This little trill acts like the opening to another world, welcoming in a stuttering electronic rhythm, pulsing with tribal energy, its ons and its offs never entirely stable. An organ stabs out its chords somewhere in the background, more wood wind floats in with a vaguely jazzy sensibility, only serving to destabilise the tonality even further.
The Legend of Hell House was released in the same year as Nigel Kneale’s TV movie, The Stone Tape, similarly about an attempt to apply scientific method to an apparently haunted house and scored by Derbyshire and Hodgson’s old boss at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Desmond Briscoe. But whereas The Stone Tape is rallied around a certain blokey rationalism, Hough’s film is always escaping the bonds of its thin veneer of scientific reason, suffused with a barely suppressed sexuality that seeps out in physical manifestations of ectoplasm and the rhythmic throbbing, the electric murmuration of Derbyshire’s music. It was those same sounds that led to an electronic signature tune Derbyshire composed for a BBC sex education programme a few years earlier being rejected as ‘too lascivious’.
Cast: Kate Rutter, Christine Bottomley, George Costigan, Manjinder Virk
A fascinating fusion of narrative and documentary cinema from artist filmmaker Clio Barnard, The Arbor tells the powerful true story of Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar (The Arbor, Rita, Sue and Bob Too) and her daughter Lorraine. Dunbar wrote honestly and unflinchingly about her upbringing on the notorious Buttershaw Estate in Bradford and was described as ‘a genius straight from the slums’. When she died tragically at the age of 29 in 1990, Lorraine was just 10 years old.
The Arbor catches up with Lorraine in the present day, now also aged 29, ostracised from Buttershaw and in prison, serving a sentence for manslaughter for the death of her son. Through compelling interviews (with the actors seamlessly lip-syncing the words of the real-life subjects) we learn that Lorraine sees her mother as a destructive force throughout her childhood; an alcoholic who let her suffer abuse and whom Lorraine blames for all that is wrong in her life. Also featuring first-hand accounts from other members of the Dunbar family, this essential work presents a contrasting and not always flattering view of Dunbar. Distinctive, compassionate and compelling, Barnard is very clearly an important new voice in British cinema.
Jason Wood talks to Clio Barnard about her representation of socially deprived characters, her use of fiction and documentary and the challenges her filming method posed for the actors.
Jason Wood: Your work has constantly demonstrated a concern with the relationship between fictional film language and documentary. How did you wish to engage with the subject of previous representations of the Buttershaw Estate on stage and screen and what was it about the techniques of verbatim theatre that struck you as being appropriate for The Arbor?
Clio Barnard: Andrea’s fiction was based on what she observed around her. She reminded the audience they were watching a play by her use of direct address when The Girl in The Arbor introduces each scene. I see the use of actors lip-synching as performing the same function, reminding the audience they are watching the retelling of a true story.
My work is concerned with the relationship between fiction film language and documentary. I often dislocate sound and image by constructing fictional images around verbatim audio. In this sense, my working methods have some similarity to the methods of verbatim theatre. Verbatim theatre by its very nature (being performed in a theatre by actors) acknowledges that it is constructed. Housing estates and the people who live there are usually represented on film in the tradition of Social Realism, a working method that aims to deny construct, aiming for naturalistic performances, an invisible crew and camera, adopting the aesthetic of Direct Cinema (a documentary movement) as shorthand for authenticity. I wanted to confront expectations about how a particular group of people are represented by subverting the form.
I used the technique in which actors lip-synch to the voices of interviewees to draw attention to the fact that documentary narratives are as constructed as fictional ones. I want the audience to think about the fact that the film has been shaped and edited by the filmmakers. Through these formal techniques I hoped the film would achieve a fine balance – so that, perhaps paradoxically, the distancing techniques might create closeness, allowing a push-pull, so an audience might be aware of the shaping of the story but simultaneously able to engage emotionally. Above all, my hope is that the film will provoke compassionate thought and reflection.
You recorded audio interviews with Lorraine Dunbar and other members of the Dunbar family over a two-year period to create an audio screenplay. To what extent did you allow this audio screenplay to form the basis of the film and was it during this process that you decided to make Lorraine one of the central voices of the film, thus opening up the project into a consideration of inter-generational neglect as well as a dissection of Andrea’s legacy?
The audio screenplay is the basis of the film and it was always the intention to do it this way round. I knew Lorraine was important because of her words at the end of A State Affair, which linked back to Andrea’s play Rita Sue and Bob Too. At the point the film was commissioned I knew I wanted to speak to Lorraine because of these words but I didn’t know what had happened to her in the 10 years since. Neither did I know how autobiographical Andrea’s play The Arbor was until I met Andrea’s sister Pamela. Realising the character of Yousaf in Andrea’s play The Arbor was Lorraine’s father was key. Andrea’s play, combined with the interviews with her family, means that the film can look across three generations of a family and three decades of a particular place. I hope that this allows some understanding of the destructive effects of poverty, racism and addiction to emerge.
The film has been praised – by Gideon Koppel no less – for depicting not only a physical landscape but also the internal landscapes of its characters – a difficult task to achieve. Was this something that you hoped to accomplish when you conceived the project?
I loved Sleep Furiously so it is great to have the film praised by Gideon Koppel. I hadn’t thought of it this way at all and like this way of looking at it.
The lip-synching technique you employ, in which your actors have to, not only learn words, but also master pauses and speech rhythms, must have been very challenging. What casting process did you employ and how did you help the selected actors to cope with the rigors of the production?
I worked with a brilliant casting director called Amy Hubbard, who brought in lots of actors who were up for the challenge. We asked the actors to try out the technique during the casting process. I have huge respect for the actors. It was very, very demanding of them. Manjinder Virk described it as being like learning a piece of music and being like circular breathing. It meant that they had to be very present – never thinking ahead or they would trip up. The actors were incredible, I think, and I’m indebted to them, not only for their remarkable technical skill, but for their ability to give true performances.
The approach that you take to the material and your concern with the boundaries between fact and fiction make for an incredibly immersive experience for the spectator. Did you wish to encourage an interpretative approach from the audience to what is on screen?
I wasn’t totally certain what the effect of the lip-synch would be so it has been fascinating to learn about that from people who have seen it. People say that paradoxically the distancing technique draws them closer. I think it may be because all the people on screen look you in the eye. Perhaps you actively listen.
I understand that The Arbor was not originally intended for cinema release. How did the extremely positive critical reaction and the numerous prizes it has steadily accrued contribute to the film being allowed to find a wider audience than you perhaps originally intended?
It was commissioned by Artangel as a feature-length film for TV. The UK Film Council became involved during development and that was when it became intended for cinema release. Tracy O’Riordan, who is a brilliant producer, made certain that UK distributors saw the film as soon as it was finished. We were lucky that Verve picked up the film. They have been great at getting the film out there. They work alongside Rabbit PR, lovely, committed publicity people who made sure the critics saw the film. The response has been amazing and unexpected. I don’t think you ever know how people are going to respond. I’m grateful to all the critics who were very open to and excited about the challenges of the film and to audiences for going to see the film and for their feedback.
Alongside recent works by Steve McQueen, Andrew Kötting, Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy and Gillian Wearing, The Arbor shows the continuing strength of the ‘artist film’ in British cinema. Does this feel like it is an incredibly fertile period in which to be working?
Yes – I’m a great admirer of all these filmmakers. It is great that there is this strong strand of recent risk-taking British film, wonderful that these films are getting made and fantastic that they have found an audience. It’s exciting to think that The Arbor is part of that and for it to be associated with these films.
Interview by Jason Wood
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews