Elaine Constantine is set to make her feature film directorial debut this week as British film Northern Soul hits the big screen on Friday.
Written and directed by Constantine, the movie is a coming of age story about a young boy who discovers music that changes him and broadens his horizons.
We caught up with the filmmaker to chat about the film, what inspired this story, and the long journey she has been on from the initial idea to finally getting the movie released.
- Northern Soul is about to be released, so can you tell me a bit about the film?
Northern Soul is a film about a young boy who has a bit of a boring life, doesn’t really engage with people of his own age, and is almost forced into a youth club situation because he has become quite reclusive. He goes along quite reluctantly, but is staggered by this spectacular dancer.
He discovers this music through this guy and they become best mates. It is rights of passage movie really and is about opening up your horizons when you are from a town where there is very little going on for you.
- You are in the director's chair and have penned the screenplay, so what was it that inspired this story?
Observations of watching the men in my life from the ages of fourteen to now (laughs). I started going to youth clubs in the late seventies, where I discovered this music and a lot of the guys… all my friends who were girls were also well into this music, but it was just fascinating to watch the guys interacted with it.
You just wouldn’t get guys dancing; before that, I had never seen young boys dancing on their own and really going for it in an expressive way. A lot of youth clubs that I went to - prior to seeing Northern Soul - were all about slow dancing or people doing air guitar; if boys went on the dance floor they were either trying to get a snog or doing a Status Quo kind of thing (laughs).
But when I went to this other youth club when I was a little older I was blown away but these guys who got on the dance floor and were just so confident; they were like peacocks they were just amazing. I didn’t know what music it was either because it felt quite old sounding compared to the disco or rocky stuff of the day. The whole think was a massive impact on my eyes and ears on so many levels, including culturally, musically, and mentally really.
- While you did grow up during this period, I was wondering what sort of research you did as you were writing and getting ready to shoot this film? Where there any aspects of this decade that you were very keen to capture with this film?
I am nearly fifty now and you kind of forget the way the world looked when you were a teenager - well I have anyway. I had to go back into that era in documentary photography - obviously, there are things that you don’t forget like the TV programmes and the furniture that was in your house but I really needed to get back into it.
I looked at a lot of photography by Daniel Meadows, Martin Parr, and Tony Ray-Jones and because I am from a photography background, that was my link into trying to represent things visually and perfectly; I have this obsession with getting detail perfect through by photography background. Therefore, I really did have an eye on all of that and went to great lengths to get that correct.
Also, just to get the wardrobe right from the Northern Soul perspective because these kids were trailblazers. They weren’t’ dressing who fashion dictated they really did have their own thing going on and it was a complete fashion movement. It never stood still, people look at Northern Soul now and say ‘it was baggy trousers and vests’ but that was only a very small window when Northern Soul was at its most popular.
It was a little bit like the Mod scene, where someone would turn up at an all-nighter and have a different cut to their trousers or to their shirt and that would spread so in about three weeks the fashion had changed again. I suppose it is a bit like the football terraces of today where it is a complete fashion dictated all of its own.
- You have brought together a great cast with the likes of Steve Coogan, Christian McKay, Ricky Tomlinson, and Lisa Stansfield. Can you talk a bit about the casting process and what you were looking for with your central characters?
The kids that were into Northern Soul in the film, I didn’t really want them to be recognisable actors because I felt that when watching this, you want to feel like you are immediately in that world and not keep being reminded that it’s someone from a big franchise or blockbuster. Also, I couldn’t have done that because I needed the prep-time.
Elliot Langridge, who takes on the central role of John Clark, I was with him for six years preparing for this. I never said ‘right Elliot come here I am going to spend six years training for this’ all that time I was trying to raise funds for the film, and most of the time I felt like I was going to nail it within a year; however, I didn’t and it took me six years.
All that time, Elliot and I had this relationship where we were ‘it’s going to get there’ and we would keep doing workshops and dance training. In the process of doing that, we brought two or three hundred more kids into that environment.
We created a dance club in the north and in the south to bring kids in, train them to dance, get them to understand the culture, and anyone who really succeeded at that would be offered a speaking part, a lead part, or an extra part dancing; so that is really how we got the casting off the ground.
I obviously needed other people who were very experienced and clever at sussing out what kind of genre I was working in, who wouldn’t need lots of prep and would just come in and go ’I get it, I get this script and I get this northern sensibility and I will nail it for you in a very short space of time.’
Lisa Stansfield was on board a couple of years before and Steve Coogan came on board about six months before - those people have been amazing in giving us their support and pushing it through for us. We got Ricky Tomlinson in at the last minute and he loved it and loved the script. It has been an amazing process.
- That is quite a unique casting process - particularly with the kids. So how popular was that? Did you see many kids coming through the door?
We counted the names at one point and we had had five hundred kids through the door. Not all of them stayed, but of the ones that did stay, there were over a hundred of them dancing in the big Blackburn scene.
The ones that stayed, we gave them all as much as we could in terms of speaking lines and visibility on screen. They were amazing and they really did become this incredible group of people who were all bonded together. By the time the filming happened they were all crying every time we said ‘cut’ and they were like ‘no no’ (laughs).
- The likes of Steve Coogan and Ricky Tomlinson are incredibly experienced actors, so how did you find working with them? And how collaborative a process was it as you were developing these characters?
With Steve and Ricky, they have limited time and so they could only come in for a day or two. I remember that Steve drove up from Brighton to Blackburn the night before, got in at about ten o’clock and was like ‘can I see some footage?’ So I said ‘yeah’.
I was in the foyer of the hotel, I got my laptop out and showed him some stuff, and he was jigging up and down in the head with the headphones on and really getting into it. He was like ‘I am on board, I love the script - I haven’t read it all but I have read some of it - what time am I getting up? What time do I have to be on set?’
I said ‘you have got to be there about 8am’ and he was like ‘right I am going to read the script back to back and in the morning I am going to give you two different characters and you can choose which one you want.’ (laughs).
The next morning he came down and was like ‘I have got Lancashire character and I have got Sheffield character.’ So he did some lines from the script and I just thought that the Sheffield one… I don’t know what it was about this character but it just reminded me of one of the teachers in Kes; when I started sourcing inspiration for this film, Kes was always one that was at the top of the list. I was like ‘oh my god, you have got to do the Sheffield guy as he is brilliant.’
Ricky was like ‘what do you want me to do? I will do exactly what you want me to do as I don’t come to this with an idea of how I am going to do it, I want to know what exactly what you are doing with this. You wrote the script, you know it inside out, and I know you know exactly what you want from me. You just tell me and I will do whatever I can to make that as good as you can get it.’
I was like ‘right you have got this grandson who loves you to bits and you are the only one that he has bonded with. I want to see that emotion riding though the small amount of scenes that you have together.’ They smashed it together him and Elliot; it was like watching real family together on screen.
- The movie marks you feature film directorial debut, so how have you found the whole experience?
I has been brilliant (laughs). I don’t know if you know this, but I was a fashion photographer before this and there are many similarities between the two. Going into this film, I can’t say there was a moment when I looked around and when ‘I don’t know what I am doing, I need help.’
It really was a transition that made so much sense because, as a photographer, you manage crews of people, departments, hair and make-up, wardrobe, lighting, camera equipment, props, sets, models or actors or whoever is going to be sitting for you - it is just a bigger extension of that as way. As long as you understand how to go through a script.
Once you have got your crew in place… I wouldn’t say it is easy, it is very hard work, but there wasn’t a moment when I thought ‘Oh shit, what am I doing?’ I did look around Blackburn when we did the big dance hall stuff and think ‘ooohhhh wow, I am a bit scared’ and I was only scared because of the amount of people. I wanted them all to have a great time and didn’t want them to have this time where they were being shouted at and being ordered around.
- You have slightly touched on this already but we are always hearing about how difficult it is to get films off the ground in this country, so how tough was it getting this project off the ground and ultimately made?
It was hard. Having a lead cast that was unknown was tricky. It really is the number one problem you face when asking people for money because they say ‘who have got in your lead part?’ And you say ‘nobody, and it is going to be a nobody’ and most people wipe their hands of it there and then.
We were turned down across the board and will all public funding, as you would be. It really wasn’t easy. The producer Debbie Gray and I were quite a scary team because we just wouldn’t stop, if people said ’no’ we just go at them and keep going (laughs). We are just a couple of middle aged northern women who say it like it is - we are not threatening or anything (laughs).
- The film is released at the end of the week but have you been able to gauge any of the early responses?
We have been doing really well with the soundtrack: it entered the charts at number six. Demon Records put out the soundtrack and they said to me ‘we won’t get in the top ten as we don’t have the advertising budget for this.’ They are a small company but they have just done so much for us and they have made sure that the CD and the DVD that goes with it all looks amazing.
They have also been on social media and really pushed it. That got in the top ten - that was a real shocker that day when those figures came in. At one point, we were ahead of Queen and the Rolling Stones and I don’t know how that happened, but it happened.
- Finally, what's next for you? Now you have made your directorial debut is there were you are going to stay?
I don’t know. I just want to get this out and then I am going to have a little break. I need to think about things without diving straight into something else.
Northern Soul is in cinemas from 17th October, and on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital HD on 20th October 2014.