Author Helen Walsh makes the leap into the director's chair for the first time this week as she is set to make her feature film directorial debut with The Violators - she has also penned the film's screenplay.
We caught up with the writer and filmmaker to chat about the new film, making the transition into the director's chair and what lies ahead.
- The Violators is about to hit the big screen, so can you tell me a bit about the film?
The Violators is about the relationship between two young girls; Shelly and Rachel who come from radically different background. Their story is intertwined through their relationship with estate loan shark Mikey Finnegan.
- The movie sees you in the director's and you have penned the screenplay, so where did this project start for you? Where did the idea for the film come from?
To be honest, Shelly's story and Shelly herself has always been a very familiar character on the estate where I grew up. I really liked the idea of a girl bumming around on the estate, mixed up in petty crime and coming under the watchful gaze of the estate loan shark - who would also be considered as the estate gangster. I was really interested in the power dynamics between Shelly and Mikey. The story really evolved out of a landscape.
It was filmed and set in Birkenhead, which is Liverpool's little and ugly sister and is completely disconnected from the mainland. It was a story that could only be told visually and one that could only be told cinematically; it wasn't a story that I wanted to write as a novel because the landscape is a post-industrial landscape and is so brutally poetic. There is a real sense of alienation in the landscape - while Liverpool, which sits within spitting distance of Birkenhead, has been gentrified in the last ten years. I like those stories from the fringes and the wastelands of the big cities.
- The Violators marks your feature film directorial debut and you have never been on a film set before starting work on this project. What made you want to make the leap into the director's chair?
The desire was nothing new, it was just that circumstances militated against it for the first fifteen years of my career. Prior to writing Brass, which was my debut feature, I applied to go film school and I did photography before I went to university. Brass was originally conceived as a short film. But, living up north with no connections or contacts with London and... you can't deny that, back then, the film industry was London centric - and is still is. It is just so much easier for me to write and novel, to go off and the story that I wanted to tell. It is not a collaborative effort and it doesn't require funding, you can just sit down anywhere and do. They were stories that I had to tell and needed to be told. Only as a result of becoming a published novelist, I was able to make that leap into film.
As a novelist, I like to think that I write quite cinematically, I really try to create a strong visual image in the reader's minds, and create a good sense of spatial awareness. I don't know why more writers don't want to direct adaptations of their own work or don't make that leap. Some of my favourite directors, such as Lukas Moodysson, are novelists. I get asked 'are you a novelist or a filmmaker?' I am both. I am a storyteller and I think that the vision is very very much the same but the way of realising it is different.
- How have you found the whole experience of moving into the director's chair for the first time?
I have loved it. To me, the thing that I was most worried about was the social aspect of it. I have lived in a cellar for fifteen years in the north of England, I don't really indulge in London literary circles and I see my agent once every two years - if that. I am really blessed in that I am left alone to write and deliver a product ever two years. The thing I was most worried about, was not working with actors, nothing to do with the equipment, the cinematography of any of that, it was having to go on set in the morning and just say 'hello' to everyone (laughs).
For me, it felt like a very very natural transition; the first forty-eight hours were very hard as you are learning on your feet. It did come very easily and I think that if your vision is strong enough, everything becomes about making that vision happen. It was really exciting.
- You are best known as an author, so how did penning a screenplay compare to writing a novel? Is it a similar process for you?
Yes. It is much less painful than writing a novel because writing one scene for a novel of someone coming into a room, having a conversation and leaving, can take two weeks. You have to work on sentence structure, how you get them into the room and how you get them out of the room. In a screenplay, it takes two minutes. I found that the writing process with the screenplay was a lot more fluid and you can cut up, move and shift and shape around in a way that you can't in your novel. To lose twenty pages in a novel is like a knife through the heart but, with a screenplay, you just don't have any of that.
You never really know what kind of film you are making until the cameras start rolling. It doesn't matter how much pre-planning that you do with your director of photography, or how much prep you do on the day with lighting and rehearsing, it is only when the camera starts rolling and you feel what is evolving in front of you, do you know the tone of the film and the direction it is taking. One of the great things about being a writer/director, is you are not bound to the words and you can be really really open with the words, which I was. Some of my actors had a lot of poetic license. Stephen Lord and Derek Barr - who played Mikey and Andy - I gave them a lot of free rein because they understood the character and I trusted them. It was great because they came along and interpreted something in a way that I hadn't anticipated.
I really enjoyed that aspect because you don't get that dialogue with your character as a novelist; you tell them what to do and they do (laughs). You never get challenged and the best pieces of work are the pieces where you are challenged. As a novelist, I have found that the two pieces of work that I am most proud of - The Lemon Grove and Once Upon a Time In England - are works in which I have been really really challenged by an editor; I think that you need that. On set, you are constantly being challenged and every second that goes by, you are fighting for that degree of creative control. The dynamic with my DP (director of photography) is something that no one could have prepared me for. The relationship with your DP is an incredibly important one and I can see why so many directors feel insecure about working with a new DP and leaving their usual DP behind. It is a very special relationship that really does take a lot of work.
- Over the several drafts of the script, how much did the story and characters change from the initial idea that you had to the film we see on screen?
Quite a lot actually. It started to change with the casting and when I brought Lauren McQueen on board as Shelly. I has envisioned Shelly as more numb to her environment and more cynical and hardened. But when Lauren came and read for Shelly, she brought a real softness and a vulnerability to the character as well as a real sense of integrity and a responsibility. When we cast her alongside Callum King Chadwick, who plays Jerome, there is a real sense of... she quickly evolves as the matriarch of that household. I re-wrote the script with those qualities in mind.
I kept Lauren and Stephen Lord apart in the run up to filming; I didn't let them rehearse together because I wanted their first meeting to be on screen. There was a real nervousness from Lauren as Shelly and it is something that is innate and chemical and is something that cannot be rehearsed or anticipated. I love those elements of screen magic that just happen and you are not prepared for them.
We shot the cash for gold scenes between Shelly and Mikey at the start of the shoot and there was something that came from Shelly that I hadn't anticipated as there was this subconscious to Mikey. I re-wrote that and really play with that dynamic. It was a tough line because there was a constantly shifting power dynamic between Mikey and Shelly.
- Amazingly, Lauren McQueen is making her big screen debut with this film and takes on the central role Shelly. How did you find working with her?
Loved it. She is a director's dream. Lauren is very much like an open canvas and whatever you throw at her she can inhabit and get under the skin of the character. The first time that she came in and read, I knew instinctively that I wanted her to play Shelly - but she was a long way off delivering the performance that I wanted. I gave her some pointers. If you meet Lauren in real life, she is very softly spoken and she went away and worked on deepening her tone.
Shelly is a character who would have a much harder voice because she is a girl who has spent her life shouting trying to make herself heard. Lauren came back to the second casting and Shelly was born. She was just fantastic. Lauren also worked on continuity (laughs). We had a very modest budget and didn't have a script supervisor but Lauren was always there to say 'wasn't that person wearing a red coat in the last scene?' She was just a great ball of energy to have on set.
- Brogan Ellis, Stephen Lord, and Liam Ainsworth are just some of the other names on board, so can you talk a bit about bringing the cast list together?
I wanted to cast two unknowns for the lead roles because it was important the first time we see Shelly in the penny arcade, we are meeting Shelly Hudson and not an actor that we are familiar with. For a film like The Violators, which is filmed in its natural environment and all shot on location, you have to believe that the first time you see that character it is that character and it is not an actor inhabiting that character.
I cast Lauren as Shelly first of all, and then we cast Brogan Ellis as Rachel very quickly after that. I had seen Brogan in an episode of Waterloo Road and she had never done film before. She came in and I really liked the dynamic and the relationship between her and Lauren because it was a little bit spikey and there was a bit of distance between them. They really only became really good friends after filming and they were quite distant on set, which really worked for the film. That is something that really was quite apparent in the casting.
With Stephen Lord, it was difficult to find an unknown male actor in his mid-forties who hadn't do anything before. We saw dozens and dozens of males and then Stephen sent us a tape. I went and met with him, had a cup of tea with him and just knew immediately, by how much he had read into the character and got to understand him, that it had to be him.
- How have you been finding the early response to the film so far?
Being absolutely honest with you, I don't know. I think that this is just a product of being a published novelist and having been through this process. With my first few novels, I read every single review, was constantly Googling myself and taking everything to heart. Now, I just don't. For me, the film ends with the finished reel from the editing suite that I hand over to the distributors. I haven't been totally disengaged as I did have a say in the artwork and the trailer. I do go along to screenings because it is important and I want to know how people are responding to the film. I like to go along and do the Q&A's.
In terms of the critical response, how many cinemas it has got into, how many festival it has got into, or how many awards it has won or been nominated for, it all goes a little over my head. I learnt from being a novelist that you can't take those five star reviews on board without taking the absolute stinkers. All taste is subjective and that is the beauty of fiction and film. I love divisive films and I love going to see a film with a girlfriend or boyfriend and coming out and having a fierce fall out (laughs).
- Finally, what's next for you?
I have just finished a second screenplay that I am also going to direct. I am really excited about it because it is very different to The Violators and is a big leap up in budget, theme and world. I am not going to tell you any more than that (laughs).
The Violators is released 17th June.