Corinna McFarlane has returned to the director's chair with her new film The Silent Storm, which is her second movie but her first live-action feature.
The movie sees the filmmaker team up with Andrea Riseborough, Damian Lewis, and Ross Anderson to deliver a strong feminist story that explores themes of judgement and how women have been held back by religion.
We caught up with the filmmaker to chat the new film, the strong themes that she was keen to explore, and the challenges that she faced to get this film off the ground and made.
- The Silent Storm has been released in UK cinemas today, so can you tell me a bit about the film?
The Silent Storm is dark tempestuous romance that is set on the Western isles of Scotland during the fifties. The film explores the clash of nature and the feminine with patriarchal religion; which is all played out in this marriage between a protestant minister and a woman who washes up on the shore from nowhere. This young woman is seen by the fishwives as an omen from God to be the minister's wife. They are them married. However, it is a very strange marriage as they represent different things.
An orphan boy is delivered to the minister's house as part of a rehabilitation scheme. And then there were three. He really represents the more modern man, the enlightened man and he sees her for who she is. The drama unfolds around this triangle.
- The movie sees you in the director's chair and you've penned the screenplay, so where did this project start for you? And what inspired the idea for the story?
My dad was orphaned as a boy in the Highlands during the war. About five years ago he had a stroke - luckily he recovered - but I was faced with his mortality. I didn't know my ancestry. At that time, I had made a film called Three Miles North of Molkom, which had been in the cinema and was really well received critically, but it was difficult in the climate of commercial male-orientated film. As a result, people were not knocking down my door. After my dad survived, I decided that I was going to set out on a mission; I converted an old Land Rover so I could sleep in it, sold everything that I had and moved to Scotland for year.
I basically drove around the Highlands and discovered the poetry of the people, the landscape and I talked to a lot of people who could remember the oppressive power of the church and how women were prevented from going to the funerals of their husbands by the minister. It was really full on stuff and is still things that are going on in... two thirds of women around the world are still under the thumb of brutality in the name of some god somewhere. The film came about through this journey. It is inspired by my ancestry and my journey but it is a fiction.
I came back to London and I showed it to Nicky Bentham. She had just had her first child and she was worried that she would not be able to get back into the industry. She had applied for a mentorship scheme - called Guiding Lights - to try and get back into the business and was fortunate enough to be selected. She wanted to be mentored by Barbara Broccoli but she was not part of the scheme. She wrote to her personally and, some months later, Barbara replied. So Nicky and Barbara had this relationship and mentor and mentee, which had been going on while I was away.
When I got back, Nicky loved the script and we did a bit of work on it. We started to piece it together ourselves and started knocking on people's doors; it took two years to finance it. After a year of that journey, Nicky felt that her relationship with was such that she felt it was ok to put it to her. As a mentee, you can't really say 'give me your money,' that wasn't the deal. She waited until she felt that the project was in good shape and we had had a lot of good feedback. Then Barbara, who is this powerhouse woman, agreed to read it. She is so busy - she was ramping up for the last Bond film - months passed and we thought that there was no chance because she was too busy. The night before shooting on the last Bond film started, she rang Nicky and told her that she loved and wanted us to put her name to it. As a consequence, we went back to all of the people - all of the silver-haired and middle-aged financiers - we had been talking to and, when Barbra gave us the stamp of approval, they all started coming back to the table.
We pieced the film together without any support from the BFI, which is horrific because they should be supporting... both Nicky and I have made feature films that have been made in the cinema and this was a very worth project. But they didn't want to touch it; as usual, they tend to support very commercial, mainstream, male-orientated stuff. We did it all on our own and it has been a really long journey that has been riddled with obstacles. But we are here and the film is out today.
- Can you talk a bit about your writing process? Do you start with character and them plot? Or plot than character?
For me, it came complete. I was reading a lot of Celtic myths. I was interesting in a strong and simple storyline and so I was looking archetypes in our society. I was reading a lot and I was beginning to have a sense that I wanted to make a modern fable. One night, it just came to me, the beginning, the middle and the end and the three characters.
I got around the basic premise and then went on lots of walks in nature and had lots of talks with real people who had lived through similar periods that I was exploring. Then I wrote. That was really how it worked for me; it is an academic process and I start with study really.
- And much did the story and characters change from the initial idea that you had to the film that we see on screen? Or did it remain the same all the way through?
It remained pretty similar all the way through. Working with the actors brought it to life really. The core, the theme, the protagonist is this woman. There is a very big theme of judgement in this film. This woman comes from nowhere and no one knew who she is and they put on her - as often happens to women - their idea of who she was. When she wasn't what they said she was, she was punished for it; which often happens with women. You are judged before you have even had a chance to say 'this isn't who I am' and then when you are not that, you are criticised. In a way, it was very solid from the beginning and it remained that way. They are very carved out, very polar characters. They are architypes and it is meant to be a fairy tale, of sorts.
- Andrea Riseborough takes on the central role Aislin, who is a very strong female character. So what were you looking for when you were casting this role?
I was looking for a woman who had a mystery about her and everywoman, in fact. When I was trying to finance the movie with Nicky; we had the budget three times in two years. But every time we got to closing the deal, they would say that they wanted a young actress who was an eighteen or nineteen year old girl. And I was like 'what are you talking about? She has got to be a woman. She is supposed to have lived and seen the world. She need to have this wisdom. This movie is not about a teenage girl.'
I love Andrea as an actress I think that she is phenomenal, she is incredibly enigmatic, she is very powerful and very subtle. I knew that I wanted her, but it was a fight to persuade people... once Barbra got involved, it was a no-brainer and she was like 'of course it is Andrea Riseborough, she is one of the best young actresses.' She was like 'fuck them, stick with your vision and don't compromise.' So we did. I think that she is phenomenal. The movie does rest on her shoulders and he is the gem and the heart of it. Her performance carries it and she is the best think in it, I think.
- Can you talk a bit about getting Damian Lewis and Ross Anderson on board?
Damian Lewis was very big in Homeland when we were putting this together and I wanted him. However, we were told immediately that he was in Homeland and that he categorically was unavailable for the next two or three years. We were devastated and started looking around; we did still submit the script to him and his agents. After some months, by then we had attached Andrea, we got this random phone call saying that Damian had read the script and that there was a four-week break in the Homeland schedule. However, they were not our shooting dates. So we moved heaven and earth for him to be able to be in the film - we changed all the dates basically. He flew in from shooting Homeland and flew out.
For Ross Anderson's role, we scoured Scotland because we were looking for a Scottish unknown actor. Again, when we were piecing together the finances, they wanted us to cast someone from Hollywood. Ross is a phenomenal Scottish actor and I cried in his audition. It was the first of the two or three hundred people that we saw and I was in tears within moments of him delivering some of the lines. He read with Damian and I knew that he was able to stand up to one of the best actors. There we had the three.
- How did you find working with them? Damian and Andrea are hugely experienced but Ross less so.
It was fantastic because they were hugely professional. I come from the theatre and this is quite a theatrical piece - intentionally so. They really responded to the material. It is an actor's piece and it is a three-hander. We were on the same page and they were really up for doing an independent small film, and they really loved the feminist themes; Damian is a feminist too. We were all on the same page and we really enjoyed working together.
Because it was shot on the Isle of Mull, which is one of the most fantastic places in the UK, they really responded to living on location and in such a remote place; the nearest pub was an hour away. We were really immersed in it. It was a very rich process, similar to my theatre experience with actors.
- The setting of the film is beautiful and you shot on the Isle of Mull. What drew you to that location? What were the challenges of shooting up there?
When it was writing the film, I knew that because girls are not trusted with these sorts of sums of money in the film business, I thought I would find all of the locations; I wanted to deliver a full package of a script and all of the locations. This was quite an ambitious thing because I needed very specific things very close together. Some months were passing and I was driving around and getting exasperated. I was going around various islands and someone recommended Mull.
It was meant to be good weather but the wind was blowing at ninety miles per hour and it was pouring with rain. The tourist office recommended that I didn't drive at all but I was determined. So I started driving and I was heading towards this bay, which is on the Gulf Stream and had these Jurassic cliffs. I was driving towards it, the weather was so bad, there was no visibility and I thought 'I am going to die down here. No one knows that I am here.' I did a three point turn to leave and this giant oak tree crashed down in front of me. I was screaming, got out the car and ran down the hill to this door of this nearby house and banged on the door. This woman opened the door and, as I stepped inside, it was my film.
I was inspired by an artist called Hammershøi and it was exactly like the paintings that I had been researching as part of my mood board. I ended up staying there for four days. The woman of the house, her mother had just died, it has been her mother's house and she had run it as an artist's retreat. After she had died, they didn't know what to do with the house. I said that I was looking for a dilapidated jetty, a cave that looked like the inside of the belly of a whale and a fallen tree with the roots still showing. She was like 'funny you should say that, but we have the jetty just in the bay at the foot of the house and we have got the nun's cave where the Iona nuns hid from the Vikings in the 12th century. We also have the fallen tree where mama use to take us to listen to the fairies. It felt incredibly fated.
I came back with all of the locations and the script and then I had to persuade that it was the best idea. Nicky came with me to check it out, and was like 'you are right, this is a no-brainer.' We took seventy crew. The place was just phenomenal. I was inspired by The Piano by Jane Campion, which is set in New Zealand, and Scotland really does compare cinematically. Once they had seen the quality of the landscape and the proximity of all the things we needed to each other - which is unusual - it became obvious this this was the only place to make this film. It was fantastic, the Scottish are great, Mull was fantastic and we had the time of our lives making it.
- How fundamental to the story do you feel the locations were?
It was fundamental. The film is about the feminine in nature and so we needed something really stunning to cinematically represent the beauty of mother nature. Aislin, the central character, is a magical, slightly witchy herbalist who, when she is isolated by the community and vilified, finds solace in nature and nature is a healer. That theme is really important and the place had to be magical and it is a healing place. Hopefully, that is something that translates onto the screen.
- The movie tackles some interesting and controversial themes of feminism, religion, and judgement, so how have you found audiences responses to those themes?
First of all, what has really been a shock is that no one in the press - except a piece that came out today in the Daily Mirror - has talked about the themes. Even in the criticisms that I have received, which have been many, no one has discussed the strong feminist undercurrent and no one has discussed the fundamentalist theme, which is all over the world. And nobody has gone near the fact that the church and religion crushes women and has so for two thousand years; nobody is talking about the fact that this film is all about that.
In the film, they eat nature to find their own nature - they eat these hallucinogenic mushrooms. In the press there has been this whole thing about how Psilocybin is a healer and they are discovering that it can help with mental health issues - no one has touched on the fact that this film explores that and the power of nature. I have found it very difficult and upsetting that no one has been brave enough to start this conversation. That is why I made the film.
I made the film because there are not enough film being made that shine a light on our problems and on the fact that women are still being crushed by institutionalised religion all over the world. Everyone always bangs on about Islam but it is no just Islam, it is everywhere. No one wants to talk about it. You make a beautiful film - it is still fiction and it is still a story, but still no one wants to talk about it. We have had some great responses and some four-star reviews in The Times, Empire, and the Daily Mirror and then a wave of negativity. I wonder if the themes are just so uncomfortable that people don't want to talk about them.
I am the filmmaker so I am going to be passionate about how I feel about it. People are entitled to not like the work. Whether the film is good or bad or well received or not, if the film is about apartheid, people tend to talk about it in the press and it tends to be a conversation starter. That is what I wanted and there hasn't been enough of it - there hasn't been any. It is the first time that I am talking about it to you, to be completely honest.
- The Silent Storm is your second feature but your first live-action film. So how have you found the whole experience? And how did you find the leap from documentary to fiction?
Because I always wanted to be a film director, my whole career has been geared up towards directing drama. My documentary was very... I set out to make a documentary that was as close as possible to a drama. It is episodic, it is not fly-on-the-wall, and structurally, many people thought that it was a mockumentary and that they were actors pretending. I was interested in the line between drama and documentary anyway.
Because I wrote it as well, this felt very natural, which was helped by my background in theatre. The surprise - as ever - in this industry as a woman, it doesn't matter what you have done, you will always have to go back to the bottom and start again. I did have to go all the way back being completely broke, on my own, in the middle of nowhere to... it has taken six years to get it to the cinema. The transition was totally natural for me and was part of my whole career plan since I was seven (laughs).
- You have talked about how tricky it was to get this film made and we are always hearing about how hard it is to get films make in the UK. Similarly, there's a lot of talk about the lack of opportunities for female directors within the film industry. How much do you think that is true? And how much is that something that you have personally experienced?
It is horrific. It is definitely 100% true. The industry is intrinsically misogynistic, there's no two ways about it. At every level, there is a patronising tone and we have had to really fight to find champions who took us seriously. On our film, Nicky Bentham the producer was pregnant - she has had two children in the process of this film being made - and we would walk into meetings where there would be comments about her being pregnant and comments about me being little; I am only 5ft 2inches. Predominately, men don't seem to trust women with money; this is the key. They might like your ideas but, when push comes to shove, there is this institutionalised invisible hand behind everything that is like a boy's club that implies girls can't be trusted with money. This was a big amount of money - small still in film terms - but still a chunk.
There was no support from the institutions and we would get comments like 'it is all a bit heavy and these films don't garner audiences.' I was saying that it is a women's film and the responses were 'yes, but people don't want to see that stuff.' It was quite blatant and it was brutal. There were moments where it was infuriating. Then getting amazing champions, not just women like Barbra, but her brother Michael and a few other key players who didn't give a toss about this ludicrous sexism. They realised how far we had come and they wanted to support us because it is very unusual to have a female director and producer team in a female-led film. It is true that in this country... UK directors have put out this fantastic paper recently that lays out this institutionalised sexism, which is very alive.
- What do you think now needs to be done to help eradicate this?
In the first instance, the BFI need to commit to supporting 50% female directed projects and I think that production companies should also make these pledges because it is just a joke. I also think that the government needs to get involved and there needs to be a bigger conversation. And it is not just women but anybody that isn't... it is rammed down our throat this superhero ideology this violence, exploitation, and murder. We are constantly presented this paradigm of what cinema should be to be successful. It is rammed down our throat from Hollywood.
We really need to stand up for our own stories like France does for its artists and filmmakers; they have much more pride in their work. Then we need to diversify across the board because it is nuts. It is not just women, anyone with a story that is not Bridget Jones of Superman, is screwed because no one wants to finance them. It is the financiers that need to be taken to account and they are all silver-haired middle-aged blokes. It is a boy's club and this is what we are up against. It has to happen from a really high level and from the government really.
- Finally, what's next for you?
I am working on a screwball comedy. Another thing about being a female director is that you tend to get pigeonholed into doing children's stuff of period dramas. A director such as Danny Boyle - to name a perfect example - he always gets to do what he wants. I want to carve out a career that is diverse and I shouldn't just be doing teen rom-coms (laughs).
The Silent Storm is out now.