Carol Morley is one of the most exciting British filmmakers around, and she is back in the director's chair this week with new film The Falling.

Carol Morley

Carol Morley

We last saw Morley in the director's chair with documentary Dream of a Life and The Falling sees her return to fiction for the first time since Edge.

We caught up with the director to chat about The Falling, bringing together such a terrific cast, and what lies ahead.

- The Falling hits the big screen on Friday, so can you tell me a bit about the film?

The Falling is set in 1969, in a girl's grammar school, in a rural part of England, and it looks behind an epidemic of mass fainting in the school.

- You are back in the director's chair and have penned the screenplay, so where did this project start for you? What inspired the story?

I did research into mass psychogenic illnesses - it is called mass hysteria. It all started with a phone call with my former film teacher and friend Bev and we started laughing and couldn't stop - she went on to mention a village in medieval times where they couldn't stop laughing.

After our phone call, I started to Google but couldn't find it, but I did find a village in Tanzania in the 1960s where, at a girl' school, there had been an outbreak of laughing and fainting and not feeling well. This led me to this mass psychogenic illness, where people start to feel ill. It often happens in girl's schools to adolescent girls.

I found it really interesting that you could look at young women who are visibly showing signs of discomfort with the world around them. I really wanted to look at teenage girlhood in a way that tried to get behind what it looks like and get into what it feels like. It was the perfect way to use mass hysteria really.

- The movie is set in 1969, what made you want to set the story in this specific time period?

The sixties was a time... I think it was '68 or '69 when the abortion act came in. Still at that time... this isn't exactly why but at that time, sanitary towels still had belts on them; you couldn't get stick on sanitary towels (laughs). It was a time both where we were advancing quite far by landing on the moon, but at the same time, a woman had to wear a belt with a sanitary towel.

It felt like an adolescent time, it felt like a time that hadn't really arrived anywhere, and it felt like a teenage time. It made sense to use a teenage era with the teenagers. Plus, mass hysteria often represents the anxiety of the time; Today it would be terrorism and the fear of something being in the air or in our food but in the sixties, a lot of the mass hysterias that broke out were around sexual anxiety. I think a lot of it was to do with women changing, how they represented themselves, and how they behaved around sexuality.

- Can you talk a bit about your writing process - do you start with characters first and then build the story?

I did a lot of research on the general condition of mass hysteria, so I read a lot of medical articles. Once I had done that, I moved on to developing the characters. I spent a lot of time on the characters and on my wall in front of where I wrote I had lots of pictures of what I thought they look liked. I would really just develop those characters and begin to understand them - to the point where I knew if they would be alive or dead today.

Also, one of the things that I do is use music very early on and so I found a lot of songs of the time and just before the time that I would listen to as I was writing. In a way, I think the way I do it is imagine that this really happened and that I am reconstructing a real part of history; it is also most like documentary and I feel like the whole film is a documentary reconstruction (laughs).

- There is a supernatural element to The Falling as well as it being a coming of age film - how did you find balancing those two major themes?

When you are growing up and when you are that age, you don't define the world... there is no such thing as realism as you use such a large part of your imagination. I really wanted to mix this idea that there was the real world and the unreal world, which you can be very close to when you are that age. I think it was important to me, because mass hysteria is quite mysterious, that there was this tapping into this otherworldliness.

The balance came from looking at how a teenage would look at that - I think a teenager would be very curious about where else it could be coming from. I was able to do that through the character of Kenneth - played by Joe Cole - as he is into the occult and into those elements and through him, I was able to explore the ideas around that.

- The cast is a mix of names we know and first time actors, so how did you find Florence Pugh? And what did you see in her that you thought would be perfect for the role of Abbie?

Florence had never done anything before - at school, she had done plays and things like that. She sent in a one-minute video tape and then came to the audition. Abbie was written as someone who needed to be charismatic, kind of cool, but it was a charismatic cool that didn't belong to now; it need to be less sophisticated that someone who is sixteen now.

When Florence came in, she had a real presence and a real ability to become younger... she was seventeen at the audition and they are much more sophisticated at that age now than back then. She was able to strip that away and she is a really good storyteller. When she came to the audition, I asked her to tell a story about a small pebble, as I just wanted to see if she could communicate. She was just amazing. The fact that she had never done anything before was fine because she is a natural and working with someone like Maisie Williams - who had had a lot of industry experience - was great because she was able to teach Florence how to be on set. There was a real sharing of experience there.

It was very exciting when I first met her because as soon as someone comes through the door and you go 'oh my god that's Abbie' it is a great moment.

- The film also stars Maisie Williams and the fantastic Maxine Peake, can you talk about getting them on board?

Maisie Williams was someone who I couldn't see for a while because she was filming. I haven't seen her in Game of Thrones so I wasn't particularly aware of her acting; I have seen some things of her being interviewed for various things. I wanted her to be my Lydia (laughs) there is a possessiveness and you don't want them to have been Arya Stark.

When she came to audition and came in the room, I realised how much she was capable at playing such a complex role. Lydia is not entirely likable and she is a flawed character, but Maisie is a natural and an incredible storyteller. It was very exciting to see someone being the complicated character if Lydia to life.

I have worked with Maxine Peake before, I love working with her, she is very open, and she brings so much to a role. She is completely brilliant to work with and it was exciting to develop this character of Eileen with her. I had forgotten but Maisie said I had told Maxine never to talk to her on set to create some tension (laughs). If you don't cast a film right you run into real problems as you cannot get that back.

I am really pleased with the casting as they were all like the characters as I wrote them and imagined them, but Maxine, Maisie, and Florence all brought something special and something that I could never have envisioned to those roles.

- The movie played at London Film Festival last year - where Florence was recognised for her work - where it was met well but how have you been finding reactions to the film?

I have been making different kind of films for a long time now and you can often find yourself in meetings with people where you leave and you think 'they are not interested in this because it is a female story. They are not interested in this because it largely looks at a domestic world.'

So for this film to get the recognition and the acknowledgement that it has, creating debate, and lots of people are talking about the mysterious nature of it and their own teenage years is great. Even though it is an unusual film and it is not British social realism - I call it magical realism - it is a magical realist film but many people are looking into their own lives and looking back on themselves as teenagers.

It is really exciting as a filmmaker to find that your film is connecting to audiences, even though you have not been formulaic in the way that you have made it.

- Speaking of the female angle of this film, it is a female story, female director, female central cast - which is quite rare - how difficult was it getting this film off the ground?

This one was a lot easier than the others. I think because Dreams of a Life found a really good audience... Dreams of a Life took five years to make, but because it got such a good reaction, I was more entrusted with this film. Even though it is unusual in some aspects, it was easier to raise the finance for it.

- While we know you for documentaries such as The Alcohol Years and Dreams of a Life, The Falling is only your second dramatic feature. How easy or difficult do you find moving between documentary and live action work?

I think you find your story and you essentially want to tell it the best way you can; sometimes it as a documentary like Dreams of a Life and sometimes it is fiction like The Falling. For me, it is easier to make fiction because I feel so responsible for the people in a documentary.

In this film, Florence is playing Abbie but she doesn't have to speak as Abbie (laughs), whereas in Dreams of a Life, Martin is Martin and Joyce is Joyce. I do find that it is a different kind of responsibility and I do find it easier than making a documentary.

- Finally, what's next for you going through the rest of 2015?

I am not really allowed to say as producers like to make announcements. However, I am adapting a book by a major writer that is set in Atlanta and has lots of women in it (laughs). It will have a strong female cast as I am committed to telling stories that have strong female storylines.

It is very exciting and so often overlooked. I don't ever want to make chick flick I just want to make a film for everybody that happens have a large female presence on screen.

The Falling is released 24th May.

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