Novelist & Director Helen Walsh on her film The Violators – words Paul Risker
There is the first ‘big’ step a storyteller takes on a journey. For novelist and director Helen Walsh that first step was her debut novel Brass (2004), followed by a second, third and fourth ‘big’ step: Once Upon a Time in England (2008), Go to Sleep (2011) and The Lemon Grove (2014).
This is of course not intended to do her short fiction a disservice, which is integral to her body of work. But now with her feature film debut The Violators, Walsh finds herself taking another ‘big’ step into a world she readily admits was “brand new.”
The Violators tells the story of Shelley (Lauren McQueen) who is rehoused on a sink estate after testifying against her abusive father. A petty thief, she attracts the attention of loan shark Mikey Finnegan (Stephen Lord) who soon begins grooming her, and stranger Rachel (Brogan Ellis) whose motives are the more inexplicable. When Shelley receives news of her father’s impending release, events for the three characters take a sinister turn.
Walsh has honed the craft of using words to engage with her audience’s imagination, although a more effective way of phrasing it would be to say the words as stimuli for the audience to paint a mental picture of the world and its characters. Speaking with Walsh ahead of the film’s release presented an intriguing opportunity to engage the perspective of a novelist entering this brand new world. During our conversation she revealed the importance of both literature and film in shaping her storyteller sensibility, while offering her thoughts on the evolution of a films journey, the instinctive nature of the process, and the duality of the audiences reaction. She also reflected on the theme of possession that is at the heart of the film and how her approach to character is underscored by a feminist bias.
Why a career in storytelling? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
I still find it difficult to see what I do as a career. I just feel really lucky that I get to do what essentially started out as a… It’s not even a hobby is it? I think people that tell stories, whether they be in novel or film form do so because they have a desire to. And then if you are really lucky you get paid to realise that desire. But in terms of a defining moment, I was about thirteen and I was an absolute avid reader. I grew up in a house with no books. My parents just didn’t read, but they really nurtured my love of books. My mum was a district nurse and in the summer holidays many years ago now, in the idyllic days of the early eighties, she would drop me off at the local library – Grantham Hall Library, a really cute little village; a slab of modernism. She would come back and check on me at lunch, but she’d just leave me there where I’d spend the whole day reading. The first big grown up book I read when I was eight or nine was I Am David, about a young boy in a concentration camp. But I think the book that really changed the way I view fiction and my own very humble literary endeavours back then was, Last Exit to Brooklyn. A librarian actually gave it to me. I’d grown up with her and when I was twelve and a half she said: “Read this! It will blow your world wide open.” And it did because I didn’t realise that you could write fiction like that or you were allowed to write about those sorts of things. I didn’t realise that you could create characters that were voiced in the way that Selby wrote with his world of grammar. So I think that book more than anything was a definitive moment in my life because from that day on I began to write about things that I wanted to write about, and which were important to me. But before I just didn’t think that you could. I thought you had to write about unicorns and the stuff of everyday kids and teenage fiction. So shortly after that I started writing short stories and documenting my relationship with Acid House. I started going to clubs very young at thirteen and fourteen, and so I was always writing. And then in my early twenties I was lucky enough to be published.
Transitioning from writing novels to writing and directing a feature film, how did the expectations compare to the realities?
Well film for me was all brand new. I didn’t go to film school – I did actually apply after university, but I just simply couldn’t afford it. Living up north I am completely disconnected and alienated from the wonderful world of London film and media. It’s very, very hard and film is very much a collaborative effort. It was much easier for me to write novels to tell the stories that I wanted to tell, and they were very much of the time and place – contemporary stories I could just go away and write on my own. It’s a much easier process. So in terms of expectations I didn’t really have any because my experience with film has always been as a finished product – what I see in the cinema. And the opening of Picturehouse in Liverpool in I think it was 2002 was instrumental in shaping my career as a novelist, not just as a filmmaker.
But as a novelist I always attribute the films of the Dardenne Brothers and Jacques Audiard as influences on both my style of storytelling, and the stories I want to tell, much more so than literature. Or on a par with literature where I am inspired equally by film and novels. So as a first time director I had never stepped onto a film set before, and the first forty-eight hours I was learning hard and fast on my feet. But I think what you have at your heart is no different to what you have when you start out with a novel. You have a vision and a very specific image and story in your head that you want to tell. And it’s just about making that happen. I think the big difference for me was as a creator with novels, you are in absolute control of the characters and the story. The only time it really becomes collaborative is when your editor gets involved and that’s a very slow and intimate process. I think the big eye opener and learning curve for me with film and which happened in the first forty eight hours was how open you have to be. For example, a line of dialogue you have had in your head for so long, and for which you have a sense of how it should be delivered, an actor can come along and completely subvert it. But it can be something fresh and surprising and I think you have to be open to that. And with actors and film you are working very much on instinct. Certainly when you are filming on a modest budget you don’t have the preparation time that you would on bigger budget films. A lot of the time you are finding the locations on the day, and you don’t have the time to rehearse the actors for all the long takes you have in your head. You are operating very much on instinct, and it’s a very sensory and visceral experience.
One of the adages amongst filmmakers is that there are three versions of the script – a step by step evolution from the writing to the shoot and onto the edit. Would you describe making a film as a journey in which you lack certainty until you see that final cut?
Yeah, as the director every single second on set you are fighting for that degree of creative control. So you have to be open because something can come along. There can be a change in the weather and an actor can do something amazing and fresh, but you don’t have to respond to that. For example, I did a lot of rewrites on the set of The Violators and the final script is very different to the script we started out with. But I think that’s one of the great things about being a writer/director on set. You are not married to the words. You can be open and you can give your actors if you think they are capable a lot of poetic license.
With film the script that you write you have to make that story and it has to be understood. I could write my script in ten pages and the vision will be locked in your head. If you go on set you can throw your actors a line of dialogue, but you have to have them on board, especially the first time. Your first script is much more fleshed out and comprehensive than your shooting script. You have your actors on board, they know their character and they know their journey, and you can start to prepare it. And then I think the script changes from day to day and you never really know. You can spend hours with your Director of Photography sorting out locations, lighting and designing a set, and then when the camera starts rolling it can be very different to the vision you had in your head. One of the great things about film and being a writer/director is that you are not bound to that. You are not bound to your script. I could write and respond to it so it would be an evolving dynamic between certain characters, situations and the landscape. So it really was a constant process of evolution and then you’re right, you get into the editing suite and the story becomes something else again. So yeah I completely agree that there are three stages… Possibly more.
Speaking with Carol Morley for The Falling she explained: “You take it 90% of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” Would you agree and do you perceive there to be a transfer of ownership?
Yeah I think so, but it actually starts before then. You hand your film over to a distributor and you can have an idea as to how you would like the film to be marketed and distributed. And it’s very much the same with a novel. You’ll have a very specific idea of an image for the jacket, but what the distributor does can be the antithesis to your original conception. I am really pleased with what Bulldog have done with the film so far, but if I have learned this as a novelist as opposed to a first time filmmaker, then it is that there has to be a process of letting go. And for me, when I hand over the final film, if I am happy with it, then that’s it – it’s done for me. It’s great when an audience interacts with the film and they pick upon all those things that you have laid down – the subtext that is there to find for yourself – or they can totally rip it to pieces. But for me it ends when I hand those final reels over and I find what’s in the film. What happens from then on is really where the film begins its life, but it might not necessarily be the life that its creator had envisaged for it.
One of the threads of the film is the theme of possession. Specifically the conflict we face in liberating ourselves and gaining a sense of self-determination or control over our lives. The attempt of Shelley’s world and the other characters inhabiting it to try to possess her is a depiction of this struggle.
Right at the start of the film I shot Lauren in a very sexualised way. The camera is very close to her bum, very close to her crotch and it objectifies and sexualises her. We possess her, we objectify her, but by the end of the film I think she’s liberated from Mikey and Rachel, and she’s also liberated from the camera. Her hair is down and she is much freer and less sexualised. It was definitely a conscious thing within the style of shooting, and was also at the heart of the storytelling.
Shelley is a beautiful young girl on an estate that is completely alienated and detached from the mainland. And men want to possess her, which is the nature of life and we too are guilty of that. The first time she goes into the gold shop I wanted this really clean image of the back of her neck. When I put Lauren’s hair up she had this faint mark on the back of her neck, which is very, very white and childlike. But it’s very sexualised too, and I think it makes us feel very uncomfortable because we are aware that we are sexualising her, and we are aware that who we are sexualising is a child. So although we are seeing her through Mikey’s lens, we are also seeing her through our own cultural lens.
You’ve spoken about how you do not write victims and have asserted: “For me, the point of fiction, whether it be in novels or films, is the license to fully interrogate uncomfortable truths. It is perhaps the only space in which we can truly examine the complexities of young female sexuality with absolute honesty and integrity.” How integral is the non-victim to this “honesty and integrity?”
Outside of filmmaking I am a feminist; I am a woman; I am a mixed race northern working class female and a mother. But once I get behind a camera, I cease to be all of those things. I am interested in only realising the vision that is in my head. But I do think that need to present women and female characters in film and in fiction as non-victims is definitely underscored by that female bias. And it’s also very personal for me because growing up a mixed race girl on an all white working class estate, as a kid in Warrington, it was very important for me not to be identified or defined as a victim. I don’t like that and I never have done, and I never want my gender or my race to be the determinant in what I want to do, and the life choices that I make, even though inevitably they are. But certainly within the world of fiction you can free yourself from all of that and you can subvert the rules, and you can make heroes out of everyday victims.
Filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?
Yeah, I was a stone heavier after our catering budget could only afford pasties and sandwiches. Everyone put on weight and we had to stretch the film in the final shot… I’m being facetious. Yeah, of course it transforms you and one of the exciting things about film and fiction is its transformative power. It transforms you as an audience and as a reader, but also as a creator. So how can you not be transformed.
The Violators by Director Helen Walsh is released in cinemas & on demand on June 17 2016 by Bulldog Film Distribution.