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Winterlong – Interview with director David Jackson – words Paul Risker
Winterlong centres on the reclusive Francis (Francis Magee), who has chosen to live an isolated and solitary existence. When his estranged teenage son, Julian (Harper Jackson) turns up unexpectedly on his doorstep one day, the pair are forced into building their relationship. However, as their father and son bond grows, an accident following an ill-advised decision by Julian places them under the spotlight of the authorities, forcing the pair to make a life-changing decision.
David Jackson’s feature directorial debut, he has previously directed episodes of the television dramas Clocking Off, Holby City and The Bill. His short films have shown a diverse interest in storytelling, beginning with his debut The Future Lasts a Long Time, about May (Samantha Morton) and Jimmy (Hans Matheson) who are seduced by the romanticism of the Bonnie and Clyde saga. Meanwhile the suspenseful drama Last Breath centred on a family racing to reach the dive hut as they run out of oxygen on a scuba diving trip, while the future set Unoriginal, focuses on a young writer who has an original idea in a world void of original stories. Jackson has also directed the documentary short, This Is Not My House, a portrait of his father to who he dedicated Winterlong.
In conversation with Flux, Jackson discussed the role of storytelling within the human experience, his desire to tell an observational story that poses questions, and his discovery of liberation as a writer.
Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment for you personally?
Like a lot of filmmakers, I have just always loved cinema and it has always been important to me, ever since I was a kid. Why filmmaking in particular? I just think the possibilities of cinema are still so great, and the chance to put sounds and images together to tell stories, and to communicate that with an audience is a real thrill.
How have your storytelling experiences influenced the way you perceive this potential of cinema that you speak of? I ask because as a reader or spectator we see literature and film one way, yet to work with the language as the storyteller allows you to understand its intricacies from a contrasting point of view. But that is not to say there is a right or a wrong way to perceive cinema.
The real difference between making shorts and a feature film is just the business side of things. When you make a short for instance, you are making the best short you can and getting into the best festivals. It’s just kind of a calling card I guess, whereas with a feature film there is the whole business side about the financing and the marketing, and putting the whole thing together. It’s such a bigger experience and it involves not necessarily more people, but it involves more time. But I don’t think that comes close to answering your question, which is quite philosophical.
I do think a lot about why I want to be a filmmaker, and what is it that draws me to this over and over? I am not quite sure what the answer is other than there’s a real feeling, or I have a real sense of this is what I want to be, and this is where I feel I can be at my best as an artist. This is the most comfortable and most, not relaxed, but creative with what the material can be, and with a feature film you are engaging in 90 minutes, and that demand is very different to a short film. There’s a lot of minutes to fill up, and you are asking an audience to come with you on a real journey.
I recall talking to a novelist who offered the advice to take a series of short stories that connect and use them to construct the novel. Could the same logic be applied to a feature film, by threading together the ideas of shorts to form a feature length film?
It’s interesting what you say about writing novels because the thing for me is that I write as well, and writing is so much part of dare I say it, my practice. Where the filmmaking starts is sitting down and piecing together, and what led me to Winterlong is like a jigsaw. It was a patchwork of influences, situations and stories, and as a writer what I’m doing is weaving all of those elements together as fiction.
So for instance, from out of my life as a father with a young family living in Hastings, and having a friendship with Francis Magee, and having moved to this new landscape about a decade ago, all of those things have an influence on you creatively. You just get an itch about a story and then it’s the hard work of actually fitting it together to work as a long form piece, whether it’s going to be a novel or a feature length script. The writing process is where it starts, where you start scratching at the itches, and then you piece it together in a way that you hope is going to work across a novel, which is a lot of words, or as a feature film.
While Winterlong is dramatic, it feels that your intent is to authentically observe the relationship between a father and son. Therein, you do not yield to its inherent drama, rather you make the drama the product of a more authentic view of this relationship.
Absolutely, and real life doesn’t make an interesting film, but it’s a very good place to start from in terms of observations and piecing all of that together. I was hoping for something that was authentic and real, that was not true to life, but true to the spirit of something like life. The kind of cinema that I love is less straight drama and less of the big events, and more closely observed character studies, and I was aiming to get to that. The characters were so strong in my mind and I wrote the film for certain actors I knew were going to be in it. I haven’t put this very well and I know what you’re asking, and it’s such an important thing about how I work.
I guess it was the observation and wanting to try to capture something of that and put it onscreen, and then shape it into a narrative that has a sense of anticipation as to how the story is going to unfold for the audience. That uncertainty about how the relationships were going to work out between the characters onscreen was my starting point. Whether I lost some of that in terms of going from script to screen I think is debatable, but it was certainly my intention to keep hold of that observational mode of looking at the world, and bringing that into the film.
The story is one built around the movement of characters coming and going – Julian’s mother for example and Francis’s love interest Carol (Carole Weyers). Francis and Julian’s relationship however offers an interesting reflection on destructive impulses that threaten the formation of domestic and interpersonal bonds.
One of my notes in my notebook was: “Cinema is movement,” and I really feel that. Even if it’s a very static story, it’s still about movement. It’s interesting because in one way the film is about a father and son relationship, and that’s how you could frame it. But actually, the father and son relationship isn’t the sole focus, it’s more about their situation – that Francis is a solitary figure who has made a decision to opt out of things. He’s not poor, it’s not poverty porn or anything like that, it’s a decision that Francis has made to be outside of things, to live alone, and the arrival of his son brings him back into the world. It informs that bond and it becomes about their relationships, not just with each other, but with others. It’s that mixing in of the comings and goings of the different characters, and especially the two parallel relationships between Francis and Carol, and Julian and Taylor (Nina Iceton), which unfolds through the whole thing. But it’s very much centred around that movement that you identify, and I’m not sure whether another filmmaker would have done the father son relationship with a more dramatic focus. But my decision to open the film up to how people are in the world with one another, and especially how men and women act or how they are together, those were the important things that I wanted to explore.
Recalling the idea that there are only so many archetypal stories, is one of the reasons because films like dreams serve to help us to understand our world? Hence, are the same stories told again and again in order to help each generation deal with those cyclic themes that confront each generation – the asking of certain questions and the pursuit of those answers?
There’s the idea of a limited number of stories, but it’s how the stories get told over and over again in so many different ways. There are so many variations which is the wonder of it really, and story is so, this goes back to the first question of why filmmaking, why storytelling? I think storytelling is such a part of what it is to be human, and that sounds really bland and maybe not much at all, but actually it’s everything. Telling stories of how we make our way through the world, the questions we ask and how we answer those questions, are the most important thing.
There’s a line Francis says towards the very end of the film when he and Julian are facing the possibility of being separated by the authorities. The likelihood is they are going to put him into a home, and Julian says: “So I get to repeat your past?” Francis answers: “Well it doesn’t have to be that way.” For me the key dramatic question I am asking in this film is how does it have to be? What do we have to do to change ourselves and change our situations? What do we have to do to have the things that we want and are important to us, and how do we explore that? Storytelling is such a brilliant way of vicariously testing out some of those ideas. You don’t have to break up your family [laughs]; you can do it through filmmaking by making up a story and finding brilliant actors to explore those things with you. So it’s very much a process, and I’m very attached to those ideas of storytelling as fundamental to our human experience, and how we test ourselves.
There was a great thing I saw in a book by novelist [Milan] Kundera, who’s not read so much these days. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, there’s a moment when the central character is faced with a decision and ponders the idea that if he had another life, he would be able to see how that decision would work out if he took this road or that road. And the problem is we only have the one life, so there’s no possibility of standing outside of yourself to ever see what the decision could be, and whether it’s the right one. This is the risk of being alive and that’s what I was hoping the characters in the film would embark on, to explore that risk of what it is to form relationships with each other that maybe don’t work out, or that do. So I was hoping to test all of that out.
When you consider all the choices made and paths travelled by these archetypal characters throughout the history of storytelling, it is essentially a liberation from that risk. Yet while it is a privledge that we as storytellers permit our characters, we ourselves are deprived of such a liberation.
As you were speaking, I was thinking back to where the film started. It began in a writers workshop with a story editor named Kate Leys, and her big thing that was liberating for me as a writer was about telling the story. She was just obsessed about what the stories were that we were trying to tell as writers. What in essence was the story, what was the central conflict…? No, conflict is a rubbish word actually because you go to story writing classes and people always talk about drama as conflict, and while that may be true, there’s something else going on which is not necessarily about conflict. It’s just about the act of telling the story in a way that is interesting, and creating an anticipation of what may happen next, and what the characters may do. So I spent six months in this workshop with Kate, and for three months before we even wrote a word of the script, we just concentrated exclusively on the story – what it was and how it unfolded?
Winterlong is my third feature length script that has actually gotten onto the screen, and the previous couple of scripts haven’t really nailed it because of the process. As a writer you sit down and you have a spark of an idea, and you think: Oh, this is a great narrative feature film, let’s get started. But actually the first act may be great and then you’re not sure what happens in the middle and at the end. It’s like you’re not really sure that it pays off, and to avoid that what Kate got us to do was just concentrate exclusively on telling the story from the beginning, through the middle and to the end in five pages of notes; not a treatment in any way, but ideas of what may happen, who the characters were, what their situation was, what their dilemmas were, and concentrate exclusively on just telling the story. And it pays off because when I met the editor Gabriela Enis, what we talked so much about when we had the rushes was about just telling the story – to let that be the focus of what we do and how we decide what we keep in and keep out, and to shape the film that became Winterlong. I think that connects very much with what you were saying at the beginning of this conversation about the primary importance of storytelling to us as human beings. It is such an intrinsic part of our DNA and make up, and I can’t imagine a world without stories and storytelling. I don’t think it can exist, and if it didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it.