By Paul Risker.
Adult Life Skills (2016) is filmmaker Rachel Tunnard’s feature debut, a creative expansion of her earlier award winning short film Emotional Fusebox (2014). With an editing background in both shorts and features, Tunnard’s foray into writing and directing has been the recipient of immediate success. While Emotional Fusebox was nominated for Best British Film in 2014 at the British Independent Film Award’s (BIFA), followed by a BAFTA for Best Short Film in 2015, it won awards at the British Shorts Film Festival in Berlin and This Is England Film Festival in Rouen. Meanwhile upon its premiere at TriBeCa, Adult Life Skills was the recipient of the Nora Ephron Prize.
Both films tell the story of Anna (Jodie Whittaker) who lives in a shed in her mother’s garden where she makes videos with her thumbs. When she is told by her mother that she must find a place of her own, Anna’s existential crisis deepens as Adult Life Skills offers a traditionally quirky tale constructed out of humour and pathos. The project stems from absolute commitment and belief from the filmmakers and the cast – filmmaking of conviction. Tunnard layers comedy atop her characters’ pathos to nurture a comedy-drama of deep emotional resonance. Beneath the humour are the thematic undercurrents of grief and the difficulty of escaping the grip of family tragedy, which brings with it an eccentric yet touching reflection on the impossibility of moving on with life.
In conversation with Film International, Tunnard reflected on her evolution from performer to filmmaker and the important role editing has served in preparing her for this final step of her journey. She also discussed the opposing nature of the short and feature forms, the duality of film as an intellectual and an emotional art form, and the balance between low brow and high brow; comedy and pathos.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
I think the short answer is probably no [laughs]. When I was growing up my best friends dad used to call me arty-farty Rachel. I have always erred towards the dramatic, but that’s probably because I am a bit of a show off. When I was a kid I did drama and then I went to the National Youth Theatre, and then to the University of Bristol where I studied theatre and film. So I had gone there with an idea that I was going to be doing performance and theatre, but I just engaged much more in the academic side of the film course. I loved learning about film and I also grew out of the notion of wanting to be the one who is performing. I think during that time I became a bit self-conscious and then one way of putting it is the rest of it was just sort of an accident and desperation.
I finished university and was working at Yellow Pages on the reception when I spoke to a friend that had gone back home to Edinburgh. He had gotten a job as a runner on a feature film up there and he said: “They need some more runners… You should send your CV in.” So I basically sent my CV in with a massive lie on it, but I didn’t think they’d pick up on it because I was applying for a runners job. I said I’d used Avid (editing software) and the producer rang me up and said: “Yeah, we’d like to hire you. Can you get on an aeroplane?” So I flew up to Edinburgh and when I got there he said: “ I don’t want you to do the runners job, I want to give you the assistant editors job.” I just panicked because I had never been anywhere near any editing equipment. Luckily enough I was working the night shift and I made friends with the editor who was working the day shift very quickly, so that when he learned that I didn’t what I was doing he would help me. I also made friends with someone from the post production facility in London. I just used to ring him at night and he would tell me what to do. I was literally reading text books and trying to understand how to edit, and fortunately it paid off. I made a lot of cups of tea and when people ask me if I’ve advice for young filmmakers, I say: “Make cups of tea.” They never fire the person who’s always going: “Hey, can I get you a drink?” If you are enthusiastic and personable it keeps you in a job when you are very young, and then that’s it really. I got paid a tiny amount of money, but I managed by living in a shed in London for a while. And then as I worked my way up as an assistant editor, then as an editor, and then moving across.
Filmmakers have told me that editing is the best training ground for a director. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on how your editing experiences helped your approach to writing and directing Adult Life Skills?
Oh massively. When you are an editor it is like writing, except that you are writing in pictures a bit. Often, and especially on low budget pictures you write a script and you film it, but things go wrong. It’s not a dream scenario and you don’t necessarily end up with exactly what you want. And then when it comes to the cutting room the job of the editor is to encourage the director to forget the script and to forget the shoot, and to look at what they’ve got and to reimagine the story. So it’s a really creative space and in that sense what I mean is that it was very easy to transition into writing. But when I was shooting, it was also really helpful to have had an editing background because it just gave me a complete confidence. I was working with a child and I didn’t panic about the idea that he wasn’t able to deliver all of his lines verbatim, with the right intonation and with the right energy all of the time. I knew that as long as I got all of his lines covered in a variety of different takes and performances – even if I sat next to him just off the shot and had him imitate what I was saying – I would be able to cut it together. So in that sense it took away a lot of the fears and I never felt worried about the edit.
Australian filmmaker Ariel Kleiman told me: “Making a short film I felt you could hold it in your hand, whereas a feature film is like a runaway train.” How did your expectations compare to the realities of the experience, and how do you compare and contrast short with feature films?
That’s really interesting… I’m going to steal that [laughs]. Yeah, I think that’s probably true. I actually think short films are really hard to make. I have edited a lot of short films, probably something in the region of seventy over the years, and only a handful of them are actually any good. And I don’t think that’s because the people making them weren’t talented, rather it’s just the nature of that short form is very complicated. I remember a different story. Somebody said to me that being a feature film director was like sitting on a beach with a bag full of chips, and if you are not careful everyone will come and say: “Oh can I have a chip, can I have a chip, can I have a chip? And then you end up with no chips left.” What he meant was there are a lot of people with opinions that feed into the process of making a feature film. While interrogating your work is important, I think it is important to somehow retain your fundamental vision for what it is you are trying to do. The pressures of the shoot on a low budget means that you are constantly having to make compromises. I guess it is about choosing your battles, which things are the red line that you are not going to alter your vision on, and which ones it is okay to compromise on in order to get the thing done. So I still think that if we maybe had two million pounds to make the film it would have been loads better. But I don’t actually think it would have been, because what you learn with escalating budgets is that there are escalating numbers of voices involved in the project, and escalating costs. And sometimes you are not necessarily working with people who care the most, and what you really need is people that care about the project.
Film is not a pure intellectual art form, but an emotional one also. There are those films that you cannot help but enjoy by way of the passion you sense from the filmmakers and the actors. In Adult Life Skills I could sense the passion the commitment and belief of everyone involved. Sometimes the objective of making a film is creating something that can touch the audience with an emotional resonance.
Yeah, I think that was always my goal. When I was studying film at university I probably harboured some notion of the idea of wanting to be a filmmaker. But it was very much in the sense of wanting to go to Cannes and wear a béret and smoke Gauloises on La Croisette. It wasn’t really rooted in any sense of making the work – it was much more a romantic ideal in that sense. I remember realising when I was starting out on this journey with Adult Life Skills that I wasn’t really interested in making a film for the serious film festival crowd as such. I was interested in making a film for my next door neighbour, for my dad, my brother or my mum… For my friends and normal people. I edited a film a few years ago called Skeletons (2010), which won the Michael Powell award (Best British Film) at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. It’s a comedy-drama a bit like ours, and I remember it went to a film festival in America, and at the end of the screening the audience were cheering and going: “Yeah!” And I remember thinking: Yes, that is what you want isn’t it!
When I first started writing this I wrote a very serious version of the script, which I described as a sad girl looking out of the window thinking about sad things. And I remember showing it to my brother. I was really proud and my brother who doesn’t work in the film industry and has nothing to do with it – I was just showing off I guess – read it and said: “Wow, you have done something amazing. You’ve written a feature film… I could never do that… That’s brilliant. I didn’t like it, I didn’t like anything in it and I wouldn’t watch it, and I don’t think anyone else would.” And I just sort of went: “Oh.” What he was saying was you’re not like that, but not that you are not pretty or like some beautiful forlorn woman in that window. He was just saying your life is more chaotic and you are much more humorous than that, and you should try and shape your personality into your work a little bit more. All of those thoughts really focused me in on the idea that I just wanted to connect with audiences in a very pure way. And every decision has been about trying to achieve that connection, whether it was with the crew or with the cast. I think that is why audiences actually like it because you can sort of sense that everyone on the film was having a cool time, and it’s maybe a bit infectious.
You mention the first version being more serious, yet you still have the inclusion of existentialism by way of a reference to Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus (1942). Coincidentally I am just about to start reading this.
Oh my God, it’s really hard.
But within this lighter version I’d suggest there is a serious undercurrent that will pique the attention of the more academic or intellectual viewer.
Yeah because when I was at university I loved my film lectures. We would look at the films and you would really dissect a kind of meta-narrative, the subtext or the ideas involved in it. And I absolutely loved it and I wish I could just continue to do a course like that for the rest of my life, because it really enriched my understanding of film. On the one hand what I’ve written is quite inane and then on the other hand I am really interested in philosophy and interrogating existential thoughts. But I am quite low brow and a lot of the time I don’t understand it. I bought The Myth of Sisyphus and I gave up half way through the first chapter. Then I read a guide to The Myth of Sisyphus [laughs] and I was: Oh right, yeah I get it.
I remember my brother sitting in the pub trying to explain string theory to me, and I totally couldn’t get it until he started explaining it in a really low brow way. I guess that idea of trying to understand complicated philosophical ideas through low brow concepts is the main thing in all of my work that I really love. The fusion of academic ideas with pop culture is what I really like doing.
In any comedy-drama the filmmaker is required to strike an harmonic balance between the two. In Adult Life Skills there is a pathos that represents the films emotional depth, yet is one that you would not want to dominate the film. Simultaneously while you want to tell a humorous story, you also want to avoid the comedy consuming the deeper emotions. Looking back how do you reflect on this particular challenge of striking this important balance?
Oh, the truth is that it was really complicated and it took me a long time to get the tone of the script correct. Even up to a week before the shoot I was still getting some feedback from some execs that I needed to write some more grief into the film. I felt very strongly that I didn’t want to because for me the grief would be in the subtext and behind the performances. We would find it in the moments that were not about dialogue, and the dialogue should be about people defending themselves in some way or putting a shield up – the grief would be when you realise that it’s a shield. But all the way through the edit it was a continual balance of humour and pathos, and finding that line within it. There were huge discussions about that and the edit took a very long time as a result. Also because I was editing it myself at home those things take much longer when you are not working with a collaborator, because people want to make sure that you are making all the right decisions, and you are not just being defensive. But it’s a constant battle to not fall one way or the other.
If you refrain from playing on the pathos and the films subtext too heavily, then it forces the audience to interact with the film by considering it in retrospect.
I think so. When I was writing it felt like a lot of the first half of the script was quite funny and then the second half became serious and emotional. I remember working quite hard in the script development process to make sure the tone didn’t change halfway through the film. To somehow keep that ball of lightness in the air, even when things were going wrong and she was making bad decisions. It was important to keep the ball effectively bouncing away slightly on top of all the sad stuff. I think I am always an happy ending merchant and my mum has her own [laughs] fake film club. If she watches a film which she considers to have the wrong ending i.e. it’s sad, then it goes into her list of wrong endings. So I was only ever going to be making something that had some kind of positivity to its ending. I always knew that I wanted the audience to come out of the cinema feeling a little bit euphoric, but also a bit like they had been on an emotional journey. The kind of thing that afterwards you’d want to go and ring your mates up and just have a chat I guess. But not necessarily about the film, rather to leave you with a sense that relationships and friendships are important, and they can heal you. I suppose that’s the main point.
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?
Yes I think that is probably true. If you had have said that to me before I made the film, I probably would have said: “Oh no, that’s really a bit pretend bum” – is what we say. But I think it is true because what I’ve learned is to actually play looser. I don’t know if that makes sense, but what I mean is that I was really concerned in the beginning, and when I say the beginning I mean five years ago. I was concerned about controlling everything, how people would perceive me and how things would come across. And the process of making the film has made me let go slightly. Through the fact that it has continually had to change and I have continually had to evolve it and react to compromises and situations that I didn’t expect, it has given me confidence. This made me relax and realise that if you have the right attitude there isn’t really a problem that you can’t overcome. The producer and I made a decision at the very beginning of this whole process where we said: “It doesn’t matter what happens, but when we interact with anyone else apart from ourselves we must project an image of positivity. Even if we are really angry and even if we are behind closed doors screaming at each other, we must project an image of positivity and be positive in all of our interactions with everyone else.” What that does is it makes people want to engage with you and to work with you, and to help you. And that’s what you need when you are making a low budget film. You want people to engage and to take ownership of the project themselves, and to really care about it and feel like they are a part of a family. Going forward I would say the most important thing is surrounding yourself with people who are good and have the same attitude, but also infuse the whole project with a sense of positivity. This is more important than having the perfect script or the perfect actor or the perfect… There’s never any perfect scenarios, and so I think what I learned was to be more relaxed and more positive.
Adult Life Skills is in UK cinemas and available On Demand now.
Paul Risker is an independent scholar and film critic who contributes regularly to Film International. He is an Editor for Mise-en-scène: The Journal of Film and Visual Narration, which will launch in Fall 2016.