By Cleaver Patterson.
The sensitive subject of child abduction is brought to life in the new thriller Never Let Go. On the eve of its first European screening at this year’s FILM4 FrightFest, the film’s star Angela Dixon spoke to Cleaver Patterson about the challenges she, and its director/writer Howard J. Ford, faced when bringing its real-life horrors to the big screen.
Cleaver Patterson: Tell us a bit about your background and how you got into acting?
Angela Dixon: I always wanted to act. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t but I don’t think I ever really thought when I was growing up that it could be a real option for me. When it came to my ‘A’ levels I studied drama and at that point acting shifted from being a dream to a possibility. It was studying Stanislavski that gave me the key. His technique helped me to break down and understand the craft of acting. It enabled me to access my own creativity. I also discovered to my surprise that I was quite good at it. After ‘A’ levels I did a degree in Drama and English at university and a post-graduate diploma in acting at drama school. So all in all I studied acting for 6 years before embarking on my career, which of course is where the real learning starts.
How did you get involved with Never Let Go and why did it appeal to you?
I met Howard at the Cannes film festival in 2011. We only spoke for a short while but we recognised that we shared a deep sense of heart and spirit at the core of our work. Over the years we kept in touch. What I realised in hindsight was that I was being auditioned the whole time. When you work with people in an intense high risk environment you need to know that they not only have the skill to do the job but also the temperament. Over time, Howard came to know that I would show up, he knew that I was physically, emotionally and mentally strong and he knew I could act. Around 3 years after our meeting he started to write a story and had me in his head as he wrote it.
As for why it appealed to me, Lisa Brennan provides a fantastic opportunity to play a complex, strong woman in a role that historically would have been written for a man. Those roles are few and far between. I knew it was an opportunity of a life-time for me.
NLG is showing at this year’s FILM4 FrightFest, which is primarily a horror film festival. Yet the film isn’t a typical ‘horror’ film. How would you define it and would you accept that it has horror elements?
I find it difficult to define films in terms of genre. I know that the majority of parents would say that the most horrific thing they could imagine is losing their child. If what the horror genre does is tap into our innermost, darkest fears, then what Lisa goes through is pure horror.
Tell us about the story behind NLG and your role in it.
I play Lisa Brennan, the central character. She starts the film as a tired, postnatally depressed single mother who goes on a holiday to try and connect with her baby. Whilst there, her baby is abducted and the film follows her as she desperately searches for her missing child. As the film unfolds, we discover that she has deep-rooted psychological problems stemming from her accidental part in her father’s death as a young girl. We also discover that she has a background and training that enables her to fight back in a way that you wouldn’t initially expect. As for the rest, you will have to watch the film!
You’ve previously appeared in a lot of short films, but NLG is one of your first appearances in a full length feature? What was this like and were there a lot of differences you had to get used to?
I love short films and yes I have done a lot of them, well over 20. NLG is my 5th indie feature film and the 3rd lead role. However, this was the first time that my character drives the plot alone. I think one of the main differences is that you have to really pace yourself. I created an emotional and psychological story board of the film scene by scene to make sure I found the right motivations, thought processes and emotions. It’s almost like writing a musical score. It was really important to me that I let the audience see Lisa’s own personal journey within the film. When you play the lead you have to decide specifically how, when and where to do that.
The film’s director Howard J. Ford has done a lot of horror work previously, and there are some quite unsettling and violent aspects to this film. What is he like to work for and were you conscious of him trying to introduce any horrific elements into the production both in his writing and direction?
Howard was incredible to work with. I can’t speak highly enough of him. I don’t think there was any conscious move to introduce horrific elements for their own sake. What Howard wanted was to replicate that ultimate blood thumping horror of losing your child — something that he had experienced personally. He wanted the audience to feel that real life, visceral, gut-wrenching panic and take them with Lisa as she searches for her child. I hope we managed to do that.
Do you feel it’s unusual to have a man write such a strongly female-based story as Howard has with NLG? Do you think it being written by a man possibly brought a different dimension and angle to it?
I don’t know what the statistics are but I imagine it is unusual. Statistically, across the board, women’s voices are under-represented in the film industry so I think it is great that a man has been able to write such a strong female-biased story.
The story around which the film revolves involves a case of child abduction. Incidents like this have been in the news quite a lot in recent years in the UK, with cases like that of the little girl Madeline Mccann who went missing. Do you think it’s right to use such potentially sensitive subjects material for the basis of a film which is, after all, for the purposes of entertainment?
Topics that distress and affect us are always the catalyst for drama. What we see on our screens is a representation of what we are collectively going through. I appreciate that this is a very sensitive and distressing topic. However, there are many layers to the story of NLG. On the surface, it is about the action and reaction of abduction. Underneath that, Lisa’s story is really about forgiveness, discovering unconditional love for her baby and herself. Through that discovery she finds redemption. Sophie’s abduction brings a deeply disturbed and broken woman to a point of healing. Should we avoid telling stories because they are distressing and real? I think that’s all the more reason to tell them as long as that is done with care and respect.
Do you feel that entertainment has a place bringing subjects like this to the public’s attention?
Yes, absolutely. When you teach in any learning environment you need to engage in order for learning to happen. One of the best ways to communicate important messages is to grab attention and entertain.
A lot of the film centres on your character Lisa Brennan, and her reaction to the various situations she finds herself in. In this light, some of the film could be seen as a solo project for you. Were you conscious of this and if so did it put a different kind of pressure on you as an actor carrying so much of the film individually?
I was hyperconscious of my role in carrying the film. There was an immense amount of pressure on me to deliver both from myself and others. I knew Howard had taken a big risk choosing an unknown actor for the lead. I also knew that this was my chance to show what I could do. I felt the responsibility intensely. A lot of money and people’s hard work was resting on my performance. If I didn’t pull this off I would have failed the film, the whole team and myself. There were moments when I was gripped with tremendous fear to a point of nausea and I doubted myself often. It’s that fear that propels you as an artist to dig deep and work harder.
How much of yourself were you allowed, or encouraged, to bring to the part? How much input did Howard allow you with the role?
Howard more or less gave me a free rein within the parameters of his script. We had many discussions prior to the shoot about the story, who Lisa was and what drove her. I knew the script inside and out and understood what Howard wanted from me. There was a great deal of trust and unspoken understanding. Howard really is great at allowing others to be their best. So when we came to shoot, there were no rehearsals and many of the scenes were filmed in one or two takes. It was really exciting to work with that level of trust.
What did you feel you personally got from playing the role of Lisa?
I really did comb through my own internal life to find the right material for Lisa so in some ways it was a little therapeutic. There were moments that I felt a similar journey. Perhaps not towards redemption but certainly it affirmed my decision to be an actor and my love of acting. There were moments on the shoot when I really felt as though I was doing what I was born to do.
Lisa — by the very situation in which she finds herself — has to be strong both physically and mentally. Did this appeal to you and what challenges did this present you with when interpreting the character for the screen?
Yes, this physical and mental strength did appeal to me. We don’t often see women on our screens that are strong both physically and mentally and if they are we don’t usually like them. Howard and I spoke a lot about the necessity to bring out Lisa’s vulnerability as well as her strength in order to gain the audience’s empathy. That meant in certain scenes I really had to play against the obvious choices. I knew I had to be vulnerable and raw as well as powerful and resilient. It was a very fine balancing act.
If you were to find yourself in a similar situation in real life, how do you think you’d react?
I’d like to think I would do the same, but you never know do you? I am a warrior at heart and thrive in heightened stress environments. I’d certainly give it my best shot!
Having watched the film, the female characters, for the most part, come over more sympathetically than the male ones — most of whom are pretty unpleasant. Would you agree and was this deliberate?
I’m not sure about how deliberate that was — you’d have to ask Howard. There is definitely a core theme of sisterhood and women standing up against male aggression. I would agree about that.
Much of the film was shot in Morocco and Spain. What do you think filming in authentic locations added to the story and what were the challenges you faced personally filming in these places, both environmentally and culturally?
Locations in Howard’s films are like another character. I think they give texture and depth to the story. The never ending labyrinth of streets, the hot arid desert and remote desolate landscape all add to the reality and helplessness of Lisa’s plight. I didn’t have any problems culturally. I have traveled a lot as a lone female in the Middle and Far East so it was relatively familiar to me. Wherever you are it’s important to respect the country and its’ culture. The main irritant was the heat but that also added to the intensity even though it was exhausting.
The areas where you were filming and where the story is set, are clearly strongly Muslim. Did this have an effect on the story or film, and did you personally or the production generally, meet with difficulties from the local communities?
Mostly we were treated well and welcomed. A lot of our extras were local people from the immediate community and extended families of the street where we were staying. We did have a minor problem when the workers in the tannery were upset that I was wearing an abaya and took our ladder away — we were filming on the roof. Another time we lost a fantastic aerial shot because some locals thought we were filming inside their homes. Naturally they were upset and we had to stop filming. Apart from that there weren’t any real cultural problems. Originally the film was going to be shot solely in Malta but this changed when Howard discovered the beauty of Morocco and diverted it there.
What do you think the message of the film is, and what did you get from it? What do you hope that audiences will take away from the experience of seeing NLG?
I don’t believe Howard set out to send any particular messages as such, but I know that the film was inspired by an experience he had whilst on holiday in Malta when he thought his son had been abducted from the resort but was in fact at the bottom of the pool. As a creative person, real life experiences that affect you so deeply always find a way of coming out. He said to me before shooting that if, after watching this film, it causes just one parent to be extra vigilant, avoiding such a situation as the film portrays, or averts one tragic situation, then it’s been worth it.
What has been the reaction of those who have seen it, to the film (particularly the twist at the end) and to your performance?
We have been blessed so far by a very positive reaction from audiences. People cry, their hearts beat faster and there is a real sense of being submerged in the story. I think this is what makes it really special. It is low budget. We didn’t have the money for high octane car chases and complicated stunts but we gave our heart and soul to making it and that’s what people feel when they watch it. As for people’s reaction to my performance, I’ve been a little overwhelmed. It was very important to me that Lisa was a fully rounded real woman. I worked exceptionally hard, under immense pressure and in difficult circumstances to try and achieve that. I feel a huge sense of relief and satisfaction that on the whole people can relate to and empathise with my character. I can’t say anything about the twist, I don’t want to spoil it!
Would you like to work with Howard again in the future?
I would work with him again in a heartbeat.
NLG’s European premiere at FILM4 FrightFest has already sold out. What do you think is the appeal of the horror genre? Does it appeal to you and would you like to do more straight horror in the future?
It was fantastic to find out that NLG was the first film to sell out — in less than the run time of the film — and it was the only film to sell out that day! I was in the middle of a combat class when the tickets went on sale. By the time I had inputted my card details the seats I was booking had gone and I had to start again – I didn’t get that much exercise! It’s great that Film4 FrightFest shows a diverse range across the genre and I think what makes it so popular is that glimpse into the darker side of life. We pass an accident on the motorway, we probably don’t really want to see something horrific and disturbing, but our head always turns to look from the relative safety of our seats.
What projects do you have lined up next?
I have a lead role in indie feature Homeless Ashes with Marc Zammit. I also may well be working with Howard’s brother, Jon Ford, on his next feature which would be amazing so fingers crossed! In general, I’m really excited about the future opportunities that NLG may present. Bring them on!
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us and we look forward to seeing more of your work in the future.
Cleaver Patterson is a film journalist and critic based in London. He is News Editor for Flickfeast website, and regularly contributes to a number of other publications and websites including Rue Morgue and Film International.
Never Let Go received its world premiere on the 18th July, 2015, at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival in South Korea. It will show at FILM4 FrightFest in London on the 28th August, 2015. A review of the film can be found here.
Film4 FrightFest 2015 runs from the 27th until the 31st of August 2015, at the Vue cinema in London’s Leicester Square. Further details and ticket information can be found at www.frightfest.co.uk.