By Paul Risker.
David Farr’s directorial feature debut The Ones Below (2016) reflects ambition stemming from the storyteller’s youth, before his career in theatre that held back work in film. As Farr explains: “I came out of university in the early to mid-nineties and it was just a very difficult environment in those days for film – much harder than it is now. And I love making stuff; I am an active person, and quite impatient I suppose you might say. So I just wanted to make something and theatre was very available.”
The sacrifice would prove to be a productive decision, seeing Farr serve as an Associate Director of The Royal Shakespeare Company, during which time he directed productions of The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale, Twelfth Night, Hamlet and King Lear. And as a playwright Farr’s productions have played at both the National Theatre and The Royal Shakespeare Company, while away from the theatre his writing credits for the BBC have included the spy drama Spooks (2002-11), sci-fi series Outcasts (2011) and most recently The Night Manager (2016). It is fair to say that Farr met his feature directorial debut with a vast experience as a storyteller, having realised as both writer and director the works of playwrights and writers ranging from William Shakespeare to Franz Kafka (Metamorphosis) and John le Carré (The Night Manager) that are offset by original works.
The Ones Below however is not far removed from Farr’s theatrical background, with the film set predominantly in the house that becomes a stage for a drama he describes as: “A weird mixture of British awkward comedy with this very dark primal terror.” But the comparisons end there as Farr exploits the dream like aesthetic that the camera, music and editing provides a filmmaker with. And so The Ones Below offers a snapshot of Farr stretching himself creatively, and exploring the distinct scope and nature of the medium that captured his then adolescent and continued interest.
In conversation with Film International, Farr reflected on the expectations versus the reality of his directorial feature debut and the way in which the experience has impacted Farr the writer. He also discussed the contrasting sub-conscious and conscious nature of film and theatre, the cinema as a directors medium, and his incorporation of the audience into the experience.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or a defining moment?
Well I was a huge teenage film geek – I watched everything when I was a teenager, and I think my dream would have been to be a film director. I came out of university in the early to mid-nineties and it was just a very difficult environment in those days for film – much harder than it is now. And I love making stuff; I am an active person and quite impatient I suppose you might say. So I just wanted to make something and theatre was very available – there were people that wanted me to make shows, whereas film wasn’t as available and it was tough. I had friends who had spent three years trying to develop something and then it wouldn’t happen. So I made a decision that slightly sort of sacrificed film, and I thought I’d sacrificed something I really wanted to do, but it was okay. And then the best way of putting is I got lucky. I started writing Spooks (2002-11) the television series and then off the back of that I was offered to write Hanna (2011), which of course got made. And this was what allowed me back into possibly directing a film because by that point I’d directed fourteen productions in the theatre, and so I had the experience there and I had the experience of screenwriting for film. You put those two things together and that’s how this film came about.
How do you compare and contrast your expectations versus the realities of the experience?
In a way it was an easier experience than I had feared. It sounded very enjoyable and what I found remarkable was the way in which the entire set up of this film, the crew particularly, were there to try and get at, understand and fulfill your vision. If you articulate it they will help you get there, and it is a very creative and wonderful thing. Theatre is slightly different. The director and the designer are there to facilitate because the end point of a theatre show all ends up being a relationship between the actor and the audience. But in films even the actor – and somebody like David Morrissey was very clear about this – is there to offer possibilities and interpretations that will allow the director and then the editor to find the film.
To some extent I did have a clear vision of what I wanted, and I deliberately created a small canvas for this film. I like small canvases and I love the fact that the film is almost entirely in the house, not entirely, but almost. I think that small canvas unquestionably helps because we were in the house everyday shooting for four weeks, and it created a claustrophobic intensity that I and the actors found very helpful. So it was a totally positive experience for me.
How does the knowledge that you will direct the script influence the dynamic of the writing process, and how has this experience influenced your perspective on the way the writing and directing processes inform one another? Has directing The Ones Below influenced you as a writer now and in the future?
I think it has unquestionably changed, but certainly as a writer I had to allow myself as a director, along with the editor, to make different decisions in the editing process than I had originally imagined when I wrote it. And that is a very crucial moment when as a writer you basically have to start on the production, and then as a director look at what you’ve got and say: “Okay, how does this work… What is the best decision?” And that’s very exciting.
For the future there’s no question for me that film is a directors medium. Each cycle of the script works and has a real quality; has to be truthful and have resolutions, and I think because film is such a director’s medium, scriptwriting sometimes is underrated in the industry. I am a passionate supporter of the screenwriting craft, but there is no question that in the end it is the directors that make the moments in cinema. There are a few examples I can think of, perhaps in Chinatown (1974) where a moment of screenwriting is just stunning in its memorable nature. But on the whole, it is Hitchcock for example who makes the movie that makes it great. And so therefore in my screenwriting, the best way of putting it is that it’s about creating an ‘environment of possibility’, where a director can come in – it might be myself or it might be someone else – and exploit that ‘arena of possibility’ to maximum affect. And something like the garden I am very pleased with because the mention of the garden by the writer in the film allows me to exploit that, to explore it visually and create all sorts of atmosphere and threat out of it.
There is a perspective amongst filmmakers that there are three versions of the script – the script that is written, the script that is shot and the script that is edited. As a writer/director, the latter of which involves you in the editing process, is this a perspective you would share?
Yeah, there is truth to that, and that’s what I meant by the writer has to leave room in the edit suite – you can’t hold onto much loved ideas or preconceptions. The edit suite becomes a blank page to some extent, not fully because I think that would be foolish, but I think you have to see what’s there. And what is also extremely remarkable about the way we watch a film rather than the way we read a film – although however experienced someone is, they don’t seem to be able to fully understand this – is that when you watch a film you understand things so much quicker. The brain is so much quicker, so much more attuned to understanding of interpretation and making multiple readings than it is when we read. So I can almost imagine without exception that scripts are overwritten, and that’s my experience. But they may need to be overwritten in order to create the understanding amongst the people who are making it of what they are trying to do. Then what happens in the edit suite is it is sculpted and carved. The Ones Below tries very hard not to over explain characters backgrounds or relationships, but tries to leave room for the audiences imagination to fill in the gaps, and I think it is very important to allow the edit process to whittle that down to the very spare lean form.
I am intrigued by moments of silence or certain moments in which the director lets the film float and just exist. These are moments in which you invite the audience to share a quiet moment with the characters and engage with them and therein the narrative. This point of engagement is something your film tries to incorporate. Can you discuss the challenges of successfully creating intricate moments such as these?
It is something that needs to be understood by everyone involved. A lot of those moments you are probably talking about involve Clémence Poésy’s Kate. She’s an actor who’s very, very good at ‘just being’ as you put it. She’s very good at allowing the camera to explore her, rather than acting out to the camera. She herself is very confident in front of the camera, although she’s a very shy person in a way. She is very brave and allows herself to just be in that emotional situation for the camera and us to explore it. She doesn’t tell us what to think or to feel too much, and I find that very exciting. And then of course you need camerawork, music and editing that allows what I would call that quiet unease that I hope this film has, which is slightly undemonstrative – deliberately undemonstrative; the opposite of expressionistic horror. It has a quietness about it, which I hope is almost malevolent at times in its grip. As I said before, its about economy; about nothing telling you too much or how you should feel. The music is key. It is not this accordion, loud horror music – it is sweet music. It is the music of a baby and it creates a space for unease in which we can just exist, and make our own decisions about what is going on in front of our eyes.
C.G. Jung contextualises dreams as being a means to solve the problems that we cannot solve in our waking state. The Ones Below possesses a dreamlike aesthetic and so I’d ask whether you believe there is an element in which films exist on a dream logic?
I am very glad you said that and I have always felt that film is a sub-conscious medium, whereas theatre is an entirely conscious medium. So my work is very Brechtian and it acknowledges the audience as a presence in the experience. Film is a sub-conscious medium in which we float between the waking state and the sleeping state, and some of my favorite filmmakers: Hitchcock, Lynch and Polanski have all embraced that very strongly. And of course in this film (called The Ones Below), these are creatures to some extent, but they almost come out of that sub-conscious world. Someone at the Berlin Film Festival rather wonderfully decided that they thought it was marvelous that they didn’t really exist at all – they were just manifestations in the sub-conscious of the upstairs couple, which I thought was a rather splendid reading.
Speaking with filmmaker Carol Morley for The Falling (2015) 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, this is why I think for me the cinema as a place to watch films has to be cherished. Certainly with this kind of film, or any film, although I feel very strongly about genre films of this kind – I mean it is not a genre film, but it certainly has elements – the collective experience of watching it with an audience usually adds to the film. The audience brings a collective imagination to what’s going on, which is a strange collective imagination that is a culmination of individual imaginations with very different readings of what is happening in front of their eyes. The visual experience is shared, and although they maybe understanding different things, they are sharing the visual experience. And that’s when a film really works because often we have talked about how the film is essentially a conversation between the filmmaker and the audience, and I rather loved that, and I think even in a genre film there is a truth to that. There is a sharing going on that perhaps in this kind of film the difference would be that the connotation is perhaps not an entirely conscious experience or exchange – this is somewhat of a murkier and self-conscious exchange, and I rather enjoy those moments.
The story of The Ones Below is a familiar one that has been told time and again. As filmmakers you are sharing a collective language and so is the filmmaking process about taking a very familiar language and finding a way as an individual or group of individuals to create a distinct intonation?
The first thing to say is that no one… Well I don’t and I never think: Oh, I’d like to make a film a bit like this filmmaker. I had an idea for a story that I could tell and it seemed like this idea was so obviously a filmic story, and not a theatrical or a prose story. Everything about it suggests a film and then it’s almost as if the story tells you what it wants to be, rather than you thinking about what kind of thing you want to make. The story arrives and says: “I’d like to be this please.” Then you have this sort of strange duty to fulfill this narrative in the way you can, and of course what then happens is you get hit by all the obvious realisations: Ah, so and so made a film a bit like this and also made that film, and do I want it to be more like this? It is a very interesting moment because you allowed the film to open up and you accepted influences. But of course the crucial thing is not to lose that very first instinct of what it needs to be, which you must hold onto. My film had to have a very strange English comedy to it, even though it is dealing with some quite terrifying dark impulses. So I needed to hold onto that. I don’t know of many other films that have that weird mixture of British awkward comedy with this very dark primal terror. So I am aware that as a film it probably has a strong resonance to say Hitchcock and Polanski, and at times we were quite enjoying and having fun with it. But maybe in my next film I might choose to take a little bit more from those. The initial instinct of what the film must be came from the story, and in the end I am not a stylist – I say I am a storyteller, and I just happened to have chosen a visual language that suits the storytelling of this particular piece as it came to happen.
From speaking with filmmakers, is the process of learning to make films structured around the challenge of honing one’s instincts so that you are able to eventually function instinctively?
Yeah, and the only challenge to myself during the filmmaking was to do that, and it was to my surprise how relatively easy that was – how the filmmaking process seemed designed to help the director to do so. Maybe I was lucky, but it seemed to me that the process – and it was a reasonably small film of course – absolutely catered to the ability for me as a director to lean back into my own instincts of what I wanted it to be. There were times I remember sitting back from it and going away from everyone else involved in the operational chaos of actually getting things done to realise this isn’t quite right, and coming back and saying: “No, we need to do that again.” There is one whole scene that when we had finished and we were basically about to strike the set for the night, I just came back and I said: “No, we have done it wrong.” And everyone respects that. Obviously you can’t do that everyday, but there is that moment of sitting back with your instincts and saying: “No, we have not done that right.” This is a very important thing to do and obviously most of the time you would be ahead of that, but there are moments when you realise: Oh no, there is something else that needs to happen here. I think it is very important that film sets are a strange mixture of the very organised and the entirely improvisational, and that balance is something that I hope to refine over the years.
German filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” How do you view the way in which The Ones Below has shaped you both personally and professionally, and how do you think it has informed you moving forward from a directorial or storytelling point of view?
I would say that this film is a personal film anyway because it is about something that is from life – from my own experience. But I don’t mean in the sense of the narrative stuff, but it comes out of emotion; of course it does. So it has to change you, and I think it would be a very strange artist that isn’t changed by a piece of art, because then what’s the point in making it? And so I’m not sure it comes out of the conscious process if that makes sense? The more I think about it and I try to think about it, it has unquestionably changed me, but I wouldn’t be able to articulate to you right now how, except in some very vague sense. I’d say that I have come to appreciate emotionally certain relationships which formerly I would not have cherished as much… That would be the best way of putting it.
Christopher Sharrett in his piece celebrating Robin Wood wrote: “…One needs to remain flexible to accommodate the critic’s constant réévaluation, recognizing that criticism involves an ongoing dialogue with both a work and one’s view of the world. The idea of the critic not having a formed opinion, rather our opinion constantly evolving an understanding of an individual film.” (Sharrett 2010: 12). Considering your answer is there an affinity between yourself and this concept of the critic whereby you personally as a storyteller and filmmaker come to understand your work over a period of time?
Oh, gosh yeah, and I believe that for every human being as well. The only thing there is in life is to live the moments and then likewise keep working – working in a sense of creating work. And that doesn’t make any difference to what you are because watcher or maker, it is a very simple philosophy and a very useful one. I think that we are never formed. We are always forming and that’s how it should be.
Sharrett, C. 2010. “For Robin Wood, 1931-2010.” Cinema Journal. 50(1), pp.121-125.
The Ones Below is released theatrically in the UK on March 11th 2016 by Icon Film Distribution.
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.