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Kip Follows: Director Carol Morley On The Falling
Lisa Jenkins , April 25th, 2015 07:11

Lisa Jenkins meets up with director Carol Morley to discuss her new film The Falling

Carol Morley is the director of 12 films. Her first full length feature The Alcohol Years (2006) was a personal account of her time spent living in Manchester. Then came Dreams Of A Life (2011), the semi-biography of Joyce Carol Vincent, whose remains were found in a flat in Wood Green three years after her death. Morley has always been fascinated by extreme human behaviour and her new film The Falling is no exception.

Set in a girls school in the 1969, amongst a period of mass fainting - or ‘hysteria’ as it was more commonly known - the film tackles the more mystical side to this behaviour. Complete with a beautiful and unconventional music score from Everything But The Girl's Tracey Thorn, the film is an enchanting and unexpected look into the female psyche.

I spoke to Morley about what inspired the film, what it's like to be a female director in the industry and her time working with her talented cast.

How did the film come about?

Carol Morley: I was talking to a friend who was telling me about this film about people that couldn't stop laughing in Medieval times. I Googled it and I never found it, but I did find a village in Tanzania in the 1960s that had a school - a girl's school - that had got a laughing contagion and that it had spread to other schools. After that, I became interested in this phenomenon called psychogenic illness or mass hysteria. I met a psychiatrist and he talked to me more about that kind of area from a psychiatric and psychological point of view. He had loads of articles about it so I spent a few days going through them and I built up all this knowledge about mass hysteria. I wanted to look at how mysterious these episodes are. I think that's what I really liked about them. Although there are patterns to them, no one really knows why they happen.

In all your research, did you find out why it seemed to be more prevalent in girls rather than boys?

I think the assumption is that girls communicate with each other more, so they're more verbal with each other. So not only are they passing it on through sight, where they've seen someone who's become ill, but they're also passing it on through talking about it. In the stuff I've read, boys don't tend to communicate about stuff like that.

Why did you set the film in 1969?

For many reasons, one being that I think that mass hysteria and mass psychogenic illness often represent the anxieties of their time, so when we go back to Medieval times, they'd be more religious in origin, concerns about the devil or God. In the '50s, the outbreaks did tend to be very atomic. And I did notice that in the '60s, the ones I was reading about, did tend to be about sexual anxiety, so it might be some fear about being promiscuous. Even if you weren't living in a swinging '60s area you would have been hearing about changes and stuff. And I think there was a lot of threat about changing women's sexuality from all quarters. I thought it would be really interesting to look at female adolescent sexuality under a kind of pressure of changes.

How did you get the cast together?

When I wrote the script I was really interested in a female landscape. I thought, “let's explore these relationships between women and how strong they are.” I loved the idea that a lot of teachers in the school were women. To me, they felt like the people who were most fascinating – how their lives had developed and what they'd become. Also that they'd have lived through the war so they'd be quite threatened by this environment. The female landscape has a lot of scope and a lot of stuff to investigate and explore emotionally and historically. I really wanted Maxine Peak for the mum. I knew she was right for it. With the young girls it was a case of looking at unknowns. Maisie was busy filming Game Of Thrones so I didn't get to see her for a while, so even though she was on the list, we kept looking at girls for all the roles. Because we found my location really early on we knew we were going to film in that area, so we leafleted a lot of local schools.

What was the area?

It's Carmel College, Wallingford in Oxfordshire. It's been closed a long time. The production designer, Janie Levick, did a brilliant job in bringing it back to scratch and making it look great. We leafleted that area and some of the girls came forward. Florence, who played Abbie, had never done any acting before. I remember she came in and I thought, “She's so good! I can't believe it”. As soon as any of the girls who were in the film came in the room, I pretty much knew right away. I got them all to tell a story. I had objects there like shells I'd found and old photographs and I got them to tell stories about them, because I think if you can tell a story, you can be in a film. Then Maisie came along and obviously she was the most experienced. She just blew me away. We did a lot of workshops, so I'd get them to play instruments together, learn to faint and things like that.

As a woman, when you're crewing up and casting, you're not just ticking boxes and thinking “I must hire two women on this set to meet regulations”, you're genuinely looking at the strengths of everyone who passes by. It also felt really powerful and amazing to have such a crew, because you often get a fairly male crew and that would have altered the tone of the set for the younger women.

Whenever something like this comes along it's worth talking about...

The female director thing is weird. I think it was Chantal Akerman who was saying something that said “I am not a female director, I am a director”. On the one hand, I think that's an important point, but on the other, your female subjectivity and the way you see things plays a part in that, just like anyone who directs a film is going to bring their experience of class or race or gender or sexuality. When stuff becomes 'chick-lit', it somehow becomes marginalised. It fuels the idea that they're separating you out from the mainstream and you don't want that. You might not be doing things to try to fit into the mainstream, but you certainly want to reach a larger audience without compromising.

Maxine Peake's performance really stood out. It was so internalised and so powerful that you could just tell by the odd twitch of her mouth, the way she smoked her cigarette, the way her eyes flicked from one side to the other, that she was suffering. How did you develop that character with her? How did she bring it to life?

When I wrote the part, in the script, Eileen never looks at her daughter. She's not able to look at people and her makeup and her hair is very elaborate because it's like a mask. So when me and Maxine were talking, she was saying it's really difficult when you can't have eye-contact with someone as a performer because that's how a lot of things happen. But I said, “I really don't want you to look at your daughter, it's important to me that you just can't face up to her". I really felt like we collaborated without having to talk a load about it. I wanted to do something different with her, which sounds weird, as though I'm sculpting Maxine, but I wanted her to do something different too. I think she saw that as a real challenge.

I wanted to ask you about Tracey Thorn's music score. How did she get involved?

I had a dream about Tracey where she was doing the music for the film, so I contacted her, got her phone number and called her up. I'd never met her before, but I asked if she would be interested in doing the music for the film. She said she'd never done anything like it before but that she was interested, so I came back to London and I met her. I gave her all the instruments the girls used and I showed her a few clips and then she was like, “let's just see how it goes!” While me and Chris Wyatt, the editor, were editing it, we were putting her music in very early on which is always good. She never read the script, but she had the mood of the film and the instrumentation in it. Towards the end she saw the film and came up with a few more specific pieces, because then it gets harder to fit stuff in. It felt right. I knew I never wanted a score that was 1960s or orchestral. I felt like it connected to the girls within the school and nature of how the girls would make music.

There are different layers to your films. I watched Dreams Of A Life for the third time recently. The Falling is also a film I'll go back to. Are those added layers intentional?

I do a lot of research for a film because I think it's important to know the world. Maybe it's because I come from documentaries. With Dreams Of A Life I felt it was important to give clues that went in different directions, and to include contradiction. In The Falling there are a lot of suggestions and clues and ways you can look at it differently. There are very fast images that we cut in - subliminal ones. It's important to create layers in the production design, not to feel like someone has just set-dressed that day. It needs to feel really deep. You're dressing parts of the set that you might never see, because you're trying to give the experience to the actor as well. It's not just about what's on camera, it's about creating this experience that's rich.

There have been comparisons with Picnic At Hanging Rock. How does that sit with you? They both deal with female experience but they're very different films.

I'm really fond of that film and it was something I mentioned when I had to go raise finance for the The Falling, because it was a good reference point to something that wasn't realism. I call it magical realism - it has a sense of the occult or the mystical around it. I did use Picnic At Hanging Rock as a reference, so when people started to compare them, I was really happy because I thought, “they've got it!” It's not like I've made the same film, but there's a historical link. Picnic... is a powerful film. I've seen it quite a lot now, but there were things I didn't remember from the first time around, like that one of the girls returns. She's missing but she comes back and all the girls are looking at her. It's really threatening.

It's as if they're all jealous because she's had this unique experience and they didn't.

It's definitely about female repression, but also about females expressing their longings and desires and finding them. It's an emotionally heightened film. Also you really never know why what happens... actually happens.

The Falling is in selected cinemas now