Q&A - Helen Walsh
David Mault talks to Director of The Violaters Helen Walsh.
Q: Would you consider yourself to be novelist or filmmaker?
A: Both. Neither. I’m a storyteller.
Q: How important is the environment to the film?
A: The story was very much borne out of the landscape. I chose an area (it was set in Partington, filmed in Birkenhead) that felt emotionally and geographically disengaged from the mainland. There is an inherent sense of alienation in the landscape that we see reflected in, and embodied by, the characters. I shot within a five mile radius so the landscape had a certain look and truth to it; there is a consistency of tone and texture which grounds the viewer in the physical world of the film.
Where possible, I rehearsed the actors outside on the estate and after a day or so, the actors seemed to take on the hardened cynical face of their environment. They looked like they’d lived, breathed, spat out that wasteland their whole lives. I cast unknowns where possible, so as viewers, the first time we see our fourteen-year-old protagonist in the penny arcade, we are seeing Shelly Hudson and not an actress playing her.
Q; Can you talk a little about the film's influences? Interestingly, you make a switch in the final third to concentrate on plot when previously the film seems more interested in tone and mood. Was this a conscious decision?
A: I think I am influenced by landscape and worlds and the stories that evolve from them rather than Cinema itself, and growing up, just as it is now, Shelly’s story was a familiar one: young girls, excluded from mainstream society, excluded from school, who become sitting ducks for predatory males like Mikey Finnegan. But in terms of my filmic influences, I owe a huge debt to the programmer for Liverpool Picturehouse in its infancy. It was here, during my time at Uni, that was I first exposed to the films of the Dardenne Brothers, Lukas Moodyson, Jacques Audiard, Gus Van Sant, Fatih Akin.
As a kid I liked the fims that my father picked- Platoon, Rambo, Rocky - all male dominated Hollywood films. When my mum worked nights my dad would let my brother and I watch Horror films. I was the youngest in my class to see Poltergeist, The Hills Have Eyes, American Werewolf in London and The Birds. But it wasn’t until I was living in Liverpool in 2002, and discovered the Dardenne brothers at my local Picturehouse, that I became truly engaged with film.
I’d never seen anything like Le Fils. I didn’t know that filmmaking could be that way. I didn’t know it was possible: the way the camera hangs on Olivier Gourmet’s neck, it obsesses on his neck– it’s not a particular pretty neck either, not the masculine taut muscular necks of Hollywood cinema. All the performances of their films are supremely intelligent on every level. Look at Coitillard in Two days One night, for example. I love the way she eschews the traditional dramatic inclinations of mental illness for the relentless torpor of depression. She uses such subtle, quite gestures but they are so immensely profound. The locations, the sound design and the costume of their films are all very naturalistic and they have a collaborative effect of producing something truthful. It perhaps this commitment to Truth and integrity that has stayed with me both as a novelist and a film writer.
Q; What was it like making the move from writing a novel, where you have complete control to filmmaking; which is about collaboration, especially the production stage?
A: I was very lucky in that I had two incredibly supportive producers who facilitated my vision where possible, but you are right – as a novelist you have complete creative autonomy; in filmmaking – at script level, during shooting, and in Post – you are constantly fighting for that same degree of creative control. Film also requires financial investment from a third party so while you, as the writer and director are concerned only with: ‘Is this truthful? Is this good?’ The powers-that-be are concerned with: ‘Will this sell?’ The switch in the final third which you mention is very much a product of this process.
Given free rein, the final third of the film would have been more in keeping with the first two thirds. A first-time director casting unknowns that included two very inexperienced female leads was no doubt deemed enough of a risk- so I was always going to have to make compromises. And who knows? Maybe the pared down, slower paced version of the film I had in my head, would still be stuck in the edit suite, unnoticed and unloved, had I been given the freedom I wanted.
Q: What is next for you?
A: I’m making a second feature. It’s a story that I feel very passionate about and that has personal resonance for me. I’ll say no more!
Q: What was the last film you saw? And how did it rate?
A: The last film I saw for pleasure was Sean S Baker’s Tangerine. Five stars for me. One of the freshest and most audacious pieces of filmmaking I’ve seen in a long time.