Director Frances Lea was in Cambridge to present a Q&A folliowing a screening of her excellent new feature STRAWBERRY FIELDS. Set in a strawberry farm in Kent, the film follows Gillian (Anna Madeley) – a young women seemingly keen to escape whatever emotional turmoil lay at home. After striking up a bond with drifter Kev (Emun Elliott), her country idyll is sharply punctured by the arrival of her sister Emily (Christine Bottomley) as a triangle of lust, frustration and rage grows between the three. Beforehand, Jim Ross got the opportunity to speak to her about the her career and the film.
Jim Ross: I suppose I should really start off with asking about how you got into film making and where you are today.
Frances Lea: Well I started many many years ago doing a Fine Arts degree – a sort of Art and Design thing – at Bretton Hall a long time ago. I went on to get the film making bug really and started doing my own stuff. I did an HND in AV and then built a cinema…
JR:…as you do!
FL: As you do! I made a documentary about Treadwell’s Art Mill in Bradford, which is Nick Treadwell, who I think is fantastic. He was building this amazing four-storey art space, and had just got a cinema license for the kitchen scullery. He asked if I wanted to turn it into a cinema, which I said yes to – it sounded fantastic. So my friend Richard and I upholstered 77 seats, kitted out the projection room and all that, which was great fun. I ran that for a while and I was the in-house film maker, filming lots of artists and the theatre shows going on in there. Then I went to film school and after that, I’d made quite a lot of stuff and actually got a commission from the BBC. I was quite busy making stuff and doing some things for around 12 years and then I stopped to spend some time with my two boys – at which time I turned to writing more, amongst other things. So STRAWBERRY FIELDS came out of that period of writing, really. And here I am!
JR: You’ve directed one feature before STRAWBERRY FIELDS, yes?…
FL: Yes, well I’ve directed a quite a lot of things before it, but [EVERYONE’S HAPPY] was a low budget thing that didn’t really get proper distribution. STRAWBERRY FIELDS has this deal with Soda Pictures though, so in some ways I consider this my first real feature film.
JR: But this the first you’ve also written. What was it about this story that made you want to put pen to paper?
FL: This was the culmination of quite a lot of preoccupations, I suppose. Parallel to all that career stuff I was working a lot in prisons. I made a documentary in a psychiatric hospital and I went to a lot of out-patients places. So parallel to it was an interest in people and their behaviour, how they get locked away for it and society’s relationship with that. So it came out of my interests, and a lot of the stuff I’ve done has been about women – particularly their sexuality. It all kind of links together for me – mental health, dysfunction and complex relationships with sexuality. All of that kind of came together when I put pen to paper.
JR: You mentioned some of themes floating around STRAWBERRY FIELDS there – which is very much a story driven by women. I still find this a relatively rare thing in cinema. How do you think you get more female voices in cinema to tell these sorts of stories?
FL: I think the industry needs to really support female voices, and voices that are exploring more adventurous and less conventional genres. I think it is to do with what people in the industry have assumed the audience want, which is action and very proven successful stories. There is an assumption that people aren’t interested in stories from a female perspective and that don’t fit a neat genre or maybe don’t have a neat ending. Perhaps that aren’t particularly satisfying in the sense of being a straightforward genre. I think the industry needs to invest in the grassroots of women writing. Even women can write genre pieces that are quite male – it has to be about developing writers who are exploring new avenues and voices that are different.
Even women can write genre pieces that are quite male – it has to be about developing writers who are exploring new avenues and voices that are different.
JR: That perhaps aren’t entrenched in an established way of thinking?
FL: Yes, exactly
JR: To get to the film specifically, is the location [of a strawberry picking farm] a way of giving a timeless setting so you can focus on the characters, rather than any preconceptions you might have from their urban background?
FL: Yes, that’s really the reason why I did it. I took the characters and put them in that setting so you can’t place them by where they are and literally to mix up different types of people who wouldn’t meet unless they were strawberry picking. When I went strawberry picking I was struck by the range of transitory souls who were passing though. It wasn’t actually an entirely safe environment, quite an odd space – an unusual setting and you can’t really place their history, where they’re from, what their comfort zones are. They can’t hide inside those. So the audience weren’t given any easy answers about that, and I think I’ve challenged the audience quite hard in terms of how they interpret them and what’s wrong with them or what’s going on.
JR: The background of Emily in particular is left quite ambiguous. You can sense she, and Gillian, have had a troubled existence but the exact nature of that is a bit clouded.
FL: Yes, and I suppose you can go into whether she is mentally ill – is she bipolar, schizophrenic or none of those things? I don’t give any answers here and that can often be the case when you actually meet someone like that – there are no easy answers. So I wanted to throw that out to the audience and maybe have them as frustrated and unsatisfied as the characters in the film. Obviously Gillian can’t find it easy to deal with her sister or figure why her life isn’t where she wants it to be. That is quite difficult for the audience, and figuring out why she behaves the way she does at the start of the film also.
JR: On the characters, the interplay is important. How did you cast the roles in the ensemble?
FL: Julie Harkin worked very hard and brought a lot of people in for auditions. I mixed them up and basically did a lot of auditions, trying lots of different Gillians with lots of different Emilys and Kevs. It took a long time, but it was great as I got to meet so many actors. I was very sure when I got the mix right, and we explored a lot in the audition stage.
JR: Given you are writing and directing, does that give you a greater confidence in the material, as you have the whole vision in your head?
FL: Yeah, it definitely did when I was wearing the ‘director’ hat. The details of what I was trying to achieve were in my head and were really helpful. Also, all those conversations about character had effectively already happened – in micro budget film making that was a really valuable shorthand and much quicker than if I hadn’t written it.
JR: This came out of the Film London Microwave project, how difficult is it to get funding to make a film right now?
FL: I think it’s very difficult to get money to make a feature film right now. The BFI, and what’s happened there, is in a transitional phase and everything is being reviewed. Medium level budgets have basically disappeared and it’s really only low and very high budgets out there. It used to be that £1m was considered low budget. It seems to be very difficult.
JR: In that case, what did you make of David Cameron’s statement about directing funds to commercially driven projects? Going back to earlier, do you think it would be more valuable to try and be a bit more inventive about where funding goes?
FL: Yes, I think the whole industry needs to work together. They need to be spending money on innovative and diverse ideas. However, I totally agree that all those films should be commercial – I think my film has an audience. Fifty percent of the population is women and they don’t get that many films for them, but the whole industry needs to be set up in such a way to realise that men might enjoy a film about two women. It’s a tough one, isn’t it? Sitting here in a cinema, trying to get an audience into a film. It’s easier to go see Spiderman, to go see the stars, but the only way my film would compare is that it is an entertaining story that works – but it doesn’t have a star.
They need to be spending money on innovative and diverse ideas. However, I totally agree that all those films should be commercial – I think my film has an audience.
JR: So, it’s not so much giving money to ‘non-commercial’ projects, but getting folk to re-evaluate what sort of films can make money?
FL: Yeah. I think we need to get people used to the idea that they can be just as entertained by the story. It’s all down to money. Big studio films have enormous PR budgets – we can’t compete.
JR: Is the whole soundtrack of STRAWBERRY FIELDS done by Troubadour Rose, and how did you come across them?
FL: The composed music is by Bryony Afferson, the singer, and the first and last songs are, yes. Some other songs for the film are by Darren Anderson, Morcheeba and Dot Allison. We got a very good soundtrack, but all the composed stuff is them. I came across them though the sound recordist of the film, who I spoke to a lot about what I was looking for from the composition of the music. I was looking for Dot Allison to do that, but our schedules didn’t really work out. So, I was looking about and he recommended Bryony and Troubadour Rose.
JR: You’ve said Tennessee Williams and A Streetcar Named Desire was an influence on the story and characters, was this a conscious thing or did it seem to fall that way naturally?
FL: It just seemed to fit together that way. I knew the themes, the location and that I wanted to do something on a strawberry farm. Judith [Johnson] – who worked on the early drafts, and then I took over – in the early drafts knew the location and that we wanted a dysfunctional relationship at the heart of it – this three-way triangle – and she knew the themes I was interested in. We then read A Streetcar Named Desire and it brought together what we would have done anyway. I did get quite excited about Blanche Du Bois, though, and her ridiculous clothes, the confined spaces, the claustrophobia of it and how you would do claustrophobia in an open field! The caravans came in, and that was all rather perfect – creating a suffocating environment there and getting her to open out in the fields. There’s also perhaps more of a nod visually with the clothing of Emily and the sisters’ relationship. At the development stage we were selling it as ‘A Streetcar Named Desire from Stella’s point of view. That was kind of what we were interested in, and not giving Blanche so much space. It was very much present, but not as direct reference.
JR: Did the distribution deal with Soda Pictures, as part of New British Cinema Quarterly, come before or after the screening at the London Film Festival?
FL: It came just a few days before, so we had to desperately seal the deal for London so they could promote and push it there. A few distributors were arguing it out, but we got it sorted just before.
JR: It’s popped up at a few festivals, do you enjoy taking it on the film festival circuit?
FL: Yes, I do. I’m not a huge fan of Q&As but I think I’m fine once I get my head round it. I just prefer to be behind the camera rather than in front of it. It’s great to go travelling around and get a sense of the response from the audience.
JR: Given the film has been quite well received, do you see yourself doing more writing?
FL: My fantasy, and we’ll see what happens, is to write and direct a number of projects that I’ve got going on, on some level. I’ve written a script that is ready to direct – it needs tweaking. I have about four or five projects, and at least two I don’t want to write. I think my strength is directing and I’m fairly new to writing. I spent a long time on this, and I don’t think I’m a very fast writer. So I think I want to be busy directing and perhaps co-write. I don’t see myself writing and not directing, if you see what I mean.