Premiering at the Edinburgh International Film Festival was the electrifying thriller FEMME. Originally a BIFA-winning short film, co-directors Ng Choon Ping and Sam Freeman adapt their short into a feature courtesy of BFI Film. The story of the film is that Aphrodite Banks (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), a drag queen, is the victim of a homophobic assault at the hands of Preston (George Mackay). After months of hiding from the world, she finds herself stumbling upon Preston in a gay environment and begins plotting their revenge. Ping and Freeman spoke about their Safdie brother references, the implications behind the giant lion tattoos embossed on Preston’s body, and how vital it was to have an intimacy coordinator on set.
Connor Lightbody: What have you found to be the challenges to co-directing and co-writing FEMME? Co-directors aren’t really the norm.
Sam Freeman: Usually they’re brothers, aren’t they, in general, or sisters? Maybe couples, so I guess we are unusual in that way. Are the Daniels just friends? We met an Italian couple directing together, but that’s not the answer to your question! The challenges are when you don’t agree on something and have to negotiate what it is, but the benefits for us outweighed the challenges. It’s two brains, and we can be in two places at once. I think we got over the challenge of there being two of us by really digging into every moment of the film in prep and talking everything through. We had a shared vision, but when one person sees one thing, and the other sees another, that was the biggest challenge. We just made sure that everything was explored verbally, which has the added benefit of having to vocalise your idea. When you’re on your own working on something, you do it in your head and it is a very different experience. You can miss things. Debating it meant you had to have your idea rigorously thought out.
Ng Choon Ping: It’s kind of like the side effect of being a duo became the mainstay of the work. As Sam said, you can’t sit in your own head when you’re working as a team, and you have got to communicate. Because of that, you generate a lot of thoughts and considerations that then became the map we used.
CL: Were there any darlings you had to kill during the production?
SF: Oh, so many. So many little ones.
NCP: Thanks for reminding us haha, I have put those to rest.
SF: You know, there definitely were. There are things you try out that don’t work and that don’t make the cut in the edit because you realise it doesn’t actually fit together the way you imagine it to. There were some scenes that we dropped during production because every day there were challenges that arise from filmmaking. Like a camera not switching on. You just lose time and you need to make a choice then and there in the moment to decide if we have got this scene done well, and if we put our time into that, then we need to cut this scene. We had to think, “Can we work around that, is there a place we can make adjustments?”
NCP: We were killing darlings every day during the shoot. In retrospect, that was very good because it meant that we were already editing in our heads.
SF: There were a few scenes we cut on set that when we came back to Selina [Macarthur], we all talked about it, and we would have cut them anyway. So we felt we made the right choices in the moment.
CL: I’d love to talk about the tattoos, specifically the predator/prey dynamic you play with Aphrodite being gazelle-like and showing Preston as a predator with his Lion tattoo on his chest. Was it a full chest?
NCP: Half-chest, neck, and sleeve to symbolise the two halves. It started with the category of things you put on. The tattoos that Preston puts on are his façade. They’re his drag. They’re his code for fitting into the world he has had to fit in most, if not all, of his life. It’s tough, but in a way, it’s really expressive. It’s his way of expressing creativity, but it’s done in a way that is accepted in the world he lives in.
SF: George played a big role in choosing the tattoo. He worked closely with Marie [Deehan] our make-up artist.
CL: How long did it take him to get into the tattoo?
SF: It was less than an hour to reapply it, but it was still on George to have to come in an hour earlier each day to get them touched up. They mostly stayed on for the whole shoot but they worked together to pick. They tried out all these different patterns and designs. Because the film is about drag, we wanted all the characters to have their own versions of drag, be it drag queens, drag kings, or anyone. We didn’t want to be subtle about it. We always thought that we should veer on the side of pushing it because he is a drag king. It’s a performance, so everything is a little bigger. It’s a full-on performance of this character he’s playing.
NCP: Because his own friends have tattoos as well, but they were small. His friends are a bit more comfortable in their environment.
CL: Yeah, even after Aphrodite’s assault, it doesn’t really affect their lives too much outside of their own interests.
NCP: Yeah, that’s why we wanted to express their comfortability with the more subtle, throwaway nature of their tattoos whereas Preston, in my head, we really gave a lot of thought to what tattoos he’d have to hide himself. When we met George, a month before shooting, he was really thin, but he turned up a month later to prep and had doubled his size. He had bulked up, and suddenly, everything felt right with the character when the tattoos went on. There was George the actor, then Preston’s persona with the bulk and tattoos.
SF: While Nathan [Stewart-Jarrett] had just come off a show where he had needed to bulk up, where he had been playing a really muscly guy. They did a chemistry read and were immediately really good together. They got along so well and so immediately. They were very comfortable with each other, but Nathan was massive and George was slim so they had to go away and basically swap bodies. Which they really committed to, it was sort of amazing how much they hanged in such a small period of time. Sort of inspirational, for five weeks.
CL: I could stand to lose a few, so if Nathan wants to share his fitness regime, that’ll be great.
SF: I’ll contact him and get him to share his diet plans with us all!
CL: You mentioned brother duos earlier. I assume you were referencing the Safdies, specifically because one of the films that this most reminded me of was their film GOOD TIME.
SF: That one was a big reference for us, even back in the beginning when we did the short. It was our original neo-noir crime thriller reference. The initial conceit for the film, way way back, was that we wanted to take that genre and put ourselves in it. We love the genre, but we felt oddly shut out of it as queer people. We don’t feel represented by the genre. That idea was the idea, and the short especially references GOOD TIME. Visually, the Safdie’s were a big reference, as was Nicholas Winding Refn, who we talked about a bit, as well as classic Scorsese. We really love the Safdies’ stuff, especially in the aesthetic.
NCP: …and also in how the tension is paced. People say those two films, GOOD TIME and UNCUT GEMS, just leave them so stressed throughout it and that’s something we wanted to achieve.
CL: I was wondering if you had or considered an intimacy coordinator for the more explicit scenes between them.
SF: Yes absolutely, we had one. Robbie [Taylor Hunt] was crucial, vital.
NCP: …a really huge part of the film.
SF: He was amazing. Whenever it came to any intimate scenes, he was like the third director of the team. He goes away with them and works with them on it together. We talked to Robbie about what we wanted from the scene and left them to it so there was no pressure on them from us. There was no moment when we asked for stuff that they felt awkward about saying no.
NCP: He was a great advocate for the actors so we felt comfortable being really open with him so what goes on screen is appropriate and has been done with the utmost sensitivity.
CL: Anything in the works?
SF: Sort of, but it’s a bit too early to talk about it but we’re definitely in the process of something so yeah, watch this space!