Hills and dales
Starting with the people behind a new film about farming turf wars and bitter family secrets, we meet the film makers and actors picking up Hollywood’s pieces in Yorkshire
Starting with the people behind a new film about farming turf wars and bitter family secrets, we meet the film makers and actors picking up Hollywood’s pieces in Yorkshire
A brother and sister, each coping with the death of their father in different ways, become bitter rivals as they fight for ownership of his legacy. It could be a story from classical myth, where big themes clash against family intrigue, but it’s actually the synopsis for Dark River, the new film from Yorkshire writer-director Clio Barnard.
Ruth Wilson (Luther) stars as Alice Bell, a young woman returning to the bleak and rundown family sheep farm in the Yorkshire wilds after 15 years away. The reason for her self-imposed exile is delicately implied, but the fact that she only returns once her brooding father (Sean Bean) has passed away says it all. Still at the farm is Alice’s brother, Joe, who has let the farm fall into disrepair and takes on long distance lorry driving work to make ends meet. Alice’s return offers the chance to turn the farm around – something their corporate landlords are initially keen to see – but Joe’s resentment and wounded male pride quickly sour the relationship, and put them on course for a tragic showdown.
Barnard’s previous work includes The Arbor, a documentary about Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar, and The Selfish Giant, a bruising 2013 drama which recast Oscar Wilde’s fable as an unsentimental coming-of-age tale featuring two scrappy 13 year olds at large in Bradford’s sink estates and scrapyards. Clearly, Yorkshire is something of an earthy muse for Barnard, and the world depicted in Dark River is one that is very familiar to the Otley-born film maker.
“It’s a place that I know and love and feel,” she says of the rugged Yorkshire farmland that supplies the film’s unforgiving and imposing backdrop. “I grew up there. I feel rooted there, maybe that’s a better way of putting it. I think, as a child, you experience it very differently, the place where you grow up, like you’ve got an understanding of it that’s quite visceral and subjective. Particularly about the countryside, I think of it as something that’s up close and real rather than distant and pretty. It’s a working landscape, it’s not something that you sit back and look at. You still can appreciate the beauty of it but also you’re realistic about the harshness of it and that was something that I really wanted to try and get across.”
Mark Stanley plays the emotionally damaged Joe. Another Otley native, though best known these days for his time as Grenn on Game of Thrones, shooting on Dark River meant a journey home for the actor, which helped him bridge the gap between Joe’s dark mindset and his own sunnier personality.
“Joe’s quite a big leap from where I am,” he explains. “I’m quite a positive person, upbeat, whereas he is verging on nervous breakdown. For long stretches of time he lives in isolation. About a month in advance of shooting I got a train to Leeds, and then I rented a car. I was driving up to Skipton, and I was looking at all these places where I used to hang about as a kid. All these bridges that we used to throw ourselves off into the rivers. In terms of filling out [Joe’s] memories, thinking about backstory and stuff, there’s a lot that I could already attach to it.”
For Stanley, making a film with only a handful of actors, shot almost entirely in a single location, made for a nice change of pace. “Game of Thrones is already thought out by a team of a thousand people who are making one of the greatest shows that there’s ever been or there will be for a long time, but when we’re working with Clio, she’s such an open-hearted person. She’s so accessible. You can suggest things to her without feeling that you’re out of place because she makes it really clear that you’re so significant in the process.
“We did a week’s improvisation leading up to the film. It was just a chance to use her words, but add our own at times. When Ruth and myself went up to see the film for the first time, we’d no idea what version we were going to see because we never did the same take twice. We improvised, and it really felt like she gave us ownership of it.”
While the heart of the film is about the fractured relationship between Alice and Joe, it’s shot through with an uncompromising depiction of what life is like for Britain’s remaining tenant farmers. Many of the arguments between Alice and Joe revolve around how best to tend the farm, and how to raise the scraps of money needed to hire the help needed. Understanding that way of life was key so Stanley and Wilson both spent the best part of a month living and working on the farm where they were going to film.
“When I went up there, I was working with the farmer for a while and we’d just stand in silence for a good couple of weeks, working through his flock, and him just letting me work side by side with him. They really do live a quiet, isolated life,” says Stanley. “The guy I was working with, he’s 70 years old, and he’d work 12 hours a day on a farm, and then he’d go and work in Tesco for four hours a night just to make ends meet. The farm that we shot on is the farm that he lives in. There’s no set dressing. He lives in isolation. At times it’s a wonderful silence if you wanted it, but it’s also a totally oppressive silence when you don’t want it to be.”
This story of a woman taking ownership of past trauma coincides with the Me Too movement and Barnard says, for her, Dark River is about how the damage from abuse ripples out far beyond the initial act.
“[Alice and Joe] desperately want to connect with each other but they can’t because of the damage that was done to them in the past,” she says of her tough but brittle characters. “Part of what I was interested in was how that [Alice’s abuse] had also damaged Joe and, therefore, damaged the sibling relationship. How Joe has carried this burden of guilt that doesn’t belong to him. How it’s confounded both of them and they have these very different ways of coping.”
These themes come to a head in a scene where Joe’s anger boils over, while Alice guts and skins a rabbit. “When she’s there, it stirs up so much pain for him that she’s kind of eviscerating him in a way but obviously she’s not deliberately doing it,” explains Barnard. “They just have this impact on each other which I think is really incredibly painful.”
Ultimately, the film’s power is contained in its ominous title and the multiple turbulent currents it implies. It’s a film where too much goes unsaid. “Sometimes my worry is that you tell the simple story but people don’t see the layers beneath it,” admits Barnard. “You’ve got a sense of everything that [Alice] isn’t saying. It’s the unspeakable thing that needs to be spoken and she’s containing and living with it.”
Dark River is in cinemas now
Hull was the UK City of Culture for 2017 and as its time in the spotlight comes to an end, there are signs that a thriving independent movie scene may be taking root on the banks of the Humber. Writer and producer Julian Woodford is one of the founders of Dead Bod Films, a company that is setting out to tell local stories using local talent, but with the production values you’d expect from a mainstream release.
“Quite a few of the scripts, the stories that I’d written, are based here and all of us felt that there wasn’t really enough of a film set-up here at the moment,” he says. “There’s been a number of different feature films shot here in the last few years, but none of them are really based here in Hull, so there’s no real independent film production base.”
When even feted auteurs are struggling to raise funds for British films, it’s an uphill struggle – not helped by the London-centric nature of the industry, or funding bodies that seem out of touch with what’s possible at the low budget end of the spectrum now that digital production is the norm.
“I’m essentially a writer who’s had to produce to get the stories done,” says Woodford adding that film financing is in a “shambolic” state, and is a “tortuous process” to secure. “It is unlike the rest of the arts – the visual arts or the theatre – which is largely dealt with by the Arts Council. Film is a separate entity and you have to go through a regimented, bourgeois, dictatorial, film investment process, to actually get anything done. Obviously, in the past, film has been far more expensive to do. That has changed and is changing still. We can actually do really, really good high-quality film far quicker and get it done on a much smaller budget.”
Formed with director Chris Hopkin and producer Emily Brown, the Dead Bod Films business plan is to build up steadily, from a short film called The Bagpipe Maker’s Baby, which was made for around £3,000 and is currently on the international festival circuit, to a full length feature film called Koi. Right now, the emphasis is on their middle step – a coming-of-age drama called One Summer When You Went Away.
“It’s about a young-ish lad, Danny, who has grown up on an estate in east Hull. He comes back home one day, after a night out with a friend and finds out that his mother has just gone off to Cyprus with her latest lover and left him alone. As this is happening, he meets a girl called Isabella, who’s newly arrived in the city, who’s not from here, but wants to stay and make a life here. She’s been travelling around and there’s that kind of axis between somebody who’s grown up here – who has an artistic, but unfulfilled personal life, who wants to probably leave – against somebody who’s travelled around, who is quite confident, who’s come to Hull and doesn’t want to go any further.”
The aim, ultimately, is to encourage those of an artistic inclination in the Hull area to stay and build a career there, rather than being lured to London or Manchester. “All of us felt that there were stories to be told, that there was a real ability that wasn’t really being developed as much as it could be… So we wanted to do it here and I think there was an opportunity for people to develop themselves as artists here.”
There’s another reason for Woodford’s attachment to Hull. It’s the city that became his home after alcoholism left him sleeping rough in London 15 years ago. “I grew up in the home counties, spent a lot of time in London and North America,” he says of his previous life. “I’m a recovered alcoholic, I haven’t had a drink since the fourth of March, 2004. In the period leading up to that I was really seriously addicted to alcohol and that contributed to the wreck of my marriage, loss of a house, the usual type of story, and then ended up on the bones of my arse in London, going the usual route, which is sleeping in doorways, parks, places that I knew”.
It was being accepted as a Big Issue vendor that made the difference. “Looking back, one of the proudest moments of my life was actually being given the chance to sell the Big Issue, because to me it was like a moment of personal change, a definite decision that I needed to do something different and new, and being given an opportunity to do that.”
Now, he says, he’s thinking more long term and the film industry in Hull is where his plans are focussed. “It’s taken this long to get to the stage where I can actually do it and where I’m prepared to go on record and say, if you take control of your life and you believe that stuff can happen and you surround yourself with people who are positive and supportive, you can deal with your personal demons. When I was at my worst drinking, I would never have believed that I could have stopped.”
“Although it’s called Scott and Sid, the film is not really about us. It’s more about what the story represents,” says Sid Sadowskyj. “It cuts across all divides. It’s about chasing your dreams. Everybody has the right to be able to do that.”
Scott Elliott and Sid Sadowskyj have been busy promoting the film that they wrote, produced and directed, ahead of its launch this week. Both from working-class backgrounds, the relentlessly hard-working pair, both now 32, have set out to subvert expectations about what they, and anyone, can achieve.
“It’s about challenging the assumptions that are programmed into you from a young age,” says Elliott, who once told his school’s careers advisor that he wanted to be a film maker and make a million pounds before he was promptly taken to see the headmaster and told to be more realistic.
It was reactions from people such as this that spurred the pair on. “The people who say you can’t do it,” says Sadowskyj. “Even people who are doing it out of your best interests, like your parents, who don’t want you to shoot for the moon and land on your arse. [The film] is there to encourage people – if you have got crazy dreams, you just need to go for them.”
The real life Elliott and Sadowskyj met at a bus stop near to the school they both attended in Bradford. For Elliott, who has both dyspraxia and dyslexia, school was difficult. It was, he says, “like putting a monkey in water. I was called an idiot in class.” Sadowskyj meanwhile was an over-achieving workaholic always in the top set but the pair discovered that they shared a sense of deep thoughtfulness about the state of the world and what they wanted from it.
The film is a breezy drama that follows the two young men over ten years. It’s an embellished version of history, rather than a straight up biopic, but at its heart, the friendship and creative dynamic between the fictional Scott and Sid – played by Tom Blyth and Richard Mason (below) – and the real duo is the same.
“We’re in a dark room, I’ve got the map and he’s got the torch,” says Elliott by way of explaining their friendship. “Separate us and we’re both fucked, but together we can do anything.”
Not long after they’d first met the two of them wrote list of aspirations at the top of which was their number one goal: to make a movie by the time they were 30. In order to make some money, they started knocking on doors and offering to clean ovens. A lot of doors were slammed in their faces, but by the time they were in sixth form, they’d started their own business. After that, they moved on to event management and by the time they were 25 they were the kind of successful entrepreneurs that participants in The Apprentice can only dream of. But then they had what Sadowskyj calls an “epiphany” about the materialistic lifestyle they were living.
“We’d become what we didn’t want to become,” says Elliott. “We were saying to other young people, you need this to be happy – which wasn’t what we were about. I felt false. I realised we were better at 15.”
Following this revelation, they set about working towards the number one goal they had set themselves a decade before. The only problem was they had no idea how to make a film. But, explains Elliott, they took the same approach to film making that they’d taken to their first business venture. After all, says Elliot, they had no idea how to clean ovens before they started doing it: “You just clean it until it’s clean. And with the film it was the same kind of thing. How hard can making a film be? We just simplified everything and did one thing at a time.”
Sadowskyj admits that they did have a credibility issue, and again there were a lot of doors slammed in their faces as they hunted down investors to fund the making of the film. It was a difficult time that tested their friendship. At one point, Elliott says, the stress of it led to them hating one another and the fights became physical: “He broke two of my ribs and I bust his nose.”
Eventually, they found the investors who understood what they were trying to do. “Everyone who backed the film saw the potential,” says Sadowskyj. “They were all people who had come from nothing and were self made.” And on his 30th birthday, Sadowskyj was standing on set.
Filming took place mainly in York. The pair had hoped to use their native Bradford but the council, says Elliott, “weren’t very helpful.” Filming in the north is important to them and they plan to continue to use their home county as a location for future projects. “We have the infrastructure in Yorkshire,” says Sadowskyj. “The costs are so much cheaper [than in London] and you’ve got city centres, the Dales, and incredible coasts all close by.”
Indeed they already have their next film planned and part funded, but are aware that there is some way to go until the camera rolls again. First, they need to secure an international release for their current movie and they are waiting to see how well it does in UK cinemas. But the fact that they have made the film at all, they believe, is a mark of success.
Alongside the film, they have released an app which is a guide to film making, featuring behind the scenes footage and interviews with key people involved in their process. They also plan to visit schools and other organisations to talk to young people about how they made their dreams a reality.
And ultimately, it’s the message at the heart of the film that still matters to them both, says Elliott: “If the film just inspires that one kid in Bradford or one kid in Manchester to think, ‘I can do whatever I want to do’ then it’s been a success.”
Scott and Sid is in cinemas 8 March