Carol Morley: mysterious matters

Carol Morley’s films are very different from each other but have always shared themes of loss, the past and being an outsider. And there’s always an investigation involved

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One June morning in 1977, when Carol Morley was 11, her father put on a new suit, took her to school in his new company car, leant over to kiss her as he dropped her off and drove away. It was the last time she ever saw him.

“There haven’t been many female detectives in film at all. They’ve mostly been relegated to television.”

His body was later found in his car, 140 miles away in a country lane in Gloucestershire, where he’d taken his own life. Naturally, his death and the questions and emotional trauma it left behind had a profound effect on Morley, both personally as a child growing up in Stockport and Manchester, and in her adult career as a film maker.

The Alcohol Years, her breakthrough Bafta-nominated documentary, released in 2000, consists of the director interviewing past acquaintances and friends to try to make sense of her troubled teenage self. 2011’s documentary drama Dreams of a Life investigates the life of Joyce Vincent, a beautiful thirty-something London woman whose remains were discovered in her bedsit in 2006, three years after she died.

Her first full feature film, 2014’s The Falling, starring Games of Thrones’ Maisie Williams and Maxine Peake, is about a mysterious fainting epidemic that breaks out at a strict all-girls school in 1969. Isolation, loss, searching for answers and death are at the heart of all of them.

“None of my films are the same. They’re all really different. But there are preoccupations that run through them: the past, bereavement, being somehow an outsider, absence. And there’s always an investigation to them,” agrees the garrulous 53 year old, now based in London.

Her latest movie, Out of Blue, although once again vastly different, explores similar themes and emotional terrain. Adapted by Morley from Martin Amis’s 1997 novel Night Train and starring a magnificent Patricia Clarkson (House of Cards, Easy A) as hardboiled homicide detective Mike Hoolihan, the film is a feminist neo-noir thriller set in New Orleans about the murder of a leading astrophysicist.

Without giving away any plot details, it’s a surreal, stylish, head-spinning, engrossing, cerebral and at times slightly baffling film that has echoes of David Lynch and Nicolas Roeg (who had himself considered adapting Night Train and whose son has produced several of Morley’s films) in the way that it incorporates elements of cosmology and astrophysics into a tightly-written police procedural narrative. Other members of the cast include James Caan, Toby Jones, Jacki Weaver and Mamie Gummer.

“That combining of homicide and cosmology I found really compelling,” says Morley about what attracted her to the source material. “At the same time, I didn’t feel that I needed to describe the book. I knew what I wanted to do with a translation of it. It felt like I was rescuing the characters from the pages of the book. I was bringing them into the world and although I never met Martin Amis it did feel like a collaboration with him and his ideas.”

Another major reason she says she was drawn to Amis’s novel was its lead character being a female detective. Asked if she would have adapted Night Train if it had featured a male lead character she admits the answer would probably be no. “That’s not to say that I would never cast a male lead in a film, but I am attracted to stories told by women or from the point of view of a woman.

“It’s really exciting to take a female gaze. In some ways that comes from my implicit understanding of that experience, but there is also a politics to it. The politics of gaze has been traditionally male in cinema, but then you start to go: ‘I can change that.’ And what I’m doing by its very nature is changing that. It’s really exciting. There haven’t been many female detectives in film at all. They’ve mostly been relegated to television over the years.”

Current drives to address the gender imbalance that has long existed on both sides of the camera give her hope for the future, but Morley is all too aware of the deep-rooted issues that need fixing to really make a difference. She points to her own struggles to make Out of Blue, largely due to her decision to cast an older female actor in the lead role (Patricia Clarkson is 59).

“If you have a younger actor, it’s easier. There are a lot of pressures to conform to certain ways because you will find it easier to finance the film,” she laments. “The fact that over 100 years since cinema began we have the same amount of women directors as we have ever had, you’ve got to wonder why that is. But it’s not just film. We live in a white, patriarchal male world on the whole.

“I think we should be ashamed. It’s a poverty of experience not to get a range of cultural insights or stories about lots of different things, not just women. It could be a homeless person making a film about themselves, rather than some posh person making a film about them. My own stance is just to keep on pushing forward to tell stories that I feel are important to tell.”

When it comes to selecting those stories, Morley says she will only ever embark on projects that she feels an overwhelming, almost unhealthy yearning for. “Whatever it is, I know that if I wouldn’t die for it, then don’t do it. You have to think, if this takes me 10 years, am I prepared to stay that long. If I say yes, then that’s when I completely commit to something.”

Her best films (Dreams of a Life, The Falling, The Alcohol Years) act as vivid testament to the director’s dedication to her craft, although such focus was in scant evidence during her adolescence. Having left school at 16, she spent several years drifting around the early 1980s Manchester music scene, singing in various bands, drinking heavily and partying at the Haçienda nightclub, before making the impromptu decision to flee the city one morning. Jumping on a train, she followed in the footsteps of her older brother, the music journalist and broadcaster Paul Morley, and moved to London.

There she drifted some more, working in a succession of menial jobs, before enrolling at college to take her A Levels as a 23-year-old mature student. Evening courses in film and photography reignited her creative ambitions and led to a place at Central Saint Martins college of art, where she graduated with a first class degree. A succession of acclaimed short films followed before The Alcohol Years introduced Morley as an original and distinctive voice in British cinema. She credits filmmaking with giving her the sense of purpose and direction she lacked as a teenager and young adult.

“Because I came to it late, I really fell in love with it. I knew that’s what I wanted to do. It gave me shape and structure and – it sounds a bit grand – but I definitely think film saved my life. It allowed me to shape my world and my experiences, but also be able to look at other people’s. I always say that filmmaking is not a career. It’s a vocation.”

With the benefit of hindsight, she credits growing up in Manchester at a pivotal time in the city’s music history (the Haçienda opened in 1982 when Morley turned 16) with having a formative influence on her future success as an independent director. “People were on the dole and then on Top of the Pops the next week. I couldn’t sing but I was a singer in a band. It wasn’t about being trained in anything or going to university. It didn’t matter what your background was. To be around those people made it seem accessible. It took it away from being a rarefied thing. Having said that, it would have never occurred to me back then that I would later make films.”

She points to her brother Paul, who also left school at 16 and later got a job writing for the NME, as having the biggest single influence on her cultural development. “My mum could never get her head around what I did or what my brother did. It was all quite alien to her,” remembers the director, describing growing up “with about four books in the house. And one of them was Nevil Shute’s [post-apocalyptic novel] On The Beach. I’ve never forgotten that.”

Her next project is set to be a “radical biopic” about Audrey Amiss, a Sunderland-born archivist artist whose father died when she was a teen and who spent her life in and out of mental institutions, diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. “Audrey would make connections in her life. So the fact that I’ve gone from Martin Amis to Audrey Amiss would really amuse her. She would see great significance in that,” says Morley with a chuckle. The film’s working title is Artist Typist Pirate King and promises to be another revealing, uniquely told movie about a complex, damaged woman, largely misunderstood by mainstream society.

“All of my films are about outsiders in some way – someone not quite fitting into a perceived norm. I’m fascinated by people who live on the margins,” she says with a chuckle. “Probably because they’re more like me.”

Carol Morley on…

Audience reaction to Out of Blue
People seem to be talking about it a lot afterwards to each other, which I always adore. It’s quite an open film. Some people have interpreted it as I intended, and then other people have interpreted it really differently, which is great. It’s definitely opened up a lot of debate about a lot of things. I never want to make a film where I can anticipate exactly how people will feel afterwards.

Addressing cinema’s gender imbalance 
The way that films are financed there’s a lot of invisibility. Some financiers won’t finance a film with an older woman in the lead as that won’t sell the film, and they’re people that you can’t bring to task. A public studio or a public body – you can question them about their motivations and commitment to diversity. But there’s a lot of invisibility [elsewhere]. The economics of the way the world works is quite difficult to tackle. But it’s always great that you have activism and people making sure that we don’t forget there are a lot of people who are disadvantaged and excluded.

Not resting on her laurels 
I’m always scared that no one will give me any more money. I always think, don’t make assumptions that you will get your next film made. You have to fight just as hard each time you make a film. But maybe if you build a body of work people will start understanding your ideas more and how you want to do things. That has got easier. I don’t have to explain myself quite so much now.

Why The Alcohol Years still stands out nearly 20 years after its release 
As with everything anyone does, whether it be a piece of writing or making a film, you should stick to your gut instinct and be authentic to your true story. At the time, I remember people, particularly in television, saying you should have a voiceover or do this and that. None of it felt right. I remember just pursuing what felt right to do and that’s partly why it’s survived, I think. It speaks to people about their lives. It’s not just about growing up. It’s about looking back and about attitudes to other people. I think there’s a lot of pleasure to be had in it. It goes back to the 1980s but when people talk to me about it now, it’s like it’s just happened. I love that.

Out of Blue is in cinemas now

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