2021 has been a very strong year for British debuts, from Prano Bailey-Bond’s video-nasty tribute Censor to Jeymes Samuel’s all-star Western The Harder They Fall, but the first-time hits are still coming in this week with the release of Lapwing, the feature debuts for both director Philip Stevens and writer Laura Turner.

As you may have read in our review for the feature (and if you haven’t yet, check it out right here!), the historical drama is a dark and menacing thriller with tinges of gothic horror, which the respective writer and director – along with their fiery lead actress Hannah Douglas, who plays the mute protagonist Patience – bring plenty of nuance to, even in some of the more disturbing aspects of the story.

We were extremely fortunate to have all three talents join us for an interview on Zoom (because even though we’re hopefully through the worst of the pandemic, some habits do die hard), where we were able to probe their talented heads on the filmmaking process, their own contributions to the movie, the themes and topics that it conveys, and ultimately their place in the current boom of debuting British talent!

Without further ado, let’s hear what they had to say…

(left to right: director Philip Stevens (PS), writer Laura Turner (LT), actress Hannah Douglas (HD))

First of all, thank you all for being here today, it’s a very special film and should all be proud of what you’ve done. So, let’s talk about where the idea originally came from, how you all got involved, and why you were all drawn to this project?

LT: I guess the process kind of began quite a long time ago. Phil and I were working together on various projects in the world of theatre and short films, and we were already collaborating as writer and director, and we had worked with Hannah on a couple of theatre productions so we were familiar with her work, having worked with her previously. But then Phil and I were at the stage of talking about our next project, and the ones we worked on previously we had started to explore a shared interest in telling female-driven, female-centric stories about the present through the lens of the past, so that was something we had already decided we wanted to do with our next project.

Lapwing started life at the beginning of 2016 as a short film, and we began putting the script out there to people as we were looking for various funding opportunities for it. As we were doing that, we were talking more and more about the story, the world, the context, the themes and everything, and we realised that there’s such a big story that we could explore in so much more detail. As filmmakers, we also knew we were at the stage where we felt ready and excited to make a feature, and although it was going to be a daunting task we just decided that’d we’d just go for it right at the deep end and turn Lapwing into our first feature film instead of another short. We were excited because it gave us much more scope and potential possibility, and it was all a very quick turnaround process from that point on from the end of 2016 when we made the decision and developed the script to shooting in the summer of 2017.

Hannah came on board very early in the process, and it was really lovely in that we were able to start having these conversations about who Patience [Hannah’s character] was, what her journey was going to be, and how we were going to explore her story as well as the complexity of having a silent protagonist who’s got a huge strength of spirit but doesn’t have the means of communication that we take for granted in our own day-to-day lives. It was fantastic that we were able to collaborate with Hannah who also had the time and space to really get to grips with her character with the amazing research and development work she did in forming who Patience was.

PS: We were very passionate about making a film that addressed a lot of the questions that we’re facing in society today, but also a film that had a tonal quality that we weren’t seeing in a lot of the films we were watching as well. The things that we liked hadn’t been made at that point, and then some similar films had started coming out in the past couple of years since we started this process, but certainly at the time we were trying to tell a story in a different, more visceral way and put people in a historical setting which was entirely relatable.

Both [Laura and I] are very passionate about telling these historical stories with a modern eye, and trying to make an audience feel like they could easily step through the lens and into a real world that was tangible and feels like they could be part of it even if they didn’t want to be part of it. I’m quite passionate about not making faux-history, and embracing the idea that people throughout history are human and always have been, and experience life and feel love, hate, sadness and all the emotions in the same way that we do.

That was part of the starting point of this journey for me, to try and explore the emotional world of a human at any point in history. Also, I wanted to help craft a story that resonates powerfully in today’s society, but for the wrong reasons in that there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done 500 years later. In that respect, there’s an element of casting some shame on our society, and exposing the fact that things haven’t changed, unfortunately.

HD: It was a no-brainer for me, because as Laura said I had already worked with both her and Phil before, and so I knew that they were good to work with and hang out with!

I already knew Laura’s writing when I first read a theatre script that I ended up doing with her, and it really surprised me in how brilliant it was and how she writes incredibly real humans, and real women. We hear so much about looking for these strong female characters, but Laura also writes them as real human beings, because there’s light and darkness in all of us, and everyone is flawed. That really drew me to Lapwing, because on the page it really did feel like Patience was this incredibly 3D human just from reading it.

I also loved working with Phil as a director, because I always wanted to do film with him and I remember it was something we spoke about when we first worked together. Again, it was a no-brainer, because with this script, how could I not get on board?

Laura, your script deals with very intense themes like racism, misogyny, and human corruption. When writing this film, did you find it challenging to face these issues head-on in the story you were trying to tell?

LT: For me, it’s all about context, and throwing yourself into the world of these characters, so I would never want to say that it’s easy to write about those difficult topics and themes which are very troubling and do take you to some very dark places.

At the same time, that’s what I feel really passionate about in writing. As Hannah just said about characters, we all have shades of light and dark within ourselves and we all have good and bad times in our lives. Something I’m interested in doing within my writing is really going to those darker places and being scared of that, because you have to be brave as the filmmaker in order to be able to take the audience on a journey that might be very hard, but hopefully will be a fulfilling and provocative one that will enable them to ask questions about the story, the characters, and perhaps of themselves and society and the world which surrounds us at the moment.

I think that is the most important and incredible thing about being creative, and having this opportunity and privilege to share stories with people that allow us to reflect on the choices that we make in the present day. Hopefully when people watch the film, it will feel like it’s not just a story that’s 500 years old, but a story that we are experiencing very much today, and can inspire debate and reflection on why it is that so many years later we are still facing the same problems and are seeing history repeat itself, and that nothing has changed in the way that, on paper, you might imagine having evolved from the Elizabethan period.

So yes, it’s definitely an important part of the process to go deep into those issues and to really not be scared of the darkness, since that’s where you find the most poignant and pertinent material that compels you as it does for me as a writer with my own creative process. I find that’s what drives me, and I think it’s what audiences really respond to as well, so it’s quite an exciting privilege to be able to create something that doesn’t shy away from the complexities of any of the issues that it’s putting at its centre.

Philip, when you came on board to direct, did you feel intimidated by the notion of telling this female-driven story through a very specific feminine perspective, and in what way do you feel what you have brought reflects some disturbing truths about the way this society treats women?

PS: It was part of the reason why I was so excited about telling this story, but there was this element of imposter syndrome where I’m thinking, is this a story that I should be telling because I am a man and am I in some way not qualified to tell it? I was raised by a single mother who had some difficult experiences with relationships throughout my childhood, so I have seen many aspects of this film first-hand, which was one of the reasons why it was so important to me to tell a story of this kind.

On the flip-side, I also didn’t want to ignore the fact that I am a male telling this story directorially, and Laura and I spoke at quite a lot of length about the fact that the symbiosis between the two of us, herself as a writer with a powerful female voice, and also my take on it, meant that we weren’t giving a skewered response to this scenario.

Part of what I was very passionate about with telling this story was that with the David character [played by Emmett J Scanlan], as horrific as he and his actions are, we didn’t want to cheapen the character by making him a caricature or pantomime villain, because with the actions that he goes though in the film, it would be easy for him to have been portrayed just as a villain. I wanted to make sure that he was humanised in some way, because by humanising the threat of characters like him in the real world, they feel more real since those people don’t view themselves as villains, and in some respects by portraying them as such you make them a cartoon of reality. What I wanted to do was make it very real by bringing in my male perspective and the things that I’m afraid of, and what I’m threatened by as a man existing in our society who has the weight of the actions of other men resting on my shoulders, in order to tell the story from a directorial perspective.

I’m hoping that’s viewed in the same light by the audience, with the idea that I’m coming on board to direct a film that has these issues surrounding a female lead in a female-led story, isn’t looked upon in the wrong way.

Hannah, your performance is almost entirely devoid of spoken dialogue, which requires you to convey everything visually. As a performer, do you feel there is a greater accomplishment in relying more on physicality over words when playing a character?

HD: I think that’s one of the things that drew me to it, because it was so different in how there’s no dialogue to rely on. As I was saying before, Laura has written this incredibly nuanced young woman who is so vulnerable and yet she has this power to her, and I think some of that came from the fact that she couldn’t use words in the way that we often take for granted, so therefore her power has to come from somewhere else.

I think it was a really interesting and exciting journey to go on, and we were talking about different ways of doing it. Like I was saying, Laura and I did a lot of research into what it was like back then for anyone who had any kind of speech impediment, and found that they were shunned from society, seen as not proper humans and treated more as livestock because they couldn’t pray or speak the word of God. Women especially were labelled in that time as witches and all sorts, so even at the start of the film Patience has suffered so much brutality from other humans just because of fear. She has to be an incredibly resilient human being because of that.

I also went to this place called the Michael Palin Centre, and spoke to two amazing women there who both have stammers, so we talked about what it’s like for them physically and emotionally, and the impact that it has on them. Overall, it was really exciting to do all of that research beforehand, and I really hope that I’ve done them justice because as an actress, it was a very compelling character to go on this journey with.

Plus, I didn’t have to learn any lines, which was also a bonus!

PS: Also, from a directorial perspective, I was talking in an interview recently, and I was talking about how someone like Hannah is playing a character that doesn’t have the ability to change the nuance through the line. Actors have a fantastic ability of being able to add subtext to a line and say it in such a way that gives a different meaning to how it’s written, or to be able to experiment with changing it very slightly to give it a different effect. Hannah didn’t have any of that, and she had to deliver that subtext without saying anything, and the skill with which she achieves that is incredible, and I’m just really pleased that it’s being noticed now because it’s such a remarkable performance.

The film sheds light on the Egyptian Act of 1554, the consequences of which are shocking in and of themselves, but the fact that it’s somewhat obscure in the annals of British history is very concerning. By telling the story you’ve told within this context, how do you feel about its relevance amidst the migrant crisis of today?

PS: Hopefully, this is something that is going to actually raise a few eyebrows as to the fact that we have buried this aspect of our history. The British Empire has been very good at ignoring a lot of the bad press that should be taking place about our history, and that part of it unfortunately is so resonant but was one of the exciting things that Laura and myself started to discuss as a possibility with this film.

It became very quickly a series of questions like, “Why is no-one talking about this?” and “Where is this piece of history that seems to have completely disappeared?”, which are so relevant for today, especially with the horrific news in the last week.

LT: I think the discovery of the Egyptian Act when we were doing historical research was absolutely crucial, essentially with how that was the first time that legality was passed in terms of immigration in this country, and how it was very driven by the xenophobia of the time as well as where we are today regarding other elements of the film like the misogyny and bigotry and toxic masculinity. When you also look at the racism and how the treatment of migrant populations has not changed at all as much as it clearly should have in 500 years, I really feel positive about the responses we’ve had to the film so far about these themes, because it appears to be resonating with people.

The two parallel experiences of Patience and Rumi [played by Sebastian De Souza] and his family really do throw light on what it means to be “other” and how that can feel and how it affects your experience of the world as well as your emotional connection with the people around you. From that, I feel hopeful that the film will raise some difficult and important questions about where we are today.

As mentioned earlier, the film contains a lot of unpleasant abuse towards women, culminating in one scene around the second-to-third act break that is incredibly difficult to comprehend. As a creative unit, how important was it to show the extremes of the situation without venturing too far into exploitative territory?

PS: From my perspective, it was hugely important to make sure we showed it in as shocking a way as possible. There was lots of discussion about how we would shoot that scene, and how we would go about it, but I found that from my own taste I wanted to make sure that we weren’t showing something that could have been construed in any way as being sensationalist or shocking for shocking’s sake.

I just wanted to make it as real and as affecting as possible. I spoke a lot with our editor about whether it’s too much and if we need to cut away from that particular moment, and I was adamant that this was the point, to make us feel uncomfortable and to want to look away but you can’t because the film isn’t going to let you at that moment.

I hope it’s a fine line, because the way that we shot that scene was always going to be controversial, but at the same time that really was the reason behind it.

HD: I completely agree with Phil, in that it was very important because I think anyone who has been in that situation doesn’t have an escape from that, so it’s vital that we stay with them the whole time.

For me, I felt completely safe because of who I was with and how it was done, so I therefore had the freedom to go to that place with a safety net which obviously in real life wouldn’t be there, but in terms of filming I felt very supported since it was a closed set which meant fewer people around watching.

It’s all a bit of a blur, but I remember when we did that take, and I think we only did one take, Phil came and sat with me, and Emmett was with me, and they were watching just to make sure it was all okay. I just remember Emmett squeezing my hand alongside Phil, and it’s like we were all in it together. Also, for Emmett to put himself in that situation where you do that to somebody is an awful place to go to, and so it was really important that we were all there to support each other, which as actors really helped us to go to those dark places for the scene.

LT: Just to completely agree with everything that the others have said, it was an essential part to not shy away from the difficulty and the truthfulness of that experience which unfortunately so many women and people have experienced.

Phil’s directorial instincts were 100% right for the story, the character and the world that Patience was living in, and I think it’s absolutely crucial that we go to these difficult places with her. However, it’s important to remember that the scene is about her in the moment as well, with the intensity of the scene as well as the camera being entirely from her perspective at an extremely crucial point, which helps the viewer understand her experience of that moment about the pain that has been caused to her.

It really compels the third act of the film to happen and really becomes that crucial turning point in terms of Patience’s very difficult but also very important journey of self-awareness, self-acceptance and self-worth that she ends up going on, because of these awful, tragic and brutal things that have happened to her. In order for that journey to be as cohesive and complete as it can be, it felt like we needed to go to that place. It’s just a testament to both Phil and Hannah that they make it work so incredibly well with its emotional engagement, which as a writer is all I would ever want from that moment.

Ultimately, the film contains a glimmer of hope in a world shrouded in darkness. Although the ending is bittersweet, not to mention satisfying in certain spoiler-heavy aspects, what do you feel your interpretations are by concluding things this way (without giving much away, obviously)?

LT: It’s a tricky one, in terms of the ending. Interestingly, from a filmmaking perspective and as a writer with Phil at the helm, it was something that went through a lot of different stages in development as to where we take this story. I always had a strong sense that there needed to be an element of Patience finding a voice, and a way that she could exist with more agency within this world that has contained and oppressed her for so long. The specific way we did that, and how far we took Patience on that journey in terms of what we show to the audience, was something that went through many different versions right up until the final edit of the film, when we were still making a lot of decisions about what that would look like and how far we could take it.

Personally, and again without wanting to give too much away, I think the point on which we leave Patience feels like the absolute right point now, because it feels like the next step of her journey is beginning, and what was important for all of us as filmmakers was that the onus is on the audience to do the work. It isn’t just about delivering a complete picture with a nice little bow tied up at the end, and going “this is over, you can go home and forget about it now”. Instead, it was a deliberate choice to leave some elements of Patience’s story and that of the other characters in this world open, because I think that’s crucial for it to stay with people and them hopefully continuing to think about it, and reflect on the journeys, themes and tone of the piece.

PS: It’s definitely interpretive, and by the end of the process we were determined that we were going to give the audience an opportunity to draw their own conclusions. Again, without getting too much into it, it’s been really interesting to hear the variations of commentary that we’ve gotten about the ending and people’s very different interpretations of how the characters perhaps move on from everything, which is exactly what we were hoping for.

HD: I think it’s good to leave people with their own ideas of what happens next, and have it open enough for them to make their own decisions regarding the next step of these characters’ journey.

Finally, Lapwing is among many British debuts this year to have left a mark on audiences, from Censor to Limbo, so do you feel that with the industry finally picking itself up again, there are now more opportunities for creatives like yourselves to tell stories such as this in uncertain new environments?

PS: I hope so! I hope that we’ve turned a corner, and that something about how we’ve been locked down for so long and the hardships we’ve all gone through the past two years, has meant that there is a real need for expression now, and that people are having the opportunity to tell the stories that perhaps they weren’t able to tell beforehand, because our acceptance of material has changed after spending so much time at home.

We were taking on a lot of material in different guises, and I think that while there’s nothing wrong with a lot of the commercialised films that we know and love, there is now a hunger for something else with a bit of different substance. Now, we’re starting to see those films emerge, and I’m hoping that we see a lot more of them as time goes on, from unique voices that really have something to say in a unique way. Hopefully, we fit into that bracket a little bit with our film as well, but also that we can go on to test ourselves and try other things as well, while continuing that emergence of interesting, challenging, and unique British films.

LT: I very much agree with what Phil said, since I feel this is an exciting time now for people like us. It’s intriguing to have Lapwing come out at this point, when there’s a real audience appetite for work that pushes the viewer and asks difficult questions, and for us as filmmakers that’s a really exciting time to take that forwards. We’re already in discussions with what our next project is going to be, and we’re starting to think about how we can take some of the things we began to explore on Lapwing, and push those even further as we try new things.

It’s warming to feel this excited about this time for us, to get such a nuanced response to the film so far from early audiences, which is just so heartening for us as filmmakers.

HD: Like the others, I really hope that it is opening doors to stories being told in more unique ways, which means more jobs for all of us! And more stories, obviously!

 

Many thanks to Philip Stevens, Laura Turner and Hannah Douglas for joining us and answering our hopefully not-too challenging questions!

You can follow all of them on social media via the links below:

Philip Stevens

Twitter

Instagram

Official Website

Laura Turner

Twitter

Instagram

Hannah Douglas

Twitter

Instagram

Official Website

 

Lapwing is now showing in cinemas nationwide, and is available to rent/buy on digital platforms, including Amazon Prime Video.

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