Hello Carol Morley! Thanks for having a chat with us here at BS Towers. Here are our questions about one of our favourite films of the London Film Festival 2014 – The Falling
As a teenager I constantly harboured dreams of fainting. Just the idea of passing out and getting all that attention was SO appealing to a 14 year old me. Sadly for me I never did although I did fake it once or twice. Badly. What inspired the story of The Falling for you?
It started with a phone conversation with a friend who talked about a village somewhere where the people couldn’t stop laughing. I took it to be urban myth, but was fascinated. When I did further research I found that there really had been an outbreak like this and it was part of a “condition” called Mass Psychogenic Illness, once referred to as Mass Hysteria. I did more research and found that there were a whole host of historical and current cases, often involving fainting and single sex institutions. I made a short film in 2006 called The Madness of the Dance, which was Arts Council and Film London financed project that looked at the history of Mass Psychogenic Illness, but I vowed that I would one day make a long film about this subject. I was fascinated by how a group of teenage girls could become “infected” and by how mysterious the condition still was. I have actually fainted from time to time and I guess I wanted to explore how that not only looks, but also feels.
The Falling is your fourth film and I wondered how hard it was to get made? Obviously these days any film is hard to get off the ground unless you are a huge franchise but could you tell us a bit about the development process?
Dreams of a Life had taken five years to get made and I was somewhat luckier with The Falling. Based on Dreams of a Life really connecting with audiences I found it easier than I ever had before to get development money! I think perhaps people expected me to make another documentary, but I wanted to explore this subject matter through fiction as it felt the best way. It wasn’t a long drawn out development process, but it really had taken twenty years to get to that point in terms of how long I’ve been making – or something TRYING- to make films! So with The Falling I did a ton of research and wrote two drafts, financed by the BFI, the second draft going into production with my own production company with Cairo Cannon and with Independent and Luc Roeg and receiving backing from the BFI and BBC, and Lipsync, plus a raft of private finance too. Making every film is like going on a bit of a Marathon by the time you get to the shoot and the release of it!
We’ve been fans of Maisie Williams for some time now and thought the cast you assembled was fantastic. Florence Pugh is obviously going to be a huge star. Did you find them both quite early in the casting process? How did the other cast get onboard such as Maxine Peake, Greta Scaachi and Monica Dolan?
When I wrote the script I had very particular faces and personalities in mind, especially for the young people. I worked with the casting agent Shaheen Baig, and she was fantastic. She, and her team, leafleted a lot of schools and areas so that we had huge submissions from unknowns. This is how we found Florence Pugh. She sent a one minute camera chat and then I auditioned her and felt she was perfect for Abbie. It was an exciting moment when she came in and all the other girls too. Maisie Williams we all thought would be perfect for Lydia, but she was unavailable for a while, so she was someone I met later in the auditioning process and within seconds I knew I’d found Lydia, and it was thrilling and such a relief. Once we’d assembled the girl gang we put them in a room together and made sure the chemistry was right. We also tested the chemistry between Maisie Williams and Joe Cole, to make sure that they would work together as brother and sister. I did a lot of workshops with them where they played music and sang together as a bonding exercise. The adult cast I didn’t rehearse with so much prior to shooting. Greta Scaachi was ideal for the character of Miss Mantel and I was thrilled that she was able to do it. Maxine Peake was in my short film Madness of the Dance and in my experimental feature Edge and I really wanted to work with her again. And Monica Dolan was someone I really admired and thought would be perfect for Miss Alvaro, the headmistress who wears a scandalous touch of lipstick.
There are quite a few difficult scenes to film The Falling, emotionally and physically, yet you still managed to inject quite a lot of humour. I laughed out loud more than once. I wondered what presented the biggest challenge for you as writer/director?
I guess it’s difficult to pick out the biggest challenge. But when I’m writing it’s showing the first draft to people, because even though it’s not autobiographical, you put so much of yourself into something you feel like you’re exposing so much of yourself! The biggest challenge as a director was making sure that I captured the spirits of the young girls and didn’t let any of the performances become effected by the film machine!
The Falling has an ethereal, dreamlike, hypnotic quality to it. I found it was on my mind for quite a long time after the screening, it still is! Tonally I found it slightly reminiscent of Don’t Look Now (particularly in the first ten minutes, less so after that). I’ve read reviews where it has been compared to Heavenly Creatures and Picnic at Hanging Rock and wondered what filmmakers have inspired you in your career and what artists or filmmakers inspired you?
So many! But in this case it was definitely Picnic at Hanging Rock in term of its mystery and examination of the psyche of young women, and I think Don’t Look Now is interesting in how it exposes different parts of the narrative to get close to ideas and processes of grieving in a way. I love a lot of experimental cinema, so that definitely informed the film, as well as the early films of Jane Campion, in particular A Girl’s Own Story and Sweetie. I was also inspired by the colours in renaissance paintings and wanted a palate of gold, red and blue in the film. I think also growing up watching Googie Withers in Within These Walls, a TV prison drama, probably had an influence on wanting to set something in a single sex institution.
You bring us back time and again to the willow reflected in the lake outside the school. It’s a beautiful, haunting image but also the willow has many mythological connotations, Orpheus being blessed with his gift for music and poetry and the association with witchcraft / Wicca and therapeutic healing properties. There’s a lot going on with a willow and it’s obviously hugely symbolic in The Falling but can you tell us about what it meant in the story for you.
Yes, the willow is important, as too is the oak tree that features strongly. I was interested in the power of nature as part of the mystery behind the fainting outbreak in the school. The idea of ley-lines, of something pagan and inexplicable. I felt that trees will outlive us all and bear witness to our lives and was fascinated by incorporating nature to illustrate the temporary nature of our existences. I also looked at Carl Jung and his ideas of the collective unconscious, which he saw being visualized as a large body of water. I did look into a lot of myths and legends around trees, but feel everyone should bring there own associations, like you have in your question, so don’t want to go into it too much! Let’s say, there is a magic to trees and I wanted to use the power of them! In a way Picnic at Hanging Rock has the power of the rock and I suppose I have used the power of the trees!
So to the fainting. No spoilers but to me it felt like a mixture of fakery and the power of suggestion amongst adolescent females. Especially when sexual maturity and experimentation is on the table. The ‘tells’ amongst the girls, the winking the pulling at sleeves make it all feel like a game but then it spirals. Lamb is obviously jealous of Abbie’s advanced sexuality and attention and then there is Kenneth’s obsession with the occult that seems to be suggestion of something. If there is a way to explain what your feelings of what was happening were without giving the film away then could you please!
I think all mass psychogenic illnesses follow a pattern but they are also so misunderstood. I wanted to explore in the film how at various times in history they have put them down to being fabricated, or to being really about mental illness, or to being to do with poison in the environment or to be something to do with the occult and witchcraft or to do with an organic medical condition. I will let the audience decide what they think with The Falling!
The remarkable soundtrack constantly plays in my head; it’s such a great piece of work with the cast and the inimitable Tracey Thorn. How did Thorn get involved and did she contribute to an existing idea of was the soundtrack something born of your collaboration?
I had a dream one night that Tracey did the soundtrack and so was delighted when I tracked her down and she did it! When I met her I took along the instruments that the alternative school orchestra play in the film and she composed the music on those instruments, including the descant recorder and the triangle. I showed her some scenes from the film and she went away and came up with stuff and then eventually saw the whole edit and came up with some more. It was an organic process and I’m thrilled that she became involved and contributed in such a special way to the mood of the film.
Can you tell us about what’s coming up for you?
Not too much as all the development contracts haven’t been signed yet. But what I can say is it centres around ideas of astrophysics!