Last year at the Macau Film Festival – where Hot Corn were fortunately invited – it was a thrill to see a piece of home up on the big screen in such an unfamiliar landscape. This complex relationship drama, based on a stage play, tells the story of two intertwining love stories both featuring teachers and their pupils, heading off to the beachside resort to escape – with a quarter of strong performances courtesy of Jessica Barden, Jordan Bolger, Edward Hogg and Jodhi May. To celebrate the film’s release (which won the Best Screenplay award out in China), we had the pleasure of sitting down with the director Barnaby Southcombe, who discusses the complexities surrounding this narrative, and what compelled him to bring it to the big screen. The affable filmmaker, who was also behind the underrated noir I, Anna – also speaks about his own experiences growing up on movie sets, and how it’s shaped him as a filmmaker and storyteller.
When you saw this play what was it about it that appealed to you as a storyteller?
I saw the play on my own and it was one of the rare times when so much was going on in my head after it, that I just needed to share it with somebody. So I randomly went up to people and asked them how they felt about the play, and we were all debating the play after, and that was such an exciting thing to have, as well it being a well-made piece of theatre, it challenged me and got me asking questions about myself. I found myself feeling quite differently about one couple than the other and I challenged myself as to why I did feel that way, and that was the starting point. I’m presented with two identical relationships and yet I feel very differently about one. Was it because of the gender swap? Or because I engaged with one actor more than another? And I thought that was an interesting thing which I hadn’t seen in cinema, so I thought it might be worth a crack.
It’s a complex and very layered issue you tackle here, and I guess a bit of a minefield for you as a director? Because people will go into these movies with pre-conceived ideas of who these people are and what they’re doing, and you’ve got an obligation as a storyteller to not judge them?
You say that, but a lot of filmmaking is about having a very specific axe to grind, and that was a very deliberate choice of mine not to. I felt that my role with this, because of the way we present these two couples, because we’re offering two sides of the coin, I felt it was important to level the playing field and offer an insight slightly beyond a press headline, which is demonising. I guess demons are human beings as well, and that kind of interested me, to see what the human face of that looks like.
Was that important for you then? Because I felt there was an element of empathy with all four characters. I wasn’t comfortable with what was happening, nor was I rooting for them, but at the same time didn’t want to see any of them hurt. Is that what you want audience members to feel?
Very much so. It’s difficult because it’s a difficult subject matter and as you say people have very strong opinions before even going in, but I want them to be able to empathise with all of them, that’s something that was important for me, that they are, as we all are, human beings.
It’s a strong quartet of performances – but what was the casting process like? Because both couples are risking so much to be together we need to understand they have very close bonds in place. Did you have to cast them together to get a sense for that?
Yeah. The less savoury parts are the adult parts, and I felt I needed to work with people that I’d worked with before, just from a trust point of view, that worked both ways. I approached Jodhi and Ed who I’d worked with before. Then I had to find young people, but it’s been a few years since I’ve worked – the young people I’ve worked with before have grown up! So that was a different process, which was just a straight casting. But once I’ve found the people that I thought would be right, we had to get them together with Jodhi and Ed and do chemistry tests so I could see that what I thought would work, would work in the room. And that was the case, thankfully.
Jessica feels like the stand-out of the bunch – it feels like we’re watching the rise of a big star.
Yeah, she wouldn’t read for something like this now [laughs]. She came in, hadn’t even read the script and did the audition piece on camera and it blew me away. I didn’t realise until afterwards that she’s nosebleed girl in The Lobster. She then got the Netflix show which clashed with my film and she’d been trying to get that made for six years, so she said as much as she loved this, she had to go and do that. So we tried to recast and I met a lot of people but once I’d met her I just couldn’t imagine anyone else, she just embodied this character with such energy and amazing free-spirit. Interestingly, thank God, she contacted me about a month or two later while I was going through the process to tell me she’d had to turn down a lot of stuff she wanted to do, but this film was something she couldn’t get out of her head, and wanted to know if there was anything we could do. So what I did was I went back to production and asked if we could wait for her, but it was too risky to push the whole shoot because Jodhi or Jordan could’ve got another job, so what I did was I split the shoot. I did Jodhi and Jordan’s block first, and then waited two months for Jessica. Which turned out quite well for the film, it was an unintended upside to it. We had two climates to film in, so we filmed at the beginning of Spring and then in Summer, so it gave a nice different feel to the film.
You get that sometimes, these happy accidents.
Yeah, and we became friendly, and after the film as well seeing her explode… Her Instagram account exploded overnight, I haven’t seen it up close at that pace before.
I’m not usually one to ask about nude scenes in movies, but Jessica’s is quite a shocking one. We got to know the character as being a school girl, now obviously in real life she’s a lot older, but there was a sense of unease when she had to appear naked.
Well that was exactly the idea, to make you feel really quite uncomfortable about it. What is amazing about it is just seeing how completely carefree and brazen she is with it, but what we’re seeing is uncomfortable, as it should be. That’s her also being so completely unbridled, which is really disconcerting.
Look back to your childhood, you of course grew up in this industry. Did you know from quite a young age that you wanted to be a director?
No, not so much. But retrospectively you spot things. Of all the kids I was always happy on a set and a lot of people feel quite bored, for starters, but I was never bored, ever. Like a lot of stuff, like a construction site, nothing ever seems to be happening, and on a film set nothing ever seems to happen, but I found it endlessly fascinating.
Do you still find it fascinating?
Yeah, yeah. When I’m not directing it’s equally as fascinating but you just don’t have the same level of time pressure, as a director there’s never, ever enough time, so everyone is getting bored except for you because you never seem to have enough time to do anything. We have no time at all. My brother is artistic but hasn’t really been involved in film. I loved crews and just being a part of the whole thing.
This is your second feature – how was it walking onto set for the second time, did it feel that different, much easier in the beginning stages?
Yeah definitely. There’s a lot of pressure on the first. Although I’ve done a lot of TV there’s a massive difference. That’s why there’s the lure of doing a film, and when you haven’t done one you’re still so desperate, even if it is all about TV now. Because it is different, there’s no two ways about it. However experienced you are, getting your first film off the ground is a really big thing psychologically. It was amazing, but it was fucking exhausting. There is a ‘second album’ pressure, but I think that only comes when you’ve had a mega hit. If you’re Damien Chazelle then your second film is going to have pressure. But that was not the case with I, Anna. I love the set, I’m a set director, I like editing but that’s not my favourite part of the process. For a lot of directors the editing is where it all happens for them. So for me walking on set was just a pleasure, it didn’t have the same pressure. I mean it’s always a challenge but I’ve always enjoyed the set, it’s a part of me.
So of course this was shot on location in Scarborough – but what’s the significance to the setting in this story? Why of all the beach resorts, why was this the one that was chosen for this particular tale?
I didn’t actually know Scarborough before, so I discovered it as a result of the play. It’s not the most practical place to shoot if you’re based in London, so there were many reasons and many people tried to convince me not to film there for practical, financial, logistical reasons, but having been there, knowing Blackpool, Brighton, Hastings, Folkestone, I went to Scarborough and fell in love with it really. It has an architectural grandeur which others don’t have. Brighton feels so busy, but Scarborough is so remote, it’s really empty. Apart from a month a year it’s tumbleweed. It’s a shame for the town itself because I think it’s glorious. But it really felt like somewhere you could go to disappear, which is weird because it feels like a place you should all be going to, but its not. Since the 70s all of tourism has gone to places like Spain and its really sad, so its become a place that those who can’t afford a package holiday in Spain. All those things I felt might be caught up in just filming there. A great film like The Last Resort had captured that little microcosm of immigration. Blackpool I felt had been captured beautifully, and I’m sure Scarborough has too but I wasn’t familiar with it cinematically, so it felt a bit fresher. And I just love that bonkers hotel. When it was built it was the biggest hotel in Europe. So vast. Half of it isn’t even in use. I don’t even know what’s there, it’s just a no-go area. There were 365 rooms, four towers.
I loved the score too, which has a sort of Benjamin Britten feel to it. Maybe it’s just the feeling of the sea. It adds a real atmosphere, and is integral to the feeling of the movie. So much input do you have?
I had quite a troubled time on I, Anna with the score. I’d been approached by a really lovely guy who really loved the idea of the film and liked my sensibilities and what I wanted to do, this European noirish French film, basically, but shot in London and in English. I really struggled, and it was no fault of the composer, but we went down a very melodic, traditional score, and it just wasn’t working, so I ended up going for a very electronic score which kinda offset what I was trying not to do, I guess. So for Scarborough I worked very differently. We started with one that sounded weirdly medieval, it was a bit odd. But I went in with a different process than I did with I, Anna, that it had to be exactly as I imagined it, and because I had so little resources I thought I would differently. Our composer Dan was in between Ocean’s 8 and just finishing King Arthur, so he said he’d do it, but not to expect a fucking orchestra. I wanted an electronic score but he said that wouldn’t work and rather than fight it, I went with it. We all know what we like to hear but some people are more articulate in how they convey emotionally what they want musically, but I can’t, so it was a process of letting him do it. He did the whole thing, apart from me saying the recorder sounded a bit medieval, and I didn’t really want piano either, so he then did a whole series at Abbey Road, and just sent me the stuff. I said I didn’t want piano, then I put it to picture and thought… fuck it really works. You have to know where your strengths lie, and if you’ve got somebody like Dan, who is obviously pretty talented, then you go with it. It’s interesting because I was going to go down a more wonky thing, I was presenting these relationships quite matter of factly and empathetically, I thought I should underscore it with something more unhinged, but he saw the film and said, no, this is a love story. You’ve made a love story. He hasn’t sentimentalised it, or romanticised it too much, so maybe that’s where your Britten idea comes in from. Harmonically it doesn’t have the chords that are too encouraging. I think he’s done a very sensitive score.
I was supposed to have filmed this Summer, I was supposed to do a film with Russell Brand, something very different, a road movie. We were all financed and ready to go and his mum had a pretty bad car crash and he pulled out of all his engagements, so we’re in limbo in that one. I don’t know if he’s going to do it, or if I have to recast, I’m in limbo on that. Then I have another one which we’ve been developing with a writer called Simon Davies called Prior, and we’re now just going out to cast on it. It’s a thriller set in Gibraltar, about a young mother who has to save her daughter and her brother, put in a horrible sort of Sophie’s Choice where she has to choose between the two. They get involved in this Gibraltar crime family who have a beef with the local Spanish cartel and they get caught in the crossfire and her brother is a witness to a murder so they take her daughter hostage. It’s all 24 hour, real time type thing.
So that would be your third female-centric film. Do you think that might come from having a mother in the film industry? Or having grown up in France, where there are better roles for women?
Yeah, you’re right, but it’s not deliberate. I guess when you’re brought up by a strong, pretty iconic actress, it does presumably shape you. It’s an exciting time for women and there are proper big female action films. I mean there’s always been great drama for women, All About Eve with Katharine Hepburn, all the great likes Ava Gardner, there are cracking roles for women, but what’s interesting now is that in big event cinema, women are finally getting the main roles, and that’s the big change. I think drama has always been a great place for women. But yeah, I like it. Women are cool, man. What can I say?