BETTER THINGS by Duane Hopkins
Duane Hopkins is a film director, artist and photographer. A new voice in British cinema, after two awardwinning shorts, Duane’s beautifully shot debut feature BETTER THINGS received widespread critical acclaim, and saw him working alongside a non-professional cast in a work that explore alienation, addiction, loneliness and loss. In this interview, from the BETTER THINGS website, Duane talks about the film’s themes, his working process and the film’s place in the landscape of British film.
Interview with Writer / Director Duane Hopkins
Can you tell us about the setting of the film? Where does it take place? Why here? Does this have specific or particular relevance to what you are trying to express given England’s particular pre-occupation with geography to class/place?
The setting is rural England. A very underused area cinematically, but it was absolutely my intention to make something universal, not specific to where it was filmed. However, I feel you need to be truthful to your location otherwise it will not resonate to other people who live in similar areas in other countries. I don’t have anything specific to say about class, at least not something concrete. I think that I was driven by a wish to create an honest interpretation of rural England. My rendering of this may not ring true for everyone, but it exists. I wouldn’t say I am political in a conscious way, but simply by whom I choose to cast, how I work with them and in the locations where I film, it becomes political, mainly because my methods are slightly different from the norm.
BETTER THINGS and your two short films FIELD and LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME ALONE are set in Southern rural England. At what point are these films autobiographical?
This is where I grew up. It’s where my first obsessions were created and so far I have stayed with stories that are in that context, but they are not strictly autobiographical, more biographical maybe. My experiences are starting points for the stories. It would feel wrong to just simply film something that I have seen or been through. I prefer to take my memories of experiences, or things that I have heard about, and use them as building blocks in the creation of new stories. Through these, I hope to create a new set of meanings, for myself as well as the film, to make something I find interesting and compelling. It is an exploration of an area and its inhabitants and my own personal stories would be too limited to cover that.
Do you see BETTER THINGS as a continuation of the tradition of a very English modern social realist cinema, for example, Loach, Clarke and Leigh? Where do you think BETTER THINGS fits in to this tradition?
British cinema is historically based on realism, it’s our foundation, but it’s not necessarily what I’m exploring in my films. My story and character obsessions certainly come from what could be called classic social realist territory. Working class, troubled, angry, violent – at least from the outside – but I think my use of them and rendering of the themes is different in BETTER THINGS. I grew up watching the movies of Loach, Clarke & Leigh so that influence is always going to be buried in there, Clarke especially. I very much identified with the England I saw in his work, I still do. There is also a tradition in British Cinema of twisting social realism. Bill Douglas, early Terence Davies and some of the Powell & Pressburger work did this and in contemporary terms there is Lynne Ramsey. You take the real world but manipulate and filter it to try and create a texture that is more than just a recording of a performance, something which through the editing aspires to the interior of the characters and their environment. In this way BETTER THINGS has certainly evolved from what has come before and evokes a tradition, an aesthetic, but also attempts to move towards something hopefully more poetic or transcendental. With this film I was more interested in the creation of an atmosphere than I was in realism, but of course you need a veneer of that in order to give the film a foundation.
BETTER THINGS plays with both the naturalistic and ‘constructed’ (in particular, through editing and sound) Can you tell us a little of how you see your vision with regards to these, some would say, oppositional approaches.
For me cinema is all about these oppositional approaches. It is about juxtaposition. That is how a dynamic is created. It is about placing images and sounds together that create a new meaning between them. I never want my films to be just story or plot I want something more incongruous that evokes rather than explains. To do this I find placing the real and unreal side-by-side, with the correct balance, makes for a far more interesting and provocative dramatisation. It reverberates in a much more personal way. Using the unique tools at your disposal, namely editing. It becomes cinema rather than filmed theatre. There is something fantastic about hearing and seeing things that you recognise, but they are twisted and distorted, cut up and reassembled in a way that they take on a new shape and meaning. For me (and I understand not for everyone) that is the point of this art form, and its unique quality. This was also the most interesting way for me to be able to create a multi narrative film. To edit in a way that created sequences, linking characters and their narratives. The drama in BETTER THINGS comes from a gradual build up of scenes that relate to, and compliment each other thematically and build an impression of an area, it’s inhabitants and their individual stories through these sequences.
The majority of the cast have never acted before. Can you guide us through your working process with regards to the cast?
I cast the characters myself with help from my producer and as there were so many to find and they crossed all age ranges, it became very time consuming. Certain characters in the film use drugs and to find people who had experience of this and could bring an honesty and truth to those characters took the longest to find and were the most complicated in terms of insurance issues. I look for people from a photographic and experience viewpoint. You have to be interested in photographing them first, then their experiences give you a basis from which you can direct them, using what you know they have been through to provoke and help them. Then you try to use the camera like a microscope. Hopefully you record their unique qualities, and find a balance between the written character and who they are themselves. Some I rehearsed with, others I didn’t, it all depended on the context of the scene and what seemed right. There was never any improvisation and it was the editing and photography, which dictated how the scene was finalised. Documentary exists in that I have to take what they give, sometimes after provocation, and use it to complete the stories. Sometimes this means the story has to be modified in the edit, which is part of the reason why you challenge yourself to work with non-actors. To change and move past the written script.
While the characters seem to be able to communicate to each other as friends about their relationships, there seems to be no one in the film who is able to directly communicate to their partner. Why do you think this is? Is this a particular view you have of human relationships?
I think the couples in the film communicate as inarticulately with their friends and relations as they do with their partners. It is just that you are expected to be able to communicate better with your partner than with peers. This expectation is complicated by the fact that within a romantic relationship the politics are always so much deeper. The hurt caused by minor slights or indiscretions can be so wounding that the wish to communicate your hurt is sometimes done in the most ignorant and counter productive manner. This is someone that you feel safe with and that you want to love and sometimes we exploit and take advantage of that. Essentially, I was interested in describing the individuals’ need for security and safety, their basic need for emotional stability and happiness; all the things we associate with companionship. I approached this through the themes of formative love, the resulting search for lasting relationships, and its consequences on someone nearing the end of their life. Many of these themes will be familiar to audiences, but I believe mainly within an urban setting, and in relation to drug use, normally within a socio-political context. My intention is to use these themes within a new environment to explore the actions of separate generations in the pursuit of happiness, the success and failure of love; and the use of artificial substitutes to the same ends. Life, love, loss and intoxication.
Can you explain the use of drugs in the film?
Drugs, in this environment, generation and sub culture, are completely normalised. There is really nothing shocking for me about it; this is simply the way they integrate drugs into their daily lives. There is nothing gratuitous about their use, explicit maybe. It is very realistic in that way and was heavily researched. The people who take heroin in the film are all over 20, so they are adults not children. I would guess that the characters in the film had been using for at least two years so they would have begun at around 18. That’s consistent with what I’ve seen. Whenever I would return to the area where I grew up – and where the film is shot – every 6 months or so, I would be told about another old friend who was dead through hard drug use, then my little brother started to tell me the same stories about his friends. There was a period when it was very extreme. The local newspapers would be full of it. I would see kids in the local pubs who were obviously using. After a while it loses its shock value. As for ecstasy or cannabis use, that is just a daily routine for many, at least for a certain period of time in their lives. Some go deeper and move onto crack or heroin, others decide to stop. As for doing it when they are so young, it’s just a mixture of boredom, availability and curiosity. There is obviously something missing from their lives and they have found something that can fill it, the only problem is that it may kill them in the process. It seems to be a way of anaethesting themselves against the world and its demands. A kind of self-medication that creates a world that is easier for them to deal with. It becomes a controllable form of happiness, like a relationship. Through the research some users would refer to drugs like they were their closest friend, a confidant, a lover. What is incredible, is how as individuals, they appear to believe that they are somehow immune to it, even when their closest friends are dying around them they will still chase heroin before and after the funeral and think that it will not happen to them. They don’t see it in its context. Their youth makes them feel they are immortal. Or maybe they don’t care about the consequences of an overdose and its possible finality.
The majority of the cast are adolescents as with your previous shorts – what is it about this age that you find so interesting? In BETTER THINGS there are a number of older characters but very few middle-aged people almost as if those who are responsible for both the old and young are absent – any particular reason for this?
With regards to the younger characters part of this is in the previous answer. It is their potential and their capacity for change and extreme behaviour. Throughout my short films I’ve always been fascinated by their ability to refuse to appreciate or accept consequences and their ability for casual cruelty, we see this with LARRY’S friends. With the older characters I was interested in several things, firstly the idea of a lamenting for a partner when you are at the end of your life – NAN’S situation – which can then be connected to the situation of ROB as he laments the loss of his girlfriend. Also this allowed me to compare the isolation of GAIL and NAN. Both are housebound, one through a psychological agoraphobia and one through a physical frailty. They have a shared problem. Secondly, I was interested in the silent frustrations and secrets that can grow within a long-term relationship. This is THE GLADWINS story and it allowed me to then compare this with a younger couple LARRY & RACHEL. Contrasting how intense romantic feelings when spurned or not reciprocated can undermine ones grip on reality and change your behaviour. As for the lack of middle-aged characters, we had material for this age group but I cut it out. It upset the balance of the narrative. The themes of the film revealed themselves better with a starker contrast between young and old.
How do you view the value of love with regards to your characters?
It is of course what all of them are looking for, it is what they want and need, as we all do. But it is more complex than just finding it and receiving it, it is about whether you can accept it. Either because it seems impure or compromised from this person or you feel not deserving of it yourself. The emotion has a huge value to them but it does not mean that it can solve everything for them. It is not just love that they crave; it is security, safety, and validation of their own worth. They need to feel that they have a greater responsibility than just themselves, while also having their own needs met. It is a very hard balance to achieve.
Everyone seems to have a way of blocking and forgetting their own isolation, thus perhaps exacerbating their problem either through drug use, or in the case of the Gail character, romantic fiction. In the end can you tell us where we find the hope; is there a way out for these people?
It’s true that they all have their own coping mechanisms, either through drugs, relationships or escapist fiction, and its true that each of these solutions may actually compound their problems. However, it also allows them to survive. There is hope as long as they continue to do that. As for there being a way out, there isn’t one, there are no simple answers, but they still have their choices. Two of the characters in a very literal sense choose to move forward, namely GAIL & DAVID. While the others I believe all get what they want or have the potential to create what they want. I believe the film is optimistic and offers hope and I choose not to do that in a false, untruthful way. It would be unfair at the end to solve everything. That would be a lie. The film ends by offering choice to the characters, they still have their decisions to make. There is light, that is definitely offered, but it is not up to me to take their stories any further