People Are More Important Than Films: Antonia Bird

A FEW years ago, Robert Carlyle found himself in some pretty deep snow. He and a bunch of mostly American actors had been shooting a savage historical comedy-horror in the mountains on the Czech-Slovak border, when their wayward Macedonian director, Michlo Manchevski, was sacked by the studio. Stuck up there under contract, with literally no direction, Carlyle phoned Antonia Bird in London and “practically blackmailed her” to come and take over. He had acted in her previous films Safe, Priest and Face, recommended her to the shivering cast, who sealed themselves in a room, watched those films, and agreed that Bird was the woman for the job.

Carlyle had his own reasons – he knew, liked, respected, trusted Bird. They have since formed two corners of a joint production company, Four Way Pictures, along with novelist Irvine Welsh and verbose broadcaster/ movie encyclopedia Mark Cousins. But back then, what could the other actors – including the Australian leading man Guy Pearce – have seen in her previous work that made them think she could make this film Ravenous work, this gruesome joke about pioneer cannibals becoming the earliest American “consumers”?

(Safe was a serious-minded TV movie about London homelessness, Priest the slightly hectoring tale of a conflicted young community preacher in Liverpool, and Face a low-rent heist movie positing serious crime as the dead-end of the British working-class.)

“Ooh, I don’t really know,” says Bird. “Actors see things a bit differently. But I suppose if you look at the stuff I’ve directed, you can see I’m interested in two different things – definitely in issues that are completely relevant to us, now, and how we live our lives in this society. But I’m also very committed to genuinely exciting filmmaking.” She drinks from a very big coffee and thinks about it for a minute. “I actually think that Ravenous is my most political film, but people do tend to look at it as a schlock-horror cannibal movie.” Is there any real reason why it can’t be both? The question for directors like Bird, who always try to “say something”, is how they order their priorities. Are they working out of anger or compassion, or is it that the given subject lends itself to drama?

Bird herself isn’t really sure which comes first, or if it matters beyond the obvious fact that “people are more important than films”, and the obligation to put thought, effort, research and “empathy above all” into the work. That said, the organisers of a South Korean film festival recently provided her with a convenient breakdown of her sensibilities.

“They sent me a fax saying that they were inviting me to their festival because they had decided that I am a socialist first, a feminist second, and a filmmaker third. It was handy to have that sorted out for me.” Bird’s new film is called Rehab, another of her terse, punchy, one-word titles. It’s the first film to be completed by Four Way Pictures, and the only one of their “dozen or so serious projects” to be made for TV. “I wanted to make it really quickly so we pushed it through for tele-vision, and I think that was good in a way because it’s not an obviously commercial subject.” In 2000, Bird directed Care for the BBC, a painfully, exquisitely sensitive drama about sexual abuse in children’s homes. It won 18 inter-national awards, “so the BBC were very pleased with me and keen to talk about what I wanted to do next”. Rehab was it – a film made through a fast and intensive process of research and improvisation, from an idea that had been “knocking around” in Bird’s head for nine years. While she was investigating the few positive options available to homeless people for her earlier film Safe, Bird discovered the Ley Community in Oxfordshire, a council-funded “therapeutic community” offering drug users a place to detox and confront themselves over a period of at least a year.

“You get to a point when you’re on the street and you’re probably going to die. A lot of people who go into one of these places really have got that far down. I wanted to make a film about this quite passionately. It’s hard to talk about, and that’s partly why I make films. I’m not a wordy person, I’m an emotional director. And I just wanted to put the people I observed in these communities, who were some of the best people I ever met, on screen. And to blow away some of this rubbish that you hear about ‘worthless junkie scum’, from the kind of people who say ‘who gives a shit, it’s all their own fault’. Of course it isn’t their own fucking fault. Who would want to get into that state on purpose? That’s utter nonsense.”

Not many films – and none of Bird’s previous projects – have been made this way. She cast 16 principal actors, “people interested in or in sympathy with the issues of the film” (including Glasgwegians Gary Lewis and Caroline Patterson), and asked Scottish screenwriter Rona Munro to develop a script. The characters were “built from scratch” in weeks of workshops, and fed with real, living details through Bird and Munro’s research at the Ley Community – Munro in particular spent days polishing windows, peeling potatoes and sitting in on group sessions with the residents.

“Unless you’re going to go there, you can’t really understand,” says Bird. “But as an observer, you do get an idea of the patterns that can form self-destructive behaviour. These people often have very similar stories, a fundamental lack of respect for themselves that’s been imposed on them by the circumstances of their lives, the problems at home, the abusive relationships.”

She is under no illusions that Rehab is a fiction, and that its own institution, the Ashford Community, is an imagined example of one of the better kinds of treatment centre. (Bird and Munro were shocked at the standard of some of the rehab homes “set up purely as businesses, where you might clean up, but then you’re back where you started”, and unimpressed by big commercial clinics “where very wealthy people pay a ton of their own money for a week’s detox”.)

But the more conversations they had with the people who know what they’re talking about, the more truth – or something close enough – would come out in the work. Richard Harrington’s character Powell, for example, was created by that process of dialogue between the script, the actor, and “all sorts of real stories”. He’s a heroin addict wound dangerously tight, self-hating, self-destructing and swaddled in denial until a wrenching late scene when he unravels without warning. It feels real enough – Rehab is a relatively rare example of entirely believable fiction – but it’s not. And yet when Bird showed the film to residents at The Ley Community, they immediately recognised someone they knew. “They were a bit startled, and they said they didn’t know that we had spoken to this particular person. We hadn’t, we had never even met the guy. But somehow, his story was in there, and they were thrilled that we were putting it out so accurately.”

The residents, trustees and staff at the Ley Community were, she says, “very excited, and very supportive”. Bird has heard that the organisers there and at the Phoenix House trust, which runs similar treatment centres around the UK, are planning to use the film as part of their awareness campaigns. Which obviously pleases her, the idea that the finished product might be helpful, since she never set out to make a documentary or a public service broadcast. This was Bird’s point – that a broader social issue can be rendered into focused, nuanced, and exciting drama. If they’re put together carefully enough, they can’t really be pulled apart.

“In the end, it’s about looking at people as valid human beings, whoever they are or wherever they’re at. That’s the thread through all my work, if there is one.” What about the cannibals in Ravenous? “Hmm. Yeah, actually, in a weird sort of way, that film is definitely about human value.” Bird is now doing most of the work for Four Way Pictures, trying to find the means to tell the stories that she (and Welsh, and Carlyle, and Cousins) want to tell. “Too many films are made in this country, not very well, by people who haven’t thought about it very carefully, based on scripts that aren’t very good.” Her own next idea for a movie is a film called Faith, about an “intense personal love triangle” during the miner’s strike in 1984. “But it’s hard to raise money for a political film in Britain, as you might imagine. I think it will be a sexy, vibrant film with international appeal, but it’s hard to convince people of that until after you’ve made it.”

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