Film-maker Carol Morley talks about making The Falling, her friendship with Maxine Peake – and the Madchester days
The cast and crew of The Falling is overwhelmingly female, which is unusual in the film industry. Was this deliberate?
It just happened organically. I think it came about becauseI am interested in female stories and in telling them from a female point of view, so the make-up of the cast and crew was really a reflection of where my interests lie. It wasn’t a box-ticking exercise. It was much more natural than that. But it was definitely a very powerful dynamic on set and when we were at the London film festival, with the cast and crew all lined up, looking so female, it looked and felt very strong and powerful.
What can be done to involve more women in film-making?
I feel quite optimistic about this. Nowadays, most young women have access to technology that would not have been available to them 10 or 20 years ago and they are used to taking pictures and videos on their mobile phones. This will substantially change the number of girls who are interested in film-making and feel confident about doing it. When I was at college the boys would grab the cameras first and would be much more confident than me around the equipment and the technology. But that’s changing.
This is the fourth time you have worked with Maxine Peake. Tell me about your friendship with her.
She’s my muse. Derek Jarman had Tilda Swinton. Maxine is my Tilda Swinton. She’s very open to new ideas, she’s somebody who’s prepared to take risks, which I really admire, and she has a real interest in so many things. As a friend I like her because she is prepared to speak her mind and put herself out there politically. And of course we both have the whole northern working-class thing going on too. Through seeing her on stage and meeting her actor friends I learned a lot about actors and the craft of acting.
Casting Maisie Williams as Lydia was a stroke of genius. Are you a Game Of Thrones fan?
I’ve not seen Game of Thrones, never witnessed Arya Stark [Maisie’s character] in action, and that was a really good thing. When Maisie auditioned for the part I had no preconceptions and I think that made her feel quite free. It meant she could come on set with no baggage, fresh, as though she’d never done anything before and she loved that. She was really supportive and she taught the less experienced girls a lot.
How did you find newcomer Florence Pugh?
I leafleted the area around Oxford, where the school location was, and Florence was one of hundreds of girls who sent us one-minute videos. I remember seeing her in the corridor before her audition and she had loads of makeup on. I asked her to take it all off. And then she came in looking really natural and she was amazing. I was blown away. After she left the room the casting people were very quiet. They said they had goosebumps – it was like a young Kate Winslet coming in the door.
Your father killed himself when you were 11 years old. Did you draw on that experience to create the central story of Lydia, a girl with no father and an emotionally frozen mother?
Definitely. Having lost my dad at that age, the idea of the absent father is for me very powerful. Lydia’s father hasn’t died but he’s not there and her family is in crisis and I dug deep into my own life and experiences to try and bring truth and complexity to the way that was portrayed. It’s not autobiographical but there’s an amazing amount of my own feelings in it.
Your breakthrough documentary, The Alcohol Years, was based on your own experience as well, wasn’t it?
Yes, the film covers my life from the age of 16 to 21, which coincided with the opening of the Haçienda in Manchester, where I come from. I left school at 16 and hung around, not getting a job, drinking too many free drinks and being promiscuous. By the time I was about 23 I’d moved to London and decided I had better get my life together. I applied to St Martin’s and studied film.
After leaving college I was looking for ideas and I met up with Clio Barnard, the film-maker, who was a friend, and her boyfriend, who started telling me stories about myself from that “lost period”, which I didn’t remember at all. Obviously I knew I had been “bad” and had a wild time of it but I didn’t know any of the detail he was coming up with. So I put an advert in the newspaper asking anyone who knew me to come forward with their stories about me. Once I had gathered them all together I went back and made the film, which was really a reconstruction of a character that all these people thought they knew. It was me and it wasn’t. All my films are about identity and I think The Alcohol Years kicked that off.
In a way The Alcohol Years also allowed me to move on and make Dreams of a Life [her film about Joyce Vincent, whose body lay unnoticed in a London flat for three years after her death]. I felt that having exposed myself and my life on screen in that way gave me permission to look at Joyce’s life in the way that I did.
Were you surprised by how much Joyce Vincent’s story resonated with people?
I always knew it would strike a big chord. It took five years for us to make it and no one wanted to invest in it because they all thought the story was too grim and that no one would be interested in seeing it. But I always felt it was an important story of our times that could shine a light on the way we live now, especially if you were to tell it in a very filmic way rather than a journalistic, factual way. I felt that if you told the story right and you didn’t pass judgment on any of the characters in it then people would find a lot to identify with. And they did. So many different types of people connected with it. I believe that if you keep a story open and alive, and don’t close it down, then people will feel able to insert themselves into the gaps. People will think, this could be me. After the film came out I had so many people writing to me saying just that.
You’re often described as Paul Morley’s sister. How does that feel?
My brother is nine years older than me, so when my dad died he was just leaving home. There are two parts to my brother for me. The first is when he was living at home and he was incredibly inspirational, bringing all this music into the house, all these books, especially science fiction, which he loved. When I was six he was 15 and I really hero-worshipped him. Then came part two when he left home and went to work at the New Musical Express and I still hero-worshipped him. I used to buy the paper and feel really proud of him. So I don’t mind people describing me as his sister. It’s been brilliant having him as a brother. He is very, very supportive.
None of our family did anything remotely connected with writing or art or film before he moved into that world. I remember my mum showing a copy of the NME to my seven-year-old cousin and saying that this was Paul’s writing. She said: “Doesn’t he write neatly?” Paul was the first one to show us that there were other ways of interpreting the world. Whenever he was on Newsnight Review my mum would tell everyone. Mind you, all she’d notice was if he’d had a shave or not. The only annoying thing is that on IMDb it says I’m Paul Morley’s sister, but it doesn’t say he’s my brother. We’ll have to rebalance that!
I’m adapting a book by a major writer but I’m not allowed to say what it is. All I can say is it’s fiction and it will have a really good female cast. I’ve finished my first draft and I think it will be announced around the time of Cannes.