Dec 4, 2010

An interview with Brian Welsh, director of In Our Name

I think I’ll always have a bit of a soft spot for IN OUR NAME, because it was through that film that I got my first real break as a critic, getting into this year’s London Film Festival, so it was a pleasure to speak with Brian Welsh about his provocative second feature. We spoke over the phone, me from my office and Brian from the bar of the Curzon Soho. There was some noise on the line, and from the bar, and that combined with Brian’s thick Glasgow accent has sometimes made this transcript a bit of a challenge. Still, it was a fun interview, and Brian was happy to engage with the various issues that his film throws up.

24FPS: Brian, I wanted to start off by asking you a bit about your background, and how you first became interested in becoming a film director.

Brian Welsh: Sure, my background is really in editing. I was working as a runner in a post-production suite up in Glasgow, and I was fortunate enough while I was there to get the opportunity to cut a pilot for a documentary, which fortunately got financed by the BBC. Then I continued to work as an editor, cutting films about social issues affecting Glasgow, cutting some films for the Scottish Socialist Party. I really wanted to get into drama, but realised it was hard to break in from Glasgow, so I came down to the National Film School. Using resources and people there, I decided to direct this script [I assume this is his first feature; Kin] and that no budget film got me the opportunity to get my foot in the door, and get the money to fund In Our Name.

24FPS: I noticed from your IMDB filmography, that you’ve done a lot of documentary and engaged with a lot of social issues in your films.

BW: Sure, yeah.

24FPS: And that’s something that In Our Name does as well, often quite angrily. So I wondered if there was a personal reason you wanted to engage with the ideas in In Our Name, and was it the issue or the story that you first came up with?

BW: It’s complicated, because I do tend to get my back up if there’s something I feel strongly that I want to talk about, but there are also a lot of personal things in it as well. I guess you’re asking did the story come first or did the issue come first. I was really drawn to write it because of the testimonials I’d been reading about soldiers, both in the states and over here, and their difficulties reintegrating back into society after being away, and this breaking of a kind of military covenant, the agreement between the armed forces and ourselves as a society. But as a story, I’m drawn to stories where something follows you and creates a stumbling block, and in this case guilt; guilt from the characters past creates problems for them in the present. So this idea of this soldier coming home harbouring these scars, this guilt, and it becoming a real stumbling block to them living the life they want to live, was something that drew me to it, as well as the issue.

24FPS: Obviously the big challenge of the film is finding the right actor to play Suzy. So can you tell us a little about how you cast Joanne Froggatt, and how you worked with her on that performance?

BW: Sure. I knew I wanted to see Joanne Froggatt very early on, and unfortunately we got a knockback to begin with, so I saw a wealth of actresses after getting that knockback from Joanne and I said to my producer in the middle of the auditions “look, I really, really want to see Joanne Froggatt, can we see if we can set up a meeting or something?” Coincidentally, she’d read the script by this point, it had been lying around in her agent’s office, and it was kind of a coming together. She said “Oh, I really buzz off the script”, and I asked if she’d come in and read for it. So she came and read for the part, and I was absolutely blown away by her first audition; visibly moved, and she really likes to work in the same way that I like to work. We were very much in tune with Mel Raido [who plays Suzy’s husband Mark] as well, who was fantastic from the first audition.

The process was… we spent a lot of time in rehearsal. We had a very intensive ten days, all living and existing as the characters, also with the kid, Chloe, who plays Suzy’s daughter. They spent ten days existing as a family, and improvising defining moments up to the moment that the story starts, so that when we got to the shoot there was a very three-dimensional, tangible relationship there.

24FPS: The other thing I want to ask about the preparation is; your two main actors are playing ex soldiers, so did you have them do any training for that?

BW: Yeah, I did. Mel’s an incredibly physically fit guy anyway, really fit, and coincidentally into boxing, which was in the script. But Joanne did some training in a programme called Brit Mil Fit where you can go to parks or sport centres around the country and ex soldiers train people in a military type scenario, and Joanne did that, and also I was keen that she bulked up a lot, because she’s very slight, so I had her pigging out on pizza and going to a lot of this training. We’re also very fortunate that Chloe, the little girl who plays the daughter, her Mother and Father coincidentally were both soldiers and actually met in the army, so they were a great resource for us to call on.

24FPS: I think when people see the film they’ll agree that one of the most striking scenes is when Suzy addresses her sister’s primary school class, and breaks down after telling them a war story. So I was wondering where that story came from, and the process of shooting that particular scene?

BW: Obviously the story is about something horrific that’s happened to a young Iraqi girl. Reading a lot of the stories, case studies and testimonies, children are very often a trigger and will stimulate memories and guilt, and the idea of children being victims of war, I felt that was something I wanted to include; her being a mother as well. So the idea of children and the effect that conflict has on children; that was kind of the reason for including that scene.

When we shot the scene, we shot it in a school up in Newcastle, and I was very keen that the kids knew nothing about what was happening, I knew from working with kids in the past that you’ll only get them to react to things in the moment once, twice if you’re lucky, or you’d have to rewrite the story every take to get that genuine reaction from them. So we shot the kids first, and they had no idea what the story was so that, and obviously Joanne’s performance, so that reaction you see from them is absolutely genuine. Every take we did after that they were completely desensitised, and by the end of three or four takes they were yawning.

But Joanne… one of the things that she really identified with in the script was that scene, and I was crying behind the monitor watching when she did her first take.

24FPS: A thing that really struck me visually about the film was your use of location, and how you use the derelict parts of Newcastle to echo Suzy’s experiences in Iraq and what she saw there.

BW: Yeah.

24FPS: and combining that with the use of sound to suggest her hallucinations. So could you tell us about designing those sequences; were they always designed that way, or did you initially want to go into the war itself?

BW: That’s a really good question, and something that not many people pick up on, but I felt that because it’s a psychological condition and most of the conflict in the film is inside her head we really have to see and feel things the way that she does. So there was a lot of sound written into the script, because that was a way that we could voyage into her head. It was quite difficult shooting a film like that; quite a naturalistic language but trying to show something that’s psychological. I fought a lot with whether to use flashbacks or not, but I came to the conclusion that we have to, we have to use flashbacks because we have to see what’s going on; just a glimpse of what’s inside her mind’s eye. I think that blending of languages gives it a uniqueness.

24FPS: You’ve partnered with a few veterans charities for the release of the film, and obviously you’re very passionate about the issues. Apart from the goal of finding an audience, is there a political goal for you with the film, and how might you define that if there is?

BW: Combat Stress were incredibly important to my research, they discussed with me the issues in the film, they allowed me to go up and spend some time at their centres and to meet real sufferers of PTSD, and that hammered home to us the importance of portraying the issue as honestly as we could. We hope that the film will help their cause and also perhaps reach out to people who need to seek help for a condition that obviously… obviously the army is a hyper masculine environment and talking about ones feelings isn’t always viewed as a strength. So it’s often bottled up and the average is 14 years for someone to seek help.

24FPS: I think it’s an admirable goal, and that’s also why when I saw that BBFC had given you an 18 I was a little disappointed, because there are kids who’ll be going into the army who aren’t yet 18, and I think it’s an interesting film for them to see before they do that.

BW: Yeah. The violence in the film is not explicit, the sex in the film, though one of the scenes is kind of harrowing, is not explicit. The reason it was given an 18 is that we used the word “cunt” five times. Apparently if we’d used it three times it would have been fine.

24FPS: [laughing] Still ridiculous aren’t they?

BW: But how many 16-18 year olds are going to watch it I don’t know. The film will be available on Curzon on Demand.

24FPS: Just a couple of quick questions before we wrap up. First of all I was wondering if you’ve got a next project yet and what you can tell us.

BW: I’ve been away, after the festival I went up to Scotland writing a new project. I’ve got pages and pages of stuff I need to read my way through, but I don’t want to say too much about it. It’s a film about looking for spirituality in all the wrong places.

24FPS: And just one final question; Aside from In Our Name, obviously, what’s the best film you’ve seen lately?

BW: Jesus, good question, what have I seen lately? I saw a wonderful film at the festival, it was a Vienamese film called Don’t Be Afraid, Bi.

24FPS: I wanted to see it, but I missed it.

BW: I thought it was a beautiful film. What else have I seen that I really enjoyed? I loved Of Gods and Men.

My thanks to Brian for taking the time to talk to me. His film opens on December 10th, it's playing at the Curzon Renoir in London, and should be coming to independent screens in the big cities. Check your local listings. You'll also be able to see the film through the Curzon On Demand service, which launches next year. You can read my review from the London Film Festival HERE.

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