The Violators is the debut feature film from novelist-turned-director Helen Walsh. You can read my review of the film here. Please be aware that there are spoilers for the end of the film towards the end of this interview. Proceed with caution!
First of all, congratulations on your debut! Let’s talk about creating the world for this film – Helen, you were a novelist before you turned your attention to writing and directing for film. How did you find the transition into this more visual medium, and what prompted your decision to direct your own film?
HW: I think it was always inevitable that I was going to direct my own film. I don’t understand why more novelists don’t make that transition, or why they wouldn’t want to direct adaptations of their own novels. It was a very natural progression for me.
Prior to being a published novelist, I applied to film school in London. I couldn’t afford to go, so I ended up taking a job in a film and literary agency. Left after 6 months to write novels, moved up north… It was always much easier for me to tell the stories in novel form, because you just go off on your own, write your novel, find an agent… I think that living up north, being completely disconnected from London’s media and film institutions, it’s really hard to get a film off the ground. It can take 7 years of gestation. But if you have a story and you want to tell it, it’s easier to just write it as a novel, and hopefully get it published.
Now, for The Violators, originally it started as a short story, but the landscape was so cinematic and felt so visual, that I knew it was the right story to make my directorial debut with.
Are you going to continue making films? Was this a good experience for you?
HW: Yeah, definitely.
Awesome, that’s what we like to hear. More ladies making movies, please! Now Lauren, how did you first get involved with the film?
LM: I was on a BBC1 drama called Good Cop, which is where Helen first saw me, and then she tracked me down to this drama studio where I went for classes. She invited me to read the script for Shelly, and at first I was really out of my comfort zone, to play such a challenging and complex character, but by the time I finished reading the script it felt right, so I said yes and we went on from there.
Let’s talk about your interpretation of Shelly, actually. She’s really complex, as you said – she navigates this very complicated field, all these different people and dynamics between them… How did you approach her character?
LM: She’s this strong, feisty character, she’s got a lot of responsibility for a 15-year-old, like protecting her younger brother… I lived in an area where a lot of girls like Shelly live, so I learned by watching them, got a sense of how they acted, and then worked on how to look and sound like them. I had to work on changing my voice, to get this feistier sound–
I can already hear the pitch difference between you and her, yes!
LM: Yes! [laughs] The accent as well, where the film is set is quite close to Liverpool, so I used this broader northern accent, which helped me get into Shelly’s role.
Whereabouts did you film?
HW: We actually filmed in a place called Birkenhead, which is Liverpool’s ugly, close sister. To be honest, Birkenhead could have been replaced with any one of those northern hinterland towns, a town that’s economically and socially marginalised, completely disconnected from the mainland. It’s a very alienated landscape.
Absolutely, when I was watching it I couldn’t really place it, which I think is a strength to the film. But how important was it to you, if at all, for people to be able to place the film by accent, for example?
HW: It was much more important for me to give a truthful interpretation of a particular place caught in a particular time, and resist the more distinctive and perhaps glamorous regional working class locations of Liverpool or Manchester. We were actually very close to Liverpool, and I wanted to shoot within a five-mile radius so the landscape can have that certain quality to it, very lonely, very bleak, with an almost poetic brutality to it. It’s very beautiful to me, I love all the pastel colours which I brought out in colour grading, the paints, the rust, the yellow, the red grains… it’s a real post-industrial wasteland. Of course the temptation is there, that across the water you’ve got Liverpool, which is an absolutely incredible cinematic location. The one thing that we shot in Liverpool was the club scene, which didn’t sit well in the film because it took it out of its environment.
Is that why the club scene is missing? She goes out and then it’s the next day and we kind of assume she went out clubbing.
HW: Yeah. Because of the modest budget of the film we had so many constraints to work out, and that was one of them.
Tell me a little bit about that, what were the major hurdles for you?
HW: The biggest one was that we used natural light, which is a crazy decision, but one that wasn’t actually influenced by the budget. It was always my intention to use natural light, but as we had to pick a period in the year that would fit with Lauren’s schooling, and also to get cast and crew in general when they’re affordable, we ended up filming in January, which is a time with very little light. There wasn’t really much time to rehearse either, we had about six days before we started filming.
Then, we had this amazing location that me and my DP had gone out trawling this landscape for, and six days before shooting the local council pulled our location. We’d told them that it was a rom-com, and they got wind of the script, and because of the elements of teenage grooming and sexuality and because there was a gun involved, they denied us a bunch of locations. So the DP and I, we were literally up at 4 in the morning trying to source locations. Sometimes actually while we were finishing a shoot, we were off trying to find the next location. Because it was a small crew, and we were quite intimate and low key, we were able to turn up, shoot, and move on to the next one really quickly.
There were a couple of hairy moments, as well. Once we got chased off by drug dealers, and they were really scary, they rounded up on us with dogs… The DP was propositioned once, and lured towards one of the flats by some quite scary sex workers, and then one evening we were looking for a location, and the DP had found this amazing, cinematic block of flats in the middle of nowhere – we didn’t even know this place existed, it looked abandoned – and it was really well lit, so we brought the crew down there. It was a scene where Mikey is driving Shelly and Jerome home, and they stop by this block of flats and Mikey says “you could have one of those, I’m doing them all up”. So we’re filming in the rain, and we’re descended on by an armed police response unit, who said “we have to get you out of the area very quickly, you’ve come into a no-go area”… So there’s a lot of exciting incidents that happened while shooting.
LM: I remember getting into the car that took us to the set, and just running for my life!
Whoa, I can’t imagine what that must have been like!
LM: It was a real reminder that people actually live in these locations, and this is their life.
HW: When we got descended on by 50-60 young boys with dogs, what happened was they saw the Range Rover driving down and they thought it was a rival gang, so they’d come out ready to take the competition out! Fortunately, we didn’t have Jerome [Shelly’s younger brother in the film] with us…
I guess that made everything extra real for you guys.
HW: Yeah. Where possible we would rehearse with the actors on location, so they got a real sense of the place. It was absolutely freezing as well, but it worked, they’d take on the face of the landscape and I think that’s so important. Even the house, Shelly’s house, we searched and searched through the local council until we found it. We wanted a place that we didn’t have to dress, that had been lived in by a family like Shelly’s.
Now, I want to talk a bit about the character of Rachel. I couldn’t get a read on her at all – even at the end when everything finally comes together, she’s still very closed off and mysterious. As the writer, what can you tell me about shaping her character?
HW: She is alienated in a different way. Shelly is alienated from mainstream society, she falls part of the struggling class so to speak. Rachel comes from quite a privileged background, as we’re led to believe, but she’s also alienated, also a loner with no friends. In this instance she’s alienated from her immediate family, from her mother who is materialistic and selfish, and as we find out later her father as well, who has abandoned her. That is the engine that drives her, she craves paternal affection from one man, one violator, who is refusing to give it to her.
Speaking of, we talked a bit about the dynamic between Mikey and Shelly earlier. It’s fascinating to watch Shelly as she thinks things through, and pinpoint the moment where she makes the decision that changes everything. Lauren, what can you tell me about that scene in the car, what was going through your head? [Beware: SPOILERS in the answer for the end of the film!]
LM: For that particular scene, as an actress I don’t think you can ever really prepare yourself. It’s important that you have a good relationship with the director, to talk about their vision in their head and to try to picture it… For me, the camera was mainly on my face, and the rest of the action didn’t really matter. So I focused on that.
HW: It was a really, really difficult thing to pull off. For me as a writer, it was about Shelly realising that, aside from the fact that she’s essentially being raped, that Mikey is just another abusive man, no better than her father who she fought so hard to be rid of. That’s the moment she realises they’re both the same, that she has swapped one violator for another. It’s her tragedy.
And do you think Shelly gets together with Kieran after the end? He was the only person truly sympathetic to her throughout, and I think there’s something there between them from the beginning, something that was never acted on.
LM: I’d like to think they do get together, yes.
HW: Kieran is fundamentally a good man, and Shelly knows that. The knowledge is always there and I think she takes some comfort in it. But ultimately she carries the legacy of all the damage that has been done to her, and she’s embarrassed by Kieran’s kindness and doesn’t know how to handle it. She doesn’t feel enough self-worth to take on this relationship, and it’s only at the end of her journey, with her new-found self-respect, that she might be able to. She’s no longer sexualised by the camera, she has that kind of innocence and dignity and respect that would enable her to love someone else, now that she knows how to love herself.
I like to think that there’s good things in the future for her. The film ends on a positive note.
HW: I’m glad you think so!
For Shelly and Jerome, at least! Not everyone escapes unscathed – the final confrontation between the three main characters is proof of that.
HW: I think that Rachel and Mikey’s cycles aren’t broken. I quite like the idea that life isn’t reciprocal, that not everyone can move forward in their journeys. And although Shelly’s social and economic cycle isn’t broken – she still lives in that house, she will probably never move out of that estate – but the cycle has been broken in her emotional development, and I think you can see that in Lauren’s face at the very end.
Now, your previous work also deals with complicated issues, much like this film. Teenage sexuality, power struggles, sex workers and their lives… What drives your need to tell these stories?
HW: It’s truth, it’s an interrogation of uncomfortable truths. Female sexuality, and adolescent female sexuality in particular, excites me in terms of storytelling, first as a novelist, now as a filmmaker, and in general as a human observer. I’m intrigued by its potency and its fragility, and it’s so morally complex. I’m really drawn to ambiguous, morally complex stories, and while in novels you’re in control, there’s a huge risk in filmmaking. I wanted to imbue Shelly with a certain degree of sexual agency and self-determination in what is essentially an abusive relationship, because it isn’t so much a case where she is groomed in that very hierarchal structure where she’s snatched from a care home, drugged, and raped. It’s a very subtle, constantly shifting power dynamic. Shelly is seduced by Mikey, she’s beguiled by him, and she’s obviously attracted to him. That excites me as a writer to explore stories that we don’t like to talk about, elements like children’s sexuality, because Shelly is a child.
When I was filming I was really conscious of the framing; in the opening scenes she is reduced to a bum and a crotch. We see her as she sees herself. And then as the film progresses, the camera eases back. The first time she goes into the Cash For Gold, her hair is up and we can see a layer of fuzz on her neck, really soft, really child-like. It represents everything that is so morally complex about this story: we’re looking at a child, with an innocent white neck, but the way the camera frames her, we’re invited to sexualise her. I think these uncomfortable spaces will continue to excite me.
I certainly hope we’ll see more work from you. Lauren, have you got anything lined up for the future? Any more projects?
LM: I’ve had a few casting calls, but nothing definitive yet.
HW: You had filmed something–
LM: Yes, I did a TV drama episode for BBC1, which is about Henry VIII. It was good going from The Violators to a completely different role, it’s nice for people to see.
Of course! Who do you play in this?
LM: I play Katherine Howard.
Oh wow, can’t wait to see that! Thank you both for taking the time for this interview, and best of luck in your next endeavours.
The Violators is out on DVD and digital from 25 July.