Interview with director Brian Welsh

This was meant to be for Little White Lies’ website  but it doesn’t seem they’ve published it yet (annoyingly) so thought I’d post it here as well:

Brian Welsh started off working in Glasgow as an editor on social documentaries, and then trained as an editor at The National Film and Television School. He wrote and directed his first micro-budget feature film Kin-about a guy who is separated from his family and is looked after by a care worker-between projects. His second feature In Our Name explores the plight of a female soldier Suzy, who returns home to her family mentally scarred from what she has witnessed during her time in Iraq.

Did working on documentaries  with social issues, did this inform the way you conceived of In Our Name?

I worked up in Glasgow as an editor with a company called Autonomi cutting a lot of films about things that were going on in the city, like we made a film [Good Cop] about a Race Relations copper and gang fighting problems. The film’s [also] about the Choker murder inquiry which was Glasgow’s Stephen Lawrence, if you like, with this young Sikh guy being killed. I’ve always been interested in films and stories about real people as opposed to mindless escapism, you know, cinema that really has something to say about the world around us and society. So that was my editing background and that overspilled into the stories I wanted to tell when it came to writing my own scripts.

How difficult was it to make that transition from editing documentaries to directing a feature film?

I was very fortunate, because I’d studied editing at The National Film School and the types of films or projects that I was excited about becoming involved in- the main reason for coming down there- weren’t really materialising. So I decided that given the fact that I had all of these resources and all of these very talented people I met, that it would be  a great idea to try my hand at directing something that I wanted to talk about. So I made a really low-budget film there, and luckily that was seen by Artificial Eye, and then they asked me if I’d like to submit a script for this new scheme that they were running, and that was In Our Name.

So it wasn’t too difficult to find funding for In Our Name?

Well, it wasn’t easy. Initially they set up a scheme where they wanted to make  a film that was like London to Brighton, so we always knew it was going to be quite low budget. And we needed some more money but luckily our producer, Michelle Eastwood, came on board at this point to help get more money. She fought for that, and we managed to get a pre-sale with BBC Films so they brought the extra bit of cash that we needed to put the wheels in motion and get the mechanics of the thing going.

You do read  a lot about how difficult it is to find funding for independent  British films.

Yes, of course, it is really difficult and a lot of the people I went to film school with are really           struggling to get a foot in the door.

A lot of people have compared you to social realist directors like Ken Loach, and I was    wondering how you felt about that?

[laughs] Yeah, it’s difficult because I think people initially want to know what  box they can put you in, and in some ways that’s a good thing because people know what they’re getting.. But for me in some ways it kind of stifles creative thought, because immediately it lends itself to a formatting of things. So, yes, I do make films about real people, but equally I think cinema should be an explanation of what’s going on beneath the surface as well. So I find these genre tags slightly frustrating. And in other European countries I don’t think it’s as much a problem as it is in England and in the States.

What would you consider to be your main influences?

Well, I like a lot of social realist films [laughs]. But films that have been really important in my life, Nil By Mouth was a really important film for me. I like a lot of Paul Greengrass’ early stuff, Dardenne brothers, and I’m just crazy about [Jacques] Audiard’s stuff. I’m just completely obssessed with his stuff at the moment.

What inspired you to tell the story of In Our Name was there any personal significance in the story?

I was reading a lot of testimonies both in the States and here and some quite severe cases of PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder]. Also the time when we started writing the script there was very little support in place, and it was like a breaking of the military covenant. Also I’m interested in stories where problems with the mind itself can create stumbling blocks for people.  And obviously with PTSD and working with the soldier’s desire to reintegrate into society, and then with these very severe psychological symptoms becoming a real stumbling block to getting  back into society, I saw that that could be quite a compelling conflict for a drama. So that was really what drew me to it initially.

The focus on a female soldier’s experience is quite unusual for films about soldiers, what motivated that choice?

There was a few things time and time again children were a real trigger for the onset of post traumatic stress symptoms  in the stories I was reading  and the people I was talking to and, obviously, quite often being the victims of knowing what it’s like to see some horrific things that can happen to children in a war zone. And having your own children and having maternal instincts and what’s it like to be a mother and come back to your own kids afterwards, after seeing the suffering of children in other countries.

How early on in the process of putting the film together did you realise that Joanne should play Suzy?

She’s [Joanne] is like one of the first few people I wanted to see, and I’d seen her in some ITV drama and I just thought she was outstanding and hadn’t done any film work. But unfortunately  we got knocked back initially, so I saw a lot of actresses and  eventually I said to the producer let’s just try again and see if she’d be interested. By that  point she’d actually read the script and coincidentally she was at the same point  hoping to set up a meeting, and so she came in and read for it, and as soon as she read for it I was like, ‘God this it, she’s perfect!’ She embodied the kind of raw honesty that we needed to carry it off.

And how did you find the rest of the main cast-Mel Raido who plays Suzy’s soldier husband Mark and Chloe Jayne-Wilkinson who play s their daughter?

Mel was the first guy that came in and he just had this energy and he’s wonderful at improvising.  He’s quite a quite dude in real life but as soon as he switches he’s just freefalls through things and there’s a real honesty to the way he works as well. It was difficult to find an actress that could top him, she had to be a very strong character too have made the decision she made in her life, and to be quite an empowered woman. I had to find someone to put him in his place, because I sort of fell in love with Mel when I saw him. For Cass, we did a lot of casting up in Newcastle for financial and acting reasons and we saw loads of kids from drama schools up there.  Luckily Chloe had just started at drama school and she was the last kid that we saw, and she came in she just had great character and when we put the three of them together, the family unit, it really gelled. We spent ten days before the shoot improvising as the family, so doing these defining moments in their life up until the script started. So by the time we started the shoot they were a real family unit.

I do think Chloe is really good in it, very assured for her age.

She is, she’s amazing she’s such a cool little character.  She came to the first audition dressed as Michael Jackson not to try and impress us in any way, but just because she’s completely obsessed with Michael Jackson [laughs]. She sort of moonwalked into the room.

I read that Chloe’s parents are soldiers themselves,  did they have  a lot of input in the film?

They did, when you’re working with kids you need a chaperone all the time and when we found out that they were both squaddies it  was just like, ‘God this is meant to be!’ Also it was great for us because it meant that they were always on set and were always able to back up things, or  for example something always come up with soldier’s uniforms, some soldiers  the way that they wear their beret [is important], and having someone there who was actually a soldier they could say, ‘that’s the right angle.’  And Mel spent a lot of time with Chloe’s dad talking about what motivated him as a person but also trying to pick up his accent.

How did you come up with the character of Mark. Because he’s quite an aggressive and often shocking character. Was he based on real people?

Yeah, from doing my research  I drew out these three characters which was Mark, Paul and Suzy and saw them as three facets of how you deal with your war experiences. Paul is able to contextualise his experiences and move on; Mark, he’s been programmed for violence he’s been commended on reacting in a violent manner to any perceived threat, so he’s like robotic. And in Suzy’s case the emotional scars are so big that she can’t psychologically deal with them. So that was idea, bring out three facets. The thing about Mark, because a lot of people are like, ‘God. He’s such a bastard!’ For me I can understand in some cases why he is like that because that’s how he’s being paid, to react to perceived threats.

How did you find the location of Suzy’s hometown? And was there a particular reason for choosing Newcastle?

I  initially wanted to shoot in Middlesborough, because I knew Middlesborough quite well and it seemed quite apt for this idea of her estate becoming the new war zone, and Middleborough [laughs] for some reason  seemed to fit that idea. For financial reasons we had to relocate to Newcastle due to lack of filmic infrastructure in Middlesborough, so we spent a couple of weeks looking for a location in the North East area, and then we find some of these streets in Newcastle. One street in particular that you  see in a long tracking shot, that looks like it’s been bombed was perfect for the visualisation in the script.

That leads me onto my next question, the way you filmed the location and your use of sound is very effective in conveying Suzy’s mental state, how did you decide on how to portray this mental state?

That’s a good point and I think a good point as well with this idea of observational social realism. Because I was very conscious that the film was naturalistic, but we also had to voyage into her head and feel the world she comes home to the way she feels it. So I knew that sound a very integral part in creating this so the idea, so the  idea is that you hear and feel the environment the way that she does. It was again that idea of her estate becoming the new war zone.

How did you go about filming the flashback sequences?

That’s an interesting one as well, I was fighting with the idea of keeping flashbacks in the film, at first I didn’t want to do it. And then gradually as people were reading the story , and thinking about doing the script analysis of the story, I started realising that we really had to have a visual representation of what it is that’s inside her head, even if it’s just something very short. So I actually shot stuff for the film on super 8 on holiday in Turkey with a young girl who I met out there.

Was it  a deliberate decision not to include any battle sequences?

It was a deliberate decision and I thought if we started putting battle sequences in it would become quite televisual , and I wanted it to be much more about  what it’s like to come home then I did about what it’s like to be there.

The film raises questions about the treatment of soldiers after they’ve been on duty,  do you hope this film will raise awareness about the need for more support, and what personally do you think could be improved?

Well we’ve worked very closely with [the military charity] Combat Stress throughout the whole research for the script all the way through to the shooting, was a very important part of the research. And I hope that the film does help to  raise awareness for them, I’ve been plugging them on my website. There’s been some new initiatives by the Tory party that have increased what the previous government had pledged. But it seems to me that there should be some more mandatory psychological profiling  upon returning home, which doesn’t take the form of a questionnaire like ‘rate your happiness from one to five’ kind of thing, it should be much more detailed. [With] the stigma that’s attached to exposing emotional scars and mental issues that a soldier can have,  it can be very, very difficult for them to reach out to superiors, not least because their careers are at stake. So I think in cases where soldiers have seen a lot of action or seen some horrific incidents there needs to be more detailed profiling.

The ending  is quite open-ended, I read that the original ending was more conclusive what prompted you to change it?

I think that the [mental] condition itself is cyclical in nature and I think in most cases it can take…in fact the average is that it takes 14 years for someone to seek out support. So for me at the start of the film she’s  returning from one battle and the end of the film she’s on another journey returning from another battle inside her head. And for me I get the impression that there could be another battle when she gets back from this one, so because I felt this condition was cyclical I didn’t want to tie it up. I also feel that it implicates the audience in some way and elevates the story from just being this one woman story which you engage with,  so seeing something bigger about the issue and the fact that this is happening around us all the time.

I read that your now working on another project how far are you into that?

I’ve just been in Scotland for a few weeks I had something that I’ve been wanting to write about for a while, it’s about people looking for spirituality in their lives. And I’ve written masses of stuff which I haven’t really read [laughs] since I’ve got back, so it’s early stages but in the new year I hope to get some development money and to continue writing.


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