Interview: David Farr

With Susanne Bier bringing his adaptation of John Le Carré’s The Night Watchman to BBC primetime, British screenwriter David Farr has been busy behind the camera himself, crafting his directorial debut The Ones Below. A nightmarish upstairs/downstairs simmering suburban thriller, it is an impressive first outing on the big screen for the vastly experienced theatre director. CineVue’s Matt Anderson sat down to speak to him about blending European and British tradition, Roman Polanski and making the transition to celluloid.

Matt Anderson: How well would you say you know your own neighbours?
David Farr: *Laughs* I do know my neighbours actually quite well but where I live now is nowhere like where the film takes place. London is a very mobile, fluid city. People come from abroad, or different parts of Britain and only stay for a few years. One of the film’s themes is about the city as a huge, lively, thronging place, yet somehow one can feel very lonely. You don’t see anything of conventional London at all. It’s about the state of being in an urban environment and the psychology of that. 
MA: Where did the idea for The Ones Below come from and how did the project evolve?
DF: It came from the experience of being a parent, but more specifically from a conversation with an actor that I was directing. We talked at length about a serious illness that his baby had had and how incredibly isolated they had felt. It rung bells with me of the strangeness of suddenly have a baby, which is the most natural thing we can do and yet our sophisticated society still finds this difficult, partly because we can’t control the simple act. Pregnancy and birth remain mysterious and fragile. The psychological trauma that comes afterwards is also very complex. Meanwhile life in the city goes on all around you and you have to just cope. These were the ideas flying around in my head, perhaps without fully understanding why I’d arrived there. 
MA: In your previous screenwriting experience did you find it difficult to put material you had written into somebody else’s hands to direct?
DF: Hanna is the obvious example. Film is a director’s medium so it can be frustrating that, increasingly, the screenplay is there to act as bait for great talent; it is really the beginning of the creative journey. Then the director arrives, bringing the actors. Hanna was very different to how I imagined it when I wrote the draft but in an enormously exciting way. Joe Wright was fascinated in the fairytale and he pushed that to quite an extreme level, stylized the film in a hugely successful way. 

MA: What was it that made you decide to step behind the camera to direct? 
DF: I’m a bit different to some of the theatre guys that have made the transition. I didn’t go to the theatre when I was young. I was a geek that watched loads of movies at home so I knew cinema inside out. However, I did some theatre at university so when I came out into the world finding work there was much easier. In the 90’s Britain was a tough place to make movies. It was nothing like now, I’ve never seen such a burst of creativity. By a bit of luck really, through Spooks and then Hanna, I found a way back. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and although a first film is always a bit tentative, I felt like I had a lexicon and a good understanding of the form. I knew what kind of movie I wanted to make; it was probably the most exciting thing I’ve ever done. 
MA: What were the most significant differences, and challenges, in directing for the screen as opposed to a stage production? 
DF: Everyone understands that film is a directors’ medium and are really focused in helping you discover what you want. If I had an instinct about something but couldn’t quite find the right way of expressing it the actors and crew are all there. Everyone works very hard for an intense period of time. In theatre you’re with your actors for a long time and everyone else arrives later. The big difference in film is budgetary. Every moment on set costs more money, particularly on a relatively small budget. Everyone is trying to create material that you can take away afterwards to sculpt the movie. That’s a completely different experience to what you’re doing in the theatre. 
MA: Having a male writer-director foreground issues of motherhood, pregnancy and post-partum depression was quite a bold move – did you have help from women in your life in writing that element of the story? 
DF: The key to the writing [The Ones Below] was discovering that it was a female story. It didn’t take long to realise that this was going to be about two women. I was acutely aware of that and very happy that the producer, executive producer and production designer were all women and all mothers, quite recently in two cases. It was important to make sure that whilst it would remain a personal movie that it was tested with a preview audience at every stage. 

MA: Has there been a noticeable difference between a male/female reaction to the film? 
DF: I don’t know if men and women watch it in a different way. People watch it as individuals. Having children, or not, might be more of a fundamental difference. Having said that we can all imagine what it’s like to have kids. I wanted to put two actresses at the very heart of the film and the men, wonderful though they both are, are in support of those two actresses – theirs is the central relationship of the film. 
MA: Comparisons have been drawn to the work of Polanski and Hitchcock – do you consider them a significant influence on your filmmaking? 
DF: Yes. There are others but I wanted to make a film which was unusual for a British movie. I’ve been drawn very much to European authors in the theatre so I feel part of that tradition. I have Jewish blood on my mother’s side so Polanski makes a lot of sense to me. Polanski, however, makes films with an eye that is entirely unique because of where he came from and his experiences. That said, my father’s side are as English as you can get. So my interest was to try and be influenced by the Polanski and Hitchcockian tradition of suspense but find almost an awkward English comedy. I mean that quite delicately. It is a comedy to some extent, there is a playfulness and mischief to it. 

MA: Especially moments where the clash of Europe and British cultures comes to bear… 
DF: Absolutely, we have a couple who seem to be very relaxed and liberal but there are untested things in their relationship. The couple downstairs are much stranger people, they don’t quite know where they exist but their love is unquestionable. It’s not purely a clash between Europe and Britain. I also see it as a clash between two different approaches to life. The downstairs couple are certain of everything, their right to have a child, their love for each other. The upstairs couple are – in the classic liberal condition – unsure about their approach to motherhood, even their own relationship and to some extent that’s where the battleground lies. The English naturalistic tradition is one which I was quite keen to experiment away from for a more European type of film. That’s why the colour and whole style is more heightened. 
MA: The four actors assembled are excellent – how did you come to choose this cast? 
DF: Very different ways – the two guys I knew from their previous work. David [Morrissey] taking the role of Jon was key – he’s that tricky role where he’s not the biggest part but his authority and danger are absolutely vital. The two women I didn’t know; Laura [Birn] flew over from Finland and blew me away, she was exactly as I had imagined the role which was very exciting. We took a lot longer with Kate because she is the lead role to some extent. In the end they ended being rather similar which was good in a number of ways. It suggested a double quality which I like. Finding Clémence [Poésy] was the key moment.
David Farr and Clémence Poésy will be attending at Q&A for the film at Clapham Picturehouse on Wednesday 9 March at 6.45pm. For more information click here. The Ones Below is in cinemas nationwide on Friday 11 March.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens