Writer-director Rachel Tunnard and leading lady-executive producer Jodie Whittaker are a bubbly pair. Sparky personalities and the closeness of their long-term friendship imbues kooky British indie Adult Life Skills with a warmth, familiarity and humour. The film – now playing in cinemas UK-wide – made its European premiere at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival. They sat down for a chat with CineVue’s Matthew Anderson in the Scottish capital.
Matthew Anderson: Rachel, the main character (Anna) in Adult Life Skills is about you in some way, right?
Rachel Tunnard: It’s interesting because Jodie is one of my best friends, Rachel Deering [who plays Fiona] is also a close friend and those two have been best friends since they were born. I went to university with Rachel, Jodie was working as an actress, but we’d never been able to work together. We never came across scripts that felt like us, so I said “Right, I’m going to write something for us.” The characters in there are a mish-mash of the three of us in real life.
MA: Was the idea of having things done in life by a certain age the starting point of the story or was it more the theme of grief which the film tackles that came first?
RT: I moved back in with my parents just after turning 30, having lived in London and been in a relationship for years. I was an editor and didn’t know if I really wanted to be an editor. So it was definitely a moment of crisis. But the film started off slightly differently. I wanted to start writing and applied for a script writing course called She Writes, run by The Script Factory. I wrote a script over the course of 9 months: of a sad girl, looking out of a window, thinking about sad things. At the end of it I gave it to my brother and although he doesn’t do anything to do with film he thought it was amazing that I’d written a script.
MA: Jodie, a lot of viewers will know you from Broadchurch. When an actor has been in a tremendously successful TV series it’s sometimes hard to see them in any different light but here your performance here offers no trace of your former character…
Jodie Whittaker: Apart from the crying…and just general snot.
MA: True enough. But what’s the main difference in preparing for TV and a film role?
JW: Broadchurch is a weird thing unto itself. In every season we’re kept in the dark. In a way it’s liberating because there’s not a lot of prep you can do. There is the trauma of our son being discovered but because it does happen over 8 hours you have the luxury of exploring the quietness, the anger, the numbness or the rage and that’s only because you’re given time to do so. Whereas I think with cinema you want to achieve all the same arcs and the same journey but it’s much shorter. It’s completely different with something like Adult Life Skills because it’s funny as well. I think the lack of preparation was helpful because I’m a bit of a geek and I’ll do a lot of work, often to stop me from being nervous, but when you get there you realise it isn’t about that – you’ve got to not make decisions. For me it’s about being ready to adapt.
MA: There’s an ease of interaction and familiarity between everyone involved. Was everything scripted or was some free rein given to the actors?
RT: No, it was all scripted. The spontaneity is a tribute to the actors. I’d written it very specifically for them. Everything that wasn’t natural I lost in the edit because it stood out like a sore thumb.
MA: You made a short before the feature: how did the script evolve?
RT: I’d written the full feature but the BFI didn’t want to offer me half a million quid unless I directed something (other than thumb videos). So they gave us the choice of either doing some scenes from the film or doing a separate self-contained short. I chose to do that because it was more satisfying. Because it wasn’t awful, and the full script already existed, it meant that financiers could look at the kind of thing we were going to get and it all happened very quickly.
MA: Three female generations of one family feature in the film: why so few male characters? And is any part of the Tunnard family directly represented?
RT: My grandparents died when I was younger but my grandma did use to wear Reebok trainers and read Stephen King and was sort of a provocateur in her old age. But I have no idea why I wrote three generations of women: it just happened. For the grandma I took words that my dad says and put them in the mouth of an old lady.
MA: How did you settle upon grief from the point of view of a grieving sibling, specifically twins? It’s an unusual angle.
RT: I wrote about something that I am scared of; although we’re not twins, I am really close to my brother. The twin thing came about originally because I was having some trouble communicating the tone of the short to financiers so I made a thumb video and I thought when you look at two thumbs they sort of look identical. So maybe that would make it a logical twin story…I then got some money from the Wellcome Trust to do research into twin loss as it is completely different to other people’s grief. It manifests itself in a massive identity crisis, often an existential crisis and quite often twins still see and experience their twin as thought they were alive.
MA: Why do you think we find it so difficult to cope with both our own and other people’s grief? Have you learnt from researching and making this film a “best way” to go about it all?
RT: No I haven’t, and I haven’t got any sort of pearls of wisdom to offer on that one particularly. I think that’s probably why I put the kid in there. He has a sort of directness whereas everyone else tip-toes around her. The mum and the nan have ideas of how they can help her without just addressing it. He [Clint, played by Ozzy Myers] just slices through that. I guess the point of the twin loss research was that it is something that is very difficult for your mum, dad, nan or anyone else to understand. Because their grief is quite unique.
MA: Did you ever consider setting the film in a non-rural area?
RT: No, it was never going to be in a city. The original was set in the Lake District and we then practically had to relocate to the Peak District – we didn’t want it to be placed.
JW: You don’t watch American indies and that say that’s set in that specific city but I think we as Brits have a habit of doing so – because we’re so specific with dialect. I think it’s brilliant that Rachel managed to create a nameless but very real place. There were a lot of challenges but they were the most rewarding. Working with a kid and kid hours has its own challenges and also the river. It sounds ridiculous but that piece of water…we probably both feel quite sentimental about it because it battered us and we couldn’t film in it but it was beautiful and it was the safe place between Billy and Anna. There’s just something about “Northern cinema” – if we’re going to genre it, which I don’t really like doing – it makes you think of all the films set in Yorkshire. There’s something very grey about it, the struggle of it, the harder times. The thing that is quite beautiful about this way is making it stunning, its own world.
MA: Jodie, did you spend any time actually living in the shed?
JW: I hated that shed. I were grumpy every time I went in there. There were five hot water bottles in there and I could still see my breath. And I will moan about being cold. Because I’m an actress and I’m above my station. I had a big red nose and no makeup on but I think women look beautiful that way.
Adult Life Skills is in UK cinemas nationwide and on demand via all good digital platforms now.