One of the main points that arises in the conversation I have with director Hope Dickson Leach is a question she asks: “What is a Hope Dickson Leach film”? I don’t really have an answer, and neither does she want to give one at this stage in her career. But if there’s one adjective I can bring up to faintly explain her work so far, and the director herself, it’s exciting. Leach has carved herself out as one of the most interesting emerging talents in the British film industry, after a string of shorts such as Morning Echo and The Dawn Chorus caught the attention of audiences and producers alike playing at festivals across the world. Her 2016 debut feature, The Levelling, an intense, intimate family drama, was shown to critical acclaim and contained all the nuance and affection that makes her such an engaging contemporary voice. Just before she gave a powerhouse lecture to Exeter’s film students, I sat down with Leach to discuss navigating the film industry, and what it’s like to come off of making a successful first feature.
On your biography it talks about how you were born in Hong Kong, moved to England, then went on to study in New York. How did this diversity of experiences effect your filmmaking?
I’m very curious about the relationship between place and identity and this notion of home, and what that really means. So I think that’s something that I’ve brought, I’ve developed from the way I’ve kind of moved around a lot of my life. I also think there’s something about being the outsider that appeals to me. Obviously growing up in Hong Kong you know, you’re this kind of toxic outsider, the kind of colonial, privileged white outsider, [and] then going to America you’re kind of reviled as the ex-colonial. But sort of being different, and almost in that way I found it hardest to live in London when I was just like other people. I quite like it, there’s a point of view that allows you to simultaneously be a part of something and feel apart from it, and that’s definitely something I find interesting and useful for storytelling.
You started off in the world of short films, and The Levelling is the first time you’ve tackled a feature. How was the change in runtime?
Well, it’s not just a longer experience, that’s the big lesson you learn. Apart from the fact it takes an awful lot longer to get there, you’re talking about moving from thousands of pounds to hundreds of thousands, millions of pounds. And you know, that comes with it a whole load of machinery and infrastructure, and commercial sensibility as well – you have to be aware how you’re going to find an audience and all those things that are really pushed upon you. I think there is a freedom with your first feature, people try to protect you from worrying about that too much, but even getting to the point where someone’s going to give you money, you have to be a bit more savvy than you are with your slightly obtuse experimental short films. So yeah, for me, it took a long time because there was a lots of false starts on that […] It’s a really great place to figure out how to tell a story quickly and what storytelling is. And then, you want a stretch – you’re like “okay, I’m done with that, I need a bigger canvas now”, and the stories become much more complex because short films really are only about one thing. And feature films in a way are only about one thing, but they have to have a few moving parts.
“I’d rather not be prescriptive going in, saying, This is the kind of film that I make”
The Levelling certainly couldn’t be done as a short feature. The remarkable way in which the main characters’ perspectives shift is an experience you can’t get in short form.
Well thank you, yeah. I think what was interesting about The Levelling was it was much more straightforward in lots of ways than other scripts I’d been trying to make as features in terms of the kind of architecture. But what it forced me to do was really go deep and say “okay, we’ve got not very much money, this is a character piece, so what does that take, and what spaces are we going to create on the screen and in people’s heads in order to make this sustainable and engaging for the length of time?”
And so that was the challenge, which was really wonderful to be forced to do, because it’s much harder actually than throwing lots of things at the page or at the screen which in a way you can hide behind – so there’s nothing to hide behind when you’ve just got two people figuring stuff out. So yeah, it was really hard. It is a big leap, and it’s not just in the writing, because I’d written [unproduced] features, so I kind of felt like I was thinking in terms of bigger stories – I’d already kind of stretched my palette a little bit. But it’s the edit, and then taking it out to audiences and having that experience where people respond to what you’ve managed to do to them (or not). It’s like opening another chamber in your brain. And so the next one doesn’t feel nearly so daunting from a storytelling point of view. Even though stories will have all their own challenges, every film is going to be totally different. There is something about going “okay, I’m fit now, I can run that next marathon!” So yeah, I wouldn’t say it was great that it was so hard, but I think I certainly tried to learn as much as I could from the difficult experience to make the most of that and move forward.
There seems to be a thread throughout all your work to do with family and collectives – in The Dawn Chorus, there’s a group of people brought together by grief, and then in Morning Echo, you have a very dysfunctional family dynamic.
Well yeah, dysfunctional families who don’t really talk. Even though from a storytelling point of view The Levelling kind of was much straighter than any of my short films, I think that’s the thread isn’t it? I think grief is fascinating because I think it does feel like this strange beast that [happens] when something terrible has happened, the sort of unthinkable – how we respond and how we move on. And I think that that is the most challenging version of change that I can imagine, and for me change is the kind of building block of storytelling, certainly cinema. But I’m trying to move away from the grief thing. I suspect it will haunt me for years! (Laughs)
But it’s funny, you try not be conscious about the themes in the stories that you tell. I think because of the way we get money for films now we do have to be quite self-conscious, about what we’re trying do, what our point of view is, what our vision is, what our voice as a filmmaker is. And I am sometimes concerned about that because I do think there’s a moment where you’re like “well actually, I don’t know, and I don’t want to be articulate about it before I’ve done it – I want to just be drawn to the story”. And inevitably, my own stuff will emerge, but I’d rather not be prescriptive going in, saying “this is the kind of film that I make”. So it’s an intriguing conundrum that we find ourselves in as people who try to make work: get your work made, but at the same time allow yourself to surprise yourself and to grow and to develop.
“It’s the edit, and then taking it out to audiences and having that experience where people respond to what you’ve managed to do to them. It’s like opening another chamber in your brain”
Can you talk about the way you have to pitch a film?
I think if you’re a director for hire, you kind of go in and you’re fighting with your take on the material, and so that doesn’t necessarily have to be personal. But inevitably if you’ve only made one film, you have to be convincing in terms of what you’ve done, and the material you’ve got shows that you’re the right person to deliver this. So that conscious experience. But I think even when you’re doing your own authored work I think, for markets, or for financiers or for anybody – people say “well what is a Hope Dickson Leach film?” Well, I don’t know – when I’ve made fifteen then you can tell me! But I’d rather not have to be like that after making one film – it’s a ridiculous question to ask.
So there is this sort of danger of branding and quick, quick careers which inevitably is happening. Just the way we all consume culture and the way we all respond and decide so quickly about things, which I think is sort of dangerous and antithetical to a creative endeavour. So you just have to have that balance where you can slightly play the game and give them what they need to hear, and at the same time protect yourself from allowing that to make you feel like you have to deliver.
And it’s forever been this way, and I think probably especially for women. When you talk to female filmmakers, they’re like: “you just get caged very quickly”. It’s like you make one film about this and someone goes “oh you’re the family drama person, okay, you do that”. So in that way, there is this kind of pressure on the first feature to be very defining. Which is also sort of terrifying, but you can understand it, and this is the way the industry works. But for me, for example, I don’t think my first feature represents my voice, or whatever, nearly as much as my shorts do. But it was the thing I could get made.
The thing I liked about The Levelling is there is no genre you can pin down. There were even undertones that almost resembled horror.
Yeah, it was funny when we were scoring it, because the way we worked, my composer Hutch [Demouilpied] would send stuff through as we were cutting it and we would sort of put it and cut to it and we would kind of go backwards and forwards. But occasionally she’d send us these pure horror cues. [However], we just can’t do that, because it’s not a horror movie. But that’s when you suddenly start to realise this question around audience expectations and marketability and all this kind of stuff, and even when we were cutting the trailer with our sales agents it was very much “would you like to sell this as a family film, or do you want to sell it as a thriller?” – and we were like, “I mean, I’d like not to have to decide that”. But I appreciate, whatever you think – I don’t know if it really delivers as a thriller – but of course I wanted to use, thriller, horror tropes, well not tropes, but things, things I could. It was very kind of end of the worldy Haneke, you know, various things that kind of came into it for me.
But at that budget you sort of go “do I have to plant my flag in a genre”, or can I just do this and then with my next one I can go – well, I can do a thriller film, there’s thriller elements, or you can also do well I can do a family film. You’re like, I understand genre, I understand its position in the industry, I understand its position from an audience point of view in terms of how you respond to what you’re watching. But as a filmmaker sometimes it is frustrating, and you do you just want to go “oh but I like that”.
It’s sort of about tone then, and it’s about finding a unifying action or message that kind of brings it together. And I think if you can do that then I think you can sort of bounce a little bit more in between, but I think if you ever say it’s many genres everyone will just run away and never finance your film. I mean it’s very much a drama. We were like, it’s a drama, but it still should be thrilling, it still should be moving, it still should be scary. I’m kind of down with that. [But] I think if you pretend to be a horror movie and there’s nothing scary then you’re in much bigger trouble.
“For me there’s a kind of emotional truth. If there’s an emotional truth to it, I sort of feel like the absurdity of the thing I’m enjoying is fine”
Yeah, I really liked the fact there were those blend of ideas
Yeah, and I wanted to subvert; I’m not a big fan of that kind of “ooh, watch out for the countryside, it’s dangerous out there”. Because, they’re fun, those films, but that wasn’t what this film was. The relationship with the country because of this idea of place and identity was so close that I kind of wanted it to be sympathetic, and understanding the emotional danger of what he’d [David Troughton’s character, Aubrey] been through and what she [Ellie Kendrick’s character, Clover] was looking into, but also the humanity and the nourishing aspects of it as well, so I was thinking I can’t go into that horror stuff.
There’s definitely an undercurrent of oppression in all your films. In [one of Leach’s short films] Morning Echo, there were moments I felt extremely uneasy. How do you pitch that tonally?
Nobody likes pitching… I think that’s why the feature I tried to get made before never got financed. Because I think people find it very hard to deal with that, because it’s not black comedy, it’s not quirky American indie, it’s something different. It’s just my point of view – and I think there’s that kind of “it’ll never work in feature” fear and you know, you’re just going “well, I don’t know… give it a shot!”. But, I mean, for me there’s a kind of emotional truth. If there’s an emotional truth to it, I sort of feel like the absurdity of the thing I’m enjoying is fine. I sort of lose interest in films where they’re absurd but I don’t believe in the emotion. And so I feel like for me that’s how I square it, I’m like –“Well I just think that’s funny, so why don’t we push that?” But there’s a heart there, that we’ve all got to engage with. And I think there’s probably some things people maybe get put off by as well, because [they want it to just be funny] and they don’t want to feel, you know, uncomfortable.
Can you talk about [one of] your latest project[s], Klepto?
It’s not made yet! We’re off to the project market in Macao. But yeah, so that’s my Hong Kong film. I grew up in Hong Kong, so this is a film set there – of all the projects I’ve got, this is the most similar, because it’s a written and directed by me piece, but it’s got that Morning Echo, Levelling kind of thing of these difficult family situations. But hopefully you hold your breath most of the way when you’re reading the script; at the moment it’s kind of (impersonates breathlessly reading it), “don’t do that”! So, we’ll see. It’s my kind of Jane Campion meets Edward Yang meets Michael Haneke – there you go, my small pitch. (Laughs) It’ll probably be nothing like that at all!