Missing, Camera, Action: Helen and the Longer Take

By Jerry White

joe-lawlor-christine-molloy.jpgChristine Molloy and Joe Lawlor

Although their background is in experimental performance, Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor have created work that is completely cinematic in a way that few recent narrative films are. They emerged onto the international scene in 2006, with their collection of linked short films Civic Life (although the centrepiece film Who Killed Brown Owl? had been shot in 2004). Their first feature Helen and its connected short film Joy (both 2008) spring from the same aesthetic and working methods: the use of non-professional actors, extremely long takes, complex camera movements and a carefully considered evocation of urban landscapes. Helen is about a college student who agrees to be in a crime reconstruction film about a missing young woman named Joy, and it tells the story of the effect that this performance has on her sense of herself. In that way the film has hints of Vertigo, filtered through Chantal Akerman. Joy is the film-within-the-film, a hauntingly evocative vignette comprised of one very long take (albeit with two small inserts) that looks like the kind of missing-persons advisory that a police force headed by James Joyce might produce. I spoke with them in August 2008, as Helen and Joy were screening together at the Telluride Film Festival.

Jerry White: Was it important to you that Helen and Civic Life be shot on 35mm?

Christine Molloy: Yes. The first film we made in the Civic Life series was Who Killed Brown Owl? and it was really important, because we thought the location where we shot the film was very cinematic. We were commissioned to make a film in that location and we knew ourselves that, because of the quality of video that was available back in 2003, it would look rubbish. It was meant to be screened in the cinema.

JW: Was that part of the commission?

CM: Yes. It was so that the people who were involved in the making of the film locally would then go to see the film locally, in an event that the local borough was going to fund. And so there would have been no parity between what they see and what else they might see at this multiplex. The only way that works is if the production values are really high. And so the funds that were given to the film all went on the production itself. In many ways the process of these Civic Life films is very old-fashioned; completely old-school.

JW: So you’re two classicists, are you?

CM: Yeah, kind of. In terms of being able to deliver for the people who commissioned the work or funded the work, it being shot on film is absolutely central.

JW: So can you say a bit about the commissioning processes you have been a part of?

Joe Lawlor: With these Civic Life films we never received film funding, and we’d never gone looking for it. We also felt that nobody was ever going to give us money to make these crazy short films.

JW: So why did the boroughs give you the money?

JL: Because they have very different agendas. To take Helen for example, the Arts Council, or organisations like Culture 10 in Newcastle or Dublin Docklands, they see the merit in participation, in bringing disparate communities together in arts activities, in seeing that come together in some successful presentation, and for that work then to have an international screening life. They see that as being a very productive experience for the local communities.

helen-joe-lawlor-christine-molloy.jpgHelen, 2008

JW: So the participation on the part of the locals is as important to the commission as the international exhibition? Or more important?

JL: I would say it’s more important. That participation and its ultimate success in that local neighbourhood is more important to them than the fact that it might win an award at Rotterdam or be screened at Telluride.

JW: I’d like to ask you about the composite nature of the setting of Helen, which is shot in four localities. Were you trying to create a composite of a British city, a kind of ideal of British urban-ness?

JL: No, that’s just where the money came from.

CM: We put together a third of the money ourselves, through the Arts Council. Then we put the rest of the money together with small amounts. A lot of what we got comes from regeneration funds, and so that’s what we decided to focus on: the areas of these cities where a lot of money has been put into regeneration. Because they end up looking the same: a lot of parks along rivers and docklands.

JW: You wouldn’t know, just watching the film, that this was four different cities. Also, Helen is shot across two countries, the UK and Ireland.

CM: You might notice with the accents.

JL: If you turn the sound off, it could look like Zürich or Bergen.

JW: What kind of formal concerns are you bringing from the theatre? The material seems so specifically cinematic; it’s all about camera movement, depth of field, long takes and so on.

CM: In performance, there’s no going back, there’s no editing; we wanted to capture something of that. Some of that is practical; we’re working with film and a very small budget, so we can’t afford to do many takes; our shooting ratio is about 1:3. A lot of filmmaking is about getting rid of the mistakes, but our films are filled with flaws, just like in a live experience. It is what it is.

JL: It’s about setting up the camera. We very rarely have locked-off cameras. We set up the moment, but it’s never that the camera is passive and we just record the moment. We like the camera to be playing it as well, we like the camera to move with it.

helen-joe-lawlor-christine-molloy-2.jpgHelen, 2008

CM: I suppose what makes our approach to filmmaking different is that we spend most of our time as directors working on the camera, and then we fit the performances around that.

JW: So you plan out the camera movements first?

JL: Normally, you bring in the actors and the crew will watch the actors, and you block it out. Whereas with us, the actors have to fit around what we do. The problem you get is when you work with people who have a little acting experience. You do a run-through, and you say, let’s just do this at 10%… And by the end of it, you’re saying, that’s your 10? Let’s go down to 1% for you, and the rest of you keep it as it is. Because we want it all to be at 10%.

JW: So what does having the actors operating at 10% do to the narrative?

CM: For one, it helps us to get something in the can. Because I think that even for really skilled performers, long takes are vey demanding. We’re working with non-professionals, we don’t have very much time to rehearse, and we shoot over a very small number of days. Keeping the performance level down, slowing it down, and giving people the opportunity to get through it, is one of our tasks.

JL: This sounds like it is all overwhelmingly dominated by purely practical considerations, and that would be misleading. In Helen, we didn’t want the usual 17-year-old who’s alcohol-abusing or drug-abusing or a mess in her head. We wanted someone with some complexity. But we didn’t want that be impeded by acting; it’s not necessary.

JW: It all sounds very Bressonian. Is he important to your sense of how to work with actors; do you think of them as models, as he did?

JL and CM: Not at all!

JL: But I’m not sure he saw them in this cold fashion; at least not in an interview he gave in Cannes for L’Argent.

CM: Actually, quite the opposite. I’ve just come to read Bresson over the last few years, although we have seen quite a few of his films. But our approach it completely different; he really works with performers, and we did quite the opposite. We did very little work with the performers. So it’s incredibly raw and of the moment. The first scene we shot is the last scene of the film, where she reads her files, and we had absolutely no idea how she was going to behave in front of the camera, what she was going to do.

JW: So that final sequence set the tone for everything else she did?

CM: Yes, completely.

helen-joe-lawlor-christine-molloy-3.jpgHelen, 2008

JW: That’s an extraordinary sequence. When she says, “I want to stop now,” I don’t know why, but I wanted to weep…

CM: Yes. I know how you feel.

JW: So can you say something about the places where these films are shown?

JL: It’s in the local multiplex.

CM: Occasionally the art cinema but yes, mainly the multiplex.

JW: But not the community hall, either.

JL: Well, they don’t have 35mm projectors.

CM: We want them on a big screen. The participants also want to see them there. Just like the early shows of Mitchell & Kenyon. Classicists!

JL: People in the UK and Ireland, they’re big cinema-goers. And the vast majority of cinemas will only show a print. Digital cinema is coming in, but it’s not in many. So we shoot on film, and then it’s got absolute parity with anything else that’s being shown in the multiplex. It’s not some sort of diminished-quality video; it’s where it belongs.

Helen is released in the UK by New Wave films on 1st May.

Jerry White is a writer, lecturer and author / editor of several books on cinema, including a study of Peter Mettler.