The Levelling (2017) is a film constructed around mystery, yet Hope Dickson Leach’s feature debut uses this as a device to accentuate the film’s deeper concerns. It is an exploration of the travails of human expression, specifically the communication between a father and his daughter. When Clover (Ellie Kendrick) returns home following the death of her brother, the mysterious circumstances surrounding the tragedy are complicated by the difficult relationship she shares with their father Aubrey (David Troughton). The experience of the film is one of a slow and gradual immersion into the story, one in which our growing emotional connection mirrors the communicative journey of the characters themselves. Yet if the cast of characters and the rural English setting lend the film an intimate presence, Leach’s thematic inclinations imbue it with a universality.
In conversation with Film Frame ahead of screening at The Glasgow Film Festival, Leach discussed her appreciation of the collaborative process and the inevitability that the film will take over. She also reflected on the different challenges of the short and long format, how her feature debut is a thematic extension of her short films, and the lessons of hindsight amidst a constant surprise.
Film Frame: What has drawn you to cinema as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
Hope Dickson Leach: My love affair with cinema was instantaneous and a slow burner all at once. There’s nothing I love more than getting lost watching a film on the big screen. Making work is different, as I didn’t understand what it took. I started out painting, moved into theatre design, and after meeting filmmakers at the Edinburgh Film Festival decided to dip my toe in making films. I still don’t really understand what it is, but my love affair with cinematic storytelling is something I think will last my lifetime.
Film Frame: Australian filmmaker Ariel Kleiman told me: “Making a short film I felt you could hold it in your hand, whereas a feature film is like a runaway train.” How do you compare and contrast short with feature films?
Leach: Narratively the challenges are totally different. Shorts are moments that you can explore profoundly or sweep over with a circumspect worldview you want to try out. You can experiment with form and tone, and dazzle and fly. Features demand you stick to something and see it through, which isn’t to say form and tone can’t be inventive and exciting, but that it’s no longer about you. The film takes over, creates a logic and world that everyone has to bend to. You ignore it at your peril.
Film Frame: How did the expectations of your narrative feature debut compare to the realities of the experience?
Leach: I spent a long time trying to make a first feature, so I no longer had any expectations, which was freeing, as I realised I could set it up how I wanted. I knew I had to be myself and not pretend to be a director or imitate anyone else’s idea of how I should behave. The reality, I’m delighted to say, is that the idea that this is my film is nonsense. Lots of people make every film, and being reminded that these people are all there to enable your vision is humbling and wonderful. It’s the thing that keeps me wanting to make films. There is so much talent and skill and generosity out there, and if my job is to harness that, then I feel like the luckiest person in the world.
Film Frame: How does the knowledge that you will direct the script influence the dynamic of the writing process, and how have your experiences of directing influenced and shaped you as a writer?
Leach: I keep the two as separate as possible. When writing I think about what the story is, and then there is a transition to my director hat when I figure out how I want to tell that story, at which point I do another rewrite – as a director. The best thing about doing both is knowing that you will get to see it through, and that you can always remember the journey it has been on.
Film Frame: There is a perspective amongst filmmakers that there are three versions of the script – the script that is written, the script that is shot and the script that is edited. Do you agree and is the process one of discovery leading up to the final cut?
Leach: I would say it’s the film that is written and rewritten – the script is just a stage in the life of the film. There is so much that you can’t convey (or understand) about a film while it exists only on the page. You have to stay open to it evolving – as I say, the film takes over. I would also add another stage to this: casting. I think this is an extraordinarily fluid moment in the life of the film, as you figure out who your characters are really going to be, and how they will tell the story to your audience.
Film Frame: What was the seed of the idea for The Levelling?
Leach: Just as I’m fascinated with understanding storytelling, so too do I obsess over communication in our lives – how it shapes us, how we process it, how subjective and yet powerful it can be. I wanted to explore family relationships where communication is terrible and see what that uncovered about families, and the nature of love. Grief is something I’ve been drawn to in my short films, and The Levelling came about from a strong conviction that there is a period of time after something awful happens, when we have an opportunity to really examine what has happened and address it. But we rarely take that chance.
Film Frame: The story possesses a genuine humanism and is one I’d describe as being a portrait of the travails of human expression. Much of the film is about the unspoken feelings between a daughter and her father. A source of this humanism is therefore in the act of avoidance of expression, until finally the inevitable moment occurs that we, as a cine-literate audience anticipate.
Leach: I think we know the shape of the story from the beginning of the film, in terms of the father-daughter relationship – they start off at odds, we suspect they will end up reconciled – but that felt like an opportunity to really examine how that reconciliation would come about, because reconciliation is hard won. I wanted us to get lost in Clover’s experience of trying to solve a mystery whilst at the same time coming to understand that answers were not going to make the pain go away. Clover’s journey ultimately becomes one of forgiveness, of her father, and then of herself for pushing so hard in the face of real pain. I’m not suggesting it’s better to avoid talking – clearly I don’t think that – but I think it’s also important for her to understand that communication can be more oblique, and understanding the necessity for that often comes from suffering.
Film Frame: On occasion I find myself watching a film and then considering whether it is fitting to describe it as an entertaining experience. The Levelling is about characters confronting their emotions and that carries over into an emotional experience for the audience. But would you describe your film as entertaining? And within our comprehension of this phrase ‘entertainment’, is it necessary to consider how the context of the individual film changes its meaning, such as is the case here?
Leach: Cinema is a form that encompasses many different ideas of entertainment. I think some people truly want to get lost in a human experience, even if it is a painful one, as it allows them to process their own experiences. I think if we’re able to describe horror as entertaining then we can include tragedy too. After all, tragedy is one of the oldest forms of drama.
Film Frame: Ellie Kendrick’s performance feels authentically real, raw even, hence my raising the point about whether describing the film as entertaining is more of a negative and simplified reaction. While I would describe her as the soul of the film, her style of performance is offset by David Troughton’s more theatrical and playful approach. This speaks to the importance of the onscreen collaboration between actors, and the necessity they represent to one another.
Leach: Ellie and David are both incredibly talented and capable actors, so it was a luxury to be able to think about performance at this level. But Clover is someone who feels things, deeply, while Aubrey is someone who is hiding behind a role he inhabits. It was important that Ellie felt her way through this performance, and it was extraordinary watching her do this. She had tools she used, and she worked very hard to get to this level of realism. I trusted her completely and felt privileged to hand Clover over to her to create.
Film Frame: Speaking with Babak Anvari about the capacity of actors to surprise him, he explained, “Just a minor adjustment can really transform a scene and so those minor adjustments are how an actor can surprise the filmmaker.” How did the actors surprise you in their interpretations of the characters that may have differed from your original conception? And in the filmmaking process is it sometimes the small things that occur in the writing, shooting and editing that offer the most significant transformation?
Leach: If your performers have understood the character and their motivations, and the obstructions that you have created for them, then the collaboration comes to life when you allow them to inhabit their roles fully. Surprises are always part of that. And you have to keep your notes small if you’re dealing with fully formed characters. After all, as human beings we only need to find out something small for our worldview to be changed.
Film Frame: The Levelling is a process of a slow and gradual immersion into the story, where we slowly develop that emotional connection, which mirrors the journey of the characters themselves to open up emotionally. It always intrigues me when the experience of the characters and the audience are in synch this way, but was it a conscious ambition?
Leach: This was totally conscious, yes. I wanted us to get lost in the experience of grief, and to go with Clover in discovering what has happened to her brother.
Film Frame: In the filmmaking process is it necessary to accept that you cannot control everything? Rather, must you accept that there is an organic side to the process that is important to the final version of the film?
Leach: I agree entirely that you don’t have full control, and nor should you. It is the organic developments that give you the most authentic moments to the work you create. The worst thing you can do is get in the way of that.
Film Frame: Is the process of learning to make films structured around the challenge of honing one’s instincts so that you are able to eventually function instinctively?
Leach: I think this describes the process of learning anything actually – driving a car for example. Filmmaking, being an art form, seems to me to be even more than that. I grew up in Hong Kong and took a Chinese calligraphy course one summer. I wanted to freeform with the beautiful brushes, but was told I had to learn how to draw bamboo just like everyone else first, before I could add my own interpretations. This has always stayed with me – learn how things work, understand the traditions you are operating within, and then break all the rules. And learning what you want to say. I figure that comes from living your life fully, and so that feels as essential a part of making films as spending time on set.
Film Frame: Filmmakers have told me that editing is the best training ground for a director. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on how the experience of editing the short films influenced your approach to your feature debut, and how the experience of editing The Levelling will impact your approach to writing and directing in the future?
Leach: Editing my short films was so helpful in understanding what belongs in a scene, what you need, and what you don’t need. So that impacts what I put on the page and what I try to capture on the set. But editing a feature was incredibly different because you discover so much. You discover the space and scale of your story, what engages an audience, what speaks to what your intentions were, and how far each moment can go. Of course, this is influenced by how you shot it. During the edit I felt like I’d done a bad job with the script because we cut so much out, then I realised that the script was fine, but I had shot it with an interest that prioritised some of the material over the rest. This will naturally form my plans for my next film, in terms of both script and shooting, but I have no doubt that I will be learning another set of equally important lessons next time.
Film Frame: Speaking with Carol Morley for The Falling (2014) she explained: “You take it 90% of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” And if the audience are the ones that complete it, does it follow that there is a transfer in ownership?
Leach: Totally. You can’t control what people will think of your film or what their responses will be, but it doesn’t exist as a film until it lives in someone’s heart. Some people won’t connect with it, but for those who do, you hope you have given them something that will change their life forever, just as you have been changed by films and art throughout one’s life. I’ve lived with this film for a couple of years, and I’m happy for it to find it’s way into other people’s lives now.
Film Frame: Filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?
Leach: Yes. When I finished shooting I thought, how on earth did I walk onto this set a month ago not knowing what I know now? How on earth did I think I could do this? And that keeps happening. You learn, you grow, you emerge.
The Levelling screens at The Glasgow Film Festival on Tuesday 21 February at 18:15 and on Wednesday 22 February at 10:45. Writer-director Hope Dickson Leach will be attending the screening on the 21 February.
It will be released theatrically in the UK on 12 May by Peccadillo Pictures.