Opening this week in Australian cinemas is Lou, a tender drama that tells the story of a young girls coming of age while creating a unique bond with her Alzheimer’s suffering grandfather.
Matt’s Movie Reviews sat down with actress Emily Barclay and writer/director Belinda Chayko for an in depth conversation about Lou, child actors, and a young whipper snapper by the name of John Hurt.
You shared the screen on one hand with two very young actresses, and on the other hand you had John Hurt. Was it a unique situation to be in as an actor?
Emily Barclay: It was an incredible experience. Working with John was just surreal, really. He’s just such a master, and one of my favourite actors of all time, and for most people, I think. He’s just a real gentleman, incredibly generous with what he gives to the other actors both personally and professionally. He’s so present and so focused on everyone else, really intelligent, full of wonderful stories, wisdom, and knowledge about everything. So that was really great. Every day we were learning so many things from him...and working with the kids was fantastic as well in a completely different way. The interesting thing was that you have someone like John, who’s made so many films but still has such an absolute love for what he does. He really delights in it, and in an almost childlike way. Then you have the kids who are experiencing everything for the first time, which is really good and really refreshing. It makes you see thing through their eyes, a little bit. Working with Lily was like working with a little adult, you know? It didn’t feel like there was a child around. She’s so smart and has this amazing depth and presence. She’s fun, and she’s just the most gorgeous girl. She learned so much and picked it all up so quickly, and just developed. From the beginning of the film to the end, she just soaked it all up, so that was great. It was a lot of fun and inspiring in many ways.
The popular adage is that kids are a terror to work with. Any truth to that?
BC: I should have thought about that (laughs). I actually really like working with children. I’ve done it quite a lot in other films, but I think it’s mainly when I’m writing the script I’m not thinking about the practicalities of firstly finding kids who could do that, especially the key role of Lou...you know, that’s a big ask for a 12 year old girl. Not only being the centre of the story, but the complexity of the character who’s playing around with her own sense of power, and her own identity. So I think it was a really big challenge for a young actor, and I think that Lily completely rose to the occasion. But it was really interesting to watch her...we had a kind of intensive rehearsal period, but even in the first week of shooting, she was still finding her feet, and then suddenly it just clicked.
EB: She’s very watchful. She doesn’t miss a thing, and she learned so quickly. At the end of it she was sort of...she is so aware of the whole process...
BC: ...she was already developing a really strong sense of camera as part of her performance, that great film actors really are aware of the camera. And the thing I found about John was that he’s been working in films for about 50 years (give or take), and he is completely aware of where the camera is, and therefore where he needs to be...
EB: ...and what he has to do, and what he doesn’t have to do...
BC: ...but the he can also let go of that, because he knows it so fully, and still be so present in the moment. So it doesn’t feel false. It doesn’t feel as though...
EM:...but that is such a skill, isn’t it? Being such a master of the mechanics of it all, but also letting yourself be so free..and that is such a hard thing for an actor.
BC: But it’s about creating the right conditions for people who are 7, 9, and 12 to work in. I don’t think you can get a really wonderful, natural performance out of someone who hasn’t had years of experience like that. I think that once you understand it and you can make it, and it doesn’t become the thing that you are focusing on, then you can bring that back, this really beautiful presence. So we had to make it not the thing that they were focusing on, so that Lily, Charlie-Rose, and Eloise, didn’t have to think about where they had to stand, because we were there ready to capture what they did, rather than the mechanics dictating their performance. It’s an interesting thing which means that practicalities like that haven’t formed the aesthetic of the film, but it was always going to be a performance piece. It was always going to be about those intense relationships between those characters, and the characters themselves. So it didn’t feel to me that was an issue.
|"Working with John was just surreal...he’s just a real gentleman, incredibly generous with what he gives to the other actors both personally and professionally." - Emily Barclay
I believe Australia has the best young talent working today, and Lily confirmed that with her performance. Can you foresee a bright future for her?
BC: I think she could have a very big future, if that’s what she decides she wants to do. She’s very beautiful, but that’s not why I cast her. But I think that she is captivating on screen. Because of that, and because of the inner life that she’s got, and like a lot of things we talked about before, for a 12 year old she has a really maturity. She is now 13, but...
EB: ...she has an exceptional maturity.
BC: She has this whole sense of having lived a life, even though she’s only 12. I think that’s what film acting is about. That you do very little on the screen, but managing to convey that kind of presence. That’s the way Emily sort of works...why I think Emily, John, and Lily worked very well together is that they are all actors that have a kind of stillness in their performances...it’s not a big kind of performance, but there’s is a lot going, and I think that’s captivating on screen.
EB: If there is anyone I’ve ever met who would be able to deal with it (acting) and navigate her way through it, that would be Lily. It’s just her decision whether she wants to do that, and she won’t do it if she doesn’t want to. There is part of me that think it would be great, and she will have an incredible career. But there is another part of me that thinks maybe she’s gotta go off and do other things. It can get really tricky for kids that age to get really into it. I’ve got friends who started acting at a really young age, and it can be very, very hard. But I think she could definitely deal with it, if she wants to.
BC: She’s young! She could stop doing it for 5, 6 years and start it up again.
Do you approach a confrontational scene with a child actor with same respect as an adult?
EB: Lily always used to say: “I want to do a film where you and I like each other” (laughs). Because we were so close, and I really love her so much. We would do these scenes, and then afterwards we would cuddle each other, and I would say: “I’m so sorry” (laughs). It was really hard sometimes, especially when there were scenes where we would be fighting...when we did her shot, we would sometimes improvise and push things a little bit further. It was those times when it was quite hard...there were a couple of times when I thought “God, am I going too far with this?”
BC: I think the interesting thing about that was they were the breakthrough moments for Lily as a performer, because it was about realising the intensity which she could match her co-performer. So Emily was fantastic in given Lily every possibility in giving her best possible performance. ...and sometimes I felt like a slave driver. I pushed Lily quite hard. She’s only a little kid, but as a performer I pushed her quite hard. But I really think she appreciated that...it made her reach another level, and that was where it started to click for her that acting is not a performative thing. It’s a very sensual thing, and it’s about being completely present in that moment. Emily was able to Lily exactly what she needed...Lily is a very self contained young woman, and not one who’s easily given to showing her emotions. So that was where we all knew the key part of the work would be, and I was terrified that she may not reach those quite emotional scenes.
EB: But in saying that, when the time came...unbelievable! She just was absolutely there. It was so amazing.
Belinda has said that your character, as written, was very easy to judge. Did you feel the same when you first read the script?
EB: It’s a tricky one, because you don’t want to think whether the character you are playing is likeable. Because it pulls you outside of it and starts monitoring your performance. But on the other hand, I think it’s something that we were always...people were writing off this character...
BC: I made some modifications to the script. From when Emily first read the script, I did make some changes, and I think one of the real difficulties is that she is a very young mother who is struggling with mothering. Unfortunately we as a society have these incredibly high expectations on mothers...
EB: Very, very quick to judge ...
BC: ...very quick to judge someone who is trying their best, but perhaps not pulling it off all the time. But that’s what I think is so fascinating about that character. For me Rhia is actually one of the most interesting characters in the film. She always has been, and I didn’t want to push that too far. I didn’t want to take it too far from that idea that she too was in this kind of struggle, I suppose with the question of who she is, which is a young mother who is only 27 years old.
EB: I think that the key to something like that is really understanding the complexities of that person, and the difficulties that they are facing, and the things that they are trying to figure out. And when you try to understand and empathise with that stuff, then hopefully it stops it from being one dimensional, black and white...not that the character was like that in anyway...when you have a character and the page who has that complexity, and is trying to figure those things out...
BC: ..she is a girl-woman. She is a young woman anyway, and Emily was only 24 when we shot that anyway...
EB:...she is a young mother. She has three kids, she is doing it all by herself, she’s struggling financially, and she is in the middle of nowhere.
|"Working with Lily was like working with a little adult, you know? It didn’t feel like there was a child around. She’s so smart and has this amazing depth and presence." - Emily Barclay
Not to mention that she has taken on her father-in-law with Alzheimer’s...
BC: Yes! Probably not the smartest decision...
EB:...and she has a daughter who she is battling with. She’s trying to navigate her way through all of this stuff, and it’s so easy to write her off. But it’s much more interesting to look at her and wonder “what’s going on?”
BC: One of my favourite moments in the films is when Lily’s character is dancing. The expression on Emily’s face as a young mother watching her daughter moving into her burgeoning sexuality...so there’s a whole lot of really complex feelings for that character, and I think Emily completely captured that. So I think that’s one of the things I liked about it, even though...a lot of people call it a coming of age story. And yes, I believe that is an essential part to it. But it’s very much about those three people finding their places as well. For me all three of those characters are completely engaging.
The location, which is quite beautiful, counters the grim reality of this family drama, doesn’t it?
BC: When I wrote it very early on I was in the city, and not long after I moved up there (North Coast), which was about 7 years ago. There are in fact a huge number of young women in the same situation...probably more in the country. There were very high rates of teen pregnancy, certainly in the area that I lived in. So I started to think that it was completely legitimate to set it up here, but also...my house backs onto the cane field, so every day I would be looking out of the window thinking, “Oh, this is so beautiful”. That is when I started to think about capturing that on film as well. So it is a beautiful location, but I think it actually adds a really interesting tension to the film. Because you can be poor and struggling and yet live in a very physically beautiful place. But that doesn’t necessarily make it better. It just becomes a factor of it.
EB: That sort of juxtaposition between the absolute beauty around them, and this sort of expense of landscape that sort of confides there whole life where, yes, there is this physical beauty where they can see it, but they can’t engage...
The North Coast backdrop felt like a character in itself. How important is location to your process as an actor?
EB: I find that once you get to location, it informs a character to a huge extent. Everything sort of falls into place. When I first arrived there, Belinda showed me around the town...I mean, I had never been anywhere like that before. I spent no time in that part of the world...you just feel the presence of it, that there’s something in the air, you know?
BC: I think for me it also worked in terms of the romance of the story. I think that they are entering into this creative reality between the two of them. So it felt to me as though I could do much more easily when they get out there into the cane fields, onto the beach...it is this physically expansive, beautiful location, and also one that reflects his history a little bit as well.
|"I do think we have to be careful we don’t simplify things about childhood and early adolescence, and to understand that they are periods of exploration, and testing, and empowerment." - Belinda Chayko
The film hits some dark, disturbing places. Can you foresee some viewers shifting in their seats during some scenes?
BC: I do think that some scenes might be a bit uncomfortable for some people. It was always really important to me to retain that, though. Because I think that on the one hand...this is a young girl who is discovering herself, and power, and how to wield it, and not always doing the right thing with it...I think that to expect characters in films to always behave the right way...
EB: ...it’s great that it’s not comfortable, isn’t it? I mean, why would you want to see a film and have it be comfortable, and predictable... It’s a great area and an exploration of all that stuff...
BC: ...but it’s not what the film is about. I think that’s why even though there might be a moment of discomfort, I don’t think that people will find the film off putting at all. Ultimately, what it is about is really something quite lovely, how those two people create a kind of connection, and bring a sort of sense of love and comfort to each other. Yes, there is confusion going on, but ultimately what it’s saying is that love is almost this transcendent thing...it’s the connection that leads to all other connections, if you like. And that was one of the things I wanted to look at...personally, I do think we have to be careful we don’t simplify things about childhood and early adolescence, and to understand that they are periods of exploration, and testing, and empowerment...I think to kind of simplify that too much is not helpful.
Alzheimer’s is something rarely seen in cinema. Is it the hope that Lou will bring some much needed attention to the disease?
BC: I hope so, because it effects so many people. Nearly everyone we dealt with in making the film, and now in releasing the film, we fill find that someone, either a parent or in Emily’s case a grandparent, have had experience with someone with Alzheimer’s. That is only going to become more so, and I do think that it’s a real shame that it’s become such a...why are we hiding it? This is something that’s going to become more and more part of everybody’s lives. I also think that it’s incredibly difficult for everybody involved with that experience. But certainly with my experience with my Uncle, is that I also found that there were really kind of wonderful, positive things out of it too. That the world opened up to you in a whole other new and interesting way, and that their reflection of reality points back out to our reflection of reality, in a way that makes us think “I think they are on to something there!” We get really locked into our own senses, who we are, and where we fit into things. Someone with Alzheimer’s throws that completely out of the window, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing to have experienced. Having said that, I completely understand in having watched my aunt deal with it how difficult it is...it’s heartbreaking. I guess that is also a little bit of something in the film...these two characters who are both grieving. The girl is grieving the loss of her father, and he is grieving the loss of his own self.
|Lou will be released on the 18th of June through Kojo Pictures