Having had acclaim in the past for his short films in Cannes and with BAFTA, English director Fyzal Boulifa tried his hand at feature length film with his debut Lynn + Lucy. Cédric Succivalli speaks to him about Greek tragedies, scapegoats, and the difficulties of class in the casting process.
CS: The film to me seems to be a Greek tragedy that has been transposed to contemporary Britain. Was there any element of mythology you thought of during writing? Because it is so clear to me.
FB: That makes me very happy. I was aware that it had a classical tragedy element to it. The obvious one was Medea, with the death of the children. At the same time I didn’t want it to become too schematic, I felt there had to be a simplicity to it for that to read, and a decontextualization in the environment of the film. Having the simplicity of them living on opposite sides of the road gives it the sense of a fable or a moral tale, I feel. Another reason why I chose very simple decors and this bland emptiness of the world they live in was to make it feel like it could be anywhere. The salon obviously functions a little bit like a chorus, so there is certainly an element of Greek tragedy in it. It wasn’t completely clear to me how it would manifest. I didn’t want it to become too schematic and too heavy, but I was definitely aware of it. I suppose what attracted me was that I could take working class characters but speak about bigger things. I felt like it would be subtly different from social realism, where everything is so embedded in a specific moment and focused on particular social issues that it can feel quite narrow.
CS: What I really appreciated was the mixture of street actors and professional actors, even though I hate saying that. It reminded me of Bruno Dumont in France, mixing Juliette Binoche with people who’ve never acted before. Could you elaborate a bit on your casting process, because it is so important for the film?
FB: It really is important. I think it’s true that we have many good actors in the UK, but we also have a problem with class. If you go back 30 years, we had many more working class actors than we do now. All the big actors now come from very privileged backgrounds. Making this film, I knew that I wanted it to feel authentic and I didn’t want any theatricality in the performances. It’s kind of there in other places, but I didn’t want it in the performances. So I was open at first to professionals and non-professionals, but I quickly discovered that professional actresses were kind of averse to the role of Lynn. There is an inherent judgement in ‘becoming’ a working class person, and it was quite depressing in many ways because it is so revealing about how we think about class in England. I realized pretty quickly that it would be a non-professional, and we were lucky to meet Roxanne. We were casting in the streets, we put adverts in local papers, a big process really. Then Roxanne came through, and she was very straightforward and wasn’t fazed by the process. But also she had these competing, dualistic qualities that I found very interesting. There is a toughness, but also a tenderness. She can be ordinary and unglamorous, but then she has something strong about her as well. Then the challenge became Lucy, because she is a more dramatic character that really needed the control of an actor. One of the difficulties was that when we put professional actresses up against Roxanne, even the ones that play working class, I couldn’t believe that they were from the same world. Until we met Nichola, and what is interesting is that she was street-cast when she was young, for Dominic Savage’s Love + Hate. It felt right that she had been through that process that Roxanne was going through, so there was mutual respect and they really helped each other. Because Nichola came into acting that way she has a simple style that worked with Roxanne. So the whole casting process was quite a journey.
CS: To me the film is also about broken sisterhood, about the rehabilitation of one’s past and how we come to terms with the good and bad we did in our life. What I found fascinating is how we always have questions about the persona of main characters. How did you manage to create such a shift of emotions in each one of them? Because they never are where we expect them to be.
FB: When I first had the idea for this film, it started from a news story about a woman who had been accused of the murder of her child. She was acquitted, and when she moved back into her community she was harassed and attacked, and she ended up killing herself. It was the kind of terrible news story you can read in the media quite often. It became an idea for a film when I imagined she wasn’t the main character of the story, but the main character’s best friend, because then I knew that best friend would turn against her. I had the beginning and the end, and then it was a question for me, asking myself: why? What is it in her culture and her society that brings out the worst in her? This felt like an important question to ask because with the political polarization and the rise of populism there is now you have to ask that: what is it in our society and culture that is capable of bringing out the worst? To come back to your question: I knew it had to be difficult for Lynn, that there was going to be a sense of shifting perceptions. When you don’t give all the answers it leaves space for the audience to implicate themselves. By not giving the answers I hoped you would search for that in her environment, her culture and what surrounds her.
CS: There is also an element that is quite rare as a topic, which is the contaminating nature of rumors, the fact that Lynn’s daughter thinks she has seen Lucy shaking a baby. From that moment on the film shifts and the rumor propagates. It reminds me of what in Greek is called the pharmakos, the scapegoat. Somebody is made the scapegoat for an entire community.
FB: That is another thing I was thinking about when making this film: the human tragedy that we need enemies to know who we are. That is Lynn’s tragedy, the fact that she finds self-esteem and identity only through the destruction of her best friend. We need the other to know who we are, and that’s how groups work and how you get this inherent violence that we see everywhere.
CS: How come such a young artist wanted to do such a timely and hot-button topic for a debut film? It’s pretty brave.
FB: I was developing various different projects, I made short films for a long time. I was asking myself all the time what my first feature film should be. I got exhausted by that question, so I decided to just develop what I was interested in and then see what would get made. And this one found financing first. It’s a reflection of my feelings about England and about where I grew up, which is a similar place to this, white working class surroundings. So I can’t really tell you why, it’s more of a natural process.
CS: Toxic masculinity is a very hot topic these days, but what I found really bold is that you are focusing on toxic femininity somehow, on this harsh relationship between two women , which is slightly politically incorrect and unfashionable.
FB: I’m aware that it is an unfashionable thing to do, but for me there are not many aspects of them defined by the fact that they are female. I suppose there is something like mothers, a fable of good mothers and bad mothers. Women have power over life and death, in that sense, as mothers, and that’s kind of interesting. But for me to take an essentially decent mother and then watch her turn into a monster is simply a way of saying that anybody is capable of anything, whether male or female. I honestly didn’t think too much about the fact that they were women.