Lost innocence: Rufus Norris on Broken

Theatre director Rufus Norris talks learning the cinematic ropes for his directorial debut, a coming-of-age story with a remarkable performance by a new child star.

Samuel Wigley
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Eloise Laurence and Tim Roth in Broken

Eloise Laurence and Tim Roth in Broken

Adapted from Daniel Clay’s acclaimed novel Broken, the debut film by theatre director Rufus Norris has surface similarities with the strain of British social realism typified by the films of Mike Leigh or Ken Loach. Set on a London housing estate, it’s the story of three families whose lives interlock with tragic consequences – their very proximity as neighbours proving explosive.

At its centre is Skunk (played by newcomer Eloise Laurence), an 11-year-old girl living with her affectionate but preoccupied father Archie (Tim Roth) and their au pair Kasia (Zana Marjanovic). From her wide-eyed perspective, we witness the bullying antics of the Oswald family – single father Bob (Rory Kinnear) and his three unruly daughters – and its emotionally destructive effect on Rick Buckley (Robert Emms), the troubled young man who lives over the road. Even Skunk’s well-meaning teacher Mike (Cillian Murphy) is not immune from the Oswalds’ scattershot cruelty.

This child’s eye view on the stormy complexity of the adult world lifts the subject matter away from the realm of miserablist realism into something much more impressionistic, Norris’s cinematographer Rob Hardy bathing events with a honeyed, day-dream glow. The story’s dark turns are filtered through the perspective of a bright, curious girl making tentative steps towards adolescence.

Backed by the BFI Film Fund, Broken won Best Film at the British Independent Film Awards last year – an auspicious start in the film world for Norris. High on Norris’s theatrical CV was an adaptation for the stage of Thomas Vinterberg’s scalding family drama Festen (1998), so it was perhaps inevitable that Norris would one day make the transfer to cinema. But, as he explains, it took some adjusting to get used to working in film: he quickly found that, as director, his authority was rarely challenged.

You’ve come to film with an established reputation from the theatre. Did you find doors opened for you automatically as a result?

I’m sure there’s no set way of making that crossover. I think the reality of it is probably quite fickle. When people are talking about you almost no matter what you’re doing, then people from other areas go “Oh, that’s quite interesting.” Because the critical flavour changes every month, you can be in favour and then out of favour, particularly when you’ve been doing one thing for as long as I’ve been doing theatre. So there’ve been several moments in my career when those doors have appeared to open, then they close again, then they appear to open. It just happened on this occasion that I managed to get my foot in the door.

Rufus Norris

Rufus Norris

Of course you’ve got to want to do it. I’ve always loved film, but I also think you can scrabble around desperately, working incredibly hard to make something happen, but if you don’t have any support in film that’s very difficult. It’s been made a little bit easier by having a reputation in theatre, so people can relax about one aspect of your skills package. There are things in film that I know nothing about, clearly, but I do know about actors and I do know about story and films usually have something to do with both of those.

What was it that drew you to Broken?

I was very fortunate as I was given the novel before it was even published. My agent looks after Mark O’Rowe, who did the adaptation. I was told “Have read of this. Mark’s going to do the adaptation. If you like it, then start putting it together and we’ll see about persuading the powers-that-be that you should be the person to do it.” That was the way it went, and it was lovely to be in it from the beginning.

There are two things that I really responded to about it. One was that there’s somebody at the centre who is naive, optimistic, a bit oddball, has big eyes – and that’s kind of a bit like me. So I could stand in her shoes. If I was a 12-year-old girl, that’s the kind of 12-year-old girl I’d like to be like. So, consequently, from a directorial point of view, it’s great because you’ve got a hotline into the middle of it.

The second thing is that I found the story enabled me to do this with every character. For example, Archie her father – I’m a distracted parent, who overworks and is half good at it some of the time and not at others, like him.

It’s quite a dark film in some ways. It’s got a lot of humour, and it’s uplifting eventually; it’s got a huge, pulsing heart in the middle of it. But there are dark elements to it. I found that even with the characters who behave in the most unsympathetic ways, I could find a way into them, and a way of telling it that would place their own actions in the context of their own feelings.

I’m not the least interested in [showing that] “This person is evil” or “This person is good”. That’s total bullshit: human beings aren’t like that. We’re much more complex. Most of us are capable of doing most things, if circumstances are wrong or right. An ensemble piece where you could explore that with multiple characters was great.

The other [reason] is I’m a theatre director and I don’t know much about film, other than from the many that I’ve seen. To go into a huge big CGI-tastic, multi-location [project]… I can think of more sensible ways to start than that! To go into a piece that relied on storytelling or getting fantastic performances out of people made sense.

Daniel Clay is very open about the influence of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird on his novel. Is that something you were conscious of when making Broken?

It’s interesting because it’s a book that I’ve had a particular love affair with all my adult life, and at one stage was very keen on working on an adaptation of it – many years ago. And it’s one of those rare books where the film matches it. So I was a bit concerned when I read that those were the references.

But I think they’re references [only]. In no way is it an adaptation of that. It’s only at the surface level. It’s like a contemporary, very distant cousin. If somebody didn’t say that and you went to see it, I don’t think it would occur to you. There’s no big courtroom stuff. The moral dilemma that Atticus Finch faces is not at all played out in Broken. There are lots of references and similarities, but I never felt that long shadow. Because it would have been a very long shadow!

It’s a stunning performance from Eloise Laurence as Skunk. How did you find her?

We searched pretty thoroughly for that character. We saw 850 girls altogether, across about a year and a half. And of course you’ve got to get somebody at a particular point in their life. At that stage, she’s about a year away from becoming a woman. There are lots of stories – The Lovely Bones [for example] – where the girl’s on the cusp of womanhood. And the film isn’t about that. This is a child. This is someone who has that naivety; the whole sexual [realm] hasn’t opened up for her yet.

But in terms of casting it, particularly with our very sexualised young culture at the moment, you’ve got to find a particular person who has that genuine innocence. In the end, we got very close to starting on the film and we still hadn’t found her and I was saying, “Sorry guys, we’ve got to keep going, she’s not there yet.” But you worry and think “Have I already met her? Was she this girl? Or that girl?”

But I’ve done a lot of casting and in my experience I get a very clear image of what this person should be like, particularly in this case where I’d storyboarded thousands of pictures and had really defined what she looks like, how she behaves. [Sometimes] someone comes in and completely overturns that – “Fine, that got you to that point but now you’ve got to completely reimagine her because I’m it” – then you know you’ve got a dialogue. Someone’s got to come in and kick all your preconceptions out of the window.

Actually [Eloise is] the daughter of a very good friend of mine who I was working with throughout the whole period! I’d been to an event in the middle of the process, when I was meeting people and I was moaning with another director about not being to find her and she was on the trampoline behind him at the time. So I could have saved myself a bit of time. She turned up at the last minute just through a conversation with this friend of mine.

She’s just got that wonderful thing when somebody just leaves themselves alone and seems oblivious to the camera. She’s not of course; it’s more skilful than that.

In subject matter and location, the film could feel like a social realist film or even a soap opera. But in fact it’s a very beautiful looking, cinematic film. What sort of instructions did you give your director of photography Rob Hardy?

What sort of notes about acting on screen am I going to give Tim Roth or Cillian Murphy? Rob Hardy’s done a lot of films; I haven’t done any. I chose Rob because I really like his work and it felt like the right pair of eyes for this project. Like you say, it could easily feel like a social realist film except where it goes is too dramatic, and it’s too heightened. You could just think it’s a soap episode that gets out of hand. So it needs a dexterity and a level of magic and beauty in it that allows you to go where the film needs you to go.

So it wasn’t a question of instruction, it was a question of conversation. I’m a collaborator. Theatre is a very collaborative art. I was surprised going into film the extent to which people treat you like some sort of maestro. I remember shooting one day and one of the crew joked that I could come in wearing a pink jumpsuit with all my hair shaved off the next day and nobody would bat an eyelid. Or they would bat an eyelid but they wouldn’t let me know. And I said, “Of course they would, they’d call me a tosser.” They said, “No, you’re the director. Nobody would do anything in front of your face.”

In theatre that’s just not true. That collaboration, that element of empowerment to the people you’re working with, is what I think I bring into every relationship I’ve had. I can see that sometimes that might not work in film. [On a film] I’m the only person who sees it all the way through. The director’s role is different.

Cillian Murphy and Tim Roth

Cillian Murphy and Tim Roth

Did you go into your first film thinking you wanted to make a film like this director or that director?

There are huge influences, but on the face it they’re pretty haphazard. You could talk about Festen, which is a film that I absolutely love. It’s all handheld and rough and kinda crappy, but it’s a great story and there’s such a psychology behind the camera and about why the camera’s there.

We talked about City of God (2002), which is completely different. Even things like Red Desert (1964), Antonioni, which is visually off the scale in terms of their decisions, very expressionistic.

But it was usually just, “Look at this moment here” or “There’s something about that.” One of the challenges is that [Broken] takes place in three key houses, and each house required a different way of dealing with it. I can go and see a film like Let the Right One In (2008) and it’s masterful, and there’s this slow tracking shot, and another, and another. You love it because it’s so well told, but it’s the same shot – which is terrific discipline and control.

With this film, it’s much harder. If you go “It’s going to be handheld”, that’s not going to work in Rick Buckley’s household. Or if you go, “Let’s do the creepy tracking shot”, that’s no good for Eloise – she’s full of optimism. So I imagine some film purists would think I’m a bit like a kid in a sweetshop on that front. It just felt to me that that’s what the story needed.

All the theatrical work I do is very visual, so there’s nothing new. Yes, the camera is different from the canvas of a theatre proscenium but it’s not that different. Often I’d stage a scene and Rob would suggest a way of doing what I’d set up in a way that was fit for camera rather than looking at the whole room, because instinctively I am staging it for a different medium.

Bill Milner as Skunk’s elder brother Jed

Bill Milner as Skunk’s elder brother Jed

You say you’re not interested in presenting heroes and villains, and one of the things I admire about the film is that the characters who could come across as simply unpleasant – such as the trouble-making Oswald family – are still sympathetic.

Mark and I talked a lot about that. What is it that mitigates Bob Oswald? How are we not just going to [have to] kill him? Casting is hugely important. Rory Kinnear is an actor who has got enormous emotional access. It’d be very easy to play that character as a thug. There’s one key shot in it where Bob Oswald is ironing his kids’ clothes. He doesn’t say anything, he’s just ironing. That was a pickup shot. We thought we were missing a beat. We’re missing the moment that just has Bob being a dad, being a single dad with three girls. You know, three teenage girls – that’s not easy. With a wife who died three years ago, who we never meet, but we’ve got to feel their loss of her.

Will you be making more films?

The power of that decision is not in my hands! It seems to have gone down alright, and I’ve enjoyed the process enormously. It’s not very compatible with theatre in practical terms. I think it is in many creative ways; more compatible with theatre than television is for example. But it’s tricky juggling [the two].

Film moves around. You think the next nine months or a year of your life is going to start on Monday, but then it will move by nine months, 18 months or forever in the space of one decision by one of the people behind the money or an actor, or the weather changes.

In theatre it doesn’t work like that at all. I can have a phone call tomorrow and commit to something I’m doing in 2017 and I will turn up, and they will be there – it will happen. So trying to balance those two is a good game!

But I really hope to make more. It’s a terrific medium.

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