By Paul Risker.
The dark psychological drama The Passing (2016) is a moment in which the Welsh landscape is blighted by yet another brooding tale. Although just as characters of film are stalked by their dramatist creators who make them the prey of dramatic provocation, so too can the landscape be exploited as the stage for the drama. The Passing’s director Gareth Bryn and screenwriter Ed Talfan are also responsible for the brooding television crime drama Hinterland (2013- ), but with The Passing they relocate these dark inclinations from the coastal town of Aberystwyth to the Welsh Valleys. “We are proud of it because it is the kind of film that we always wanted to make”, says Bryn. “And because nobody was on our backs and we didn’t have to answer to anybody, we made the film that we wanted to make [laughs].”
The cinematic art form has been defined by bold filmmakers who have dared to pursue individualistic interpretations of cinematic language, but which have expanded and shown its flexibility. Bryn readily admits that The Passing is a film that intentionally plays with structure and that he was challenged by it initially. “When I first read the script I had to read it two of three times to get my head around it because it doesn’t follow a traditional structure. Obviously you start with Stanley [Mark Lewis Jones], but it isn’t his film, and if it was a traditional genre [film] you would start with the kids driving on the road who have a car accident, and then stumble across a house in the middle of the forest. But it doesn’t do that. It takes you on a journey and you are just trying to piece together bit by bit what’s going on here; who’s story is this and why I am being dragged into this? It was really intriguing as a director to be able to get stuck into a film like that, but in terms of structure I can’t think of another film that does the same thing. I am sure there are, but I just can’t think of them.”
In an expansive conversation with Film International the filmmaker discussed the importance of flexibility and allowing the film to have its own life, the inexplicable cold reception to Welsh language drama, as well as the transformative nature of the creative process as one shrouded in uncertainty. He also recalled receiving advice on what to do and what not to do for his feature debut, of which his proud assertion, “We made the film that we wanted to make” infers whether the said advice was taken.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there a defining or inspirational moment?
I was an actor for years, just a jobbing actor, and I was doing a show once in the West End. I was stood on stage looking out at the audience and I had this little moment where I thought: I think I’ve gone the wrong way. I am not sure this is for me. I was just thinking how it made me feel really uncomfortable and that shouldn’t be right. For an actor you should be thriving and enjoying that moment, but I just didn’t like it. I needed to think about doing something else and I remembered when I was in school there was a video club with big, big boxy video cameras and tape decks, and I was really excited by that. At one point I thought I was going to be a cameraman, but the theatre opened at the next town and then I went into acting, and then onto drama school before I did the whole acting thing. And it feels like I have come home in a way because this is what I have always wanted to do, but through one thing or another you drift around on a slightly different route. Studying acting has been terrific because when speaking to directors that haven’t been actors, one of the biggest challenges they encounter is knowing how to speak to actors on the set. This hasn’t ever been a concern for me because I have trained in that way and I know how they think.
Speaking of working with actors how do you look back on the experience of working with Annes Elwy (Sara), Dyfan Dwyfor (Iwan) and Mark Lewis Jones?
What’s great about the three actors is that there are no egos at all. They are really down to earth and they knew from the beginning that it was a low budget film. The day before we were to start filming I took the three of them to the location. The house is the house, and while it was art designed and messed with as to how we painted and presented it, you walk into the house and it feels real. It was a journey for all of us and it was like being on the front lines. We were all in this remote location for three weeks and because there were no egos it was very easy for everyone to get on, and it was a very easy shoot. Mark is very giving as an actor as well. He doesn’t pull focus and he has a sense of humour that helped the young actors feel that they could be brave, and immerse themselves in that world.
There is the power play between the characters with the lingering question of who really holds the power. Then when you consider the older experienced actor opposite the younger actors, it illuminates how age and experience of life is central to any understanding of the film.
It is, and what’s interesting is the dynamic between the two lovers. It is a delicate thing because although Iwan can appear dominating at points in the film, Sara also holds a lot of the cards and so she is able to control him. We had one scene in the film where she talks about wanting to stay and that maybe this is the place they have been looking for. But when Iwan says that he doesn’t want to stay, she says: “Oh come here and give me a kiss.” He then says: “No you come here.” In the script and when we shot it she went over to him and gave him a kiss. But I thought he was too dominating and he was getting away with it, so we recut that scene so that she didn’t move. And then all of a sudden it clicked for me and I thought: She’s actually got a lot of power here, and she can manipulate that boy. I think because of this we were able to just balance it between the two of them where you think he holds the power and then she holds the power. It was both an interesting and intriguing relationship, and of course by the end of the film you fully understand why it was so weird and interesting. But to try and help the audience to be intrigued by it without giving anything away was a delicate balance, and I hope we got there.
It’s interesting that you mention that moment only because I had a similar reaction to you where I didn’t want Sara to go over to him. But beyond their interaction is an intriguing moment where you cut to a shot of Stanley watching the couple. What this achieves is to merge the impression of privacy and seclusion of their own private world with it belonging to Stanley’s. It is a point in which interpersonal worlds collide and intersect.
It is incredibly slow burn and you feel that it is made by the interaction between the three characters, and I think you are right. One of the things we were discovering in the edit was that we had to keep that tension and the questions going because if anything was too solid, rigid or normal then we felt like we’d dropped the ball. What’s so great about Mark is he does so little on the screen and yet he’s so commanding. You can just watch him and the camera loves him, and it is the same with her. We were cutting dialogue all of the time in the edit because we found that their presence was overwhelming everything else – they were telling the story with their physicality and their interactions. But it was a tricky one to do because as I say it doesn’t follow any kind of traditional structure. As a director the baton is being passed from character to character, and even though you can see Stanley is a powerful and strong force, when the young boy turns round and says: “Get out of my house” he has such a vulnerability there that it is almost like a bear. We did some Q&As and Mark was saying that his take on it was that he did feel like he was a bear in the woods, and that these people had come in. And what happens with the well is that he unleashes all his rage. I had planned to shoot that scene with lots of shots, but he just did this growl as he threw him down the well in the take, and we were all gobsmacked. We caught it in one shot and it just seemed so powerful and animal like that we were excited that we caught it on camera. It made the scene for me and in a way it makes the film because of its emotion. And well it is the climax really, apart from the very end where everything just hits the fan.
It taps into that idea of how we have a physical and an emotional identity, the two of which in many ways are in a tug of war. Listening to your thoughts and then thinking back on the film forces a consideration of the film in this context.
Yeah it is because if you look at what the characters are doing, and if you specifically look at what Stanley’s doing in the scene, he’s actually doing very little. But there is something about the accumulation of where we have been, where we are going and what the score and the soundscape is doing in the film that ties it all together. As an experiment if you were to watch the film without the music for example or without the soundscape, then I think it would be a different experience all together. But that’s down to the confidence of the actors and the confidence in the collaboration that they were able to give such subtle performances, and to understand that actually there’s a lot going on here. We were not making it black and white for everybody because we wanted the intrigue to continue right up until the end of the film.
Silent cinema is still prevalent in contemporary film having found a way to endure and transform into silent performance or in moments of silence. From your experience on The Passing do you yourself perceive silent cinema to still be an influential presence?
Absolutely, and when Ed wrote the script he started off wanting to write a silent film. While that was his plan he realised within about ten or fifteen minutes that someone had to speak. But that’s why the beginning of the film is completely silent for a good ten or fifteen minutes because that’s what he was trying to do. Ed was just completely intrigued and he says that he could just watch Stanley living and inhabiting that space for the whole ninety minutes, but thankfully he made something else happen. But that was his intention and the spirit of that has carried on through the film and into the final cut. We did cut a lot of dialogue because when you are trying to finance the film people need to hear characters talk, but once you see it in 3D and once you get those really good performances onscreen, then you can be confident in taking some of that dialogue away, and just letting them do what they do.
Theatre director and filmmaker David Farr observed to me recently: “I can almost imagine without exception that scripts are overwritten, and that’s my experience. But they may need to be overwritten in order to create the understanding amongst the people who are making it of what they are trying to do.” I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the nature of the film screenplay.
It is and sometimes the draft is made for the financier or an executive producer, and when you see it in 3D you can just get rid of it because it’s clear, and then people forget that it was there at all. But I think that’s the same with all films and I am sure that you don’t fully understand what the film is until you see it. You can have the best laid plans, but until it is there in the can you don’t truly know what you’ve got. I think you’ve got to feel brave about going with it and not being too rigid about what you think the film is. It needs to have its own life and it will have its own life. As a director you have to go with it and take the opportunities when they arise. We never planned for it to snow in the film at all and it was potentially a disaster for us. So when we went back to reshoot a scene and it had been snowing after we’d had nice weather and rain we just thought: “No it’s not a disaster”. If you embrace it and say: “Actually this could play a part” then all of a sudden it becomes a beautiful sequence of him walking out into the snow in the morning. The scene when she holds the butterfly and releases it through the pane of glass was not in the script, but it was there and it was a moment we caught because we were flexible. And things like that can make a film.
I have recently begun to appreciate anew the opening moments of a film where the camera captures those first images that begins the process of constructing the world of its characters. At this point a film is full of possibilities, the choices yet to be taken.
That’s right, and we wanted to create a world that was timeless and that doesn’t feel as though it belongs anywhere. We wanted people to feel intrigued by the world we were creating. We make a show called Hinterland and one of the frustrating things when you are making a drama or a thriller is that one of the biggest killers is mobile phones. As soon as someone has a mobile phone you have nowhere to go. So making it timeless gave us scope to go anywhere because you are unsure what time it is or whether it is reality or a dreamlike state. And then as you say anything can happen, and I think that is really exciting.
The way in which you use the camera at the beginning of the film you are almost circling the world, which in itself could be seen as an attempt to not intrude upon it and therein positions we the audience as observers and not an intrusive force.
I think that’s interesting because there are a couple of things that are happening there. One of them is that how I direct is I let the actors do what they pretty much want to do, although it is within the constraints of what I think is acceptable to make sure the story is clear. But then another thing that gave it that feel was how small the house was because it made us step back from it. We had to shoot through doorways and it became a coherent thing that informed how we were shooting, and I think you are right that it has added something. But it is about being fluid as a filmmaker and taking the things that are in front of you and using them to your advantage. Had we been right up there in the rooms with them then I think it would have felt very claustrophobic; more so than it already does. But I think things like this a well as being open to those challenges and then using them to your advantage are what I hope has made the film interesting.
The digging of the well could be seen to be symbolic of the films narrative structure as one which slowly builds to this dramatic explosion that mirrors Stanley’s digging of the well. The Passing is a film that offers an experience whereby we feel we are not learning a lot, but we do feel that we are becoming more entrenched in the drama as the emotional connection between the characters builds. And so the digging of the well and the spectatorial experience merge.
The well is an interesting one because on the surface of it you think: Oh, he’s just digging for water, but actually it is more than that because we come full circle. In the original draft Iwan is crushed by the car engine falling on him in the garage, but we thought: No this doesn’t work. Hang on its staring us right in the face, it’s the bloody well [laughs]. You’ve got to do the well… It’s got to be part of it. So it clicked and it all came together, and the well became a bigger character. But of course it is not only about Stanley digging for water, it is also about the toil because in a way Stanley is trapped in this no man’s land. We don’t want to give the plot of it away, but he is in that place between life and death, and he’s kind of trapped there for eternity. He’s a worker, a creature of habit and I wouldn’t be surprised that if over the space of his existence there have been many, many wells, and he would just keep digging and digging and digging, and when he finds water he would dig another one. There’s a certain kind of reassurance and it’s almost like the thing that he does – it’s his mindfulness. But I’m glad that the well has become a character in itself because it could have quite easily not been, and I think that would have been a big mistake on our part. And so I am glad that came full circle and became a motif and symbolic of what the film ended up being.
One of the themes of The Passing is the way in which experience attaches itself to us and the difficulty to shed past experiences that define who we are. These past experiences have to be confronted and even if one tries to run away to a new place the spatial will only be haunted by our past as the two intertwine.
That’s right and it’s interesting because they will always keep running. It goes back to that idea where in one scene Iwan says: “I walked and I thought there would be something; a phone, a road, but there is nothing. Everything just leads back here.” I think you are right, and it’s that very idea that they can’t run away from this. They have to face it and that’s exactly what’s going on. And if you look at the film and say: “Oh it all happens in Sarah’s head”, then whether those people exist or not is for the audience to decide. This has to be resolved in this place before the end of the film. Once you see the climax and you think back to the beginning it all makes sense. There is an absolute solid logic from the first frame of the film to the last. When leaving the cinema it may take some people time to piece it altogether, but I hope that the film will stay with people when they see it. There is a clear through line, and everything that is there is there for a reason.
Stanley wants to remain in the house where many of his memories occurred and this led me to consider the philosophical thought: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” if Stanley were to stay in this house and the young couple were to never interrupt his existence, how would that impact the resonance of his memories? Would they stay more passively silent or does the human interaction allow the memories to make a sound?
It’s interesting isn’t it, and in a way that’s up to the audience to decide. My interpretation is that they exist because Sarah exists. Stanley starts off as the loner, a bit of a villain and you can’t quite work him out. Then all of a sudden there is such vulnerability, and he just wants Sarah to be a part of this world that she too could live in. It’s a place that’s stuck in time, but one where they could all live in this no man’s land where there’s peace and beauty without the violence and the disgust of where she’s come from. But it does feel to me that it is a journey that she’s going on, and so they exist because she’s there for them to exist. So yeah, you to hear the tree as long as Sarah’s there to hear it [laughs].
You’ve spoken about how nothing happens the way it traditionally should in a film of this nature. One of the moments I appreciated is the sudden interruption of Stanley’s solitude not by the couples physical presence, but by the sound of the car horn. And as you have said, considering it is Sara’s film it is interesting how Stanley is introduced as the central character.
We were just playing with structure because how else other than without dialogue do you create the world of Stanley, and of this forgotten time? How do you do it without seeing it, and I think that was the best way we thought of to do it – to spend some time with this lonely isolated man in this forgotten time, and then let him discover the outsiders before we bring them in and follow their story. It is slightly untraditional in its structure, but it works and it is a challenge. It was a challenge on the page and it was a challenge to direct, but it’s interesting, and I think we hold the audience’s attention. But the film is not an easy watch and we know that.
I always recall Martin Scorsese’s observation: “What I loved about those Truffaut and Godard techniques from the early sixties was that the narrative was not important. You could stop the picture and say: ‘Listen, this is what we’re going to do right now – oh, by the way, that guy got killed – and we’ll see you later’” (Christie 2003: 151). The Passing through a playfulness with structure is in pursuit of something similar, to remind us of the flexibility of narrative, but to also trust an audience to adapt to this narrative playfulness and subversion of expectations. The only issue is compromising on the audience you are making the film for.
We have all seen films that within the first five or ten minutes we know what’s going to happen, because it is so formulaic and the structure is rigid. The audience are intelligent and they can go on a journey, and I think it’s incredibly rewarding when you don’t patronise them. When they think they are getting one thing and they get something else it can be incredibly rewarding. Sometimes it is not very comfortable to watch a film like that because you are second guessing what’s coming next, and sometimes it doesn’t fulfill the expectation. But I think we need to keep making films like this otherwise you might as well paint by numbers. Sometimes it will work and sometimes it won’t, and it won’t be for everybody. But we need films like this and they are incredibly rare.
With this film it was hugely down to the point that we were left alone to make it. We weren’t badgered by broadcasters or financiers, but were told that we were allowed to make the film we wanted to make. And this meant we were able to experiment in this way to create a film that isn’t very tabloid, and doesn’t follow the traditional structure, but is a beautiful and mesmerising journey I suppose. The best films stay with you don’t they? You know when people ask your favourite film, it is incredibly hard because some of the films that have stayed with me the most are films that I don’t want to ever watch again.
Perhaps we could say it us almost ironic.
I think with enough time you can go back to them.
You have to let an experience unfold before you can go back and add a new layer of experience.
Yeah, that’s right.
Speaking with Carol Morley for The Falling (2015) 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.” Would you agree and do you perceive there to be a transfer of ownership?
Absolutely, and when you are in the edit suite and you look at the images every day it is easy to lose the sense of rhythm and purpose. We did a few non-official screenings where people were just invited to watch and then afterwards we talked to them. With the structure not being traditional and the pace of it being a slow build then we needed to be confident what we were showing them was engaging, and that we had paced it correctly. After those those screenings there were a couple of cuts because a few of the people said the music was too overpowering or it was a bit sluggish in certain parts. So we went back to the edit, but we didn’t listen to everybody – “Too many cooks” and all that. But there was a kind of consensus and we made a couple of changes because of that. So yeah, I absolutely agree and of course different people have different interpretations, and it is not for me to say what the film is or what it means. If someone asks me what I think it means then I’ll tell them, but it’s up to the audience. When we’ve screened it with the Q&As people have asked questions of what does this and what does that mean? The only way I can answer them is to ask them what do you think it means, because if that’s what it means to you then that’s valid. I’m not going to tell you what I think it is because it’ll cheapen it, and all the answers and clues are there. It’s for the audience to decipher what they think this world was and what really happened.
But no, I think you’re right. The audience has an energy and I see the film differently when I am watching it with one. I see different things as well as other things that I have never seen before when there are a hundred people sat there watching it with me. I spent four weeks in a dark room with an editor which is a very safe place, and then when you get in front of an audience you just see everything. You see all its mistakes, all its problems and all its beauty. You see everything differently and so it is the strangest experience. But films are there to be seen aren’t they, and they’ll be there when we are all gone [laughs] for anybody who wants to see it in two hundred years time. It exists, it’s there and that is a wonderful thing.
While watching The Passing it occurred to me how foreign language drama derives a certain sense of feeling from the language. How do you perceive the way in which the Welsh language feeds into the film’s sense of feeling and informs its identity?
Well, because we do the whole bilingual thing on Hinterland there was a very short conversation about doing it bilingually, but that lasted about thirty seconds because it just wouldn’t have felt right. This film is based in a world that is timeless. It’s a world that could feel “other”, and doing it in Welsh helps to create that world because that language belongs to the landscape. But it just felt weird for us to do it any other way.
When I have done interviews over the years, one of the questions that I sometimes get asked is: “Why do a film in Welsh?” You think: Well if I was a French director, you wouldn’t be asking me why I was doing it in French. The language of my home is Welsh, and my children don’t speak English yet, and so this is an everyday thing for us. But in terms of this film it was a point of difference and it wouldn’t have been the same without it.
The spatial setting can as you say be integral to a film, and so the language issue becomes one of honesty to not try to interfere with the personality or the identity of the film.
Yeah, and there are the subtleties between the different accents or use of the language. Stanley’s language is incredibly pure Welsh, whereas the kids have the odd little English word in there or their intonation is slightly different. For Stanley being in the middle of nowhere in that valley, it is a Welsh world and so its fluent first language is Welsh. And it seems poetic and beautiful just as the landscape is.
And does place like Wales that has been so rarely seen onscreen internationally have the potential to create a new version of the filmic or the cinematic?
I hope so and it is interesting that the first people to come on board with this film were the Americans. We showed it in Berlin to an American sales agent who had loved Hinterland and he absolutely got it. We do struggle in the UK with British distribution because of it being in Welsh. BBC Four takes a bilingual version of Hinterland, but the fully Welsh one exists as well. I don’t know as a nation why we are not ready for it yet when we are ready for Scandinavian and Nordic Noir with subtitles. But there is something about Welsh language content that for some reason means it hasn’t broken through yet, and I don’t know why that is. You must watch tonnes and tonnes of film and I hope you can see when you watch The Passing that it’s an integral part of it, and it feels like a European film. It’s no different to French, German or whatever language.
During one of my first meetings as a director when I was doing lots of television, somebody told me that your first film should be straight genre, and you should just try to get an A-list actor and do it in English because it’s an easier sell. And I thought: God how depressing is that. And we didn’t do any of that. We made a Welsh language film with a genre that isn’t straightforward with terrific actors that are on anybody’s A-list. I really hope that people embrace it and fall in love with it the way that we have. But we do need the help of people like yourselves to make people aware of it.
German 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?
I am not aware of it, but I think it is the kind of question that you have to ask if I am still making films in maybe ten or twenty years time. This is when I can look back on this experience and say: “Yeah, I can see the difference.” But when you are living it then it is incredibly difficult to say. It’s weird because in a similar way I can’t necessarily see a continuity between my work, but other people tell me there is. It’s strange when they watch something I have directed and they’ll say: “Oh I saw that and I knew you’d done it.” I don’t know what that is, but maybe in ten years time I’ll look back at it and think: Oh yeah, of course… That’s what I did. But when you are in the middle of it then it is incredibly hard to see.
Christopher Sharrett in his piece celebrating Robin Wood wrote: “…One needs to remain flexible to accommodate the critic’s constant réévaluation, recognizing that criticism involves an ongoing dialogue with both a work and one’s view of the world. The idea of the critic not having a formed opinion, rather our opinion constantly evolving an understanding of an individual film.” (Sharrett 2010: 12). Considering your answer is there an affinity between yourself and this concept of the critic whereby you personally as a storyteller and filmmaker come to understand your work over a period of time?
When we make the film we are not one hundred percent sure what we are making until we have made it, and even then when you look back it exists in its time. Of course as you say that will change as time goes by, but for me to think of it in any other way would just be too disruptive. If I were to start to think too much about how I do things or how we make things and what the impact it is having, then it would get in the way of an experience that is otherwise quite instinctive. We work very instinctively and we are very flexible in the way that we make things. We take opportunities and try to make them work for us, which is the way with all low budget film I suppose. You have to stay flexible because you can’t go back and reshoot stuff, and you can’t build huge sets. You have to go with what you’ve got.
Sharrett, C. 2010. “For Robin Wood, 1931-2010.” Cinema Journal. 50(1), pp.121-125.
The Passing was released theatrically in the UK on Friday April 8th 2016.
Paul Risker is an independent scholar and film critic who contributes regularly to Film International. He is an Editor for Mise-en-scène: The Journal of Film and Visual Narration, which will launch in Fall 2016.