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A chat with Electricity’s director Bryn Higgins
December 15, 2014
Bryn Higgins’ second feature film, Electricity, has received rave reviews (including mine) thanks to its strong female lead, magnetic story and wonderful visuals. I had the pleasure of chatting with the British filmmaker and I immediately could tell he’s completely comfortable in his own skin and absolutely obsessed with directing. His passion for the art and for this film are astounding as it should be given how unique Electricity is, such a great detour from the usual blockbuster clichés we’re used to. Warning: some spoilers below.
How would you describe Electricity in a sentence?
Electricity is a fantastic journey that takes place both in the real world and in the hallucinatory world.
Yeah I saw it’s been called Alice in Wonderland in a modern setting.
That’s the other way to describe it in a sentence, a sort of modern day Alice in Wonderland.
When you read the novel Electricity did you imagine you would end up directing the film?
It appealed to me as a director straight away since it’s extremely visually written and has two qualities that work greatly for an adaptation. It’s got a first-person narration with Lily speaking who has a very strong, funny and brash sort of voice but talking directly to you. It also has the extremely vivid descriptions of the hallucinations. So from a directorial standpoint it was very attractive right from the start.
Was there a particular point in the book where you thought this was the next film you wanted to make?
Well, as you set out you hope it might because they are all long journeys. This has been quite a long journey. I really like films that sort of take you away on unusual journeys, so you don’t exactly know where the story is going to go. Certainly the book did that very much through the character. It all comes out of her, it’s her world but yeah I always kind of knew that visually it would be an enormous challenge and therefore a very visual film, even if it doesn’t have hugely expensive ingredients like a far planet or monsters. It hasn’t got that many characters but I think because it goes inside her head, it becomes a very big sort of journey.
Given how visually stunning the film is, how tricky was it to convey to Agyness (the actress who plays Lily) and the special effects team what Lily is actually imagining? Was there a lot of storyboards?
Yes, devising the visual side of it, the hallucinations, was a long process. I was working with Duncan McWilliam who was the video effects designer and Duncan is very experienced, he’s worked for a motion picture company for a long time and did very high end commercials and movies and now he’s set up his own thing and I think for the video effects people – the interesting part was that the visual effects had to feel very organic and have their own character. It wasn’t necessarily about giant lizards bashing a city but you had to feel like you were part of Lily and it had to be very photo-realistic, it couldn’t be anything else because that’s the way these hallucinations work. The process of realising this began with doing actual medical research. So we took the novel which had its descriptions and we worked with several experts in epilepsy, particularly our consultant Gonzalo Alarcon to find out if we were being correct because it was important to be rigorous about that. From that we had a sort of picture book of different types of hallucination we wanted to feature but obviously we were building a drama so they needed to escalate along with story, increasing pressure, so we needed the hallucinatory side of it to get more and more complex and more frightening I suppose. Which again is true to the real condition because as people get more exhausted or more tense about things they tend to have more seizures. So then it was about talking to Duncan and I’d originally planned a lot of it in camera and I looked at a lot of old animation done in camera, particularly an animator called Bokanovsky who is French actually. We went back to scratching on film and painting on film and doing all sorts of elaborate things.
That’s almost original King Kong territory.
It kind of is, this guy started out in the 50s but a lot of the early sets that are done in camera can be the most interesting. We borrowed some – there was a beautiful documentary made about a film by French director Henri-Georges Clouzo. He did films like the Wages for Fear, but he did a film near the end of his life which he never finished and the documentary I think is called L’Enfer (Inferno) and they spent a year before they even got actors, just shooting tests using moving lights, filters, gels and all sorts of weird crazy stuff to create these effect and this documentary had all these test reels and they found them in an attic. We just built some of those ourselves and one was a big circular lighting rig like a wagon wheel and as you turn it all the shadows shift around completely and it’s very weird and you couldn’t do it with special effects, well it would be very expensive. So we started from that point of view of wanting to do as much in camera as possible, as it was much cheaper. Then Duncan came in as there were some things like a bird coming out of someone’s mouth or putting the sea on the ceiling.
What I love most about the film is Lily, she’s such a strong and determined character. Nothing gets in her way, despite her condition. Did you notice that you were dealing with a heroine?
Yeah it is very much so and one of the more attractive things about it is to do a film with a strong female lead, they’re not that common. I know that’s what attracted Agyness to it hugely, she’s very interested in doing strong female figures. That comes from Lily’s voice in the novel where she has this phrase which we kept “Thrash, get up, get on with it. That’s what I say.” That kind of defines her and it’s funny and touching. I always liked that sort of northern sense of humour and then actually bringing that character down to London was interesting for me because I was born and bred in London so I’m quite happy and familiar with it. The thing was that for a person with this condition London is a much more dangerous place: it’s full of corners and things that will kill you if you basically fall over but her kind of naivety is charming. I think those of us who come from London don’t wander down Oxford Street asking random passers by if they’ve seen this bloke, but she does. The long and short of that was that we set about visualising London as this sort of monster because it is this huge thing and she has to find her way through this forest. Interesting we only shot in London for four days.
The rest was shot up north?
Yeah in Newcastle, you get to avoid the congestion and expenses and Newcastle has Georgian interiors and you’ll find pubs for example where you can film without problems. We shot in some really interesting bits of the city.
How did you deal with the pressure to portray Epilepsy on screen? There’s a lot of pressure to get it right, did that mean sleepless nights?
No not really. I come from a documentary background so I deal with factual material and being rigorous is a strength and not a hindrance. With the hallucinations we avoided the temptation to just do what whatever we liked because that would’ve been wrong. I think we did a lot of research into how it affects people’s lives and to be frank the whole point of view of the film is from someone who experiences this condition, from how they see the world and how they feel the world is different. For instance the fact she has big gaps in her life which she calls outtakes that you can walk through life and you can cut and find yourself in the back of an ambulance or a hallway and you don’t know why you’re covered in blood. That’s all great from the point of view of making a film. We had the script checked, we made sure as much as we could that we were portraying it accurately. I mean, there are forty types of epilepsy and everybody’s is different. So there are literally thousands upon thousands of experiences, so we made sure we weren’t taking liberties. I think in terms of commercial aspect, any film which deals with a mental condition as it were can be tricky, but it’s turned out to be one of the great strengths of the film. No-one’s seen it before, no-ones been taken into that world.
It’s a very emotional drama, a few heart-breaking moments for Lily especially. How did you keep things light on set?
Well, I personally prefer crews to be relatively happy and I think people work better that way. I’ve worked with unhappy crews quite a lot for various reasons and when people get tense or overtired it doesn’t help the work. Sometimes I engage in the odd practical joke as well, just messing about but with this I think it was about removing that pressure of making a film from the actors. I’ve certainly made enough stuff now to not feel comfortable when you feel the machinery taking over, often a problem on film sets with 50 people involved and there’s always time pressures and issues. I prefer to keep it as quick moving and irreverent to that as possible because then the actors can feel like they need to do what they need to do. Sometimes I can be quite hard on the crew but you just need to be ready to move.
What was your favourite moment on set?
It depends on where we were really. I enjoyed shooting in unusual places you wouldn’t normally go to. Like where we filmed some of the childhood home is quite wild, strange, there’s a lot of travellers up there so they have their horses and they park them on their front garden. They have horses like other people have dogs. We were there on a Sunday and it was fairly hot so they came out and had a drink and it got fairly lively. The best for me was working with Agyness on the intimate stuff and I think she felt quite safe with me, she could trust what we were doing because she is very exposed in places – emotionally or physically – I like that actors feel they’re in good hands.
Are there any scenes that got cut from the film you wish you could add in, maybe as a DVD extra?
There were a few more seizure sequences in the script but we cut it down at the last minute, we sort of rebuilt one in the edit but for that reason we shot quite a bit of extra scenes. We shot more flashbacks of childhood but they really brought the film to a darker place in a way and Lily as a character has enough to contend with in the present day already. To tell the truth we reshot the ending. We had a great ending, it was a lot of work and it was her and Mel. Mel had come to see her up in the seaside resort and they went swimming together in the sea. It was a transcendental thing that the one thing she could never do was swim at sea because if you had a fit you’d just drown, so we shot this and filmed them going into the north sea and they didn’t have any wetsuits, it was cold but they were brilliant at it and we shot more material in a swimming pool with big lights. Then we realized you really need to see Lily on her own at the end, this scene of lily without anyone standing beside her, she’s strong on her own, able to make her own choices and for that reason we took that beautiful scene out and reshot the ending. It’s a great alternative ending but in a sense not the right message.
Electricity is out in UK cinemas