After a successful festival route that included Toronto, London, and the Berlinale, David Farr’s feature film debut, psychological thriller The Ones Below, finally arrives in UK cinemas, channelling Hitchcock, Lynch, and Polanski but also announcing an interesting new voice in British cinema. This unnerving tale of two neighbouring married couples whose lives get fatally tangled up may be Farr’s first film as a director, but he’s a veteran of the entertainment industry.
His career started in 1995 when he became Artistic Director of London’s Gate Theatre, making him one of the most exciting new talents in British theatre, but over the years he has developed relationships with the leading broadcasters and producers, paving the way for his move into film and television. We chatted with the filmmaker about his feature debut, the state of British cinema, and the relationship between film and television.
On The Ones Below’s tone and themes:
For me it was very important to create what I would call an erotic element between the two women, as in a physical and chemical fascination, but not really a sexual one. Kate (Clémence Poésy) is a voyeur to some extent, she has that Hitchcockian tradition of someone who watches other people, so there’s no doubt Teresa (Laura Birn) magnetizes her. She’s charismatic and sexy and she loves being pregnant whilst Kate really doesn’t. Teresa also loves dazzling Kate, as she’s one of those women who’s travelled a great deal and makes friends very quickly and she has that smile that seals the deal in seconds.
I wanted that kind of attraction between the two women to be very real and I hope there’s a general playfulness to the film to the point that the tone is almost comedic sometimes because it’s entirely deliberate. Polanski is very good at that, though in a very different way as he’s much more gothic. Unlike in Europe, we often don’t quite get that tone, and for us here in the UK there’s either comedy or drama but for me life is not like that. Kafka is also a huge influence of mine and he’s terrifying because he’s so funny at the same time, whereas if we’re talking about filmmakers, David Lynch is the perfect example.
It’s important that the audience make their own assumptions about where things may go as these women develop a genuine bond. It’s actually true that pregnant women become friends really fast, especially in the city where it can be very lonely when you’re pregnant. Alienation in all its various forms is indeed a recurring theme in my work, this feeling that you should belong in a place that’s got so many people and yet you are alone. It’s a strange paradox but that’s what happens for various reasons and people not only feel lonely but in our modern culture, many live alone. Kate and Justin have friends but they’re not that close with them and in the end she’s quite a private person. Although she appears so serene, she’s beset by uncertainty and anxiety, especially about the baby, for all sorts of reasons that are hinted at along the way.
On his writing style and withdrawing certain information in the narrative
It often works best generally when one leaves a lot of things to the imagination. If I’ve learned anything about making a film it’s to allow audience space. Perhaps the script made some stronger decisions in certain areas and made things more clear but we whittled it down to something that doesn’t give too much away. Some may find it frustrating but I find it enigmatic in the right way, as it allows the audience to interpret and enter the imaginative world of the film. When I’ve written scripts for hire it was astounding sometimes how people ask for the blindingly obvious to be in your face and it does cost in the end, because audiences are smart and if you’re trying to make a film of a certain quality you should trust the economy of storytelling.
On what he hopes the audience will take from the film:
Some journalist told me that after seeing the film she felt the need to call her pregnant friend and make sure she was OK, and that’s a lovely reaction for me. I think Kate and Justin, the upstairs couple, who are “us” to a certain extant, don’t hold each other tight enough, their love is tested and is found to be lacking. The film of course is not a standard genre film but uses the genre element to discuss something much more emotional and even philosophical. I hope it has the storytelling skill of a genre film and keeps you gripped. It is a suspense movie but hopefully uses that to explore certain areas of our psyche, that deep and primal emotion we all have and are particularly exposed to when we have a child. Because we live in a very protected environment most of the time here in the West, we find those areas somewhat frightening and we’re uncomfortable, whereas in the past people were more used to death being around all the time. So, if people get out of this movie holding each other a little tighter, that wouldn’t be so bad.
On his transition from theatre to film and television:
I loved film since I was a kid and I tried to watch anything I could when I was a teenager. I’d found the thing I really loved but although it’s still pretty hard right now, it was very hard in the ‘90s to make films in Britain. There were very few filmmakers like Mike Leigh, Ken Loach and Peter Greenway and there were very few opportunities.
Theatre is much cheaper and quicker and I thought maybe film was never going to happen and theatre obviously wasn’t going to be a bad life. Then I had a lucky break when someone at the BBC realised I could tell a story so I got some TV writing on Spooks and that led me to write Hanna (2009) which was directed by Joe Wright and starred Saoirse Ronan. It’s just a little journey of individuals saying: “You did this, why don’t you try that.” I was lucky that the first feature script I worked on got made and then I could no longer deny to myself I could do this.
On the state of British cinema and the relationship with television:
I really admire Ben Wheatley for his bravery. He’s the kind of filmmaker that Britain needs more of. He switches genres, he tries things, not everything works but it feels natural, it feels like it’s in his blood. I was a great fan of Shane Meadows but he struggled for a while and now he’s found this incredible success in television, although television and film are starting to meld now. For instance I just adapted John Le Carré’s The Night Manager for the BBC and working with Le Carré was incredibly exciting because he was very permissive. He allowed me to change things and we did really change the last section of the book but he was very happy which makes me proud. However, I just want to hold on to the film medium as a storytelling genre over 90 or 120 minutes because it’s a beautiful thing but it’s starting to get harder to find that audience due to the competition from television. Film needs to keep finding its uniqueness and make sure it holds on to that.
Words by Francesco Cerniglia