Based in the reality of meticulous research yet elevated beyond straight documentation by its poetic exploration of character through the interplay of sound and image, writer-director Duane Hopkins further builds upon the promise demonstrated in his debut feature Better Things with Bypass, a morality tale of society’s feared and forsaken. DN sat down with Hopkins to discover how he managed the transition from working with non-actors to actors and why he wants his films to encompass the emotional impact evoked by music.
How did you first become attracted to filmmaking as a career?
I’ve always been interested in films, literally since I was very young. I remember mum and dad always taking me to the pictures when I was 9 or 10 and consuming the same things as everyone else did. I was always interested in images and sound: I used to do graphic design, I used to paint, I did a lot of photography and then I think it was when I was around 19 the first time that I came across a video camera. I was studying at art school and I made a short film and just immediately enjoyed the whole process.
Working with music, sound, image and especially what I found immediately great, which I hadn’t come across in of the other arts that I’d tried, was the idea of editing. This idea of putting sound and image side by side and how that could make you feel something. It was after that that I became very interested in just consuming as much film as I could, so I started to look at everything, you know all the obscure filmmakers and then quite quickly went through all of the masters and then began to build what I thought was an aesthetic which I was just naturally drawn to.
I read that the seeds of Bypass were sown whilst you were researching your first feature Better Things.
Yeah that’s right. I normally work with non-actors, at least I had up until Bypass, and I knew on the next film that I wanted to do something different, both aesthetically and with the people in front of the camera as well. I wanted to work with actors this time. But the actual inspiration for the project was when I was casting for Better Things, and I found that I was having to go further and further afield than where I’d normally cast to find my collaborators. Of course when you work with non-actors you have to go into these communities to find the people that you want to work with. I found as I was going into these places, a lot of these estates in small cities, that these were very different communities to how I remembered them 20 years ago.
If you remove something and you don’t replace it with something positive you can’t be surprised if something negative grows in its place.
I grew up in a working class background and these were still kind of working class areas but the atmosphere within them felt very very different, and the kids that I would meet had different stories, they felt different to how me and my friends were when we were growing up. A lot of them came from quite fractured backgrounds. Their lives were quite chaotic, there didn’t seem to be much continuity between them leaving school and starting work. They didn’t seem to have the chance for any real stable employment or the idea of what we could call a career. Because of that there was no continuity to their lives. They were having to find other survival mechanisms. They had very very low self-esteem. The communities didn’t really have any levels of trust in them. I just became very interested in that, both on a personal level of the characters that I met because I found them so interesting, but also on the societal level.
I started to do a lot of research and really a lot of these estates have a similar kind of story, in that they were part of a kinda second world war project where you had high employment to do with the manufacturing industries. So a lot of these estates had been built to house the workers that were then working these large plants, whether that be cars or steel or aviation. Sometimes these plants would be housing up to 2000 people so you can imagine how large these estates are. Then during the 70s and 80s, during the Thatcherism project these places were shut down. They were closed. They were seen as not economically viable any more. The jobs of these people began to be outsourced to cheaper countries.
When they shut these places down they didn’t really replace them with anything and because of that over the next couple of generations, because there was no stability, you began to see elements of these communities really crumbling. The kids would begin to play truant, there were no jobs that they could immediately go into once they’d left school, so this ‘other’ class I think began to very naturally build. If you remove something and you don’t replace it with something positive you can’t be surprised if something negative grows in its place.
You know a lot of these observations you read about in the national media, but they’re talked about in clichés, in terms of “Broken Britain”, or “Hoodies”. And so we’re used to it intellectually, we’re used to it as the idea of this so called problem, but we don’t really connect to it emotionally. I wanted to make a film which was emotional and about a singular character which at the same time hopefully smuggles in these concerns that I have about how this kind of class is very much organically grown. It’s organically grown out of decisions that society very consciously made. I wanted to make a film which spoke about the history, the contemporary issue, and also the possible future of these characters.
Your lead actor George Mackay has spoken about the two of you working very closely with each other right from preproduction to build Tim’s backstory. What was your process with him specifically and with your actors in general?
Well it had to be new, I had to start from zero because I’d always worked with non-actors and non-actors is a different way that you work with them as to how you get the performance, and here because of working with actors it was new to me. I knew I wanted to started very early and be very rigorous and be very very thorough. First of all, I’m a very big fan of a British director called Alan Clarke who worked with Gary Oldman, Tim Roth and Ray Winstone. I really wanted to find a group of actors who I felt had the same raw charisma and talent level and were in the same idea of what they could be as a possible future generation of character actor. So first of all it was finding those people.
I came across George through the casting director. I hadn’t seen any of his previous work but when we met it struck me immediately that there were similarities between him and Tim. I had to do that with all of the characters and with George specifically. What I mean is there’s a vulnerability there, there’s a sensitivity there, but there’s also something which feels quite courageous. You feel that he would go to an extreme in order to look after someone that he knows. There is an acceptance of responsibility even if that responsibility might be overwhelming for him and he already feels as though he has a very complete set of morality.
When we met I think he was 20, but he spoke with much more experience already, he seemed very wise and I was very interested in that. We met 4 or 5 times before we decided to work together because I had to be sure about what components within him I could work with and how. I had to do that with all of the characters. Once we decided to work together I said to him, “Really Tim is you if we strip away a lot of what George is. If you imaging a parallel universe where essentially you didn’t have the opportunities that you have, I could very easily see you as Tim if you still had the same norms and the same values.” So that became our start point and then it was about how can we take you into the mind frame of Tim very quickly and the idea that we came up with was losing a lot of weight.
Firstly that would make him more conscious of the diet of someone that we would associate from the social strata that the film was going to be set in, but also it would change his relationship with himself. So every time he looks in the mirror he would of course recognise himself but someone very different to how he normally looks and physically he would feel different. He would feel a little bit weaker, not quite as strong or as powerful as he used to be. That was really our start point, getting to an instant place and then we began to work on backstory. If we meet the character here for the first time in a film, in a script and they feel this way, why do they feel this way? What is it that has happened in their life which has basically led up to this point? So we would do as much backstory work as we needed for them to be able to access those emotions at the start. Then really it’s about keeping the trajectory throughout the film.
Despite your films having a strong grounding in the real world research you do, they also play out with this poetic lyrical feel. How do you approach your material to achieve that balance?
I think it’s trying to give something almost a hyperreality. You need to set in reality because it needs to be authentic and you need to believe the characters, you need to feel emotionally where they’re from. Once I’ve got that established, once I have that locked in, really for me, I just want to go further and further into the interior of the character, that’s where I really get interested. I want to not just show what we would be able to show in a documentary, I wanna go further and deeper into the character. Also for me cinematographically that’s more interesting to try and take the form and to bend it and use it as something else.
I want to not just show what we would be able to show in a documentary, I wanna go further and deeper into the character.
For me the camera and the sound recording equipment is not just to be used dryly to record performance. I think you can do something else with it. There’s something poetically you can do with it. You can begin to really try and hopefully describe something which is closer to music – that kind of impact that music has which almost goes passed the conscious elements of how you understand film or how you relate to a character. Then I get really really lost in the film. I can’t really explain as to how you go through the process of doing that, it’s really a constant dialogue with the DOP, with the sound designer, me showing them the references that I have, explaining the type of idea and the type of feeling that I want to reach. Normally I have an idea already visually as to how I want to do it and it’s really then about using all your collaborators to make that as successful as possible.
We had to wait 6 years from Better Things to Bypass, are you going to make us wait another 6 years for your next film?
No I already have something in mind. I’m already working on two projects, one project which is already at a stage where I think we could begin drafting. It’s a very different project that’s set in the upper middle class and its themes are really to do with being a father and legacy and also again class but in a very very different way. But I’ll see, we’re only just about to sit down and start doing that. In between these two films I went and did some gallery work and I may do something similar here. I think after working on a project for 3-4 years constantly which is about a single narrative you feel as though you want to refresh and do something else again. But no, I think I’ll make something quicker than 6 years.