Whether it’s the West Bank barrier, the Berlin Wall, the Northern Irish peace lines or even further back, Hadrian’s Wall or the Great Wall of China, huge walls have always held great potency when illustrating the divide between peoples. Whether it’s to represent ethnic, religious, economic or military differences, walls also provide a wealth of borderland drama, as acutely portrayed in Peter King’s tense drama This is the Winter. Telling the story of a young girl caught in a refugee camp north of a border between the north and south of England, it shows her being caught up in the allure of resistance factions — providing a reverie on the push and pull of political extremism. Making its online premiere here on DN today, King joined us to talk about the political inspirations for his film, creating the immersive dystopian set and his plans to further explore this world through TV.
Let’s settle the age-old debate. Where would you put the wall? Crewe?
I’d say just under Liverpool and across the Humber. It’s funny because everyone who worked on the film had a different opinion.
The film was made after the Brexit referendum and the effects have been quite terrible for certain towns in the north. At the same time, we see the traditional red wall in northern constituencies almost decimated and traditional labour disappearing. Were these political events that were on your mind?
The idea came before Brexit had been voted on, it just takes a long time to actually get the funding together. I’m actually from Darlington, which is close to Teeside, which suffered massively with the closure of steelworks while the chemical works. I was in the centre of Middlesbrough photographing these old terraced houses, half knocked down and half still-standing. It looked like a war zone with bricks strewn across the street and it sparked the idea for the film.
I started thinking about the neglect and the anger that is occurring. Then Brexit happened and Trump was voted in. There are all of these big movements happening where the people who suffer day-to-day needed to break the status quo, which lead them to these extreme reactions. It’s almost an act of self-harm.
I started thinking about the neglect and the anger that is occurring.
It sort of grew from there. Obviously, the wall is a very literal divide, but it’s also a metaphor for the wealth divide and how inaccessible it is to cross it. The film reflects that position, she’s trapped in this purgatory in the camp and is offered a way out. Someone comes in with a different option and she gets sucked into this idea, kind of like Brexit and voting Trump, as mainstream politics was failing them.
There are divisive walls in the UK, of course, for example, in Belfast with the peace lines. The film actually reminded me of the way the IRA — which might start with an alluring goal — can prey upon the youth to join their cause. Did you study any terrorist groups when researching the film?
I read and watched documentaries about the IRA. Like you said, the ideology can be quite enticing to young people. Especially if you live in an oppressed area and there’s the option to take control of your situation. What I found was quite powerful is that it’s not just about north and south — in fact, you can apply it to many different parts of the world where people get sucked into the fantasy, like right now in Hungary and Poland. Then the reality hits and it’s much darker and more twisted than people imagined. But by this time, people are in too deep. Where kids are involved it becomes even more extreme, as they are more susceptible to indoctrination, their minds are still forming, and end up being manipulated by those with power. For that, ’71 was the reference, both visually and thematically, particularly the scene with the young boy being involved in the bombing.
These films live and die on their production design. You create a very lived-in experience for the camp. I loved to know how you collaborated with your production designer to achieve this?
Production Designer Natalie O’Connor was amazing. One of the crazy things about the production design was that she wasn’t on board the film initially. The original team pulled out ten days before the shoot because they landed a commercial, and my producer wouldn’t confirm the shoot until I had replaced them. I only had two days to find someone willing to do it.
I scoured Google and eventually found Natalie. I saw on her website that she’d done a dystopian short previously so wasn’t starting from scratch. We discussed the original team’s plan, using Dagenham Sunday Market and the structures for the stalls as the framework, using tarpaulin and canvas over them to build the refugee camp. She went even further than we had originally planned, bringing corrugated surfaces and barrel fires. This was then beautifully shot by my long time collaborator David Procter, who captured the scenes with a naturalistic aesthetic. The visual reference was the Calais Jungle. The overhead shots are actual footage from the Jungle, which I’d found online and then contacted the filmmaker who shot them.
I’d love to know more about casting Neil Fitzmaurice as the father. I instantly recognised him from Peep Show!
Our Casting Director Kharmel Cochrane is fantastic. Neil submitted a tape to her and I loved it. I knew him from Peep Show and Pheonix Nights, which he also wrote. I hadn’t seen him in drama before but I really liked his take on the part. He played that balance so well, where you can see his weakness and understand where she’s coming from. His inaction and emasculation is a large part of why she feels the need to take control and do something about their situation. He’s also from the north and it was important to get as many northern actors in it as possible as there’s not as many huge opportunities there. Liv was a dream to work with, she’s incredibly smart and emotionally intelligent. She really understood the themes and character and brought so much to the film. She was the perfect contrast to Warren’s alpha-male Vincent, and their scenes together are electric.
It was important to get as many northern actors in it as possible as there’s not as many huge opportunities there.
Our Casting Director Kharmel Cochrane is fantastic. She put out emails to agents to get tapes and Neil submitted one which was great. He said it was Neil from Peep Show and also from Phoenix Nights, which he wrote, so it’s quite interesting to see him send a tape in for the short but I liked the tape and knew he was going to be great. He worked perfectly with Liv Hill’s character. He played that balance so well where you can see his weakness and where she’s coming from and why she wants to do something about this situation. He’s also from the north and it was important to get as many northern actors in it as possible as there’s not as many huge opportunities there.
You mentioned that you are planning to turn this into a TV show?
I’ve adapted the concept into a TV series, where we follow a young group of friends into the conflict, it has more of a group dynamic, kind of Stand By Me meets Children of Men. It’s going to be called Uprising. I’m pitching both here and in the US.
What else are you working on at the moment?
I was recently commissioned to turn one of my ideas into a pilot screenplay which is currently being pitched out. It’s called ORBIT and is about reality TV in space. Then I’ve got a feature film project that I’m also writing at the moment. That suits me, as I’ve got two young kids so I can be working at home then doing the school run. I’ve also got a four part series called Snap in development in-house at Independent Talent, we’ve just attached a writer so I’m really excited to get stuck into that. So a number of different projects in development – watch this space!