Discovering the work of filmmaker Roxy Rezvany has been a recent highlight here at DN. Last month we spoke to her about her short Photo Booth, which, through a single shot, captures an immigrant couple from 70s London as they navigate the law and each other. It’s a terrific short that through a subtle approach encapsulates these people in all their flaws and strengths. Rezvany takes a similar method to her BIFA nominated short Honesty, a drama that explores the power dynamics at play during a police interrogation of a young woman who’s reporting the domestic abuse of her husband. We won’t spoil any more of the film as it’s a work that thrives on being experienced with little prior knowledge. For now, you can watch the trailer below and follow it up with our spoiler-free conversation with Rezvany which touches upon the construction of the film’s subtle messaging, the process of shooting 16mm with natural light, and the influence she drew from other films that explore women under interrogation.
What interested you in depicting a story that explores a young woman reporting her husband for domestic abuse to the police?
Co-writer Emily Renée and I have known each other for a long time, and the script was the result of many conversations on film and shared personal experiences. Emily and I are both interested in the style and structure of allegories and fables; the way in which they are able to build in sweeping lessons or morals about human nature in such a short space of time. We used this as the basis for developing our short film, and as inspiration for how to layer in aspects of what we wanted to say about the world: in terms of power, race, women’s rights, and ‘believability’. We also leaned into the thriller genre to govern the pace with which information is revealed throughout the film, and as an appropriate tone for the story.
I wanted the aesthetic decisions to creep up on you, matching how the drama unfolds.
It’s a film which is incredibly controlled and subtle in its execution. What drew you to take that approach?
The film explores the theme of violence against women, but we never see any of the characters even touch one another on screen. Everyone remains in a single room without ever getting out of their seats. Part of the challenge was to make sure a story about a woman in a compromised position also gave her agency. It seems perhaps paradoxical, but it was something that was very important to me and Emily, and also came through in our discussions with our execs at the BFI and BBC as we developed the script with them too.
Did you draw from any other films which take a similar approach to women being interrogated?
In my director’s approach, I looked at films where women are on trial or under interrogation or assessment, such as Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct, and Aronofsky’s Black Swan. It wasn’t lost on me that all these references consisted of films directed by men! However, what these films illustrated rang true with what we wanted to bring to screen – that control lies in everything from the layout of a room to the phrasing of a question, and that the unspoken is as important in consent or gauging the extent of power, as much as anything that the eye can see. I therefore took this into consideration. I wanted the aesthetic decisions to creep up on you, matching how the drama unfolds and also exercise a lot of restraint and focus to match the precision with which Emily and I had approached the writing.
Part of the challenge was to make sure a story about a woman in a compromised position also gave her agency.
And how did you translate these shot ideas into practice? Did you storyboard, for example?
I storyboarded everything ahead of time with Cinematographer Adric Watson, making reference to the films listed, prioritising capturing body language and performance to tell the story across the film, and mirroring the power plays in the room with the placement of our camera. For our production design, I additionally looked at The Shining and 2018’s Suspiria, which make use of ‘coded messages’ within colours, patterns, and juxtaposition.
I am usually more is more when it comes to colours and textures, but Production Designer Elena Isolini stressed the importance of being selective. Keeping things simple would allow the thought in our details to rise to the surface. This also fed into our approaches to costume, hair, and make up, where perhaps only towards the end of the film do you understand why things are as they are. Even if it’s not felt consciously, hopefully it contributes towards an audience’s overall experience.
The look and lighting feed into those power plays you mentioned. There’s a harsh, realist yet textured approach to the film’s aesthetic. Did you shoot on film?
We were shooting on 16mm with natural light. We shot in Greenwich Magistrates Court and had the benefit of an extremely large central skylight and a very spacious room to play around it.
From those initial conversations with Emily through to your premiere, how long would you say you’ve been working on Honesty?
From scripting to our premiere screening, it was just over two years. Our shooting schedule was delayed by the first lockdown in the UK, but it meant that Emily and I had the opportunity to slow things down, develop the script, and submit additional funding applications. It also gave us the time to find a Producer Elly Camisa who had the same ambition for the project as we did, so it was worth the wait in the end.
Keeping things simple would allow the thought in our details to rise to the surface.
How did you collaborate with Emily Renée on her performance? She has to go through several tonal shifts over the course of the narrative, did you work with her to establish how those would play out?
Emily Renée served as the film’s lead actor as well as a co-writer, and as we were filming during Covid restrictions, we worked to be economical with our prep because we had to create many different versions of who her character was, and how she was presenting herself but would only have a limited amount of time in the same room. What was great about working with your lead during scripting is that, of course, a lot of story discussion takes place as part of the script development, but it is still a different conversation to the one between director and actor when it comes to shaping a performance. Therefore, I still sent Emily breakdowns ahead of time of my take on who I thought the character was and how she had got to the position she is in at the start of the film, and we met to discuss any questions that had come up in her own prep too regarding the character’s backstory and motivations for particular actions she takes in the film.
I later broke the film up into sections, and used specific tonal and stylistic references for each of them, sending clips to Emily who would in turn send back performance tapes which we’d discuss. We did a table read during the scripting process which gave us a first marker on how the character emerged from the dialogue alone, and because so much of it hinges on how she plays with the other actors, we did a read and a rehearsal once we had Aidan O’Neill and Natalie Radmall-Quirke officially join our cast and so that we could all get to know one another. Emily and Aidan also worked with myself and movement director Alexandra Green for a session ahead of our filming day, because whilst the rehearsals had been about mastering the storytelling via delivery of the dialogue, we wanted at least one prep day where we could just explore what they could be doing with their bodies alone to tell the story, without words. What was great about shooting on sticks and on 16mm was that we only had two takes for each actor’s part, so it encouraged us to trust in our prep, and work on set with focus.
You mentioned to us in our last interview that you were working on a film in support of people fighting for freedom in Iran, is there anything you can tell us about the state of that project?
Vogue Magazine commissioned me to make a short film which would raise awareness about the ongoing protests in Iran. It’s going to be released on their platforms in the next few weeks and in the meantime I encourage all readers regardless to keep themselves informed and bear witness to the human rights abuses taking place so the Iranian people’s fight for freedom does not go unheard or unseen.