Love is Free from recent NFTS graduate Hannah Renton provides a haunting multi-decade portrayal of one woman’s experience of and attitude towards love, something which has been significantly impacted by her upbringing and the influence of her unconventional yet loving father. Renton’s triptych short takes us from a young girl overhearing her warring parents as they argue about her father’s blatant infidelity, through to that same girl herself as a mother many years later still struggling with her father’s eccentricities as she is pushed to revisit her own childhood. With sharp and abrupt endings to each chapter, Renton invites her audience to mentally draw in the life lived between the three depicted moments, bringing us closer to the wrought emotions playing out on screen. With Love is Free premiering on DN today we spoke to the UK-based filmmaker about casting multiple actors in the same parts who could embody all of the complicated qualities and temporal shifts of perspectives she needed, creating a mixed media vibe for each of the chapters (daughter, lover, mother) and the joy, creativity and liberation she found in freeing herself from more traditional filmmaking forms.

Love is Free is a complicated and resonating dive into family and how the past affects the present, what inspired the story?

My co-writer, Aleksandra Sykulak and I really wanted to work together but we couldn’t find a story or project that was really speaking to us both at that moment. Around the same time I had been working on something with another collaborator Marius Scholtz so we created a type of loose writers’ room throwing out ideas and Love is Free was born. We actually started with the middle chapter – I was quite keen to do something more formal so we started talking about the idea of a triptych. Aleks and I both grew up with complex family dynamics so we started by talking about that and building upon it. In development we were encouraged to make it more of a fuck you/revenge take but we wanted to make something more tender and truthful about acceptance, love and how you might find peace with family and those who’ve hurt you. I adore Aleks, she was such a huge support in all the moments I was losing confidence and is a fierce and tender collaborator.

I love how much of the story takes place in the spaces between chapters, it expands far beyond what we witness.

Love is Free was such a liberating film to put together as we gave a lot of priority and attention to the form. It’s the most I’ve ever allowed myself to not try and make something good, which allows you to follow your instincts and desires allowing for something more interesting. It’s easy to be anxious about making something good but it can often lead you to make safer decisions and in the end something more conventional. I don’t make experimental films but process, and form and questioning the dogma around what story actually is is something that I think about a lot. I’d really recommend listening to Celine Sciamma’s BAFTA lecture which is a great inspiration to me. I think shorts often work best when they employ a set up, pay off structure a bit like a joke – but that doesn’t really work for me. Of course, lots of people have done it before but I loved this opportunity to play with a different form for a short film. I think it works. I love how much of the story takes place in the spaces between chapters, it expands beyond what it is. Just the concept of a woman’s life in three different decades.

How did you and Aleks work to build the story out from that initial middle chapter to create the decade-spanning story we see unfold across the film?

Unlike everything else I’ve made, this wasn’t something either Aleks or I had been ruminating on. The process went pretty much from let’s work together to doing it. Before we knew exactly what the first and second chapters would be we got really excited about the idea of a triptych. We started with the middle chapter centered around a hook up and a young woman really unable to communicate how she feels or what she wants. From there, the first chapter came easily but the third we struggled with. Even once we had it, for a while it felt like the first and second chapters belonged to the same story, and the first and third – but that the second and third had an awkward relationship. There were always concerns about whether it would work, but we committed to taking the risk and I think it paid off. Something I’m learning is that you can never know 100% something is going to work but if you’re excited about it, that’s a good sign. And then you just have to do the work to execute it and hope for the best!

Each chapter ends quite abruptly which suits the story so well, was that always the intention?

I’m not sure it was intentional but I think it was necessary to make the triptych work. We’re trying to cover so much life/story time in so little film time, I think we had to make a point and move. To make it cohesive, rather than feel like three little films, we couldn’t really allow a sense of resolution in either of the first two chapters.

There were always concerns about whether it would work, but we committed to taking the risk and I think it paid off.

I really felt the depth and sense of a life lived between the chapters, can you tell us how you achieve that within the strictures of the triptych form?

I think in a way that’s just kind of osmosis. If what’s happening on either side has depth, and the performances work, then it just happens. As an audience you imagine into that space, you fill the gaps and that brings you closer to the story. It has got me really excited about using ellipses. And I have been noticing how effectively some filmmakers use them, for example Asghar Farhadi in A Separation, Mia Hanson-Love in All is Forgiven and Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja in Aniara.

Sound Designer Simon Panayi and I did think a lot about the space between the chapters and transitions. When we were working together at script stage he made some really beautiful sonic storyboards that explored these spaces and took you on a journey in time. But once we’d cut the film, we ended up doing something much simpler. The space is still there and the audience has a moment to reflect, but the sound has a sense of melancholy and moves you between the chapters. I find the drip of the water in the pool in the transition really moving somehow.

The characters are all so full but that of the Dad in the two chapters is captivating. How did you manage to make him unlikeable and so loveable at the same time?

Haha, good question. Is there anything more frustrating than a character like that! Firstly, I’ll just say that it’s a character I know very well but it also has a lot to do with casting. I really feel that I got so lucky with Tom (Padley) and Eddie (Webber), they both just totally embodied the character, they never met but felt so in sync. I think Eddie instantly had more empathy for the character and Tom originally read him as more callous, so we talked about that and his own charm came through. They’re also both such skilled and specific actors, they really know their craft. It’s so important to the story that he’s likeable, that she loves him and that the audience does. I think without that, if he’s just callous and awful, in a way it’s less painful. But the complexity and contradiction and conflict of loving and being loved by someone who also hurts you is part of what I wanted to capture. And how to continue to have a relationship with that person.

This film does draw more directly from my own life than some of my other work but through it I’ve realised that every film feels equally personal to me. Even when the story elements are far from your own life experience you are still drawing deeply from yourself. And projects more rooted in your own experience, you twist and change and fictionalise in service of the film, the story or just your own instincts and desires.

The complexity and contradiction and conflict of loving and being loved by someone who also hurts you is part of what I wanted to capture.

Were you worried about the continuity of your female lead across the latter two parts?

I was strongly advised to use the same actor for the second and third chapters. The logic being that women don’t necessarily look that different in their 20s and 30s and people might be confused if it wasn’t the same person. However, I felt really strongly that it should be a different actor. That even though women don’t necessarily look that different, they are different – or at least I feel different in my 30s than I did in my 20s – and in a way it was the point that she was. If we cast the same actor I think it would have been a much bigger challenge with the time we had with the actors and budget to make them feel like a woman carrying ten years more of life (or ten years less!). In the end, casting different actors in the same role was so much easier than I thought, or perhaps we just did it really well or got lucky! I remember I was obsessing about the different eye colour of the two adult actresses. We were meant to have contacts but they didn’t arrive for some reason, but no one ever notices and a lot of people think they are the same person.

The film is dark and very subtle and realistic in tone. Can you tell us more about the visual styles you were looking at for each chapter and how you weaved them together?

Yes! I love this film because we really allowed ourselves to play and not worry about making mistakes. The formal idea to make a triptych came very early on so as soon as we had this idea of three moments in her life and in different time periods myself and the DOP Nina Oyens got really excited about shooting on different formats. The dream was to shoot the opening on 16mm, the middle on VHS and the third chapter on digital. That didn’t happen but it really informed the visual style for each chapter. Gaffer Mark Lane and Colourist Mara Ciorba are also both wonderful and super talented and helped us create the looks of each chapter and keep some of the mixed media vibe. The other concept was memory, so chapter 1 (daughter) is the most fragmented and memory-like and then by the 3rd chapter everything is much cleaner and more exposed.

The dream was to shoot the opening on 16mm, the middle on VHS and the third chapter on digital. That didn’t happen but it really informed the visual style for each chapter.

I’m not necessarily committed to realism in a story or formal sense, but I do seem to have an attraction to a very truthful, naturalistic performance style. I want to really get into the murky depths of real people, emotions, complex things and I’m not sure I could do that in a more stylised or precise way – because I don’t have the answers. It’s a process of asking those questions, doing that work with the actors and HODs and following my instincts and seeing what comes. It’s when it feels real and truthful that I feel like I have something, rather than when it matches what I’ve imagined. I have huge admiration for filmmakers who work in a more precise, controlled way and often I feel inadequate, especially at the beginning, that I don’t know exactly what it is, but it’s the only way I can work.

The edit must have been quite an undertaking, how did you make sure you had continuity across the film but also the split individuality of the triptych chapters?

The edit was really tough. Each chapter had its own challenges, and as you say maintaining a sense of a whole across the three chapters. The second section is the most impressionistic and also changed the most from the script, so that took a lot of time and experimentation to find. And the final chapter – because it’s kind of in the now and shot much more conventionally, was hard to make feel like part of the same film. But it was also great fun and I was working with a really amazing, creative Editor Yu-Pu (Frances) Pon. The Sound Designer Simon Panayi was also really involved through the edit and helped us a lot.

What can we look forward to seeing from you next?

At the moment I’m working on a project which I hope will be my debut feature. It’s been really exciting thinking about something long form after so many shorts in a row. I graduated in March from NFTS so I’m also just working out that transition and re-calibrating how to structure things so I can earn a living but also write. My graduation film Gossip has just been shortlisted for a student BAFTA and is starting its festival journey so I’m excited to see where that goes. I also signed with Nicole Schivardi at United Agents and I’m really grateful to have found someone I feel really aligned with.

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