When the opportunity arose to pitch a short for Film4 as part of their 4Love series of four shorts tackling the theme of ‘love’ from deaf, disabled and neurodivergent filmmakers, Rosanagh Griffiths knew she could present something original and unique that harnessed her experiences with ADHD and so came up with the genre-bending Dope Fiend. A sci-fi comedy which immerses the audience in a world spiked with a cacophonous and meticulously crafted sound design, multi-layered monologues and bright arresting visuals, Griffiths’ film translates a sampling of her own experiences living with ADHD with truly arresting and commendable accuracy. As a woman waits for her partner to join her for therapy, her world is turned upside down and inside out in a matter of minutes, taking us on an unforgettable surreal journey through her mindscape. With the 4Love collection now available on Channel 4 streaming, we spoke to Griffiths about executing the battle between her protagonist’s internal and external world, the master list of pop culture references all built into one of the character’s five internal voices and the importance of collaborating with like-minded HODs with an understanding and experience of neurodivergence.

Dope Fiend is such an inspiring piece of work. How did it come about and what does it mean to you as a neurodiverse, queer, female in the industry to bring forward new stories and fresh voices?

The road to Dope Fiend ultimately came from a lifetime wandering through this world feeling like I’ve been on a different wavelength. I remember saying to my mum when I was fairly young that I didn’t think everyone’s brain works like mine, because if they did, it’d be all we’d talk about. Yet it was still a massive shock to me when – after first being misdiagnosed with bipolar and BPD – I found myself diagnosed with ADHD. My life had to take a whole readjustment. Five years later, off the back of the success of my first short Cindy, I was asked to pitch for a short commission for Film4, where disabled creatives were given the brief of stories that centre ‘love’. To me, love comes from feeling understood and accepted, and it was this universal desire that got me thinking about how much easier life might be if we could somehow show loved ones what it was like to live in our shoes.

The idea for Dope Fiend hit me late one night, during the ads between Gogglebox episodes. I feverishly scribbled the basic idea of simulation therapy wrapped in a camp British aesthetic, and from there plotted out this journey for the character of Fran. She’d be put into spaces that had heavy trauma associations for her partner, like a medical setting, where everything became increasingly overwhelming and unmanageable for her. I knew I didn’t want the audience to know it was a simulation so that they could live through the terrifying experience of being neurodivergent with the same confusion Fran was feeling. I asked my writing partner Kiri Degon to work on the script with me, as I knew that Fran was going to be a conflicted and complicated character to unpick on the page. Whilst the aim had always been to give the audience a visceral audio-visual experience of ADHD, as we outlined the idea we came up with the idea for the multi-layered internal monologue to help show the battle between the internal and external world of Fran.

I feel there’s an underlying pressure on shorts and first feature filmmakers in the British industry to be conservative creatively for the sake of practicalities, and this scares people off taking risks…but risk is an essential component of art.

It’s important in this industry to find partners who support your vision and ambitions, especially when you don’t come from money, connections or the means to follow a linear creative career path, and I’m so grateful to Film4 for taking a punt on what was a bonkers idea. I feel there’s an underlying pressure on shorts and first feature filmmakers in the British industry to be conservative creatively for the sake of practicalities, and this scares people off taking risks…but risk is an essential component of art. Risk is what brings us new stories and what gives fresh voices the chance to flex their creative muscle. I wish there were more funding bodies willing (or able) to take risks in the same way Film4 do.

There are so many distinct moving pieces to the film, how did you approach the production once the script was ready?

The most difficult part about making Dope Fiend, apart from shooting in 35 degree heat in a windowless office space with no air con, was that there weren’t exact references for how the film would feel. With this genre-defying world we were building, and such experimental sound design and editing style in mind, it was always going to be a challenge to get everyone aligned for the vision. As I dug into the cinematography with DOP Rik Burnell, we had a few key references in mind. I’ve always loved the way Aronofsky gets the audience into the heads of characters, particularly the paranoia in Mother! and the isolation of The Wrestler. As we are effectively putting Fran through a chemical imbalance, we took inspiration from the surreal shifts that Trainspotting takes to reflect the drugged-up state of the character. Though the world needed to feel rooted in a recognisable British mood, I wanted to build in a low-key heightened sense, with Sorry To Bother You in mind.

I’ve spent the last ten years working in post production, which gave me a lot of exposure to editorial and sound design. This meant that I had a very clear idea of how we were going to manipulate these elements to create the world of the simulation via the edit and sound design – but communicating this was my biggest challenge as the director.

The layered sound and that mad rush of the inside of her mind is so well depicted. How did you plan, execute and make sure this all sounded fluid in the madness?

On reflection, I was given A LOT of faith by everyone on the team. My background in post production meant I knew what was possible with a Dolby Atmos mix, and from the start, I made sure everyone knew it was the most important element of the film… but I don’t think anyone else could really wrap their heads around it. My co-writer Kiri and I planned to ensure the key internal narrative beats were built into the shooting script. The incredible Chizzy Akudolu, who plays Fran, was a legend at rolling with the punches. It’s never easy for an actor to be constantly interrupted mid-performance, but it was necessary to give Fran that distracted essence, and Chizzy took it in her stride like a true pro. She then came back for the most insane ADR session, where I had written 5 x different characters for her internal dialogue, and they each spoke, the whole way through the whole film, to give us a multi-faceted insight into Fran’s emotions.

Everything really came together in the mix, where I spent days and days working through the epic jigsaw with my mixer Jules Woods. When the rest of the creative team came in for the review, everyone was kind of blown away…it made me laugh because it’s quite an accurate insight into how it sounds every moment in my own brain!

I had written 5 x different characters for her internal dialogue, and they each spoke, the whole way through the whole film, to give us a multi-faceted insight of Fran’s emotions.

My absolute favourite parts have to be some of the internal monologue references to Muriel’s Wedding, CHANELLLLE and so much more.

“Oddball” was Fran’s internal voice #5, responsible for filling her head with a relentless barrage of pop culture references…and pretty much every single one in there comes straight from the bank of weird shit that constantly rolls around my brain. I think – like a lot of neurodivergent people – I’m a sponge for the things I watch, and end up mimicking characters, repeating quotes and having songs stuck in my head for weeks on end. It was also important to me to reflect the things I love, and anyone who knows me will be able to attest that Muriel’s Wedding is my favourite film of all time. It’s the one I always tell people to watch if they want to get to know me on a spiritual level. I also gave @loveofhuns (the insta account) a special thanks in the credits, because that account was a lifeline of banter to me throughout the pandemic. But I had a really great team with my pals Ysi, Mel and Steph (as well as Kiri) for making a master list of great pop culture moments to pull from.

I would love to know why Haddaway (a classic!) and was it hard to get the rights to the song?

I am renowned for having ‘terrible’ (see: shameless) taste in music, and trashy 80s/90s pop is a cornerstone of that. I always wanted a key song to function in a way similar to Relax in Zoolander – a tongue-in-cheek nod to both the sci-fi and thematic elements – and What is Love is exactly that. Did it drive everyone who worked on the film insane? Yes, myself more than anyone. But since the moment it hit me, nothing would ever work as well as it did. We were super lucky to have my pal Ciara Elwis in our corner negotiating the licensing deal. A good music supervisor is worth their weight in gold!

We, as the audience, get an insight into every little thought and nugget of emotions that she has, and it’s a conflicting mess at times.

Had you always imagined Chizzy Akudolu for Fran and how did you work to build her character?

Historically, ADHD is always associated with the ‘young white boys’ stereotype – so from the start, Fran was destined to break that mould. Kiri and I spent a long time building her out because she’s laid bare as a character; we, as the audience, get an insight into every little thought and nugget of emotions that she has, and it’s a conflicting mess at times. We had the occasional note (usually from people who hadn’t been in long-term relationships) that Fran didn’t seem like she really loved Nia…and this made us laugh, because to us she embodied the deep frustrations that love brings. We didn’t want her to be a nice character, we just wanted her to feel true, and be someone the audience (somewhat ashamedly) related to. When it came to casting, I put my full faith in the brilliant Hannah Marie Williams to find us someone who could bring the drama and the comedy to the role – and to say that she delivered introducing us to Chizzy is an understatement. There couldn’t be another version of Fran.

The edit must have been integral to the overall look and feel of the film.

The timeline on the edit project is kinda wild for a short film. We had 600+ shots, which is normally what you’d see in an hour-long BBC drama, and almost every single shot in the simulation sequence has an effect on it (tiny punch ins, respeeds, etc.). My plan was always to have an edit with lots of quick cuts, time jumps and continuity errors to help seed the unease for the audience. I was lucky to have two brilliant editors, Helena Evans, who did the heavy lifting on getting the story beats working, and Joseph Hart Green, who was then able to throw the ‘good editing rulebook’ out the window, and lean into the language.

Almost every single shot in the simulation sequence has an effect on it (tiny punch ins, respeeds, etc.)

I had the actors play out each scene with three takes – lighter, darker, and silly – and then we cut together a mix of those performances to give a sense that Fran didn’t know where she really stood with anyone, as this feels reminiscent of ADHD. We got a lot more flexibility with lots of quick takes on certain scenes that we knew would be quick cuts; Chizzy was able to break down the monologue into chunks, and really push it in multiple directions without the pressure of nailing it in a single take. It was tight on shooting a few of the scenes, and I wish we’d had a lot more time, but that’s the classic story with shorts!

As you needed team members who understood you and your process, how did you decide who to work with on the film?

Every director is different, and I think it’s funny that most of the time we are the least experienced in our roles on a set, especially at the shorts level. I know that my brain operates in a very particular way – a sprawling galaxy of tenuous links that ultimately all ties back into the greater idea… but I know that’s not easy to get on that wavelength. I have watched people’s faces as their brain caves in trying to keep track of the significance of small details I’ll be talking at length about. Naturally, I find the ones who it’s an easy collaboration with tend to be neurodivergent, so on this film it was good to be surrounded by a number of key HODs who I was quickly able to establish a shorthand with, and who just instinctively got what we were trying to create.

Ultimately though, I think the single most important relationship on any film is the one with your producer, and having the opportunity to work with Lorine Plagnol on Dope Fiend has changed the course of my career. She has an amazing ability to balance out my chaos and ground me, and has a sincere desire to understand the creative. Considering she jumped on board fairly late in the process, she’s embraced Dope Fiend and my unusual ways of working. Finding a rhythm and a trust like that is magic.

You’ve got an impressive amount going on, what are you most excited about in your upcoming work?

I won a live pitch event at the TV Festival last August for a microbudget short with C4, which I’m shooting next month. This Ain’t Pretty Woman is a surreal debate comedy loosely based on my experience as a former sex worker, and that commission has helped with conversations for developing a series set in that world. From the film side, I’m in the thick of developing my first feature Lulu with Lorine, and am excited to dig into the bonkers world we’ve been cooking up. Writing that script is my focus for the rest of this year.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *