A few weeks ago I went along to Channel 4 to see a screening of Hollywood actress Samantha Morton’s directorial debut, The Unloved. The jewel in the channel’s Britain’s Forgotten Children season, The Unloved tells the story of 11-year-old Lucy and her life in and out of care. Molly Windsor, who plays Lucy, is truly astonishingly good, and there’s Robert Carlyle in there too. It’s pretty powerful stuff and, in my opinion, an absolute must-watch. In the Q&A after the screening, Samantha was so passionate and emotional (it was the first time she had seen the completed film) and explained that its semi autobiographical nature made it a sometimes tough job. But here it is, and here are Sam’s words after the jump. The Unloved is on Channel 4 this Sunday (17 May) at 9pm.
Related: First Look: The Unloved
TV Scoop: Tell me about the origins of the project?
Samantha Morton: When I was 16 years old and attending The Television Workshop in Nottingham, Ian Smith, who runs the workshop asked us as a drama group if we had anything we felt passionate about and wanted to turn into a piece of theatre. I stuck my hand up and said that I wanted to make a play about my situation and where I lived (in a residential children’s home). So we quickly started to openly devise a play. At the same time I read a newspaper article called The Unloved, which inspired the play’s title and much later this film’s title. It was an investigative piece about a group of young prostitutes in Nottingham and one of the young girls they wrote about seemed very close to someone I had lived with. I told the drama group about this and we started to create characters loosely around the people I had encountered in children’s homes. I got totally carried away and started bossing everyone around immediately! I wrote a song, started writing and directing scenes and we performed the play over a couple of nights. It was like a very different but early version of the film. The other thing that made me want to direct this story was that I used to watch TV programmes about being in care and think about the characters I knew and none of the TV depictions felt very real to me. The closest that came to it was films like Kes or Ladybird Ladybird that showed the aspect of loneliness, of just being forgotten as a child or fighting a bureaucratic system. It started making me think about all the characters I had come across in a very filmic way and maybe that was my way of starting to come away from the situation.
TVS: Why did you want to make it for television?
SM: When I was young, the only way I could see films, other than naughtily sneaking into the ABC Cinema in Nottingham to watch things I couldn’t afford to pay to see, was on the television. I think a lot of kids are in a similar situation now and can’t afford to go to the cinema so it seemed better to me to have it broadcast first. We were really lucky that Channel 4 were up for it.
TVS: Which directors influenced you and the way you worked behind the camera?
SM: To be honest I am so totally immersed in a character when I am acting that I didn’t draw directly on any one director but what influenced me more than anything was what not to do. I have worked with directors who were scared of actors and with a film like The Unloved with children it was very important that the young actors had 100% of me and we were very prepared.
TVS: Which films inspired you?
SM: Films like The American Friend or The Man without a Past inspired me as they had such a sense of space and time and they don’t force the story too hard. I think now we are used to very fast editing and narrative-packed stories which can be brilliant but in a story about a young girl who is bordering on autistic I felt that I didn’t want it to feel like an adult script or direction had been imposed to forcefully – it needed to be more natural and believable than that.
TVS: As a very experienced actress how did you prepare and work with newcomers and such young lead?
SM: I did two weeks of workshops with everyone and with Molly Windsor (Lucy) I spent a lot of time with her on my own so she could get comfortable with both me and the camera. But you quickly realise every actor needs something different on set. Tom Hooper who I worked with on Longford was inspiring as he was an incredibly kind director. He would walk on set and very quickly gauge what everyone, from cast to crew, needed from him. It is a real art, like being a good mediator or politician. So during the shoot I often thought about how Tom Hooper took care of me when I was playing the very tough role of Myra Hindley. But Molly is a really talented actress and it astounded me how at 11 years old she could offer so much range to the part.
TVS: You put a lot of thought into the decision to make the film but was it harder than you imagined being on set watching a child in those scenes?
SM: It was horrible to watch at times. To be honest sometimes I know why I have made the film and other days I don’t. I have worked very hard on being aware of my childhood but moving forward and not letting it bring me down emotionally. That is a hard thing. Especially when you have children of your own and you remember what happened to you at that age and what you were going through – at 15 months or nine years old. But then I look at artists and filmmakers I admire and basically I believe that film should always be personal – when I first read that in The Free Cinema Manifesto, it really got me thinking. If you are ever going to say anything through art it can’t be anything but personal. So I wanted to make a film about something I knew about and had really felt.
TVS: Why did you set the film now not when you were growing up?
SM: Originally I wanted to set the film in 1989 as that was when major changes took place and the Children’s Act was reformed and the two main unions were striking. But I felt that was too backwards looking and I wanted to make it about the now. I don’t think things have moved on and I didn’t want audiences to write it off as a historical piece. I had a sense of urgency about making it and kept saying to my partner and friends ‘I have to make this film. I feel like time is running out.’ So when the window came I jumped through it.
TVS: What have you taken from making the film?
SM: I have loved making this film artistically in a way that is so profound I don’t have the words for it. Yet making a film that is so personal means you can not let go of one part of it because you care so deeply about it being right and that makes you very vulnerable. This film started last March and the intensity of the schedule means that I would have to think hard about directing again – it is not a job that is kind to women with children. As an actress you have more control over your time. Directing this has given me an even greater respect and care for directors and I had a lot already…. But ultimately I feel like the cat that got the cream because I have been able to make the film I desperately wanted to make.
TVS: Did you always want to set the film in Nottingham?
SM: Originally I felt it had to be Nottingham but then I started spending time in other cities like Newcastle, Glasgow and around London and I realised that this child’s story could belong to any city and even in America. But it came back to making a film about the world you know and every location (apart from Crop Row) in The Unloved is based on a personal memory. We didn’t need a location scout as I knew every road, bus stop and shopping centre… had sat on that bank. It was all from my childhood.
TVS: How much of you is there in the character of Lucy?
SM: In fact there is I am massively a part of both the characters of Lauren and Lucy but also there is a bit of me in Karl (the residential care home worker). I think when something is based in such a personal part of your life you do end up infusing lots of the characters with elements of your personality. Tony Grisoni and I talked about this a lot and he helped me find the balance between me, Lucy and Lauren. It was a relief that by the time we were shooting on set it didn’t feel like my story because I had been able to take a step back.
TVS: What do you want audiences to take from the film?
SM: Firstly, I want audiences to feel sympathy for children in care. Any child can end up in the care system – really anybody – you just don’t know what is round the corner. When you are tiny and a child you are not in control and you don’t have any say. It is all down to parents, police, social workers and as a child you have very few rights. Secondly I hope people question what rights children have. The difficulty for governments around the world is that if you restore the rights of the child you take away the rights of the adult. It is very messed up when you really look in detail at our human rights system and I hope it changes.
TVS: Who do you want to watch the film?
SM: I really hope I get two audiences for the film: the movers and shakers in society, the people who can sign cheques, have influence and make things happen and then the other part of me wants kids who normally watch EastEnders to find it on television and see something that feels a bit different and might be more art house than they would normally go for but that surprises and hopefully moves them.