Not knowing what to expect when I walked into Birds Eye View Film Festival’s screening of Helen Walsh’s THE VIOLATORS last year – having never heard of this novellist-turned-director before – I was lucky enough to have one of those cinematic moments that stay with you forever. I fully admit to not being able to have dispelled the memory of this film from my mind since.
Situated in the barren so-called ‘wasteland of Liverpool, where Walsh grew up, THE VIOLATORS is as much a ghost story as a coming of age one. It is an environment teeming with the threat of decay that Shelly (Lauren McQueen) lives within, trying to simultaneously play mother to her little brother and reckless teenager discovering her sexuality. This mature-yet-immature, maternal-yet-vulnerable tension influences much of the film’s story, peaking in the meeting of the opportunist Mikey (Stephen Lord) who threatens to dig up the past for Shelly that’s ridden with memories of abuse.
It is a raw story, but nevertheless charts a journey of discovery that is a blessing to behold, with characterisation (especially that of Shelly) to die for. On the brink of wide release, I spoke to Helen about the thought processes involved with the making of this Liverpudlian life lesson story.
GOF: Your lead, Lauren McQueen, who plays Shelly – how did you find her?
HW: It was a surreal experience: I saw her briefly in a snippet on TV (I don’t really want TV that much, I was just walking past). It was just a flash of this girl across the screen that immediately caught my attention. I got straight onto the phone to my producer and found out she was 15, which was a bit young for our character. She came along with her mum to the casting and I knew straight away I wanted her to play Shelly. It was just an incredible, intelligent performance.
GOF: How was it working with her?
HW: She’s a director’s dream. She transforms on screen and gets right under the skin. Even her accent – she has a very quiet voice and we really had to work together to deepen the tones. We hung around the wasteland, which is the place in Liverpool that inspired the Violators. I was actually very nervous to work with her because she was so young emotionally – just 17 when we started filming, working with a much older male actor. I kept her and Stephen Lord away from each other until the first time they met onscreen. Consequently, what we see goes beyond performance – it was a chemical response.
GOF: There are some pretty intense, intimacy scenes that she carries off pretty spectacularly.
HW: We filmed the big one [no spoilers] right at the end when she was familiar and comfortable with Stephen.
GOF: Lauren’s just wrapped another female directed film, THE WASTING, which I find pretty special. Did you feel aware during the making of THE VIOLATORS, or on other projects, of your gender and the fact that you’re approaching something that is misbalanced? Do you have a duty, self-imposed or otherwise, to be aware?
HW: I don’t think so. I think it’s very important that we as female directors or females working in the industry tell the stories we want to tell first and foremost. We should be entitled to tell our stories exactly as we want to – that’s the beauty of fiction and film. Some of my favourite female performances were directed by men, such as Marion Cotillard in RUST AND BONE and TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT. They are strong performances within strong roles.
GOF: Yes, it’s actually far more progressive to rewrite standards on your own terms rather than approaching the industry like going into battle with sexism, I guess.
HW: I was aware of gender on set only when the set was very male heavy. We had a fantastic crew, but sets are very sexist spaces in general. But I cease to be a woman as soon as I get behind the camera. I think it’s a burden on young female directors, that pressure. For me I feel it’s my duty to realise myself as an a political feminist. I was trying to separate temporarily sex from politics. We have an inalienable right to tell the stories we want.
Gender informs my identity undeniably. But class, as much as anything, was at play.
GOF: Yes, it seemed so to me too.
HW: For example, we tried to shoot everything on set and there was no set designer. We rehearsed on location. It was so important to capture the essence of this place which inspired the story. We came across these really tragic scenes on the wateland which we filmed, but in the end decided there was something exploitative and pornographic about showing them. I have a respect for the landscape because of my class background which informs my approach. I have a responsibility not to depict people in a certain way.
I’m interested in telling stories through characters and how they connect to the landscape. In THE VIOLATORS Shelly is completely disconnected to the world she inhabits, which may as well be in the bowels of no where. She embodies that alienation that’s so obvious in the landscape. But she chooses the remain dignified and break her cycle.
GOF: Is it a coming of age story, then?
HW: In a sense that she’s the only character that breaks her cycle despite her environment, but she still has the weight of the past to contend with. At first I shot her in a very sexualised way, focusing on her lower body and keeping close, because that’s how she thought of and saw herself. But by the end she’s let her hair down and it much more comfortable in her own skin, and the camera reflects that agency and freedom.
THE VIOLATORS will be released in UK cinemas on Friday 17th June