Frightfest London interview: The Lesson director Ruth Platt David Watson September 1, 2015 Film4 Frightfest, London, London Interviews 1368 One of the big surprises for us at this year’s Frightfest was Ruth Platt’s Brit flick The Lesson, a low-budget, nasty tale that completely blindsided us – in a good way. In fact, having given the film a five-star rating, it seemed only natural to try and get hold of Ruth herself for her take on things – and the good news is she was happy to oblige. Here’s what she had to see about her potent shocker…. Congratulations on the film. Tell us a little about The Lesson…what inspired it? A few things. I didn’t have a great time at school, a pretty average, not terrible, not brilliant, comprehensive. I remember one teacher that we always knew we could push just a little bit further – some boys once locked him in the stationery cupboard and we all thought it was hilarious, the teacher burst into tears. I’ve experienced bullying too and the sheer terror of having to see those people every day, in close proximity. I’ve taught myself a bit in recent years, and though is has largely been a really good experience, you do observe a breadth of different characters and different potential, and you do witness on a micro level where teachers are being failed, where children are being failed. There was a story in the press, a few years ago, when a teacher who had no history of aggression suddenly lost it, badly, with a teenage boy. With teenage boys, there is such a fine line between alpha male, hormone filled emotional pyromania going on, and in the wrong hands that can easily spill into something more destructive. It is funny, a lot of people’s reactions to the film have been that the two teenage boys are really horrible characters, but I think they are pretty normal boys really, so much of it is bravado and boredom, and also, low self-worth. So the film has been inspired by all these elements I think. The mantra that runs through the film is Epictetus’ “Only the educated are free.” In the case of the school teacher, the most educated, civilised character in the film, it frees him to act in a completely reprehensible way. What lesson do you want the audience to take from the film? Is ignorance actually bliss? I think, I hope, that the film poses a lot of questions, but doesn’t necessarily give all the answers. Education can be a painful process, I guess we are definitely saying that! But it has a lot of payoffs. The violence is a metaphor I suppose, for the suffering that comes with knowledge and learning stuff in life [and I don’t mean the GCSE syllabus here]. The conflict between what Mr Gale is saying in the film and what he is actually doing is so deeply ironic – I think what I was trying to say that when you start to accrue knowledge, it is a tool for understanding the world around you, a crucial tool, but it is also a burden to carry, and that can be a painful one. Obviously something goes very, very wrong for Mr Gale – but would he have always turned out like that? Hard to know. The line between visionary and bonkers is a fine one. I mean he has crossed that line at a running sprint, but in his own deeply messed up way, as well as dealing out punishment, he is still, in his eyes, trying to find a way to reach out to these kids. The film obviously grapples with some pretty big themes – good and evil, God, religion, education, the roots of violence and vengeance, innocence, the possibility of redemption, the Enlightenment, Milton, Hobbes…Rousseau. One thing that struck me is the schoolteacher character comments on Rousseau’s abandonment of his children to the foundling hospital. How much of The Lesson then is about parenting or its lack? The absence of a mother is something that is very personal to me, and probably informs my writing a lot. But in a wider sense I think I am trying to look at how love, and being loved, being valued, affects your development. The major teenage characters in the film, none of them are really valued by anyone else. Mia seeks refuge in a subtly abusive relationship, because her mother is bi polar, and couldn’t give her the love and guidance she needed. Fin seeks refuge in the friendship with Joel, because he has no one else, because he has low self worth. And Joel is Joel because he has been failed too – maybe he has a behavioural disorder that has been ignored – he has been let down at home and at school. I am not trying to assign blame to anyone – God being a parent is bloody hard – but I am saying, if a child is not brought up to feel a sense of self worth and of value, then that is very dangerous, and one of the reasons society breaks down. And I think that is where the school system falls down really, there are some really great individual teachers, but they are often trapped in a system that has not been created to nurture self worth and, in turn, kindness to others. Hope that makes sense! The film’s very atmospheric, feels very violent, much more violent than it actually is… This is very true. Some people have been very shocked by the violence in the film, and the fact the violence is directed towards kids who have only just turned 16. But this was deliberate – it was a poke at the whole genre where violence and death of teenagers has become as consumable as popcorn. I know some of these genre films are themselves satirical, but often, they pretend to be satirical whilst still making the violence inflicted on teenagers [especially teenage girls] gratifying and gratuitous. That whole high school slasher thing. Because I am interested in characters, and character detail, I tried to create a living breathing world for these kids so that when terrible things happen, the violence is really difficult and uncomfortable to watch, though, as you say, the violence is actually quite limited and contained. It is not without black comedy though, and I think people have also been surprised how funny it is in parts, and this too can be uncomfortable when other parts are really difficult to watch. Maybe that is where the Ben Wheatley comparison comes in! It’s a very claustrophobic film, oppressive…the violence grows out of the characters. How crucial was casting? I’m glad you think that, it was very important to me to make the violence rooted in character and situation. I didn’t set out to make a violent film – I just put these characters in a set of very difficult circumstances, with some very difficult personal issues, and this came out! I guess it is also a microcosm that represents other conflicts too – when both sides of an argument escalate to breaking point. I should say that I wrote the script with the brilliant Robert Hands in mind [he didn’t know this until recently!] because I had worked with him as an actor, and knew he didn’t have a false note in his body. Also, I knew he had the vulnerability and humanity to make the audience almost understand and sympathise with his predicament, even as he becomes more and more deranged and violent. It was important that every character had good and bad, that there were moral ambiguities and uncertainties, and that the audience was torn from side to side in their sympathies. I so lucky to have Robert. I was extraordinarily lucky with my whole cast actually, an amazing ensemble. That is also one of my strong points, being able to cast and direct actors, having been an actor. The main teenagers had not acted professionally before, but their confidence and work ethic was amazing. Evan Bendall, especially, worked incredibly hard to make every moment truthful, I mean he is on screen for the whole 96 minutes really. I am really proud of them all. The film feels very organic. How tightly scripted was it? How much input did the actors have? It was very tightly scripted, though some scenes evolved on set through talking to the actors and what made them comfortable. Robert’s tortuously detailed monologues had to be tightly scripted to help him get through them – he would literally turn up on set, have a quick discussion with me about the day’s work, and we’d shoot long takes, again and again, to get it right, though often he wouldn’t need many. I don’t think another actor could have done it really, we do seem some sort of emotional short hand, him and I, so that I only had to say a few words to him to get exactly the emotional dynamic I needed. He is do detailed in everything he does. There were a couple of things he felt strongly about that we changed, and we brought the scene in at the beginning to reveal his own mother is frail and in hospital out of those discussions – wish we’d had more money and time to develop that further, but you can only do so much on a 27 grand budget! There are a few improvised scenes with the teenage characters which work really well too – I always thing film making has to be a constant dialogue between actor and director to find the truth of each scene. The Lesson is very spare, economical, visual…there’s a lot of silences. You were an actor yourself and you’ve worked extensively in theatre, directing and adapting plays. How much do you feel that’s informed your directing style? I guess I felt it needed some silences to counterbalance Mr Gale’s rabid academic diatribes! Even though Robert made them incredibly watchable and human. Also, we were contained in the barn for much of the film, so I wanted to create a real and detailed world outside of it, one long coming of age summer, to contrast with the claustrophobia and darkness of the torture space. And I guess The Lesson could work in theatre, because so much of it takes place in one space and because of the nature of so much of the dialogue, but film is my passion, the detail of observation you can create in film is what I love, the intimacy of the observation, and the fact that often it is the space between words, and what is not said, that works so well on film. For an actor, I think film is the ultimate medium. Because it requires total, total immersion in that world – I mean there are always going to be scenes where the actor has to think about his spot and when he falls, or whatever, but in some scenes, you can get as close to truth and spontaneity as it is possible to get, with film. There a few scenes studying the love triangle of Mia and Fin and Jake where I think we achieve that, and of course improvised scenes also bring that spontaneity to life. Robert, on the other hand, managed to bring that spontaneity to all his tightly scripted, highly worded scenes, which I think shows his brilliance as an actor. This is your first feature film and your first horror film. What attracted you to the genre and how does it feel to be one of the few female directors at FrightFest? What did you get to see at the festival? What did you enjoy? I didn’t really set out to make a horror film! But I can see how it happened. I mean I do love films that twist the genre on its head. I do love film that examine the darkest sides of human nature but with moral complexity, like Fritz Lang’s M. Dogtooth is one of my favourite films of all time, and it is about parenting, from a very dark, extreme, but very logical endpoint. Let the Right One in is a film about bullying and isolation, and being different. But I guess it is also a horror movie! And The Babadook is the most brilliant portrayal of depression and bereavement I have ever seen, though held delicately in that world of magical realism. The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth are supernatural fantasies but woven within is a political commentary. So I guess these kinds of films attracted me to the genre! We’ve probably a made a more brutal and uncompromising film than these I’ve just mentioned. But that is what evolved out of the characters I had. I blame them! I met lots of brilliant women at FrightFest, many of them producers. I didn’t meet too many female directors this time around but I hear there were quite a few last year. Women are still massively under represented as creatives in the film industry as a whole. It is a much bigger problem than anyone is making out if you ask me. I had to stop making films for a few years when I had my kids, who are still pretty young. To come back to the industry, I had to raise this 28 grand myself, begged, borrowed and saved, to try to prove myself really. I mean there are many women in the film industry, but not so many taking the roles of creatives, especially Directors and Directors of Photography. Why that is is a complex question, with many facets to the answer. But the dialogue needs to be had more often. I think Mr Gale’s anger towards his students is also fuelled by my anger and frustration and how bloody impossible it is to make films! As to other films at FrightFest, I really enjoyed Scherzo Diabolico, though I found the ending more difficult than my own film! It was absurdist in many ways and very brave. I very much wanted to see Curtain and Last Girl Standing but didn’t manage unfortunately, hope to see them soon. Do you feel there’s a greater pressure on female horror directors? Yes and No. A good film hopefully will always be recognised [even if not everyone likes it!] There aren’t too many female horror film makers, but I still feel there is a pressure to be better, more original, a more unique voice, but that might just be for everyone trying to fight their way onto the scene. But also people are interested to see what you are trying to do, the fans and the audience at FrightFest were incredibly supportive. I think there is a problematic perception of women as creatives in the industry as a whole and that runs quite deep and is quite complicated. The film is pretty bleak at times but it ends on a hopeful note. How important was that for you? There are films that end on a bleak note for a very important narrative reason – Funny Games, Dogtooth. But I think the more commercial horror films that end on a completely bleak note kind of eat themselves in their exploitation of the worst of humanity! It depends on the film of course. It was important I think, that Fin responded differently to Joel in The Lesson, after the ordeal he had endured. I mean I kind of admire Joel’s balls, in never backing down, but it comes at a price. I think the irony, that Fin finds some sense of self-worth, through this terrible ordeal, is something I thought I deserved to give Mr Gale I guess! And because the film has that theme, that if you do not value people, if you do not instill some sense of real and innate self-worth into them, then you cannot expect them to function as members of society. And I think that, more than anything, is what our education system needs to do. With The Lesson you’ve pretty much created your own sub-genre – the kitchen sink torture porn… Ha! I like that. I’ve been a bit perturbed by the ‘torture porn’ references but I kind of see where they’re coming from. I don’t think the torture is very gratifying in my film, more difficult to watch, which I think takes away the ‘porn’ aspect. But maybe that is subjective. I do like the kitchen sink reference though – that is what I was trying to do really, as Charles Lamb does, see the beauty and the pain, the detail, in the ordinary, the every day. What’s next for you? Things have been very tough financially, trying to make films, and support two young kids, my producer/partner has been down a lift shaft for a few years to pay the mortgage and it has been quite tough. I have three scripts that I have been developing and writing over the last few years, one ghost story [with a political/social commentary to it too] and two other non-genre films. With this film, as uncompromising as it is, we were trying to show what we could do for a very small budget, trying to show the industry what I can do. We’ll see what happens next!