With their first film The Violators due in UK cinemas, writer/director Helen Walsh and actress Lauren McQueen sit down with Movie Ramblings’ David Watson to discuss transgressive teenage relationships, coming of age and Second Wave Feminism:

David Watson: I was curious Helen, you’re known more as the author of novels like Brass. What motivated you to make the switch to film and was it ever a consideration to film one of your books rather than a fresh story?

Helen Walsh: I think that writing stories and directing stories both share the same heart. I think the vision of the creator is very much the same, it’s just realised in a different way. I think I write quite cinematically, I tend to write in scenes. I’m not really a philosophical writer. Prior to becoming a novelist, I did actually apply to film school in London. I’d done a module in my final year at uni in British Cinema, in documentary. And it was documentary really that excited me. I applied to film school, couldn’t afford to go, ended up taking a job in a film and literary agency in London and lasted about six months ‘til I was back up North.

It’s still now, but even more so a couple of years ago, it’s so fucking London-centric, as a Northern writer, who has no connections whatsoever to the film or media world, who’s burning to tell stories, it was much easier for me to tell those stories in novel form.

You go down to the cellar, you write a novel, it’s there, it’s done. The gestation period of a film can be years, it can be a decade. I don’t know why more novelists don’t make that transition or more novelists don’t want to direct adaptations of their work, I don’t get that. I think, certainly in Europe, some of my favourite filmmakers…Lukas Moodysson, Gus Van Sant…they’re all novel writers. There is no distinction. It’s storytelling. So when people ask me: “Are you a filmmaker? Are you a novelist?” Both. Neither. I’m a storyteller.

DW: I just wondered if there’d been any pressure on you to do one of your books?

HW: Well, my books the rights have been acquired various times with different directors attached. To be honest, I never really felt that sense of ownership when I first started out as a novelist. I’d written the story and couldn’t imagine having to inhabit, having to live with it again with a different kind of marketing and production and all the restrictions that come from having to produce a commercial product.

Fifteen years ago it certainly felt like you had a lot more freedom as a novelist. My first publishers, Canongate, they did publish a lot of cutting edge fiction…Rebel Inc. Press. Now, I think that that independent freedom, it’s much easier to have that realised in film, in independent cinema, than it is in novels. If you don’t make the Waterstones tables, the 3-for-2, you don’t even get shelf space. I feel now, with film, I feel very much how it was when I started out as a novelist. The stories that I want to tell and I think need to be told, I think film is the right vehicle. I also felt that The Violators was such a cinematic film for me, really born out of the landscape, and I couldn’t imagine depicting that landscape in fiction. It’s a beautifully, brutally poetic post-industrial wasteland with all the gorgeous yellow and red pastels with the rusting cranes and I just wanted to bring it to life on film.

DW: This is your first film Lauren. How did you get involved? How were you discovered?

Lauren McQueen: When I was 15, I was on a drama called Good Cop on BBC1 and Helen had seen it on TV. So she spotted me on that and tracked me down to this local drama studio where I went for classes. She invited me to read the script and, being so young, I felt like it was out of my comfort zone to play such a complex and challenging role because I’ve never had the chance to before. But when I read the script and put the accent on that I use it just felt right and Helen really liked my interpretation.

DW: It’s interesting you say you felt out of your comfort zone because it’s a very confident and assured performance. I was amazed it was your first film. The film has a very Northern character and there’s a concern there with class and gender and some quite transgressive elements which I imagine would be quite difficult for you to play Lauren. What inspired that Helen?

HW: I think, in terms of the adolescent sexuality aspect, as a writer, I’m really drawn to those morally ambiguous, morally complex spaces. And for me childhood sexuality, Shelly is very much a child, she’s 15, it’s a really exciting area for me to interrogate in a film. Much easier to interrogate in a novel because you are in complete control of that character, it’s a wide open space. In a film that requires very careful negotiation. There’s a very subtle shift in power balance and dynamic between Stephen Lord, who plays Mikey, and Lauren. There’s a constant push, pull, push, pull. I’m seduced by those type of stories. I’m excited by them as a writer. As a human, they’re human stories.

DW: It’s interesting you talk about the power dynamic. The film feels very naturalistic, the performances feel very naturalistic, very spontaneous, particularly the scenes between you Lauren and Stephen Lord. They’re uncomfortable to watch. 

LM: Those scenes were the most challenging for me. It was my first time on a film set and Helen kept us apart, so the first time I actually met Stephen properly was on the first day of filming. We shot those scenes in the first two weeks of the shoot. I think if we’d shot them near the end of the film or if I’d known Stephen beforehand, the nervousness of Shelly wouldn’t have had the same effect. I think that really helped.

DW: What was it like working with Helen as a first time director?

LM: It was amazing because we were in the same position really – it was our first time on a film set and it was really good for me as an actress that she was also the writer because I could always come up with some ideas myself and ask Helen about them and she was always really open.

HW: I think that’s one of the exciting things about being a writer/director, that as a director I’m not bound by the words so the script we ended up with was very, very different to the script I started out with. You can respond to an evolving dynamic between two actors and run with it or fluctuations in the landscape you can respond to. Lauren also acted as our continuity and script supervisor. We’d be halfway through a take and Lauren would come over and say: “Excuse me, Callum was actually wearing his pyjamas in this shot…”

DW: Just talking about evolving dynamics, the dynamic between you and Brogan who plays Rachel was very interesting as well. There’s almost a queasiness to it. You’re never quite sure whether they’re friends or whether there’s something more going on. Was that something that grew out of that or was always in the script?

HW: It was in the script. But again it’s another shifting power dynamic. Rachel thinks she’s in control but Shelly’s going back to her house and thinking: “What can I rob? Here’s an opportunity.” She’s opportunistic. But the girls do share a common kinship, they’re both alienated. Shelly’s alienated from mainstream society. Rachel is alienated from her family. They’re both loners who have no friends. It was interesting on set, watching you. You have very different approaches and you didn’t really gel…it was only after, when we were doing the festivals…

LM: Yeah, when we were filming, we always kept a bit of distance between us and it was only doing the film festivals we really got to know each other. I think that helped actually.

HW: It really worked.

LM: The relationship just evolved.

DW: There’s a real ambiguity about your relationship that I think really helps the film. But I have to ask, the title of the film, The Violators, I’m not sure who the violators in the film are. You tend to think it’s Mikey, who’s this dodgy geezer who’s grooming a teenage girl. Or you think it’s Rachel who obviously has an agenda. But it could also be Shelly…So I was wondering why that title and what it means to you?

HW: I first came across the term “violator” in my first year at uni when I came across the texts of Andrea Dworkin, the very radical, Second Wave Feminist. I railed and raged against her work and Brass was really an angry indictment of her feminist policies. I didn’t like the idea that there was this bipolar dichotomy where all men are the violators and all women are violated. That’s in the context of pornography but she was also talking about the wider culture in general. As a woman, as a young woman, at 21, I didn’t want to be violated. And that’s why I wrote Brass. And Millie is very much a predatory female who violates. So that’s when I first became aware of the term. But I think across the board, the characters have been violated…Andy and Shelly have been violated by their father…Jerome has been violated by his mother…It’s a very fluid concept – everyone, apart from lovely Kieran and Callum, is guilty of some element of violation.

DW: I went into the film expecting the usual “it’s grim up North.” And there’s grimness there – it’s quite gritty. But there’s some really beautiful moments, some real flights of fancy. I’m thinking of the moments when Lauren’s down by the docks and just mooning about being a normal teenager. It felt very European, reminded me of things like The 400 Blows or something. How easy was it to find those moments? 

HW: My DP and I, we only met three weeks before filming. Originally, we’d wanted to film end of April, I love rain and belatedly found out you need a rain machine to make big enough droplets to appear on film. But I love rain in cinema. I wanted to film April going into May but we had to film around Lauren’s schooling commitments.

So, I only met my DP three weeks before and then he was off to Thailand on a shoot and then coming back and we were filming. But I had all these ideas for long takes and what we would do but we never really spoke about it. We had one long conversation about the feel. We talked about the Dardennes Brothers, their second or third film, The Son, and spent about an hour talking about the opening long take. We really connected over our shared love of European Cinema and we had a similar sensibility. And I was really lucky in that respect because as a first-time director, there’s a real push and pull between you and your DP. Your DP’s looking after how great his image is and you’re looking after your story. But we both shared a similar sensibility right from the start. I didn’t want it to be grim because the story is grim. I had this particular hue of pink I wanted on Shelly’s nails. We really brought that out in the grade and the lovely pastels of the rusting cranes.

But I think all my cinematic influences are European rather than British. That wasn’t deliberate, it just kinda happened by accident. In Liverpool, I think around 2001, Picturehouse opened up a cinema and all the films I saw there weren’t the films of Ken Loach or Mike Leigh. It was the Dardennes Brothers, Jacques Audiard, Gus Van Sant, Lukas Moodysson, and I think the film owes much more of its sensibility to those films than traditional British Social Realism. That’s why I chose the score. I love music and I think cinema should be a sensual experience.


The Violators is in UK cinemas from Friday 17th June.

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