Bryn Higgins – Electricity Interview

Bryn Higgins is most well-known for his TV work directing great British series like the Casualty 1900s series, Black Mirror, and Garrow’s Law, as well as directing the critically-acclaimed Unconditional (2012). The immersive and visually stunning Electricity is his second feature as director.

 

What interested you about this story and its central character Lily? Did you have any experience or much knowledge of epilepsy before?

 

What interested me was the novel which I read and which we optioned about 5 or 6 years ago, and the novel has got the two key things that I hoped to distil in the film and that is Lily and her subjective narrative and immersive character. She talks really brashly and funny but is also vulnerable, she’s very strong in the novel. And the other big thing is the hallucinations and this strange otherworld that comes upon her.

 

In terms of epilepsy I knew no more than almost everybody, I had the same kind of misconceptions that lots of people have. I just had an image of someone thrashing around on the floor, didn’t realise there were 40 different types, there are small and big seizures and all the enormously complex range of things that come with epilepsy.

 

I heard you got a lot of your research from the Epilepsy Society?

 

It was them and The Wellcome Trust, the big science charity. They’ve been fantastic all the way through and they invested in the film, because they definitely could see that if we did it well without it being didactic or documentary-like it would hopefully open people’s eyes a lot to what epilepsy really involved or can involve.

 

It definitely did for me, I didn’t know too much before either.

 

That’s what we’re hearing from film festivals that’ s what audiences seem to be struck by a lot was obviously Agyness and Lily, and then they just didn’t know all this. And there’s so much taboo associated with epilepsy, it’s got such a bad reputation thanks to movies generally, psycho-killers seem to have epilepsy quite a lot. So one of the things the films does is to break taboos and inform people.

How did you go about casting Lily, was Deyn someone you’d always had in mind?

It’s an actor’s dream that role, everything depends on that character she’s almost in every scene. I was thinking of very good English, British actors, it was actually our exec producer Chris Collins [who suggested her]. This was a couple of years ago before she did Pusher but she’d done a short film. I was sceptical like lots of people probably are, then I met her and realised there was a lot of similarities between her and Lily which meant she could be really natural with it. And sometimes with fairly new actors you get a more natural performance sometimes, she did a couple of scenes for us and it was obvious she was fantastic and a natural actor and I thought of her as that not a supermodel. She did a huge amount of research and preparation which was really useful on the day, she met a lot of people with epilepsy.  She was coached by an epilepsy consultant called Dr Gonzalo Alarcon and he coached Agyness on what was going on inside her head and the behaviour of someone who is having these seizures on fits. He was a very self-effacing, so he would sort of demonstrate on the floor and then go ‘go on then Agyness you do it’ and say ‘you need to move your legs a little bit more’ or something like this.  So she got a lot from that and a lot of bruises. She has wonderful intelligence and sensitivity so her decision-making process was always fantastic.

 

Was Lenora Chrichlow your first choice for Mel?

 

I knew her from Black Mirror and needed someone very different to Lily, middle-class and nice, and they like each other and find each other funny because they’re so different. Leonora’s very natural and real. I try to find actors with interesting enough backgrounds. Like in the case of Paul Anderson who’s a bit lairy, he plays a wideboy character and he knows a lot about that world from his own background. Before he became an actor he used to be a ticket tout, he’s a very genuine geezer.

 

For Lily you adopt lots of intimate blurry point of view shots, vivid hallucinatory images and electric sparks to represent her fits, how did you go about deciding how to represent her visually and how did you achieve shots such as the POV shots?

 

It starts with lots of research, with having the Wellcome Trust you can’t make anything up when it comes to medical aspects.  That was great anyway, I mean I don’t think we would’ve done. When you research this type of temporal lobe epilepsy it manifests itself in lots of different ways. Some people have auditory hallucinations so they’ll heat music. Other people get strange feelings under their skin, or you get visual hallucinations and you only get one of those types depending in which part of the brain is being effected.  Then we discovered there were these sets of hallucinations that can occur and they range from distortion of size- the so-called Alice in Wonderland syndrome. Through to colours and auras and strange swirling colours, through to seeing spectral figures, which is like seeing a weird spectre in the corner of your vision, and very trippy stuff things. It is similar to taking hallucinogenics which is why we put the sea on the ceiling and things like that.

 

Partly because we didn’t have masses of money, we did in-camera effects using a lens or distortion through things like broken glass, it looks more natural because it is optical.  We did a lot of experiments. I borrowed a bit from a documentary of one of [Henri-Georges] Clouzet’s unfinished film L’Enfer, and he did all these tests with swirling lights, so we borrowed some of these old techniques like putting a light on a big wagon wheel, and if you move it around all the shadows shift around on a person’s face and it’s very weird and sort of plastic. Borrowed from Bill Brandt the photographer and his wide-angle lens work, and then combined it with CGI like the sea on the ceiling. But always with the idea to do it so it’s quite organic and realistic as possible, it’s that fleeting so that you get glimpses and then it’s gone before you can really dwell on it. And that I think mimics the hallucinations that epileptics have, they’re very quick, 5-10 seconds, and either it goes away or it goes to a complete  tonic clonic seizure in which you’re gone and have no memory of it.  But with the smaller seizure they’re conscious. As a director it was a very complex but nice part of the process. Also to be bold with this POV camera, something we took from the novel where she never looks at herself from the outside, so we started out never showing Lily from the outside thrashing around. But we then did for safety shoot objective shots and seeing how people reacted to it and feeling how vulnerable she looked, I think we felt we had to put it in.  So there’s shots that are shocking but it’s really hopefully to get your heart to go out to her.

 

 

Did you have any other filmic reference points for the visuals, it reminded me personally of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly?

 

Absolutely, I love that film. And obviously Julian Schnabel is an amazing artist. I remember seeing it and it’s a good 20 minutes before you come out of the locked in point of view, so that was amazing and almost all of it is done in camera too. So it’s a huge reference. And there’s an animator called Bokanowski, and also Stan Brackage who did a lot of painting on negatives sort of animation for some of the more surreal bits. One of my absolute favourite working directors is Jacques Audiard, again just beautiful working in the moment stuff. Then there’s photographers, Ansell Adams work who changed the nature of the landscape by working on the print, gave an idea of where we wanted to go. He’d shoot stuff by moonlight, and these images are very strange and wonderful. And then there’s fantasy artists, particularly Rick Berry, he’d did this thing where faces are wiped off and we did that in some of the scenes like in the underground. It’s fairly subliminal but those are some of the influences, yeah.

 

During Lily’s fits, I personally felt quite uncomfortable in my empathy for her, how important is it do you think to have this level of empathy with the character? And how was it for you filming those scenes?

 

Because it’s a simple plot it’s just such a Searchers type story on the surface where she goes looking for her lost brother and goes down to what she sees is a dangerous city.  Trying to get across her point of view was really important. The grammar of film works great for this condition like blackouts, when they’re just walking down the street and then they’re in the back of ambulance with nothing in between that, and obviously jump cuts in films can give you that.

 

One of the really nice things about working with Agyness is she has no problem in going out into intimidating areas for an actor. And it’s not that she’s showing off it’s just that she knows it’s really important for an authentic portrayal. So things like the shower scene where she has to clean herself up, she’s very naked. We created safe environment for her, and as long as it’s justified most actors don’t have a problem.  Shooting that stuff is about putting actors at ease but they know it as part of their work to represent these things. It’s better to try to and take away the mechanical time pressures of filming so they can be in the moment.

 

The film makes a point of showing Lily as a strong-minded, independent and determined character, despite her epilepsy, how important was it to you to show Lily not just as a victim of her epilepsy?

 

Totally, I mean I end up talking about epilepsy quite a lot but it’s a triumphant story with a very strong female lead, and there’s not that many films that have that. And I know for Agyness that was a huge part of it. So the sense that it’s uplifting, that she achieves something at the end and that she’s free to choose on her own was important. And I love having a strong female lead as a hero, and Agyness has that ability to pull that off, the camera never gets bored of her.

 

It’s an important aspect that the epilepsy is with her but it’s not her, that’s Lily and her core phrase is ‘thrash get up and get on with it’ she will not be defined by her condition. It’s not about epilepsy in a way, it’s about a person overcoming obstacles and one of the biggest obstacles does come within her.

What’s next for you?

I’d love to do another film soon and I’m working on another script with Joe Fischer who worked with me on Electricity and Unconditional we have two or three nice ideas. And working as a hired gun in TV, but the good thing about doing Electricity is that doing your own ideas, or ideas you really believe in is a lovely thing to do and it’s worth making sacrifices for.

 

 

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