Opening in UK cinemas this Friday, The Selfish Giant is the eagerly awaited second feature by British writer-director Clio Barnard, whose 2010 debut The Arbor proved a popular favourite at the BEV First Weekenders Club.
Inspired by Oscar Wilde’s story of the same name, this poetic and heartrending contemporary fable stars newcomers Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas as Arbor and Swifty: two underprivileged but resourceful schoolboys trying to overcome the harsh realities of life in their scrap-strewn corner of Yorkshire.
Clio kindly took the time to chat to BEV scribe Sonia Zadurian, ahead of the film’s Official Competition unveiling at the 57th London Film Festival…
BEV: How did the success of The Arbor affect the making of The Selfish Giant?
CB: It meant that both Film4 and the BFI wanted to support me so that I could make another film. So The Selfish Giant wouldn’t have happened without The Arbor. The Selfish Giant also came out of making The Arbor: I met a boy and his best friend, called Matty and Michael, and the characters of Arbor and Swifty are loosely based on them.
Did you always know that you wanted to create a kind of contemporary fable, or had you ever explored different ways of adapting the story?
I knew I wanted it to be contemporary. I knew that I wanted the children to be contemporary teenagers, so that you get excluded in the way that the children are kind of shut out of the garden in the original story. The trickier thing was the giant and the garden. That was the thing that it took me a while to figure out, but it was always going to be kids like the kids that I’d met when I was making The Arbor. I think the two things happened simultaneously = thinking about doing that adaptation and wanting to work with the kids.
Going back to the character of the giant, you were originally exploring telling the story from the giant’s point of view. Can you tell us more about this shift?
I wrote a first draft and that was written from the giant’s point of view. I got to the end of that and just realised that the characters that I cared about the most were the two boys. At that point I decided to shift it so that Arbor was the protagonist. I think it was about feeling a lot of love for those two boys.
The film makes for a very emotional experience, but it never feels that you’re exploiting the audience’s emotions. It’s always very raw and natural. Is this something that you were conscious of? And if so, what did you do to achieve this?
I was conscious of it and it’s really good to hear you say that it doesn’t feel like you’re being manipulated because – I mean in a way you are – but I guess it’s…I hope that it’s quite truthful about the complicated feelings of loss or those complicated feelings about loyalty, trust and betrayal. Someone said to me that they thought the film was about two people who betray each other, but they don’t know to what extent they have been betrayed by the other person. Some of those scenes I actually found really quite hard to write, so I had to sort of brace myself. It’s the thing you never know, throughout the writing process and through shooting and editing: is that going to communicate? Are people going to care as deeply about these made-up kids as I do? You don’t know until people see it.
The cast were a key contributor to the emotional connection I had with the film. What did you see in Conner so early on in the casting process? How did you know he would work in the role?
I was watching audition tapes online and it was Conner’s voice that meant that I had to see him again. We had originally cast him as Swifty and were then looking for an Arbor. However, one of the big questions that the casting people asked him was, Do you know how to ride a horse? Can you ride a horse bareback? Have you got any experience around them? And he said he had. Then we put him on a horse and he hadn’t, which was quite in keeping with Arbor’s character. Shaun grew up in a place called Homewood, where there’s a settled traveller community, so he’s not a traveller, but he’s grown up around travellers. He has a real affinity with horses and so we did the same kind of test. We put him on a horse and it’s a really beautiful thing to see him ride a horse. He can ride bareback and he’s brilliant. He’s also a real scrapper. At age 11 he’d go out scrapping, like a lot of the boys around him.
When I met Conner, he told stories about his life. I wasn’t totally sure how true they were, but he told them absolutely brilliantly. Having a strong instinct for story is really important, and he and Shaun both had that. The ability to believe in a fiction as though it’s true… Conner, in a way, can’t do anything but be truthful. If I asked him to do something he’d say, “Yeah but he wouldn’t do that,” or “He wouldn’t feel that,” or something. There’s also something quite ambiguous about him. You don’t quite know what’s going on internally and I think that’s partly what makes his performance strong.
There were certain problems when we were doing rehearsals, because Conner just wanted to go home. I don’t think he understood what the commitment was, but he was in pretty much every scene on a six-week shoot. We actually had to fire him and he had to re-audition. It was a genuine thing, because we just thought, This is a risk. We started looking at kids who had got acting experience, but what I really wanted was for Conner to come into the room and just be 100% committed and that’s exactly what he did. I didn’t want to cast somebody who wasn’t from that place. I wanted Conner. So I was incredibly relieved. He came in and did these really brilliant improvisations that showed me again what he was capable of. He’s really remarkable and I don’t think he quite understands what he’s got, but he wants to carry on acting and has been in other things.
Did you work differently with the non-professional actors?
We did rehearsals and got Conner and Shaun used to working with professional actors. All the professional actors were incredibly generous to the kids. They absolutely adored Elliot [Tittensor], who plays Arbor’s brother. He’s very energetic and just a lovely person, so the first two days we did the kids’ scenes with Elliot, they just adored it and had such a good time with him. I think in a way I had to focus on the children. I would go and give Conner a note and he’d say, “Well that’s what I was doing.” As though I was telling him off or something. So I had to say to him, “Look, watch me direct the other actors and you’ll see that I give them notes too.” So that’s what he did. He watched what I was doing when I was working with the adult actors, and he understood that when I was talking to him about the character or giving him notes that it was about nuancing the performance.
Birds Eye View celebrates and supports female filmmakers. What advice would you give to women starting out in film?
Well I’m very glad Birds Eye View exists. I think it’s important as the percentage of female directors is so shockingly small. You’ve just got to get up and get on with the job. Just do what it is that you do. I’m not aware that I’m changing what I do because I’m a woman writer-director. I’ve just got to make the films that I feel compelled to make.
Finally, can you tell us a bit about any projects that you’ve got coming up? Or anything you’re thinking about at the moment?
I’m writing an adaptation of a novel at the moment, called Trespass by Rose Tremain. I’m also attached to direct a film by a playwright called Polly Stenham, which is based on her play Tusk Tusk, which she’s adapted for the screen. So those are the two things that are next on the horizon.
The Selfish Giant is on nationwide theatrical release from Friday October 25.