Opening in UK cinemas this Friday, Powder Room is the feature debut by London-based director MJ Delaney, who shot to nationwide attention in 2010 with her affectionate Jay-Z parody ‘Newport (Ymerodraeth State of Mind)’.
Adapted by Rachel Hirons from her own play When Women Wee, the movie depicts a tumultuous night out in the life of Sam (Sheridan Smith), who is nervous about reuniting after five years with college friend Michelle (Kate Nash). The latter now runs a successful fashion blog in Paris and has brought along her très chic business partner Jess (Oona Chaplin). Unbeknownst to Sam, her regular gang of pals – headed up by the unapologetically forthright Chanel (Jaime Winston) – have decided to go to the same club.
A warm and wickedly funny depiction of modern friendship – wherein the self-image people project to their peers via social media sits awkwardly with mundane reality – Powder Room largely transcends its stage origins through smart directorial choices, imaginative set design and relatable performances. All this despite, as the film’s title implies, most of the action unfolding in the ladies loos. MJ kindly took the time to chat to BEV scribe Manish Agarwal about the challenges involved in bringing it to the screen…
BEV: What was your reaction to the stage play?
MJD: I never saw the play, but when read it I thought it was hilarious and very truthful. Although I did say to Damian [Jones, producer]: “I love it but it’s not a film!” At the time all we had was the play script. And then he gave us two months to turn into a film. He rang me in September and said that we’re shooting it in November. So during pre-production, Rachel and [producer] Nichola Martin and I were still developing and changing the script into a film. We were casting for characters that were simultaneously being cut [from the film script]. Andy [Brierley, casting director] would say, “I think this person’s great for Natalia.” And I’d be like, “We’ve cut that character!”
The process was brutal because it had to be so quick. I’m in awe of Rachel’s ability to consistently come back and be funny. There was no softly-softly, let’s start with this and then move on. We were tearing into [the original play] and ripping it apart. She’d not only do it all but also put a shitload more gags in every time. I couldn’t have asked for better support, especially in that section of the proceedings. She’s great.
When you say that it wasn’t a film originally, is that because the play was too episodic?
Yeah, there was no central character. It was a series of sketches across the night out. Although some of the characters returned – they went in and out of the toilet – you never really saw much of the progression, other than them just getting more drunk. Sheridan’s character didn’t really exist, neither did Kate or Oona’s characters. Jaime’s character existed but in a very sketchy way – the friendship was never there. The whole central storyline didn’t exist, basically. There are chunks of it that are lifted straight from the play, for example the phone sex and the young girls. But everything else is new.
Sheridan Smith has a formidable reputation in the theatre world. Did she bring a lot to the role of Sam herself, in terms of lines?
Yes. Though I think Sheridan’s fantastic at physical comedy as well. She added so much humour just in the way that she would move and facial expressions. Reactions. You just knew that she would nail little bits like the scene where she’s got the toilet roll on her shoe. In that sense she really brought it alive.
Also we didn’t shoot the club scenes for sound, so it was like an actual club experience, where you can’t hear. It irritates me when you see films or TV shows and people are having a conversation on the dance floor. That never happens. So it was a godsend that she’s so good at the physicality of humour. It’s really natural in her.
The movie’s main bathroom set looks ingenious. Futuristic, even. How did you work with production designer Soraya Gilanni to get what you wanted?
With the bathroom set our main concern was to create a space that was as dynamic as possible, while remaining realistic as a bathroom. With the five cubicles we tried to create five completely separate spaces, so that when you went inside them you almost felt like you were in a different place. Even though all you were inside was a cubicle in a room.
And then we moved the sinks forward so that they were freestanding, to give us space behind. We also put a little cubby beyond the cubicles to give people places to hide, so that you could have people within the bathroom unable to see one another. Then we put a little false wall in behind the toilet attendant, so that somebody could be looking in without being seen and that she could be overhearing something going on behind her. We did the device with the mirrors where they flip, which is kind of the most tenuous in terms of realism, but because we went so extreme with how this club is designed we felt that we just about got away with it. [The idea was] to just have that little extra bit of interaction between the people and the space, so that when you move into the area behind the mirrors the whole lighting effect is different. We’ve got those neons on the wall back there.
And then just the practicalities of the number of camera angles – because obviously we’re in there for so long – you just want the maximum number of camera angles you can get. We could take all four walls off. We could take all the cubicles off, all the mirrors out. We had camera tracks in the lights behind the toilets. It was about maximizing where we could be looking in the space, so that it wasn’t just the same five shots every time you were in there. We break every single rule of filmmaking!
Right from the start the stylized use of graphics indicates that you’re not shooting for a strict realism, since there’s plenty of that in the dialogue. Were you conscious of the fact that you had to make this feel cinematic?
Definitely. I think when you’re trapped in that space for such a huge proportion of the film, it is always going to be at the front of your mind. Is this still engaging? The other big question is, Do you believe that Sam’s still in here? When we were restructuring the script, a lot of it was just about at what point do we think she would have left the bathroom. So there are all those moments where she leaves and the others are at the door, so she can’t go out. All the reasons we could find to send her back into the bathroom, back into the bathroom.
And I think the mysticism element we added with the toilet attendant – although it’s utterly ambiguous – gave us a little bit more licence. You felt that this woman was meddling in some way, so if you got to a point where you didn’t believe it all in reality you could maybe believe things were happening because of her.
The toilet attendant is portrayed by Johnnie Fiori: largely silent but with a memorable musical turn…
We still talk about it as the most fun day of casting ever, because it was just loads of ladies coming in and singing for us! It was brilliant. We didn’t know what we were going to do with the toilet attendant’s song. At one point we were thinking it could be a club classic – her own interpretation of something that she was hearing through the walls – that was the brief for casting. So we’ve got so many different, crazy versions of current and vintage pop songs from this casting session.
She’s got a phenomenal set of lungs and totally loved the whole supernatural undercurrent of her part. Also she has a real presence and a real dignity. That was really important for us. You’re always on her side. When some of the other characters are being really fucking annoying, you’re totally on Johnnie’s side! Because she has such presence she could be really dismissive and grumpy without being at all bitchy. Every judgement she casts on any character, you kind of feel it.
Was it challenging casting Kate Nash and Oona Chaplin’s roles? They’re sort of villainous, but at the same time the viewer has to believe that Sam still wants to be friends with them.
Oona and Kate and I spoke a lot about how I really didn’t want them to become these kind of über-bitches. If you put yourself in their shoes on that night out, despite all their flaws, of course you’d be fucked off too. Of course you’d think that Sam’s behaviour was weird. I think it’s much more about how Sheridan’s character perceives them than it is about those two themselves. Much more about this Facebook/Instagram presentation of your life, than it is about the life you’re actually living. Everybody does it to a certain extent – nobody puts a photo of themselves looking really rough up on Instagram! – but some people just obsessively post about how great their lives are. It’s about how we all perceive one another, and how that’s becoming more extreme with social media. Before you wouldn’t even know what your college friend was up to. You’d have no reason to feel insecure about it.
A female colleague really enjoyed the film but felt that it was very “girly” – her word! – in that it’s populated by and about women. She was curious about whether you thought that it would appeal to men?
I don’t see any reason why not… What irritates me is that when you have a film that is made by men and has an entirely male cast and is set somewhere very male – like a prison or a stag weekend – nobody ever says, Are you worried that this film won’t appeal to women? And so I don’t really get why the question needs to be asked! It’s not that I don’t care – I want everybody to enjoy the film – but it’s interesting that if the genders were flipped, I don’t think the question would be asked.
What was it that made you want to become a filmmaker?
I came at it in a roundabout way, where I worked as a costume assistant. Then from being on set I thought, Oh that job’s better than my job! Some of my family work within the industry. My brother’s a commercials director, so I was able to borrow cameras off him and then in my spare time started making music videos for friends. Taught myself Final Cut Pro. It was just a very expensive hobby for a long time. For ages the idea of getting paid for filmmaking, or it being the only thing that I did, seemed so fantastic. To be honest, it still is now!
Birds Eye View celebrates and supports female filmmakers. What advice would you give to women starting out in film?
I think in terms of the question specifically for women starting out, try not to be phased by the lack of women in the industry and see it as an advantage. As much as the odds are against you, it also means that you’ve got something unique about you – which isn’t true in a lot of professions. You’ve just got to try and flip it on its head. It makes you different. With Powder Room, for example, Damian was looking for a female director who was young and did comedy. There are hardly any of us. Whereas if it was a bloke’s film and he was looking for a young male director who did comedy, there’d be gazillions for him to choose from. So I guess try and see the injustice as a positive.