Channel Four Films - Director Duane Hopkins on his debut feature Better Things
Screening at the 2008 Cannes International Film Festival as part of Critics' Week, Duane Hopkins' debut feature Better Things is a multi narrative drama depicting everyday life in smalltown England. A painterly view of existence against a rarely seen rural backdrop the film considers drug use in a Cotswolds town, revealing its inhabitants different approaches to life, love, loss and intoxication.
Better Things is a very contemplative experience. Is that what you set out to achieve?
I think so. It's certainly more the type of film that I'm influenced by. I like the sort of film that, when you come out of it, you're not quite sure: there's some rearrangement of feelings and opinions and you need some time to think about that, and to think about how you fit in with the film, and what you really think of it and what you got out of it.
Can you explain the multi-narrative aspect of the film?
I wanted as much as possible for it to be an 'abandoned' sort of plot. The film is about thematics, as opposed to stories. The connections are very oblique. But there are windows onto the characters' lives, like when Larry looks at the newspaper and he reads about Tess, then the film cuts to Rob.
In some ways, it's like a series of short films
That's how I wrote it. I wrote 150 unconnected scenes. Then I went back through the scenes and started to look through this narrative. I found that there was a way I could start piecing them together. They could link and rub against one another and comment on one another. At that point, it was a film about relationships.Where did you shoot the film?In the Cotswolds. I grew up in a village called Chipping Camden. We shot as much as possible around that area.
Was it like revisiting your childhood?
I grew up around these things, but I wouldn't say that was how my childhood was. But it was certainly a lot of what I saw. I wouldn't say it was a revisiting - maybe a reworking of it.
Did you have friends die of heroin use?
Absolutely. A lot of them were involved in drug subcultures.
Has heroin use escalated in that town since you were in your teens?
Yes. It hit very hard. I moved away at one point and when I came back it was there. I went to university when I was 19 and I'd come back and see my friends and say, "Where's so-and-so?" And they'd say, "We don't see him anymore.
"It's shocking that teenagers are now using heroin, don't you think?
Everything is accelerating quicker, sexuality and drugs-wise. And they do things a lot earlier because they have access. And because they're so young, they have no real idea of mortality. When I was doing research, I discovered that kids would be taking heroin just before they went to their friends' funerals. They didn't see it in its context.
Some of the actors are former drug users. Why did you take that casting approach?
My first short film, Field (2001), was about three 14 year-old boys. I knew it would be hard to find actors of that age that came from the background that I was interested in. I found those three kids from the same school. There was a very interesting dynamic between them. I thought, 'If I can film this dynamic, that will be very interesting'.Then we got the money to make the second short film [Love Me Or Leave Me Alone from 2003] and I did exactly the same. I was starting to find a method - how I direct the cast, how I find out about their past experiences, how to use that to help them when they're acting and provoke them a little bit, but to protect them as well. When I was doing the research into the drugs I met people who had been off drugs for two or three years. They were very generous with their information. So as I was interested in them photographically and I liked them and we trusted each other, I said we should continue with this method.
How did you go about protecting the cast?
If they needed counselling, it was available. They would read the script and they would see what they needed to do. And every time before we went for another take, I would ask if they were okay and if they weren't, we would stop.