Article in the Daily Tiger, Rotterdam

January 2009

Social Workers on set

Drugs, relationships, fear of life and fear of death are the themes that are woven distinctively through the hyper-realistic BETTER THINGS by Duane Hopkins. It’s not social realism, rather artistic romanticism.

Hopkins describes the complexities of his methods with remarkable ease, a result of the numerous interviews given following the success of the film in Cannes and Toronto. ‘I never start with something I’d like to tell. I usually have pictures in my head, and later I think of a narrative form to structure them. For me it isn’t the story or the plot that resonates the longest, rather the image, a feeling or a theme. That was my starting point. I wrote 150 separate scenes and looked at the binding elements in those. Those binding elements were love, loss and intoxication.

BETTER THINGS contains several different storylines: one a heroin-addicted boy whose girlfriend has died of an overdose; a young couple struggling with addiction; a girl with agoraphobia; a long-married couple driven apart because of an indiscretion remembered from years earlier. Hopkins worked with an almost exclusively non-professional cast, whom he got to know for the most part during his research on heroin use. ‘When I met Liam McIlfatrick, playing Rob, I saw something in him an actor cannot give you. He was 21 years old, homeless since 14 and had been addicted for six years. He had a youthful innocence in combination with huge life experience.’

Many of the young people in the film are shown using drugs heavily, having in real life overcome their habits in the years and months leading up to the production. ‘It was a big responsibility. On set we had social workers around and were checking after every scene if everything was still ok.’

The older couple in BETTER THINGS is in reality also a couple that had been married for more than sixty years. ‘They were incredibly close and he was remarkably sweet towards his wife. In the film he had to act as if having trouble touching her. I knew he would find that difficult. He is not acting in the film, but you can see the frustration and the feeling of being torn, because of the fact of not being allowed to touch his wife.’

According to Hopkins his film is wrongly being ‘categorized’ in the British tradition of social realism. ‘In England we also have a tradition of ‘distorting’ that social realism. Something that Terence Davies does for example. I’m doing that with the voice-over and the use of indirect sound. You have to see my film in the context of a work of art: it is artistically romantic in the way in which it finds beauty in tragedy, I was not trying to make a documentary.’

The tragedy of the film is reinforced with the knowledge that main actor McIlfatrick passed away in the autumn following the film’s completion, at the age of 24. ‘He was living with the girl who plays Sarah – they became a couple during the shoot. Because of his long-term heroin use and hard living conditions, his immune system was so weak he developed a double pneumonia that killed him. He hadn’t seen the film yet. I wanted to give him a DVD but he preferred to wait until he could see it on the big screen.

Source | Daily Tiger