Enterprising UK director Carol Morley cast herself in the role of off-screen detective to make her extraordinary documentary, Dreams of a Life, which opens in the UK on 16 December. The tragic story of Joyce Vincent – a young woman whose body lay in her bedsit above a North London shopping centre for three years while nobody noticed – is one of a growing number of hugely original films made by Morley and her long-time producer Cairo Cannon.
Dreams of a Life director, the brilliant Carol Morley
What’s your connection to the British Council?
Over the years the British Council have done a great site dedicated to international film festivals and I’ve always used that to find out about festivals and when to apply. On the lucky occasions my films have been accepted I’ve applied for British Council travel grants for flights to attend them - and they’ve always been memorable experiences. Attending festivals abroad, meeting international filmmakers and connecting to a global filmmaking community is a highlight at the end of making a film and the British Council has been instrumental in sending me to these festivals. Also - I can’t miss out the legendary British Council film department Christmas parties - I hope they resume! The mayhem that usually occurred after one of these events was always worthy of a film - or soap opera - being made about it.
Your current project/s?
Just coming out of a five year epic journey with my producer Cairo Cannon to make a film called Dreams of a Life. It goes behind the Sun headline that reported on a woman who died in her London flat and wasn’t discovered for nearly three years. The story was so anonymous, the press never even got a picture of Joyce Vincent who died at thirty-eight - with her TV still on. I felt strongly that I couldn’t let Joyce Vincent be forgotten, merely be a macabre footnote to London History, an urban myth. I became a detective and pieced together Joyce’s life - and uncovered a beautiful, vivacious woman that nobody could imagine ever being forgotten.
What/who originally turned you onto film?
Bev Zalcock. If you ever see a film class being taught by her - go! She teaches at Birkbeck and the BFI at the moment - she is herself a filmmaker and has also written books on Australian cinema and Girl Gangs in film, and she is an expert on Avant-Garde film. I was twenty three, drifting around doing various jobs & directionless when I randomly picked to do A levels in film and photography at Tower Hamlets college in East London. Bev taught the film A level - she was inspirational. She made me realize just how interesting and important film was, and also how joyous. I had never considered I could write an essay on film before I met her, let alone begin to make films. Sometimes, when the attempt to make and finance a film gets hard, I blame her for getting me into this filmmaking lark. But, Bev, and filmmaking changed my life. I can’t imagine life without film, or without Bev - who showed me a way of living and a future.
What has been your career high so far?
Right now - I can’t sleep because Dreams of a Life got such an amazing review on BBC Film 2011 - it’s not that I live or die by a review - it’s just that everything that was said felt like some kind of vindication for the time it took to get Dreams of a Life made - to get such a mainstream response. There have been real moments of despair- not least because I so needed and wanted to tell the story of Joyce Vincent. Getting a cinema release of a film, is this really happening? I can’t believe it! I am just so proud of everyone involved in this film and of my producer Cairo Cannon for keeping the flame of hope burning.
What was your first job in the film industry?
I’ve never been a runner, never worked my way up in the film industry. Just started making my own films! I have worked on other peoples’ films though, doing sound, doing camera, editing, but it didn’t feel like being part of a film industry- just a kind of helping out with no-budget filmmaking friends. So I guess you could say my first job in the film industry was as a director - though it doesn’t feel like a job, more like a vocation. And it doesn’t feel like a film industry, more like a film culture.
If I knew then what I know now…
Accept rejection because it’s going to happen, but don’t let it undermine you and never give up on a film you want to make if you believe in I - it will take as long as it takes.
What is your favourite British film?
I’m not good at favourites. It’s too hard. But in memory of Shelagh Delaney who died recently I’ll say A Taste of Honey - a great film from 1961 that she first wrote as a play. It’s set in the North, and being from the North it was always good to see it represented on screen - and it’s got the working class, and black characters and gay men and female leads and all the interesting things in life.
If you could have directed/been involved with any film ever made, which one would it be?
Cleo from 5-7 by Agnes Varda. Astounding film. It was made in France in the early 60’s - it focuses on a famous singer as she awaits the result of a medical test. It’s a fabulous part for a woman to play - and Corinne Marchland plays her exquisitely. Everything about it is just divine - and the way Paris is captured is awesome.
What’s the first film you remember seeing?
Didn’t really go to the cinema much as a kid - so saw films on TV - and I can’t really remember their names. But when I was eleven we moved around the corner from The Savoy Cinema in Stockport. I went there with my dad, the only time I ever remember going to the cinema with him. We saw Bugsy Malone and my dad and I sat on the back row. He was quite strict so when I asked him if I could lay down in the aisle I was amazed he said yes. So I watched the film spread out on my stomach, chin propped up on fists. I’m not sure what my dad made of the film. He died soon after. It’s one of the few memories I have of us together so it’s pretty special and weirdly tied up with Jodie Foster.
What’s your favourite line or scene from a film?
Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life - Annie’s funeral - astounding scene in the church when Mahalia Jackson sings for real.
Favourite screen kiss?
When Grace Kelly leans over James Stewart in Rear Window and it goes into slow motion, I haven’t seen it for a while. I’m not sure it is a kiss, but it feels like kisses can do - extending and stretching a moment in time - and that’s what’s so special about it.
Who’s your favourite screen hero and/or villain?
Villain - Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell in Charles Laughton’s film Night of the Hunter. Chilling potrayal of a bad man, a great performance from Mitchum. You can’t take your eyes off him even though you want to.
Hero - Ruth Gordon as Maude in Harold and Maude because she’s old and feisty and fabulous - it makes you look forward to being old. Oh, and I think there is a kiss in that film that may be my favourite too - unless I’ve imagined it - between Ruth’s character and the young Harold.
Who would play you in the film about your life?
Maxine Peake because I think she is an amazing actor. I made my feature film Edge with her and she knows all my funny mannerisms and weird tics so could probably bring me to life quite convincingly, but with the added glamour of it being Maxine. She’d have to die her hair though - pink or orange or something bright. In the same way that Agnes Varda has a signature hairstyle - I'm trying to get one too - and it will probably always involve bleach or hair dye of one colour or another.