As an actor, Samantha Morton rarely seems to be holding back, but she’s never bared herself in front of the camera the way she does in her directorial debut, The Unloved, which is now out on DVD. Although written by Red Riding’s Tony Grisoni, the story is based on Morton’s life. It follows Lucy (Molly Windsor), a young girl taken from the house of her abusive father (Robert Carlyle) and placed in care, which here means an antiseptic government-run facility whose employees show more interest in bedding her roommate than helping her work through her trauma. Morton’s own life was substantially harder—she’s said in interviews that she was sexually as well as physically abused—but The Unloved is more devoted to capturing the subjective sensations of Lucy’s detached relationship to the world than lodging a protest against the UK’s childcare system. (That said, it’s impossible to come away from the film without feeling that something urgently needs to change.) In high demand as a performer—she just finished shooting David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis—and raising two young daughters to boot, Morton carved out some time on a Friday evening to talk to The A.V. Club about revisiting her past, how learning to act was her salvation, and the upside of The Unloved’s decade-long journey to the screen.
The A.V. Club: The screenplay for The Unloved is credited to Tony Grisoni, based on original material from you, which essentially means your life. Like your main character, you were raised in care in the UK, and were abused as a child. And yet the film is deliberately not an autobiography. How did you find the balance between drawing on your own experience and telling a story distinct from it?
Samantha Morton: Originally, I was trying to write a screenplay based on a play I devised about the subject matter a few years ago, and to be honest, it wasn’t going very well. I got 40 pages in and it would take me just forever, because each page, I would try to make absolutely perfect. Each page would have a month of rewrites on it. So I met up with various producers who were giving me all these parameters in order to get the money, how I needed to make it, how it had to be on digital, it had to cost £250,000, it had be shot in three weeks. You know, all these kinds of limitations, and I thought, “This isn’t how I want to make my first film at all.” I met Kate Ogborn at a friend’s wedding, and I hadn’t seen her since we did a film called Under The Skin [in 1997]. She said, “What are you up to?” And I kind of talked about my acting work, “But really, I’m desperate to do this film.” She had some memory of us having a chat about it when I was 19, 20, and here I was now, turning 30, and I hadn’t made it. So we met up and she said, “I think you should make it.” Having a producer like Kate on board—she’s very prolific. Her passion for film—she immediately wanted to bring out the best in me.
One of the first things we looked at was hiring a writer to work with me, someone who was used to working with writer-directors, and someone that would be, I suppose, kind and empathetic to the story. And handle me well, because it’s tough subject matter. So we met Tony, and I was thinking, “He’s far too famous and brilliant and expensive to want to come to work with me, irrelevant to how charmed he might become.” Because I wanted, obviously, to win him over, but at the end of the day, it’s not just about how charming you can be. It’s about the reality of sitting in a room together for weeks on end, writing a film together. But he took all my material away that I had already written; it was in a small suitcase, like a Samsonite suitcase. There was storyboarding and scripts—I’d written so many scripts. I got some of them to 30 pages, some of them got to 40 pages, some of them got to 15 pages—endless rewrites on the material. Obviously, lots of synopses. And the play. He was so sweet. He went through everything, and we met up again and he said, “We should just start again.” I went “Okay! Great! Brilliant!”
So we met up and it was starting from the beginning, really. So we went through my life together. We sat with coffee and talked and went over everything up until a certain point. We decided, legally, what we could and couldn’t do. And then we slowly removed me, if you like, from the equation, and invented a girl who would have elements of me, but also elements of other people that shaped me, other people I met and lived with. So Lucy became an amalgamation of all sorts of characters that had been in my life, and also the older girl who Lauren Socha plays; she’s called Lauren in the film. She, too, had major elements of my life when I was a teenager. So it was using my experiences, but putting them onto lots of different characters, if that makes sense.
Where Tony was incredible was, we’d talk in the morning. My baby was tiny then, Edie, and I’d sit and breastfeed her. She was only 6 weeks old. He’d throw a log in the fire, we have this lovely fire in my front room, and we’d just sit and talk. It grew out of facts, and then Tony would go away with it and work his magic, if you like. So it was like something we created together. I certainly don’t have the skill to write how he can write, and make it all compact and precise and eloquent and simple. He was able to do that. When he sent the first draft of the script to me, I was actually at my stepfather’s funeral that day, and he sent the script through. Edie was now three months old, and we were sitting a hotel in Newcastle, and I read it and thought, “It’s just amazing. He’s just really, really brilliant.” I felt really in awe, and also proud that that it wasn’t just… I mean, it is autobiographical, but it doesn’t feel like I’d laid everything so bare. There is a lot that can’t be in for legal reasons. And also, she becomes her own character. The minute you cast that kind of part, asking someone to play you, you want to bring out the best in them as an actor to deliver the character.
AVC: You shot in Nottingham, where you grew up, in some of the real places where things happened to you. Was it strange or disorienting to revisit the past in that way?
SM: It was strange, but at the same time, if I had made it when I was younger, it would have been too strange. I think the fact that it took 10 years to get it together and then a further three years in production—it becomes existential, in a way. You’re not part of it. You’re looking in on it, and it doesn’t feel that personal when you’re making it. The time, it felt really personal for me in the edit. Because then you’re not busy. You don’t have, like, 60 crews around, wanting you to make decisions on a minute-to-minute basis. You don’t have a big cast to look after, asking you what to do, trying to look after people. It’s a very, very different world when you go into the edit. Colin Monie, the editor, treated me with so much respect and care, and he had a huge amount of patience with me. Because whilst he was there and he’d done the rough assembly of what we shot, there was a lot of stuff that, as we were shooting it, I realized didn’t need to be in the film. And the film would change again whilst I was shooting it, and then change again as I was editing.
One of the major things was that I’d been incredibly specific in the detail of the shot list whilst writing it with Tony, and a lot of that was based on memory and on photographs. Therefore, in a way, for me, they couldn’t be messed with, because if I was to direct it, I had to direct it from the visions in my mind, you know what I mean? If I veered off that, then it became something different, and I was quite tough on myself. For the children’s-home stuff, I knew every single shot. I was begging Kate if we could build a set, because we couldn’t go to the real place. They wouldn’t let us, because children still live there. There were certain sequences in the film that I just couldn’t get because I needed to be on a specific location. If we couldn’t be there, I needed to build it, and unfortunately, we didn’t have the money, because I’d chosen to shoot on film. The money was really tight. And then all of a sudden, I’m thrown into this situation where you have to think on your feet, you’ve got to find a location very quickly, and you have to shoot in there, and you have to use the raw material, not go back to what your memories are. In a way, I had to divide the film up into chapters, different films within the film, if that makes sense. Which, I think, for some people was quite odd. But for me, Lucy’s world was very different in the children’s home. It was very, very claustrophobic, all those children in that small space without any light upstairs. We had to figure that out quickly.
AVC: It’s an urgent film, but not an angry film.
SM: Yeah. I don’t think it’s angry. You have to remember the film is a period film, set in the early ’90s. That’s evident in that there are no satellite dishes on the houses. The bus that the kids get, you can see that. The clothes the kids wear—there’s one scene where I was in this massive shopping mall, and Lauren was using her phone in the shot, and I didn’t know, because I don’t like monitors. I don’t watch the monitors very often unless they force me to. So we got to the cut, and I only had one of these takes, and Colin was amazing. He kind of figured it out, how I could move the camera enough that you didn’t really notice, but I could still tell.
But no, I don’t think there’s an anger in it. It’s just a very honest portrayal of what it is like for children in the care system in the UK. In fact, it’s a lot worse now. It hasn’t gotten any better. It’s horrific for children. In this country, they spend more on their prisoners. They can spend over £3,500 a week making sure prisoners, certainly pedophile prisoners, are given their own cells, given Sky TV, they have exercise rights, they get education. I mean, these are people who are imprisoned for the most horrific crimes. The human rights here are amazing, how people are treated. Yet the children, who often have done absolutely nothing other than being abandoned or abused, are neglected, are treated in a horrific fashion. So to me, it was a real social statement. Whilst I’m very angry about how children are treated worldwide, I wanted to make a poetic statement as well, if you get what I mean. I have all these angry things about how the world is in regards to children, but I didn’t want to make a documentary, because I’m not a documentary maker. I’ve been in front of a camera since I was a little girl, and that’s the medium I understand. It’s like I understand images and some people understand poetry. So that’s the only way I felt that I could share with the world what happened to me.
AVC: The way you portray Lucy’s parents in the film, there’s no attempt to explain them, either why her father is so angry and abusive, or why her mother can’t stand to have her around.
SM: No. She doesn’t understand them. At the end of the day, I always wanted to make this film from a child’s perspective. Everything she sees, we see. From the moment we see her, from the moment you’re in her eyes, the stillness of the camera, I just wanted it to be that, rather than ever coming from the point of view of an adult. Ever. The minute you have a different take on it, you’re trying to theorize it or something. And at the end of the day, it never makes rhyme nor reason why she’s never told that she can’t go back to her mom. Mom won’t tell her, dad, nobody talked to her. So that’s why I made those choices.
AVC: You’ve talked a bit about Lucy being an observer, almost a passive protagonist.
SM: What happens to a lot of children when they’ve suffered trauma, whether they’ve witnessed horrific war crimes or they’ve been sexually abused or physically abused, as a protective mechanism, they will become, if you like, on the autistic spectrum just instantly. They will detach from reality. That’s what I was trying to do with Lucy. In the opening of the film, she’s been beaten so badly that she’s been knocked unconscious. Then she wakes and she’s alive! Thank God. And she’s lying there. Night becomes day becomes night becomes day. Where’s the dad gone? He’s just disappeared. He’s beaten her and left her there. And then you have the flashback to the violence. At that point, she’s been beaten for so long that she becomes—obviously, she has a lot of fear—almost spectating on her own life. Do you know what I mean? Therefore, everything she does, whether she’s in the car with the social worker, in the home with the kids, or out wandering the street, she’s like a little ghost.
AVC: Is that how you responded at the time?
SM: Oh, absolutely. You’re just living when you’re that age. You’re a child. You have no concept of the fact that, perhaps, what people are doing is illegal. You know something is wrong, and you know that’s not fair and right. But how do you deal with that? I think there’s something that is touched on in the film, which is faith, and the idea that she has a guardian angel. She genuinely believes somebody’s looking out for her. She doesn’t know who and she doesn’t know what. But there is somebody just making her faith.
AVC: Is that experience of observing and feeling outside of yourself connected to you being an actor in any way?
SM: Oh, gosh. No. [Laughs.] Not really. I don’t think so. Obviously, I’m a grown woman now. I have two children. There’s a lot that we can carry from our childhood. I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t possible and true, because you do carry those emotional scars. But I think, certainly, having worked as an actor for many, many years now, you learn skills how to act. I don’t think there’s any of that residue left over because of the kind of actor I am. Actually, it was a real kind of therapy and a salvation when I was younger. Because it was me forcing myself to feel things. You know what I mean? So, in a way, you still keep it.
AVC: Are you shooting right now?
SM: I’m about to do a film with David Cronenberg [Cosmopolis]. John Carter, I think is coming out June 2012.
AVC: In movies like John Carter or Minority Report, where the world is more stylized or your character is less human, does your approach differ? Your technique isn’t evident.
SM: There must be some kind of technique I learned over the years. But I didn’t go to drama school. I did an after-school teenage drama club for a little bit, where Lauren in the film is from, this place called Central Junior [Television] Workshop. I suppose the skills I learned were a massive amount of concentration and belief—almost bordering on schizophrenia a little bit. [Laughs.] You just absolutely believe what you’re doing. But not Methoding out. You trust your instincts and you listen when you’re performing. And then a reaction can come and the director likes it, fantastic, and they say, “Can you do it more like this?” “Yeah, yeah, okay.” And you do it completely different. Then you can just deliver what the director needs. I’m really a director’s actor, I think. More than a lot of other actors I know. Lots of actors love directors, and there are some that kind of do their own thing and just allow people to point the camera and get on with it and make great films, and they’ll handle the acting bit. [Laughs.] I really need directing. I really need to communicate with who’s making the film. And that’s why I like to work with writer-directors, as well. Because you just get a real sense of collaboration. For me, as well, being just an actor, I love my job. Sometimes you get parts and they’re not writer-directors, but they’re brilliant directors and you go, “Yeah, they know what they’re doing. And they’re not afraid to tell you to act differently and almost play you like an instrument in a really lovely way.”
AVC: Were there particular directors or experiences that you took lessons from? Not just as far as where to put the camera, but also what kind of set, what kind of atmosphere you wanted to create?
SM: No. And that’s what really freaked me out. When we came to the pre-production and hiring crew and everything. All of a sudden, I just completely forgot all the things that directors and producers and ADs… It all just went outside my head. Without sounding weird, when I’m on set, I’m not selfish, but I’m selfish to my craft and my job. I’m there 150 percent for my director as an actor, so I’m not really paying attention to everything else in that moment. And all of a sudden, I’m going “Oh my God.” But it’s all there, you know. I’ve been a set since I was—the first thing was when I was 11 and a half, 12 years old. So, how do I put it? It’s all in there. Most of my life, I’ve been on a film set. There isn’t anything to learn, not learn, unlearn. It’s just in me. It’s kind of my language. All I can do now is get better as a director and find my way as a director like I found my way as an actor. Ultimately, my home is on that set. I feel more at home on a film set than… It’s weird. It’s a very weird feeling.
AVC: Do you want to do more directing?
SM: Oh, absolutely, yeah. I’m just hopefully going to do a short film with the band The Kills. A music video for them. I’m doing more acting. I’m trying to find the time to do some—I’ve got some books I want to get into development and things like that. I’ve been moving house. That was quite tricky. It’s been quite a few months to get myself sorted.