Carol Morley • Director of Typist Artist Pirate King
“It was impossible to make an ordinary film about such an extraordinary woman”
- British artist Audrey Amiss was recognised only after her death, thanks to filmmaker Carol Morley, who made a movie about her and disclosed some interesting details to Cineuropa
We talked to British helmer Carol Morley on the occasion of the world premiere of her latest work, Typist Artist Pirate King [+see also:
interview: Carol Morley
film profile], as part of the Critics’ Picks programme of the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. She shared some insights into her research into the protagonist and her approach to building up the character, as well as about her work with the actors.
Cineuropa: You basically discovered Audrey Amiss for the art world through your research. What caught your eye when delving into her archive?
Carol Morley: It all began when I received a year-long Screenwriting Fellowship from Wellcome, the global charitable science-and-health foundation. From the standpoint of curiosity-based research, it was a dream. And when I began looking into the uncatalogued archive of artist and mental-health survivor Audrey Amiss, which no researcher had yet looked at, her voice was so strong, as if she were reaching out to me. I loved her art, strength of opinions, humour and insights, and the way she laid out aspects of her life like a puzzle. I remember being possessed by the feeling that she wanted me to solve this puzzle and put her life into motion. And so, when I opened the pages of her old passport and found she had written in the space for her occupation “Typist Artist Pirate King”, it struck me that Audrey had given me the title of the film that I would inevitably make about her one day.
What made you decide on an atypical “biopic”? Instead of basing your film on events from Amiss’s life, you actually came up with an imaginary road movie throughout which she faces her past.
It was impossible to make an ordinary film about such an extraordinary woman! It seemed creatively right to explore the ways Audrey described her world and bring that to the screen. I never wanted to colonise Audrey’s mind or make a film pretending to see through her eyes. Instead, I wanted to explore what she left behind and concentrate it into a complex portrait; to create a form that was embedded with her perceptions.
Audrey was convinced that some of the strangers she saw in her daily life were people from her past. I utilised this so that instead of the familiar flashbacks we often see in biopics, the people Audrey meets on her journey stand in for the people she once knew, and her personal history is revealed this way. Audrey loved travelling, and as she repeatedly circled a significant event from her past, it felt right that her story would emerge on a journey in an electric car with her psychiatric nurse, Sandra Panza (Kelly Macdonald), back to her hometown. This journey seemed a perfect means to encapsulate many of the ideas that Audrey had about psychiatry, and also to give her the companionship she often longed for in real life. It is a fictitious element, but all of the events on the way are drawn from the details she shares in her diaries and letters, and her art.
What’s great about the film is that you don’t spare the audience the downsides of the character’s unbearable temper. Was it a conscious decision?
Audrey once said, “I know I can be a bit much sometimes,” and she was often getting thrown out of shops for causing a commotion and sometimes hitting out – but often, that behaviour came from being frustrated that nobody believed what she believed to be true. So it seemed very important to include that aspect of Audrey’s experience.
Monica Dolan is really organic as Amiss. Did you have her in mind while developing the script?
I worked with her before on The Falling [+see also:
interview: Carol Morley
film profile] and was immensely impressed by how Monica approaches a role. She doesn’t describe the character; she becomes the person. She is incredible to work with, so I always had her in mind. I knew she would have the stamina, the pure desire and the brilliance to bring Audrey to life for an audience. It was also a joy to work with the incredible Kelly Macdonald, whom I cast as Audrey’s psychiatric nurse. The chemistry between these two very different women characters, who take control of their own journey together, is wonderful. And I’m happy to report that Monica and Kelly have become great friends since the shoot.
The film was produced by Cannon and Morley Productions, the company you run jointly with Cairo Cannon. What were the challenges of funding this project?
Making a film about an unknown artist poses more challenges than making a film about someone popular. It was a monumental effort by Cairo Cannon, who worked tirelessly to keep the movie afloat, and we were deeply encouraged when Jane Campion came on board as executive producer, as well as when the British Film Institute supported the production. I think every independent film is a challenge and an effort of will to make. I’ve not known one passion project that hasn’t had difficulties in being funded or faced obstacles during the journey of being made and getting released into the world. But because of all the literal blood, sweat and tears of all involved, Typist Artist Pirate King now exists, and Audrey Amiss can be known!
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