It was during the first days of scouting locations for her first film “The Arbor” that Clio Barnard began to think about making her second. The experimental video artist-turned-filmmaker had been visiting Brafferton Arbor where she was set to being work on her beguiling biography of the late British playwright Andrea Dunbar when she met a rambunctious, resourceful 14-year-old boy named Matty, who had lent his horse for the film’s opening shot. She was so taken with the teen and his friend Michael that when she began to adapt one of her children’s bedtime stories, “The Selfish Giant” from an Oscar Wilde collection of short stories, for the screen, her thoughts naturally drifted back to them.
As in “The Arbor,” that mix of both real and dramatic elements results in something otherworldly and enchanting in “The Selfish Giant,” even as it depicts a hardscrabble life. Having previously reconfigured the more traditional documentary style of talking head interviews into a vibrant portrait of Dunbar where actors would reinterpret those interviews to capture Dunbar’s disillusionment and the essence of her craft, Barnard works magic once more in depicting the unusual landscape of Bradford, England in “The Selfish Giant,” a place entrenched in the past by its lack of upward mobility where cows graze next to power lines, and chariot races on the local highways are a primary form of entertainment.
There, things are particularly dire for Arbor (Conner Chapman), a young boy whose quick temper gets him expelled from school, along with his friend Swifty (Shaun Thomas) and leads them into the dangerous local profession of scrap metal collecting. While the two aim to build a life out of what random pieces they can find, Barnard builds a compelling drama, contrasting the plight of children that society turns a blind eye to with their restlessness to turn their forced independence into a virtue. In the midst of the Toronto Film Festival, Barnard spoke about making her first narrative feature, encountering the chariot races of Brafferton Arbor for the first time and how another artform led her into make films.
It’s hard to believe there’s a place where those chariot races could take place. How did you come across it?
I’d made a gallery installation called “Road Race” that was actually about those road races, horse races and actually when I made that piece, in the back of mind was an idea that there could be a feature-length fiction film that included racing in some way. So yeah, it does really go on. It has a season – it only happens in winter and it’s quite organized as an illegal sport, illegal activity and yeah, the horse culture in Bradford is very rich and strong, so there are a lot of teenage boys and young guys using horses on carts to collect scrap metal. There’s a very strong culture of it.
Since you were primarily concerned with expression as opposed to the dialogue in “The Arbor,” did that inform how you worked with actors on “The Selfish Giant”?
I had worked with actors before because I’d made a film using that technique of actors lip-synching to voices in a short film I made a long time ago, and I’d worked with actors in shorter, more experimental works that I’ve made. But being from a visual arts background, it is the thing that I felt I had the least experience in.
Working on “The Arbor,” I really learned an awful lot about actors. The scenes in the play in “The Arbor” where people aren’t lip-synching, that really was much more about directing actors in a more conventional way. But because that was such a specific way of working, I was worried about whether I’d be able to do it with “The Selfish Giant,” with more straightforward fiction. Actually, I absolutely loved it. I loved working with the boys and with the adults, the professional actors. I find it a very rewarding, brilliant, and engaging experience.
Was it exciting to apply your skills to a more traditional narrative?
It was a challenge because the aspiration was to tell as simple a story as possible, but it becomes more complex when you scratch away at the surface. That’s what I hoped to do, whereas with “The Arbor,” the structure is quite complex and the form is quite complex. I wanted to do something that was a very simple, linear narrative and you have to really hone it down and be very accurate and equally rigorous, but in a different kind of way.
You’ve said you would tell this story to your own children. Was that something that was in the back of your mind in terms of making the film for an audience?
A little bit, because we watched realist fables together. We watched “The Bicycle Thief,” “The Apple,” “The Kid with a Bike” and “400 Blows,” so it was very consciously within a very established tradition. It’s partly born out of a frustration about what’s on offer at the multiplex for children. But also I was quite aware when I was making “The Arbor,” that I had to exclude my children from that to a certain extent because I felt I needed to protect them from the content. I didn’t really like shutting my kids out, so there was some part of it that was about thinking what it means to make a film for children, about children, and with children.
Your lead actor has relentless energy. Did he get exhausted during takes?
Conner is actually quite introverted and shy off-camera. In an interview situation, for example, which we’ve done a bit of , he’s quite reluctant to talk, so he’s not really playing himself. He had to become an extrovert and become this very active person in order to play that part. In some ways, it was more about cranking his energy up.
How did you get interested in film?
I went to art school, and I was doing large charcoal drawings. They were changing all of the time because charcoal’s quite an unstable medium. I didn’t really want to fix them, so I got a 16-millimeter Bolex and recorded frame-by-frame the shifting of the drawing. Then I was hooked because I loved the film, the quality of the film, and I would develop it and print it for myself. I fell in love with a Bolex and started shooting and working with film.
“The Selfish Giant” is now open at the IFC Center in New York and will open in Los Angeles on December 27th at the Sundance Sunset 5. It is also available on iTunes and on demand.
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