Maybe it was the way he pitched it, still teeming with enthusiasm from the night before when he first cracked the idea and woke up at six the next morning to sketch it out, but when David Farr shared the story that would become his first feature “The Ones Below” with a friend, he didn’t quite get the reaction he was expecting.
“He went, ‘That’s lovely, it’s so sweet,'” recalls Farr, who last wrote the teen assassin thriller “Hanna” for Joe Wright to direct. “I went, ‘No, it’s really not.'”
With a baby in the mix as a couple prepares for the birth of their first child, it isn’t that much of a reach to assume “The Ones Below” would give audiences the warm and fuzzies, but Farr was far more interested in exploring the fears that accompany impending parenthood, crafting a deliciously juicy thriller in the process. Training its lens on a working couple, Kate and Justin (Clemence Poesy and Stephen Campbell Moore, respectively), settling down in a new flat just as they’re on the verge of having their first child, “The Ones Below” takes off when they’re joined by another couple, Jon and Teresa (David Morrissey and Laura Birn), in the lower half of their duplex who are unusually babycrazy but unable to conceive. With Kate ambivalent about her newborn already, Teresa is more than happy to babysit, a little too much so, in fact, and as the film wears on and an accident on the stairwell that connects them poisons the relationship between the couples, the child’s sanctity is put into question.
Surely, there’s a touch of other parental potboilers in Farr’s first film, but having come up in the British theater, he uses a limited setting and a simple situation that wildly escalates to eek out an extraordinary amount of tension. Aided by an increasingly creepy lullabyish score and keen sense of geography within a scene that turns every room in the flat into feeling like some kind of booby trap, “The Ones Below” is a throwback to the kind of pleasures best watched late at night that are far more fun and sophisticated than they have a right to be, likely inspiring parents everywhere to wake up in a cold sweat before dawn just as Farr did in conceiving it, only in their case, to make sure their child is still safely tucked into bed. Shortly after the film’s premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, Farr spoke about getting his first opportunity to take the director’s chair after a long successful career as a playwright, his distinctive visual choices and getting cast just right, both in terms of the actors and the house “The Ones Below” was filmed in.
You’ve said the BBC actually approached you to make your first feature as opposed to the other way around. Was making a feature actually a goal of yours?
Yeah, it was a goal in the sense that I watched movies when I was young, particularly when I was a teenager. That was my great obsession. It just so happened that when I left university, the British film industry was in a particularly tough state, 20 years ago, so it didn’t really feel very easy to do. By contrast, I had lots of opportunities in the theater, so I ended up doing theater for 15 years and really enjoying it. Gradually, not really as part of some grand plan, I found myself edging back into writing for the screen and “Hanna” helped because I suddenly became an established screenwriter. Then thankfully, BBC Films’ Christine Langan put two and two together and said, “You’re writing for the screen now and you’re directing theater in an established way. Is there something you would be interested in doing?” As soon as that happened, within a few weeks, an idea just kind of came into me when I was rehearsing a play.
So how did this particular story come about?
I was directing a wonderful Harold Pinter play called “The Homecoming,” which is a very menacing psychological drama, and we were out of town, so I was talking to one of the actors I was staying with when we were making the play. Both of us had had issues with our children, so we talked about the strange anxiety and loneliness attached to parenting, even in a modern city that has millions of people like London, New York, or wherever you are. At moments of crisis, somehow you feel intensely alone in a way that’s very strange and the loneliness is exacerbated by the fact that there are so many people around. You may not know your neighbors, you may not know the people below you, above you, or next door. Friends that were friends and now they’re not that close… those relationships are not clear. This uncertainty is very anxious making and frightening.
There’s a lot of interplay between the foreground and background that reminded me of “Rosemary’s Baby.” We’re there some filmic influences that crept in?
Yeah… and Hitchcock as well. I’m a great film buff, which is unusual in a way because I think a lot of the theatermakers in Britain who go into film make films, but still have a great love of theater in a funny way. I think for example, Stephen Daldry with “Billy Elliot,” and Nicholas Hytner films – there’s a kind of theatrical love in them, which is great, but it’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to attach myself very strongly to a cinematic tradition, and [here] my interest is in that great tradition of what you’d call the suspense thrillers of Hitchcock, Polanski, Haneke and in the European tradition slightly. They are intensely reliant on the camera frame, and as you say, foreground and background and windows – [creating] the sort of tension that exists within relationships of space. It’s risky, in a sense, these days because it’s not a particularly fast film and this hasn’t got a beginning that smashes you over the head, but I really wanted to do it because it’s the thing that interests me.
One of the most striking things about the film is its use of color, particularly yellow which is Teresa’s favorite color it seems. Did you actually see those colors when you first wrote it?
Yeah, I did weirdly, and yellow is a strange color. If you talk to a cinematographer, yellow is the most dominant color. It’s like an animal color – that’s why you think about certain snakes or tigers. It’s a color that has an aggressive quality in itself and something slightly instinctive, so I associated yellow particularly with Teresa. It’s also, of course, very sunshiny and bright and optimistic, which she is by nature.
Did you actually shoot this in a real location with an upstairs and downstairs flat?
It was [real], yeah. That was a real desire of mine, and the producer Nikki Parrott was fantastic at finding this place. We just found this amazing house in Northeast London, completely empty. The woman who owned it was going to do some work on it in about four months, so we had a very specific window. It was terrifying because we knew that this house was available, and then not available. It was going to be effectively knocked down and redesigned completely, so we were in a race [because] there were two actors still to find. Luckily, David Morrissey was the key one that came in relatively late, and we were there, so we could go.
How did you cast Clemence Poesy as the lead?
Traditional method, just casting, but she was the great surprise because I was expecting a British actress. I was struggling to find someone who I felt had that kind of interiority, [because] there’s a slight British thing – to be quite big and available in a performance – because British people are very polite. I didn’t want that. I wanted someone who was very just in herself and quite withdrawn, quite shy, and hiding quite a lot. Clemence just has this wonderful intensity that I guess is French.
Were there things you realized you could do cinematically as opposed to the theater that were exciting?
There is the great adage that camera needs to come to the performance, so the performance doesn’t need to be so big, and the relaxation of an actor is really important in both genres. If they’re not relaxed and inhabiting what they’re doing, if they’re trying to be small, it’s not going to work. It can’t be a falsely attached form. It just has to be something that is absolutely instinctive and then you work.
I didn’t find myself radically altering people’s performances too much. We just talked about the kind of intentions and the world of the piece and what characters wanted. These guys are smart actors, you don’t need to spell it out. Someone like Clemence or Steve Campbell Moore, David Morrissey, Laura [Birn] – they don’t need to be told, they understand. Actors are smart, they understand the tone of a piece.
Is it true you didn’t want to rehearse all that much?
I just didn’t really want to. I don’t know if that was the right decision, because I don’t know what the other version of that would have been, but it just felt more exciting to really busk it in the space. Actually, one thing I learned is I would busk more, There’s a very interesting thing about direction, which is it’s a strange mixture of control and freedom and to get performances that are very easy is a much harder thing than anyone would realize.
Was there a particularly challenging day of the shoot?
Because we had a small budget, the only thing that we couldn’t do was to shoot as much in order as I would have liked. We shot the house scenes pretty much in order and outside stuff was just to deal with when locations were available. So Stephen Campbell Moore, who plays Justin, had to do a very emotionally intense scene after about five days. That was something completely new to me and I had to get myself to go, “Okay, we have to get somewhere [quickly].”
Actually, it was a really lovely moment in the shoot because we did this highly emotional, climactic scene and I was a little shy of saying [it wasn’t quite right]. But Ed, the cameraman turned to me and went, “It’s not enough.” We got on really, really well, and it was just him being confident enough to say, “That’s not enough.” As soon as he said it, I knew, but it was just a moment of what you have to do. You have to get out there, and I said, “Steve that’s nowhere near enough,” And this guy hasn’t done any of the scenes – this is what actors talk about in film, the difficulty of having to instinctively sense where do I need to be right here in the story, even though I’m way out of line from where I actually am in the chronology of the shoot. Literally the next take – bang. [It was perfect.] It was a great lesson about actors. What they need isn’t someone being polite and going, “That was nice, let’s just do another one.” You actually have to say that’s not enough, we need to go somewhere else. I didn’t need to go into why or anything. That’s what great actors do for you. They just need that little ignition.