With The Other Side of Sleep going on release from March 15th, Film Ireland’s Amanda Spencer caught up with director Rebecca Daly before her debut feature screened at the Cannes International Film Festival in 2011. This interview originally appeared in Film Ireland 137 Summer 2011.
Sensitively directed and stunningly photographed, The Other Side of Sleep is on its way to Cannes. The film, which is Daly’s feature directorial debut, follows the success of her short films, Joyriders and Hum and is produced by Morgan Bushe and Macdara Kelleher of Fastnet Films.
Co-written with Daly’s writing partner Glenn Montgomery, the film follows Arlene, a young woman who struggles to decipher between the real and the imagined after a local murder stirs up old grief. Her sense of reality is challenged as sleep deprivation and raw emotion compete and draw her into further disarray. In the telling of a big story, Daly hasn’t forgotten small touches. It’s this light hand that makes The Other Side of Sleep a really superb debut feature and as the film wings its way to Cannes, I caught up with Rebecca.
What inspired the story for The Other Side of Sleep?
It started with a newspaper article about a young woman whose body was discovered wrapped in a duvet in a shopping centre car park in Northern Ireland. What struck me about the article was the way in which the journalist had accumulated lots of different anecdotes about the dead woman from various sources – and how these stories contradicted each other, making it impossible to establish the truth about this girl’s life.
In the earliest treatments the film’s protagonist was the dead girl but as it evolved we became interested in exploring the situation through a person unconnected to the victim. Arlene became our focus and we were looking at the various experiences of shock and grief within the story through her very particular viewpoint. I can’t remember when the sleepwalking element entered the story but this really fascinated us: that a person could be active or acted upon but not conscious – throwing up complications of responsibility – and have no memory of what happened once awake again.
Where did you meet Glenn, your writing partner? Had you written a feature together before? If not, was it a very different process?
We met studying Drama in Trinity years ago. We wrote my first short Joyriders together and had developed another very low-budget feature idea but ultimately both of us felt stronger about The Other Side of Sleep. Glenn and I have different strengths as writers, which seems to work well. Also, we have a bit of a laugh together, which can be really helpful in an intensive writing process, I think.
As the project was selected for the Cannes Résidence du Festival programme, I got to do a chunk of the writing there and then we would get together talk about structure etc., and redraft. It wasn’t often that the two of us would sit in front of the computer and try and write together, we would rather discuss and then I’d do a draft or he would – or sometimes we’d take sections. The script went through many drafts. It was a constant filtration process as we had so many ideas that we wanted to explore in the beginning that we kept having to select from or cut down – this continued to be the process through the making of the film; keeping a handle on the themes and ideas and deciding what was essential and trying to make sure I kept the audience focused on what was important.
Why was the Midlands chosen to locate the story?
My family is from the Midlands so it’s a region I am really familiar with. It has a particular atmosphere that I thought would work for the film – visually also I wanted a pretty worn look and so it was great to be able to shoot it in a region that hadn’t been too affected by the Celtic Tiger.
Thinking back, how did you view the opportunity to direct your first feature – all guns blazing or were you a little apprehensive? Did the Cannes residence programme better equip you, do you think?
I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to make this film. Of course making a feature is a pretty big leap in terms of the demands it puts on the director. It can be daunting at times, but it’s such a great opportunity. Mainly, I was really excited to be able to do it. The Résidence was a brilliant space to write the film in – really this is the main purpose of it. And I was living with five other directors, some of whom had already made their first feature, so this was inspiring in itself.
Shooting your first feature, did you feel your role as director was better supported, coming from shorts where often there isn’t as strict a division of labour?
I think that, like in shorts, in low-budget feature filmmaking the division of labour still isn’t that strict. Maybe it’s the job of the director to delineate this at times when it’s not clear. Honestly, for me one of the most difficult aspects was establishing these lines, for myself as much as anyone else – I learned a lot from this experience.
Had you worked with the key crew before?
No, actually. When I met potential crew obviously I wanted to see how they ‘got’ the script – especially how they responded to and picked up on the detail within it – as that for me is a very important aspect in the maintaining the style and also building the narrative of the film, from small textural details. I had worked with my editor, Halina Daugird, on my last short so this gave us a great shorthand when it came to the edit.
The casting for the film is really perfect. Did you get to spend ample time with the actors before shooting?
For me the actors are my key focus in making the film. The casting was pretty complicated in that the cast is a combination of five professional actors with the rest being non-professionals that we found through open castings in the area. It was important to find the right balance with them; that the acting level and pitch of the non-professional and professional actors would fit. I wanted to create a tone, a kind of naturalism and to keep in mind that in the course of the film some of the key characters are in shock. I wanted to capture that sense of helplessness, paralysis and desperation, a kind of unbearable powerlessness in their means of expression.
I made sure to have as much time with them as possible in advance of the shoot where we explored the key characters as real people with history and context and tried to find ways, particularly for the non-professional actors, to access and identify with the experience of the characters. We looked at the details of specific moments in their pasts as I thought if they could have a vivid picture of certain incidents – it could build up a kind of imagined memory for the character that they could tap in to. Antonia came down to the Midlands two weeks before the shoot – we decided that it was important for her to immerse herself in the world, so she effectively lived as Arlene for the two weeks prior to the shoot. With Arlene it was important to find her way of expressing herself as a product of her past and her lack of understanding of it.
The film is funded from a few different sources, which is increasingly common. What was your experience of that?
I’m not sure how it would be possible to fund this budget level without the mechanism of co-production. It seems to work really well. Also, it meant we worked with some key personnel from the co-production countries which I think was a great experience for everyone.
Is there a scene that is particularly special for you? Why?
My favourite scenes are towards the end of the film – so I probably shouldn’t spoil them… One that stands out for me is the scene in which Arlene works late in the factory and she is disturbed by Bill. I really like what her laughter does here in terms of contrast within her character and also what it does to the tension of the film. People watching the film usually laugh at this point, which is kind of strange in the context of the whole film. I like that.
Are you working on other scripts? What’s next for you?
I’m researching a couple of books that I am interested in adapting for the screen plus Glenn and I have a few ideas that we are discussing. I really want to find something that hooks me like The Other Side of Sleep did – it takes so long to make a film that the challenge is to still be interested in it by the end of the process.
This interview originally appeared in Film Ireland 137 Summer 2011.