Interview: Frank Berry, writer/director of ‘I Used to Live Here’

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Frank Berry’s I Used to Live Here has been released in Irish cinemas to tremendous acclaim both here and internationally scoring pieces in The Guardian and The Hollywood Reporter‎. Featuring a non-professional cast of local people in Killinarden in West Dublin, the film takes a fictional look at the tragic phenomenon of suicide clusters.

Franks explains how the film was born out of an article in The Irish Times in June 2011, Breaking the Ripple Effects of Suicide and We Must Give Young People a Reason to Live. “It really struck me as subject matter for a film. My first step was to contact the writer, who happened to be Dr Tony Bates, who was the founding member of Headstrong, the National Centre for Youth Mental Health. We met. I explained that was I largely from a doc background – I wasn’t sure how I was going to go forward but I was really interested in making a film about this subject. He showed me loads of encouragement – he talked to me about his background and why he worked with young people. He introduced me to the work they were doing at Headstrong.”

From there Frank met with youth workers from the Killinarden Community Council Youth Project – a very significant meeting as Frank recalls. “They talked about young people in the area, they talked about a series of tragedies that occurred in the area over the previous years. I talked about what I was interested in doing and the research I had been doing. They suggested I start by going down to the community centre once a week and get to know the young people – so I hung around there for a long time. Then the October mid-term break came about and I offered to do a camera workshop – that was the first time they’d seen me with a camera. After that the workshops became more regular and we would develop it further – taking the camera out on to the streets. Everything was very much a softly, softly approach. That’s how the film eventually developed.”

Despite a history of making documentaries behind him Frank came to the conclusion that the subject would be better served in the realms of fiction. “I just didn’t want to put something real up on the screen for fear of contributing to exposing the audience, particularly teenagers, to real cases,” Frank explains. “I didn’t feel comfortable doing that – it requires a particular type of handling and I just felt I couldn’t provide that. But I really wanted to put something up on the screen because the reality of when a suicide tragedy occurs in a community and the effect it can have on other members of that community and to other young people in crisis, I just felt really strongly that this needed to be common knowledge. So I thought why don’t we make it fictional but be truthful, so that it had something to say about the world. I would try and make it as realistic as possible and recognisable as a world we live in but  – as stated within the film – not based on any real tragedies. As an audience, adults and young people can sit down and watch the film and take something from it that’s true and real but not actually be depicting anything that actually happened. In this way we could use it as a discussion point.”

The result is a powerful piece of social realism marked by an impressive display of naturalistic acting from its cast. Frank points out that he didn’t sit down and say I’m going to make a piece of social realism. “That never occurred to me. I do love social realism and I’m very drawn to those films. I knew this would be the genre I suppose but I wasn’t adhering to anything in particular – any rules as such. The whole process was really about following where it took me. Once you sit down in front of people, opportunities and different directions present themselves and you collaborate and learn from it and take different directions.

“I wanted it to be realistic so we could put it up on the screen and the audience would be able to take the issues in the film seriously. That they would be able to feel and discuss that this does happen. That was the driving force behind the realism. The way I did that was that I included everybody involved in the film – and there was an open door policy; whoever wanted to get involved in the film could. We never had “casting” or “auditions”. We put people in different places that suited them over a long period of time and the conversations that took place over that time all found their way into the film. It was kind of an indirect way of directing. Everyone knew what film they were in, everyone knew what we were doing. We took the word “acting” out of the process. They would read the lines over and over again and then I’d say put the scripts down and let’s see how far into the scene we get without looking at the script. The idea was for everyone to be as comfortable as possible and say the lines without acting. I believe that if a script is realistically written, if I have a scene and the dialogue is real and I’ve allowed them to change lines that they don’t feel comfortable with, then by the time you get to that stage they understand the film, they understand the scene. Then they bring their own emphasis to the lines, their own intonation, colour and flair and their own words.  The script on the page starts to sound like real conversation. In this way they were able to really act – they weren’t inhibited by the word acting, thinking this is not me, I’m not trained, this isn’t something I can do. For the most part the process worked.”

The two leads are particularly impressive, carrying as they do so much of the emotional weight of the film. Jordanne Jones plays Amy Keane, a thirteen-year-old trying to cope with the death of her mother and the reappearance of her father’s ex-girlfriend, and Dafhyd Flynn, Amy’s friend who is the victim of bullying. Frank admits that “as soon as I saw them both on camera I knew that they were extremely good – they had that relationship to the camera but also it was their personalities and the relationship I had with them that make their performances so powerful.”

Carrying around her emotional burden, which she keeps locked inside, Amy’s mental health is an issue the film sensitively tackles and provides the point of discussion Frank referred to earlier – a discussion that contributes to the awareness of mental health. “Some of the people I spoke to knew about mental health and spoke eloquently about it, while others didn’t know about it. If you don’t know you have it or what it is, how can you take care of it?”

Frank continues, “there’s also this idea that mental health equals mental illness – that there’s not these degrees of mental fitness for example. Young people need to be more aware of their mental health and ask why am I feeling this way.  It was important to put this into a film, showing Amy carrying around what I later discovered to be deferred grief, which is a common in teenagers. She’s carrying around what she never came to terms with – the finality of the death of her mum. At the end of the film she connects with her pain. I’m not saying she gets over it but she understands why she’s feeling the way she’s feeling. That’s a big step. I think that we need more young people to be aware that there’s a reason why they don’t feel great, which comes through awareness and discussion and relate to it in their own lives. There are many young people who, of course, are aware but I feel that there are a lot of young people who would benefit from that.”

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