Interview: Clio Barnard on Dark River

Clio Barnard’s Dark River tells the story of Alice (Ruth Wilson), who returns to her family’s tenant farm in Yorkshire after the death of her father (Sean Bean). Secrets and trauma from the past reverberate through Alice, her brother Joe (Mark Stanley), and the land itself. Clio was awarded the Wellcome Trust and BFI Screenwriting Fellowship in 2013, and her previous films include The Arbor, a hybrid documentary exploring the life of playwright Andrea Dunbar, and Bradford-set The Selfish Giant, the story of two boys who become involved with a local scrap dealer. We spoke to Clio about her new film.

Where did this project start for you, and how did the Wellcome Trust fellowship influence the process of making the film?

The starting point was a novel by Rose Tremain called Trespass, and I was awarded the Wellcome Trust Fellowship at the same time, which became this amazing resource. Through that, the subject that I discovered and ended up focusing on was memory and how memory works in relation to trauma, looking at PTSD and intrusive memories. In filmmaking, these are visual intrusive memories, but in reality it’s mostly audio and sense memory, often without the context – so a lot of work with people suffering from PTSD is putting those traumatic memories into a context.
In the film, these visual memories are presented in a really unique way. How did you approach these scenes?

That was probably the biggest challenge of the film – the sense that these scenes were happening in the here and now and were influencing Alice’s behaviour in the present. What I was trying to do was maintain the realism, which is quite hard when using what people think of as flashbacks. In reality what goes on inside our heads has an incredible impact on the way we behave, and that’s what I was trying to achieve.
In practical terms those sequences were quite technical to shoot. There was a lot of stopping and starting in terms of placing the actors in the exactly same positions; asking Sean to sit on a chair then get up off the chair, so he’s not there in the next shot –I knew I wanted them to be intrusive in that way, but they were tricky.
The film is set in Yorkshire. Did you spend a lot of time in the farming community?

Before filming I became friends with a couple called Malcolm and Hazel; it was really important to me that they were tenant farmers and not owner-occupiers. I met them when I was doing my research and spent a lot of time with them, they’re a really fantastic couple. Ruth went and worked with them and did her farming training with them. She learned to shear sheep, and had to look like she’d been shearing sheep her whole life.

You worked with non-professional child actors in The Selfish Giant. What was it like working with seasoned actors, like Sean Bean and Ruth Wilson?

I really loved working with the kids on The Selfish Giant. What I liked about working with Sean, Ruth and Mark was that we could work together to figure out how a scene could be played this way, or that way, and they would always give me a truthful performance. Shaun and Conner (from The Selfish Giant) gave really truthful performances too, but from a different place. We were in dialogue all the time about the characters, and there was a lot of work that Ruth, Sean and Mark were doing that I wasn’t involved in at all, decisions that they were making that I didn’t know about until filming started. For example, Mark told me that the night Joe’s father died, Joe drove his truck until the petrol ran out. With Mark there was also an incredible physical transformation – he’s much younger than Joe!
PJ Harvey sings ‘An Acre of Land’ from the film’s soundtrack?. How did she come to be involved in the film?

Her previous albums Let England Shake and White Chalk are about the history of the land, of England, and she saw the Selfish Giant and wrote me a letter, which I was really thrilled about. We met and talked about doing something together, then I sent her the script for Dark River and she was really excited; she’d actually been writing poetry about sheep as she grew up on a sheep farm and been reading some of Ted Hughes’s poetry.

Polly, the composer Harry Escott and I met up – I knew I wanted a song at the beginning and the end of the film, and I’d worked with Harry before on The Selfish Giant. The scores for the films are very minimal, so the only chance for something melodic was at the beginning and the end of the film. We had ideas of what the song might be, and it turned out we were all on the same page, but it wasn’t until two thirds of the way through the edit that it became clear that it should be ‘An Acre of Land’. Harry wrote the music and the song and Polly sang it. It’s important to me that the song sets up something narratively; perhaps you wish that the father hadn’t given her an acre of land, and wonder what it was in exchange for – it’s a children’s rhyme, but it hints at a corrupted childhood. I hope it makes people think of land ownership, and land as a commodity.
You’ve made several films with Film4 (The Selfish Giant, and now Dark River) – what’s your relationship like with them?

I love Film4! After I made The Arbor, I was invited in by them and just asked what I wanted to do. I’ve been very nurtured and grown by Film4 – in a very thoughtful and caring way. Just brilliant.