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On Character and the Feeling of a City: An Interview With Peter Mackie-Burns
By Phoebe Chen
Peter Mackie-Burns’ debut feature, Daphne, follows its eponymous heroine as she navigates her life in London after a chance encounter with brutal violence. Like other portraits of disaffected characters afflicted by urban anomie, Daphne is driven by the acerbic humour and vulnerability of its protagonist. I spoke to Peter about the intensive process of character construction and the complex questions raised by contemporary city life.
Phoebe Chen: What drew you to portraying a character like Daphne, in this particular context?
Peter Mackie Burns: I like character films very much, and I often start from a position with a fairly banal question. Here, it was – how does a normal person live in a city like London? How do they survive, as the rents are increasing and the wages aren’t? What hoops do they have to jump through to make ends meet?
I work in a very detailed way when I build a character. I spent a couple of years writing a biography for the character, which is, essentially, a very lousy first person novel about the character. I thought it would be interesting to make a feature film about this particular character – we’d already made a prototype short film of about ten minutes with the same actress, Emily Beecham. When we were cutting this little movie, we thought that Emily’s performance in the short film was so fantastic that we had to write more of it. At this point, my co-writer feeds in, and our producer feeds in, and I would speak to Emily every now and again over the process of two years and let her read a little bit. I’d also give her the reading list for the character, who really began as an English lit and philosophy student who dropped out.
PC: Hence the scenes of her reading Žižek.
PMB: Yeah! And as we were writing her I thought about asking another question – what do you do when you become the thing you pretend to be? This question also helped feed into the development of the character. We do a lot of character research involving context, and I’m particularly interested in urbanism. London is a city that’s such a victim of its own financial success – but how does anyone in a modern urban city survive now? What do you do? I’m a middle-aged man with young children. I pretended to be a grump and now I am one! I don’t know if that’s a part of growing older. I think Daphne’s character has become something she’s been pretending to be.
She’s a provocative character, so she probably doesn’t believe or mean half the things she says.
PC: Who would you say this person is, that she’s pretended to be, and has become?
PMB: A bit of a dick… a bit too cool for school, but a bit too old to be too cool for school. She’s a provocative character, so she probably doesn’t believe or mean half the things she says. I think she believes them at the moment she says them.
PC: Would you say that before, she was feigning a kind of ironic, distanced disaffection, and now she’s grown into it?
PMB: Perhaps. I work on a character from inside out, so I know her specific fears and hopes and her modus operandi. She’s made a carapace for herself, and I think the movie is really about her realising that the way she’s been living isn’t the way that she should be living. As filmmakers, we’re more interested in questions than answers, and those were some of the main questions we were asking.
PC: I’ve seen people compare the film to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag –
PMB: Yeah, we were shooting at the same time as Fleabag and Emily is close friends with Phoebe – they went to drama school together.
PC: Do you think this similarity in character proves that Daphne’s character might be contextual archetype of modern disaffection?
PMB: What I’m interested in is showing the experiences of the women I know on screen. I just couldn’t see their lives portrayed in cinema at this present moment, in the context of London. Beyond that, I’m also interested in “the real” and the experience of cinema. For instance, I’m interested in the realist style of acting, set against a more expressionist use of colour.
I didn’t just want to make a film that looked like a social realist film because of the working class area. I wanted to look at that milieu in a different way. The world’s cities are more colourful now anyway, because of advertising.
PC: I recall this shot of an apartment block at night, towards the end of the film, and everything is cast in this soft blue –
PMB: We worked very specifically on the design, with Miren Maranon Tejedor, who also worked on these two fantastic films – Lilting and Appropriate Behaviour. Her use of colour is very good – I wanted to use colour in a more expressionist sense. I’m a big fan of how Wong Kar-Wai uses colour. We also thought about more about details – our lead Emily has red hair, for instance, so we put her in a red coat to make it stand out, but not in a way that feels overly arch. If people notice that stuff too much, it takes them out of the movie. I didn’t just want to make a film that looked like a social realist film because of the working class area. I wanted to look at that milieu in a different way. The world’s cities are more colourful now anyway, because of advertising.
I tried to represent London in a way that we perhaps don’t see so often – lots of cities have a cinematic image and I’m not interested in exploring that.
PC: You’ve mentioned advertising and urbanism – which often imply some kind of visual homogenisation – but the film still feels very local.
PMB: The movie is set in a part of London I’m very familiar with, called Elephant and Castle. That area has now gone through a huge amount of redevelopment and gentrification, and I thought, so has our main character! I tried to represent London in a way that we perhaps don’t see so often – lots of cities have a cinematic image and I’m not interested in exploring that. Almost all the locations in the film are within walking distance, just to give it a sense of place. And for me, the more specific something is, the more universal. I know that’s a cliché but…
Daphne plays 20 August at 6.30pm