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Two British women and the intimacy of trauma

Writer-director Catherine Linstrum and actress Emilia Jones speak about the psychological drama NUCLEAR, in exclusive interview

Catherine Linstrom’s British indie, psychological-drama, sees a traumatised teenager and her mother stranded on the outskirts of a remote village, somewhere in the north of England. They’ve fled their home after Emma’s (Emilia Jones) older brother (Oliver Coopersmith) left their mother (Sienna Guillory) for dead in a violent assault. Crashing their car in a freak accident, they find shelter by breaking and entering into an isolated house on the outskirts of the village.

Out one day for a swim, Emma meets a mysterious boy (George MacKay), who’s fascinated with the defunct nuclear power plant that poisons the lake water. Listening to stories of his adventures, she inquisitively asks questions, which amuses him. But she can’t run from her traumatic past forever, and when it catches up with her, she must face it if she is to move on.

Before making her feature debut, Catherine Linstrum directed nine short films, that foreshadowed Nuclear’s unexpected meeting between two characters, the remote setting, and the theme and ideas of violence. Lead actress Emilia Jones plays Kinsey Locke in the Netflix series, Locke & Key, and has also had a recurring role in the controversial black comedy-thriller series Utopia (2013-14). Her film credits include: High Rise (Wheatley, 2015), Brimstone (Koolhoven, 2017) and Two for Joy (Beard, 2018).

In conversation with DMovies, Linstrum and Jones, who took a break from the set of Locke & Key, spoke about their different relationships with the camera, and enduring the 18 day shoot and living in little cottages to create a feeling of nervous anticipation for the audience.

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Paul Risker – Why filmmaking as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or a defining moment for you personally?

Catherine Linstrum – I feel film is a way of telling a story in several different ways at once, and in that sense it’s the most complete, and also can be the most frustrating way of telling stories.

I just fell more and more in love with film as I was growing up, and it was something I wanted to do. But it wasn’t like from the age of 12, “This is what I want to do”, unlike Emelia, who from the age of about five minutes wanted to be an actress.

I started out studying poetry and being an academic, so I was doing things in a very cerebral way. I then realised what I wanted to do was to convey emotion, and that’s the thing that has driven me all the way through everything that I do. It’s about emotion, and about bringing an audience to experience an emotion alongside me in the story.

PR – While you started out acting at a young age, was there a moment where it became a conscious choice?

Emilia Jones – I started acting when I was eight, and I always wanted to do it. I found it fun and I loved it. When I turned 13, I did a film called Brimstone, which was my first big role. I was in every day and so it pushed me a lot as an actor.

When you’re younger and you play the kid, you have to come in and say a couple of lines here and there, and do a couple of scenes, but this was a heavy role. I just fell in love with it from then because I loved that I got to portray emotions that I don’t portray in real life – thank goodness [laughs]. I got to cry and challenge myself, and put myself in someone else’s shoes and learn skills. I like to learn for different films and I love that it takes you to places that you’d never visit, and yeah, I just love the opportunities that acting gives me.

PR – Was your intention to not play to the drama of the story, but to ask the audience to proactively engage with the characters to create the drama?

CL – It’s a very intense story and it could in some ways be melodramatic if it weren’t treated in the right way, because it has some pretty big things going on with a small number of characters, and in a very small world. So it could be too big for its boots if you like, if we overplayed the drama. I think because it’s an internal world, it’s very much perceived through the character of Emma right the way through. It’s all about her experience, and we tend not to experience things in such a super dramatic way because we’re always thinking about what’s going to happen next – either fearing the worst or fearing the best. So it’s an anticipation, and that’s probably something that does work in the film.

They [the audience] don’t know what’s going to happen next, but they’re pretty sure it’s not going to be great for Emma, but not in a, “Oh my God, there’s a big avalanche coming.” It’s more, “This is going somewhere difficult, so we better hang on and go along with it.” I think that’s how audiences are experiencing it.

EJ – Emma is quite strong, so you’re also watching it and asking when is she going to break? Honestly, lots of things happen and you’re thinking, ‘How much can this girl take?’ So you’re wondering what’s going to happen, but you’re also wondering how’s she going to cope with it, or what’s she going to do?

CL – Emilia has an ability to dig really deep for emotion, but she’s also extremely good at having layers, and that’s what interests me in terms of character. I’m interested in seeing how people layer up the things that they’re going through, and as an actor you create those fantastic onion layers that the audience can peel them open and go, “What’s underneath there? Oh, I see, but right underneath there is something else.” Emilia is great at that.

PR – The camera is a tool for not only the director but also the actor. Is there a conscious awareness as a performer of using it as a tool?

CL – I know how Emilia is with the camera, but I’m not actually sure what her mechanism is. I know the way she is with it is the best way, in that she’s completely in what she’s doing. She knows it’s there all the time, and it feels that it’s an observer and a listener, a kind of wise figure that’s almost with her, going along on the journey, but unable to intervene.

EJ – That’s exactly how I feel. I don’t think about it, but I know it’s there. We shot for 18 days and we were living in little cottages. We’d go to set, work crazy hours and I was just living Emma. So on set I would just think to myself, ‘What would I do in this situation?’ I was just constantly thinking about that and I never really thought about the camera. I’m aware of what the camera needs from me, in that it needs to see my face, or it needs to do this or do that. Other than that, I forget it’s there because it’s what’s happening with the other actor, or it’s what I’m thinking about, or what I’m doing that means the most to me.

CL – With Nuclear we had a very specific little rationale, but without giving anything away, there are three distinct camera styles for different relationships. One of the things about that means because we have those different styles, we had to be quite simple, otherwise it could get cluttered if you had three different styles, and then those styles within themselves are quite complicated. Also because it was very low budget, we had to be economical with what we were doing, so we wanted things to play out in the shot. We couldn’t shoot huge amounts of coverage because we just didn’t have the time. But yeah, it was a very special relationship between the camera and the characters because of those rules.

I have to talk about it in a slightly hypothetical way because otherwise it does give the game away if I explain why it’s done in those ways with the different characters. It was nice that Emilia was aware of that, and it gave her certain challenges with the things she was being asked to do. But at the same time it’s quite exciting because actors like challenges like that – good actors do anyway. Good actors like to feel they have an extra little trick, and it’s not performing, but it’s a little trick that they have to play.

PR – If we consider that we are immersed in the world of the characters, while simultaneously aware that we are watching a film, would you agree that film is an out of body experience?

CL – In some ways it might depend on the film because if it’s a real action piece, then I think you can just lose your awareness of the aesthetic and what’s going on, and just be caught up in it. If it’s a terrible film, then all you notice is the way that it’s made. But if it’s a good film, then that’s one of the pleasures of it.

As I said, I started out studying poetry and there’s that double thing going on. If you read poetry you’re moved and carried along by it, but at the same time you have a little analytical process going on. I don’t think it diminishes it, but enhances it because you’re functioning on different levels at the same time. As you say, an out of body experience – you’re in it and you’re out of it, analysing at the same time. So that’s what happens with intelligent art I suppose, or intelligent cinema, or that’s the idea anyway.

Maybe a slightly different question for you Emilia is if you watch yourself in something, what’s that experience? If you’re aware of you, Emilia, and then you the character, and then the whole film around it that’s a whole other layer, can you ever enjoy watching yourself?

EJ – With Nuclear, I feel like I’m so close to it that it was harder to distance myself and to forget. But most of the time, it’s odd because I can watch the films as though I’m watching a movie that I just want to see that sounds good. There are a lot of people who watch their films and think, ‘Oh, why did I do that?’ I don’t do that. You can’t overthink with acting; you just have to get out of your head and do it. Also sometimes you read a script, you film it and then when you watch it, the film is normally a lot different to how you read it. Things change and that’s what I like about it.

PR – Do you find stories and characters follow you and stay with you, and can stories become safe spaces that as storytellers we never fully separate ourselves from?

CS – It’s an interesting thing actually because what you just said there about that safe space, it’s possible that it’s actually something scary or dark, and Nuclearisn’t exactly a bed of roses. It’s not like, “Let’s go and have a lovely time for an hour and a half.” But it gives me a warm cosy feeling when I think about it, and that’s about if you’ve really connected with the thing that you’ve created, then you do feel safe in there, and you do feel a kind of glow about it.

I use that as a measure when I’m working on something, and if I don’t feel that, then I know it’s not right. When I get the feeling, it’s almost like going back into a book you’re enjoying reading, that you haven’t written.

I don’t know if that’s to do with creating stories, and I don’t know if Emilia feels the same thing with a character, if you feel you haven’t yet got the character. What’s the difference between how you feel when it’s not quite there and when you are there?

EJ – I always feel that if I have to think about what I’m going to do in a scene, then I haven’t quite got it. Sometimes I’ll do the first week, or the first couple of days, and then it’s like a switch and I just am that character. But I felt like I became the character very quickly on Nuclear.

The image at the top is of Catherino and Emilia on set; the ones below are stills from ‘Nuclear’


By Paul Risker - 14-11-2020

By Paul Risker - 14-11-2020

Paul Risker is an English born scholar, film critic and edi...

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