Harry Wootliff: ‘That’s my genre – smart, strong women making bad choices’

The British film-maker on her new drama True Things and being true to herself

Harry Wootliff, one of Britain's most exciting and rising filmmakers, follows the impeccable fertility drama Only You with True Things, starring Ruth Wilson and Tom Burke. True Things, which was based on Deborah Kay Davies' novel True Things about Me, was initially developed by Jude Law's production company Riff Raff and Ruth Wilson's Lady Lazarus imprint.

For producer and star Wilson, it was crucial that the film was told through “an acutely subjective female lens”.

Enter Wootliff. Harry, it should be noted, is short for Harriet, a name the director has seldom used.

“My parents have called me Harry since I was a baby,” says Wootliff. “I was Harriet at school and then I did away with Harriet because whenever I heard the name I just felt like I was in trouble.”

True Things concerns Kate (Wilson) who, bored of her government office job in Ramsgate, is captivated by a charismatic stranger and recently released prisoner (Tom Burke) who wanders into her grey cubicle. Approaching 40, scrolling through pregnancy and wedding celebrations on her Instagram feed, and nagged by her smug friend Allison (Hayley Squires), Kate is an easy mark for Blond, as he is known.

In the tradition of Tom Burke’s previously devastating paramour from Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Blond is untrustworthy, spontaneous and blows hot and cold – a murky alchemy that Kate finds impossible to resist.

Emotional thriller

An emotional thriller ensues, one that leaves the viewer shouting at Kate as if she were wandering into the darkened cellar in a horror film, while simultaneously remaining just as enthralled with the relationship as the heroine is.

“There’s a kind of curiosity to working out the other person that I don’t think is just female,” says the writer-director. “I think we’re all predisposed to wanting to work something out or work someone out. Everybody is and guys do seem to relate as well. Once we stop trying to work out Blond, the film ends in a way. When she gives up on Blond, we give up on Blond, and I think – I hope – we just give up on him a little bit before her. I think there’s a point in the film where I feel like we are now watching the screen and saying: Stop. Don’t go any further.

“But it was really important that I left that moment quite late on in the film. So however much we start to distrust him or we don’t like him, I needed to rein us back in. We need to be in love or infatuated or whatever with him. Just as she is.”

For me, it felt like I wasn't talking about an issue. It felt like how it feels to be in that situation. And I wanted to capture that in a non-judgmental and experiential way

Only You, Wootliff’s fantastic debut feature, drew on her own experiences with infertility to craft a compelling age-gap romance between thirtysomething Laia Costa and the younger Josh O’Connor. True Things, an adaptation, required a different if similarly emotionally honest approach. Working with co-writer Molly Davies, Wootliff has transformed the source novel’s diary-entry structure into a compelling chronicle of the “universal experience of infatuation”.

“What I responded to in the books was the obsessive nature of her infatuation, but also that it was something that overwhelmed her,” says Wootliff. “And then the fact that the book is extremely atmospheric. You were really inside her head. For me, it felt like I wasn’t talking about an issue. It felt like how it feels to be in that situation. And I wanted to capture that in a very non-judgmental and experiential way. And I related, being at a point in my life where I had kind of found who I was. And the idea of being in a relationship that isn’t maybe seemingly all bad, but that actually also moves you forward, because you work out that you want more from life, and definitely want more in a relationship.”

Complicated heroines

Wootliff's two feature films, in common with Barbara Loden's Wanda and Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It, work to revive the complicated heroines that once populated the genre Hollywood simply dubbed as women's pictures. Ruth Wilson's character shares DNA with the sometimes maddening, sometimes disarming antics of Bette Davis in Jezebel, Joan Fontaine in Letter from an Unknown Woman, or Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas. To paraphrase the title of the mid-1980s bestseller from pop psychologists Cowen and Kinder, Wootliff creates smart women characters who can make startlingly bad choices.

“Isn’t that strange?” wonders the director. “There was a surge of films like that in Hollywood, and then they stopped being made. I guess maybe it’s the weight of feminism? I definitely want to champion the sort of woman that can’t easily be put in a box and that has different emotions, sometimes buried. I think we are used to seeing smart men make bad choices on screen. We love the unravelling man. I think people still find it confusing to see a woman making bad choices. They’re looking at this woman and thinking: she’s making bad choices. Is she smart? Well, yes she is. Then why? I think that’s my genre. Smart, strong women making bad choices and being vulnerable and going through difficult times.”

Wootliff was born and raised in Leeds. She trained at Elmhurst ballet school, and Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, before moving to the other side of the camera. Her first short film, Nits, was selected for Cannes. Her second short, Trip, premiered at the Berlin Film Festival.  She directed Paloma Faith in the Channel 4 series I Don’t Care before scoring two British Independent Film Awards, a Writers’ Guild Award, and a Bafta nomination for Only You.

“Training as an actor makes you less nervous of actors,” says the filmmaker. “I think it makes you kind of disrespectful in a good way, and utterly respectful in a good way. Because you know how hard it is. But you’re not too reverential. The job doesn’t scare you. You know how it feels. I think it really helps with writing as well. And I hope it helps with the kind of sensitivity you need to direct. I know how vulnerable you feel and how much trust you need to put in your director as an actor. And how responsible I am for the performance really.”

 Empathy

That empathy was especially important for True Things, a film Ruth Wilson has described as “incredibly explicit”.

“I want to make them feel very safe. So they’re very free to do what they want. That’s very important with both the dancing and sex scenes. We had what is called an intimacy co-ordinator, Ita O’Brien. She was brilliant, just kind of letting me get on with it, and being at my side, and what she does is to choreograph movement, like a dance, so that the actor is really sure of what they’re going to do with their body. The actor has his hand up her skirt. He doesn’t have to think: I am here too long? Is it acceptable? Have they got the shot? He puts his hand up her skirt. He squeezes her thigh for three beats, and then he pulls his hand out. By the time we’re shooting, all that stuff is really just like a dance. The actor can rely on muscle memory. And then they can just be thinking about how they feel.”

Despite winning the £50,000 IWC Schaffhausen Film-maker Bursary award in association with the British Film Institute, not to mention a Venice premiere for True Things, Wootliff has experienced a degree of resistance to her milieu.

If you mix in loads of bright colours, it just comes out like slush. I think there was a bit of pressure at the beginning too, to make lighthearted things

“It’s a balancing act trying to kind of hold on to your vision at the same time as being receptive to whether you’re delivering your vision and whether you’re communicating clearly,” says the film-maker. “I really want to hear everybody’s thoughts before the film goes out to the world. But it’s interesting, to think about the compromises you are put under pressure to make. And you look back and think I’m so glad I didn’t make that compromise.

“With Only You, there were repeated conversations about the age gap, yes, and making the age gap more palatable. And I really stuck to my guns because if we made it a six-year age gap, it’s no longer an age gap. It’s no longer that thing I want it to be: unconventional and not cliched, and unexpected and then irrelevant. So I really push to keep that. I don’t know how it works. But I think by making your story unique and individual to you, that’s what makes it universal.

“I guess it’s like mixing colours. If you mix in loads of bright colours, it just comes out like slush. I think there was a bit of pressure at the beginning too, to make lighthearted things. Maybe people have a perception or perception of who you are, and what sort of thing you should be making. But what I’ve ended up making is very true to me. I feel that’s what is taking me forwards: being true to myself.”

True Things is in cinemas from April 1st

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