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Natalie Dormer and Anthony Byrne talk In Darkness, voyeurism and empowerment, and how Hollywood diversity is here to stay

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The National Student sat down with Natalie Dormer and Anthony Byrne to discuss their upcoming psychological thriller In Darkness. Directed by Byrne from a script co-written by himself and Dormer, the film follows blind musician Sofia, played by Dormer, as she is drawn into London’s criminal underground when her upstairs neighbour Veronique (Emily Ratajkowski) dies. Though initially ruled a suicide, everything is not as it seems, and Sofia must struggle to survive while caught between the police and dangerous criminals.

The premise is fascinating in and of itself, an idea which first came to Byrne many years ago, coming “from me living in an apartment building in London for a few months, about 11 years ago. Which is such a long time when we’re thinking about where we are now! I’d realised after a couple of months – it was a short-term tenancy – that I’d never seen anybody else in this building, not in the lift, or the lobby, or any of the corridors.

“But there was a woman who lived in the apartment above me, and she would come in and click-clack around her apartment, and for whatever reason she would never take her heels off. And that just got my imagination whirring, at a time that I wasn’t having a great experience on another project that I was editing.

“And then maybe a year, or a couple of years later, I’d been trying to get it off the ground with another writer – I’d met a couple of writers, but it wasn’t working. And I brought it to Nat [Dormer] because I knew she would be a really good writer, and that she had the instinct. I knew she had read hundreds of scripts, and that it’s almost an unconscious process after you’ve read so many scripts, that you understand structure. And Nat wanted to do it, so we started having those conversations over dinners, and on holidays, and stuff like that, and very slowly started building the structure and building the beats of the story.”

It’s a bold start, being Dormer’s first venture into script-writing. “I love psychological thrillers. It’s one of my favourite genres, and it’s the films that we used to watch as a couple; it was always Hitchcockian films, film noir, with all these fabulous female roles. It’s all about Double Indemnity, it’s Leave Her to Heaven, it’s Laura, it’s all those movies!

“And I knew that Anthony, the way he would talk about it when he was looking for a co-writer, I could see what he could see, I knew what he wanted to do. And also as a Londoner, I felt quite passionately that we don’t really see London on screen in a sort of contemporary way; We’re so used to, and exposed to, New York and seeing ‘real’ New York that we don’t really see real, contemporary London that often.”

“We only see the glass and steel London, the very contemporary London,” agrees Byrne.

“Well you’re either right in the middle of city or you’re in the gangster East End, or you’re in a costume drama candy box,” Dormer continues. “But you don’t see your real centre of London, or what your average Londoner sees and feels every day. So I was very intrigued, and that he thought I could do it emboldened me.

“I knew he was simpatico to what we wanted to achieve, and then I was just frustrated by the scripts that were coming my way at the time. I was at a certain point in my career where I felt that I wasn’t of a level that I was getting anything other than two-dimensional roles, and so in the beginning I didn’t necessarily feel that I was going to be able to play Sofia.

“For an independent film my profile wasn’t really large enough. I didn’t really have the bankability in 2009, we only realised that I could play her after Hunger Games and Game of Thrones; it only became viable at that point. For me it was a cathartic process to help Anthony make his movie, and for me write a three-dimensional anti-heroine that I felt was lacking. It was really my Christmases and birthdays all at once, the day I realised I could play her.”

On the subject of women’s roles in the industry, Dormer seems convinced the movement for diversity is here to stay. “I feel the conversation has been too sustained and probing now for things to go back to the way they were. And that’s not just gender parity, that’s sexuality, ethnicity, it’s everything across the board. I think it’s now accepted, finally, that we need broader diversity in our storytelling, and with our talent in front and behind the camera. So hopefully it’s a bold new world for the industry.”

Co-writing as a couple may not have been easy, but it was fun, Byrne says. “It’s difficult, it actually gets harder the deeper you go into it. It’s fun at the beginning because you’re breaking this structure and breaking the beats of the story, and you’re coming up with the characters – because it was only really Sofia and Veronique in the beginning – and everything else had to build out from that.

“But it was largely a really great experience. We were writing in our old flat which was really small, and we had the boards up on the wall in the spare room, and we plotted it out and had a pretty detailed structure colour-coded with each of the characters. The tension arises when you’re becoming quite passionate about a specific scene, or you prefer a character, or you’re writing dialogue, and either I don’t like it or Nat doesn’t like mine. And that’s when paper gets thrown across the room, there’s long walks with the dog, slamming doors, that kind of thing.”

“The odd door might have slammed, but there was no paper being thrown across the room,” Dormer laughs.

“There was definitely paper being torn up!” Byrne continues, “it was generally like that, but largely it was a lot of fun to sit down and do it, because it’s something we hadn’t done before. And I think the more we shared the drafts with people that we trusted and people who were very close to the creative process, and we were getting positive feedback, the more that emboldened us.”

Photo courtesy of Peter Fraser. 

One of the most interesting points of the film is that the heroine is a blind character, and the cinematography thus must adapt to her. “You basically have to create a visual grammar that it going to illustrate Sofia’s environment and her world to an audience, and help them understand that experience,” he explains.

“And you have to do that visually and using sound, so sound design is something that we spent an awfully long time conceiving. We actually spent months building that out. And in terms of visual grammar, that was really important. You can’t be in front of her, so you have to stay behind her, then being behind her constantly makes you feel like a voyeur, so it kind of puts you in a different headspace.

“When you’re in her apartment especially, instead of just having a camera over in the corner of the room and you’re just watching, instead you’re very deliberately on her shoulder, you’re very deliberately off her eye-line, and there’s very specific grammar that you’re creating in order to tell the story.”

Allowing the audience to become a voyeur to Sofia’s story, whilst still allowing Sofia to maintain power in this interaction between voyeur and the subject of voyeurism, is a fine and difficult line to tread. “How to do that, I think, that’s an age-old psychological thriller question,” says Dormer. “You could write a whole thesis on Hitchcockian heroines, that’s not just In Darkness.

“Getting that line between victim and empowered heroine, it’s necessary because you need to see vulnerability in a character or else you don’t engage with them physically or mentally. That’s how we identify with a protagonist, that they feel pain and fear the way we do, so you have to have that.”

“It’s a way to suggest vulnerability as well,” says Byrne. “The beginning of the film is all about watching her routine, understanding it, watching her go home, seeing her alone in her apartment, and then there’s very deliberate building blocks that are applied.”

“It’s what you explain to the audience in the first five minutes, that what they see is not what they think they see. You know with the opening shot of Laura being strangled, and then you realise that’s not where you are. Anthony immediately tells the audience that they can’t trust themselves, so the unreliability of what you think you see, or whom you think you’re watching, is immediately set up. And like I say, for us, you can call it derivative, but it’s just a love letter to psychological thriller, as film lovers ourselves.”

Byrne smiles in agreement, “we wanted to make a movie that we ourselves would sit down and watch on a Friday night.”

In Darkness is out on DVD & Digital from July 9th, and releases in selected cinemas on July 6th.

  

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