The pre-interview chat with Broken director Rufus Norris was a delight. When told Sydney was experiencing unseasonably warm autumn days, he replied “Oh God, that sounds lovely! I’m in a corridor in the BBC News Centre.” We both expressed a particular fondness for coming-of-age tales; Niki Caro’s Whale Rider and Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank are shared favourites. One of the theatrical world’s most lauded directors, Norris’ adaptation of Daniel Clay’s novel has drawn comparisons to both those works, as well as the classic adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. Broken is his feature film debut.
What were the qualities in ‘Skunk’ (the film’s 11-year-old lead character) that appealed to you, in both a human sense and from a dramatic point of view?
Well, from a human sense, her spirit. She is naïve but she is incredibly optimistic and inquisitive. She’s also offbeat; she’s not one of the cool kids in a normal sense. In a way, she’s someone who I’d like to be. On a personal level, she was a great character for someone like me to identify with. As a director, it is something that I find quite useful, allowing me to get to the middle of a character. Dramatically, it is a bit more difficult because, on the page, she doesn’t instigate a great deal of the turning points. Traditionally with the story, the central character has to make everything happen as a consequence of what they do so we tried to chart it in a way that made things of a consequence of her response.
[ Read: Tim Roth talks about his role in Broken ]
As a debut feature film director in charge of a first-time child actress, you must have felt a great sense of responsibility towards her. Tell me of the working relationship you established with Eloise Laurence.
It’s complicated, isn’t it? We’ve all seen child actors go off and have an amazing or traumatic time on something and effectively be robbed of their childhood in many respects. There is a responsibility there that directors can take or not. I was fortunate with Eloise in that I know her parents, her mother particularly, who appears in the film as [next door neighbour] Rick Buckley’s mother [actress Claire Burt]. I had been working with her for a year before we even cast Eloise. That helped to know that Eloise came from a very stable and supportive environment. Some people have said to me that this character has to go through some hard times and it must have been quite traumatic to film these scenes. Well, that’s not true at all. There is nothing traumatic in the shooting of a shooting or of physical trauma because it becomes a technical exercise and often it is more about stopping people laughing at the wrong time. For Eloise, the biggest trauma was that she had to kiss a boy. (Laughs)
Yours is not the stark, steely grey suburban Britain of Ken Loach or Mike Leigh, but instead a warmly lit North London of orange and brown hues. It’s also a very cinematic treatment, messing with chronology and reality as only cinema can. Was there ever a concern that the film’s style was at odds with its substance?
It was a fine balancing act. In this country, our film critics like to see things within the context of our fine film tradition. They don’t judge foreign films in that way, but they judge British films within the framework of Ken Loach, Alan Parker and Mike Leigh. Recently, Danny Boyle has very much forged his own path. Then you get a director like Michael Winterbottom, who is not celebrated in this country though he is in a lot of places, where they don’t judge the use of symbolism or the more heightened poetic languages that film can offer. It’s strange, because our theatrical world is very strong and vibrant but it seems we would rather encourage new filmmakers to go into this world of low-budget realism. With Broken, that [realism] can’t stand up because it would become too melodramatic to only see [the narrative] through that frame. Like with Whale Rider, exactly as you said before: You think this girl is actually going to climb on the back of a whale and suddenly a whole group of beached whales will find their way back into the water? But it becomes beautiful and incredibly moving because the film has earned that mythic permission, if you like. Broken has nowhere near the same mythical ambition as Whale Rider but it does have a poetry which allows us to go into a slightly other world towards the end.
The middle-class setting is familiar to all our lives but is rarely seen in British films. Most local audiences either get the Ken Loach/Shane Meadows bleak take on housing commission existence or the England of Downton Abbey.
Well, that’s very interesting. We had a talk the other day at BAFTA and one of the audience members lambasted me from the beginning, screaming at me that the film was like some comic strip look at a ‘broken’ Britain and that it was irresponsible to portray the public service in this way, and so on. My immediate reaction was to put my arm around my little film and protect it but I ultimately didn’t have to because the rest of audience started to shout this guy down, saying things like ‘No, this is exactly my experience!’ It depends on where you live, of course. I live in a nice middle class area of London. But two years ago, the guy across the street was murdered in his doorway. When we had all those riots, they trashed and burned cars in our street. I don’t know what it’s like where you live, but where I live, the sense of community and society has certainly broken down, especially for teenagers. Youth clubs have disappeared and the ‘hoodie gang’ teens are demonised and that’s totally unnecessary. And it is much tougher for the working class in those ‘sink estates’, where I lived for many years, but there is also a greater sense of community in those neighbourhoods. An Englishman’s home is his castle but it has also become his prison. We should be communicating more, and if we don’t, tensions like the ones portrayed in Broken certainly happen.
Broken is in select cinemas from May 16.