Scrapheap challenge: on the set of The Selfish Giant
Clio Barnard’s first film The Arbor was a ground-breaking look at life on a Bradford estate. Now she’s returned to the area – to chronicle its teenage scrap-dealers. Patrick Barkham joins the set of The Selfish Giant to find out why
Dark clouds are gathering on the horizon, and the air around the substation is full of crackles and hums. Five concrete cooling towers loom over a large hole in the ground. In the hole shiver Conner Chapman, 13, and Shaun Thomas, 15, who are about to rob some cabling from this power station near Derby.
- The Selfish Giant
- Production year: 2013
- Directors: Clio Barnard
- Cast: Conner Chapman, Sean Gilder, Shaun Thomas
“Conner, you’re sawing away,” barks the first assistant director, a bit of a drill sergeant.
“Why would I be sawing if I can’t see owt?” queries his 13-year-old leading man, who then questions the position of the manhole cover. “I tell you, it would be better if you opened it that side up.”
“True,” says Clio Barnard, the director, peering into the hole. “Maybe we’re better pulling that side up – to make it scarier.”
This hole in the ground, and Barnard’s collaborative way of directing two boys with no previous acting experience, perfectly illustrates her way of working. Most film-makers would create an artificial hole in a warm studio but, despite working on a shoestring budget, Barnard has dug a real one and lined it with concrete and cables. On contaminated ground. By an actual electricity substation.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Barnard’s debut feature, The Arbor, was a documentary about the lives of the late Bradford playwrightAndrea Dunbar – best known for Rita, Sue and Bob Too! – and her daughter Lorraine. In the multi-award-winning 2010 film, actors lip-synced to some of the 90 hours of interviews Barnard conducted with Dunbar’s family and friends to tell the tragic story, spanning three generations, of how alcohol had been supplanted by crack and heroin on the estate where they lived. Dunbar, who died in 1990 at the age of 29, was a heavy drinker, while her daughter wrestled with heroin and crack addictions.
Barnard’s unusual technique, highlighting the artifice in film-making, showed that no single person has a monopoly on truth – and certainly not the documentary director who shapes truth into a narrative in the editing process. Barnard’s use of fictional tools to tell a factual story also subverted the most common way we see estates on the big screen – via the social realist dramas of Ken Loach or Peter Mullan, which aim for naturalistic performances and an invisible crew.
All of which makes The Selfish Giant, her new film loosely based onOscar Wilde‘s fairytale, feel like a big risk for Barnard, who started out as a visual artist and now also teaches film studies at the University of Kent. This time, she has embraced the very social realism she critiqued so well in The Arbor, in order to tell another story inspired by her time in Bradford. Striding towards her giant hole – which swallowed £3,000 of her £1.4m budget – she admits to being a little worried. “I do have some anxiety about adopting the language I critiqued,” says the softly spoken director, “but I had a strong impulse to do this. And there are an awful lot of social realism films that I absolutely love.”
The fact that the hero of The Selfish Giant is called Arbor shows that the piece grew out of Barnard’s experiences filming on Brafferton Arbor, the street where Dunbar lived. During the shooting of The Arbor, a boy called Matty kept getting in shot while riding his horse. Although Matty was an irritant, Barnard, who has two young sons, befriended him. She heard how Matty and his best mate fell out, and how he was both exploited but also given opportunities by a local scrap-dealer. Instead of getting into trouble, Matty kept horses and went “scrapping” instead.
So Barnard wrote a script inspired by Wilde’s fairytale about a giant who won’t let children play in his idyllic garden, and gave it an anachronistic setting, among a gang of boys who collect scrap metal in Bradford. This may sound like a nostalgic period piece, but scrapping is actually a thriving business in the city.
“I haven’t made up the number of teenage boys who do this,” says Barnard. “They don’t go to secondary school – they go out scrapping with horses and carts, and make a living from collecting metal. It may seem like a whimsical idea, but it’s fact. And it’s very important that people understand that the landscape of the film is really there, is really happening.”
When I join Barnard at the end of the six-week shoot, mostly in Bradford but also at that power station near Derby, she is still mulling over how she may inject factual elements into her film. She is keen to include “some documentary stuff to give it a context – or earth it”. She smiles: today is all about electric shocks apparently.
Although her film features a Gypsy horse race, she doesn’t think that the changes that have swept Bradford – which began when Travellers settled on council estates – are a clear-cut Gypsy thing. “The lines are blurrier, and I’m interested in blurry lines. A lot of the kids on Holme Wood estate are not Travellers, but are involved in that culture. They are seen as Travellers by people on the outside, but aren’t necessarily. It’s a question that people avoid quite a lot and understandably.”
The Arbor was about a playwright who wrote authentically about working-class life because she lived it. The daughter of a university lecturer, Barnard has sought to represent this working-class subculture accurately: by holding “workshops” with local boys to help her write her script; by having Matty, now 20, as an informal consultant; and by recruiting two “non-actors” from the estates where her film is set.
The boys she found – through casting director Amy Hubbard, who made her name on The Lord of the Rings – dominate the 30 grownups on set. Conner, who plays Arbor, has a pinched look and the short hair shaved into a “v” at the back that’s popular on the estates. His mum shivers on the sidelines as he clowns around with the boom. “There’s £2,500 on the end of that stick,” warns a sound technician.
Is he enjoying filming? “Yup,” he nods. What’s been his favourite experience? “Driving horse and cart.” Learning lines is “easy”, he says, but the hardest part has been today, when he and Shaun were made to keep repeating one crucial exchange. “Have you seen how long it took us to do that one scene?” he asks. Then he thinks again: actually, he says, the hardest thing was when he “laid down in the mud for 20 minutes with a rain machine over my head”. His favourite film genre is action-and-horror. Any movie in particular? “Saw,” he says decisively.
Shaun, who plays Arbor’s sidekick, Swifty, has warm brown eyes and is more expansive than Conner. When he finds a ladybird, he shows it off to the makeup artist. “Haven’t you never seen this in London?” he jokes. While Conner took some drama lessons at school, Shaun was often in trouble. He was “gutted” after missing the first audition because he’d been excluded from school, but was given another chance. Barnard wondered if his claims about riding were a boast, but was stunned when she saw how beautifully he handled a horse. “They were quite surprised when they saw me,” he smiles.
Horses, says Shaun, are common in Bradford. “It’s not just Travellers. When I was younger, me mates all had horses, and I got into scrap and that with them. And I started to learn how to drive them to the scrap, and I ended up riding them when we finished work. I got better and better, every single day on a horse’s back. Quite a few people at school used to take the mick out of scrap at school. People say it’s scruffy and stuff like that – and then I got this.” His tone is triumphant: he hopes his film role will end the teasing.
It would be difficult to criticise Barnard’s sensitive representation of working-class life. But perhaps some of the discomfort in the way middle-class film-makers represent such lives stems from the process of filming itself. The two boys have chaperones and take private lessons during their six weeks off school. They are treated warmly by everyone, and are perfectly behaved, but then who wouldn’t be in an environment where they are, for once, the centre of attention and afforded respect from a group of adults? Some might find this process patronising, if not exploitative; others would argue they are being given a really positive experience of adult working life that may lead to other acting opportunities.
Shaun, who is the youngest of five and whose father is dead, has a simple verdict on acting: “Love it.” Although he has had to sell his horse, he will carry on scrapping, and is keen to go back to the estate. “It’s me home, isn’t it?” he says. “I’m not going to change just because I’m doing a bit of filming.”
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