Writer and director Lucy Brydon's striking debut feature Body of Water explores the nature of an eating disorder, and its treatment, through the lens of Stephanie (Siân Brooke): a war photographer and mother to teenager Pearl (Fabienne Piolini-Castle). We meet Stephanie in a treatment facility; one in a long line of treatment programmes Stephanie has been enrolled on whilst her own mother (Amanda Burton) has raised Pearl. The film follows Stephanie as she leaves the facility and tries again to adapt to her home life and familial relationships away from the facility's structure and constant supervision. Brydon deals with a difficult topic tenderly with her intimate portrayal of Stephanie's struggle whilst also drawing attention to the societal and institutional failings in treating eating disorders; in this case anorexia. The brilliant performances from the three lead women make for a moving and an even more unpredictable watch as we are lead from scene to scene with cinematographer Darran Bragg's stirring visuals.
We spoke to Brydon via Zoom about what inspired her to write this story, the filmmaking process and what it has been like releasing her first feature in a global pandemic...
Amy Watts: What was your pathway to film?
Lucy Brydon: I did Creative Writing as a student and I really loved it. I was always a writer and I never really thought about screen writing or directing as an option because I'm just not really from that kind of family and also they didn't actually do screen writing on my Creative Writing course at the time so I graduated, I moved to China when I was 21 and I did TEFL for a bit. Then I sort of managed to - because I had this degree - to get into writing for a magazine and various things and then eventually after doing a bunch of short films with a local group of film people, I decided I really liked doing that and wanted to write and direct so that's when I started making like little crappy short films. They were really crappy. I don't even know if I still have quite a few of them but you know whatever that's how it happens right? Then I went to Berlin for a bit and I got into film school in New York; Columbia, so I went there, I got some grants and had some family support to go there cause it's really, really expensive so I managed to scrape together to stay there a year but then I had to drop out because I just couldn't afford it. Film school is bit like fucking ridiculous cause it's like there's a lot of really rich kids there and then there's a lot of people that really struggle so I was really struggling so I stopped then I came back and it was a bit of down period and I was like oh, what am I doing with my life? I kept making shorts and I was also all this time working on my debut novel which came out in 2015 [Shanghai Passenger] which is sort of about my experiences in China - it was published by Blue Mark Books. So those two things were kind of running in tandem and I made some shorts and they did pretty well in terms of festivals and I thought they were quite nice segues into the stuff I'm interested in like gender identity and things of that nature. Initially I had an idea for what now is the Body of Water. It was originally conceived as a short and we got some funding for that but at the same time I decided to challenge myself to a feature script of the same characters and then it got selected for the Film London development programme Microwave which is the micro budget film making initiative and then that was my path but as you can see it was quite, kind of messy, and there were definitely times when I wasn't sure what the hell I was doing but you know it's a bit of a cliché but I think it's all grist for the mill, if you do this stuff, it's good to have had a bit of life experience; that's how I like to see it anyway.
AW: Did you find the transition from writing to directing difficult? I know you said you've been making short films for quite a while but was it nerve-wracking the first time you directed something with a substantial budget or did you always feel comfortable in that role?
LB: No I don't think I did always feel comfortable in it. I feel like I'm much more naturally a writer type of a person so I like being on my own and you know controlling my space and working at weird hours. It's why I really like editing as well as part of the film process. My boyfriend's an editor and I think it's such a similar thing. I really find production very stressful and definitely initially the first few things I made, I just got so stressed and worried about them, that it was quite distracting. I didn't pursue directing because I had such a massive ego, it's just because I had people direct some stuff that I had written and I didn't really like it so I was like, I can do a better job and probably initially I didn't but later I think I did so it was sort of about getting over those anxieties and thinking on your feet and I think that was just a confidence thing for me cause I lacked confidence to do that in my twenties for a long time and now I don't feel I have that problem anymore but it's just about being really responsive and working with lots of different types of people. Now I love it. I feel really confident about it but it just wasn't something that came as naturally to me as writing did but that's okay.
AW: Are there any films or filmmakers that inspired you to want to make films?
LB: This is probably a really obvious one but Lynne Ramsey. I saw Ratcatcher (1999) and Morvern Callar (2002) and I really loved her. She's got a great way of not repeating herself. All of her films are really different and I really love that about her and that's something I would like to emulate. Obviously she's a Scottish woman [Bydon is from Scotland too] and she actually mentored us for a bit on the Microwave thing. We did some workshops with her, she was really, really great and had some really helpful insights at the start and helped transform some of the early ideas but in terms of other filmmakers, I would say, I really had a big soft spot for that Chantal Akerman film Jeanne Dielman [23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels, 1975] which is obviously a 70s Feminist classic so Chantal Akerman. I haven't seen all of her films but the ones I have seen, they've always really resonated with me particularly that one. I really love Todd Haynes as well, you know like Lynne, I really like those directors who are consciously evolving and all their films are really distinctive and they don't feel repetitive and he's also interested in subjects that I'm into - he's done films about David Bowie [Velvet Goldmine, 1998] and then he's done an adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel [Carol, 2015], like I think I just love his taste so they're probably my top ones.
AW: I actually thought of Jean Dielman when I was watching Body of Water because of all the solo scenes of Stephanie at the dinner table.
LB: Yeah there's a definite nod to it with some of the framing and the long takes and everything like that.
AW: Considering what's actually happening in the film, it's very beautiful to look at in contrast to the struggle Stephanie's going through - what inspired the look for the film or was it more of a collaboration with the cinematographer Darran Bragg?
LB: I always had the idea that the film shouldn't be really up in Stephanie's face, one of these hand held, intense realism type things. I mean it is realism but I felt for the subject really early on that it should be framed sensitively and not in a way that was glamorising it or obtrusive to this character because also she's quite a contained character so it just felt really wrong to invade her space. But the language of the film; a lot of the big ideas I went in with but when I met Darran, I hadn't worked with him before and I met loads of cinematographers like loads and I was really fussy about that because it's not just if someone has a really great eye, which Darran does, it's also how you're gonna work together, whether your personalities mash well and do they understand what is in a dramatic scene and how to help you get the most out of it? He ticked all those boxes and he came in with a bunch of really great references. A lot of the actual shots themselves were conceived in collaboration when we looked at locations, we'd figure it out and shoot it. Sometimes we didn't even have that much time to figure it out as is the case with indie filmmaking but I think Darran's ability to think on his feet, and we worked really well together, was something that really helped make the most of those locations and shots in particular but we were definitely thinking about references like Lynne Ramsey's films, particularly We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011) and I was thinking about Safe (1995), that Todd Haynes film with Julianne Moore - we talked a lot about that and then some photographers like Gregory Crewdson and some other really strong, cinematic mood photographers so it was nice that we had a few references that we would pull out if we were stuck.
AW: Where is the film actually set?
LB: It's set in Canvey Island in Essex which is not a very well known part of the world. We shot pretty much all the exteriors there apart from some sea shots were in Seaford just because of practicalities and the only interiors we shot in London were the two main characters' houses.
AW: What inspired you to want to tell the story of Stephanie and what research went into telling this story?
LB: I wanted to write about a character with an eating disorder who wasn't a teenager, who was older and a mother because it was something I was aware of, it was something that when I was in my twenties, I really struggled with disordered eating. I was anorexic for a time because my period stopped. This was when I was in China and I just went through a lot of personal changes; I broke up with a boyfriend, my parents decided to get divorced and this and that and you know it's nothing completely unusual but sometimes those things just trigger you to like push yourself in new ways. I was also on my own a lot more because I was living by myself and I just went really intensely into training and not eating and it was really easy and then I started doing some modelling and stuff while I was in Asia and it became quite self-perpetuating. That went on for a couple of years, I was super skinny and then I just sort of, because I did always like to drink alcohol, I kind of went through drinking too much and then it was binging and then starvation, it was all very messy and then I was in my late twenties, early thirties - actually I was probably in my early thirties when I really got over it - I'm 36 now so it was probably 5 years ago now, I think because I was with someone who really liked to eat out a lot and just eventually it all rubbed off on me and I really relaxed about it. I had seen older members of my family struggle with this stuff, I'd seen a lot of friends who were not 14 have issues with food that have gone on for their whole adult lives and you know men, trans people - it's not just this kind of [cis] white girl thing although Stephanie obviously is white. I was also interested in the fact that she was a mother, I think to me motherhood is hugely associated with the act of feeding, as a giver of nourishment and to sort of subvert that was really interesting to me, to see a mother that wasn't like that and also she's a really interesting character, she's been a war photographer, she doesn't dress like a mum. There was something about this character, I just wanted to spend time with and understand. The insidiousness of her eating disorder and how it effects her relationships with the other women in her family; I find those kind of relationships fascinating anyway but I just thought putting the lens of this particular problem or challenge on these characters was something I hadn't really seen before so that makes it interesting from a creative point of view. That's how it began. It was also mostly about this woman who wants to make peace with her daughter and to an extent her mother and what estrangement can look like and how difficult that can be so those were all the big things I was thinking about.
To research it was a big undertaking, we got some funding from the Wellcome Trust who were super encouraging and lovely and we made some short documentaries that I think are going to come online in the next couple of weeks. They were to sort of research on older women with these eating issues. I did a lot of interviews, I spoke to lots of people on the phone, I spoke to some activists and writers but one of the biggest and most impactful things I did was I went to a private clinic in Norwich. They very kindly let me spend some time there and speak to some of their patients and that was really intense and obviously quite a lot to take in but it was incredibly helpful. There was one women in particular who was the same age as me and she'd been in and out of these clinics since she was 16 and you could just sort of tell that she was never going to get over it and I found that so upsetting because that experience is not uncommon. It's such a complex thing to treat and the thing with Stephanie is she gets out of clinic, she goes from being in this little world, they are very well taken care of but it's just a period after they come out if they don't have the right sort of family support which Stephanie doesn't really, it's very easy to slip back into old habits. The thing about food problems as opposed to other kinds of addictions - it's not something you can just say, well I'm not gonna hang around with that group of friends that does drugs anymore or I'm not gonna hang around with that group of friends that drinks a lot anymore - you can't escape food, you have to eat that's why it's so difficult, to me anyway. That was sort of the main research that went into it and I know Siân and I both did quite a lot of research in terms of the war photography stuff, just because we wanted to get a sense of Stephanie's character and like I became quite interested in people who had done this kind of work. It's sort of a similar thing; when they leave these really extreme circumstances like war zones and they come back to suburban life, they don't really know how to handle it because they're just used to life being so extreme that it's like a massive bump and a lot them struggle with addictive behaviour after they've stopped working so to me it was sort of like Stephanie's anorexia was a reaction to that.
AW: You definitely get the sense of how all-consuming her illness is and how she can't function with the 'regular' things most people can, like going to the supermarket. I also thought about where her financial support was coming from in the film because it's not like she can really do work because her attention is focused on getting through a meal or the day. Did you see any state funded facilities or just the private one? I think the film alludes to this illness as being an illness we don't properly know how to treat.
LB: I wasn't able to go into any state, NHS clinics which was a source of frustration because obviously I wanted to see how that was done but they just weren't prepared to let someone go snooping around, unless you're Louis Theroux, that's a bit different. I did watch a lot of stuff, I watched that Louis Theroux documentary which is brilliant. The place I went was like a very nice boarding house but obviously it's still really, really tough but they never allow that many people in at one time, there's a lot of staff per patient but obviously with NHS resources stretched tighter, there's more people. There's a lot of people with this problem, it's quite easy for people to fall beneath the gaps because often the way the decisions are made regarding inpatient treatment, are based on body mass index but that actually isn't necessarily an indication of health but they always take it like that. The woman I mentioned before who I found really moving, the one who had been in and out since she was 16, she would basically do this thing where she would just get to the appropriate weight that they had said and then she would get out, she would go and stay with her mum usually and then she would get right back to where she was so she'd go back into treatment and she'd just do the same thing over and over again and that was her life. I just found that so tragic but I don't know, breaking the cycle is so hard especially since she's spent more of her life being anorexic than non-anorexic. That was how she knows how to be. I think for a lot of people, it becomes quite a big part of their identity and obviously it's about control and if you don't feel in control of your life, this is something that you want to control.
AW: There's the supermarket scene with the television diet advertisement and we also see Stephanie on the pro-ana website and the 'likes' she's getting off it. I just wondered what your opinion was on this, do you think social media and media in general enables eating disorders?
LB: Yeah, I think we're at a stage with all kinds of social media that if you have any kind of extreme or vaguely offbeat interest - you can indulge it. So I guess why would this be any different? It is really damaging and I think it's something that I hope the film kind of points out. It's troubling but if a person feels that isolated and alone in their mental state then yeah they will go find these people online and that will feel like home to them so what do we have to do to make them not feel like that or help them? That's the question really. And yeah diet culture is so pervasive. I think it's interesting how it's evolved and for women it seems to be a bit more about strength and having a big toned bum and tiny waist, you know it's all so incredibly difficult to attain. I know this is often said but we do need - and I know we're getting a bit better - to present alternative body shapes but there's still a long way to go and I see especially young guys really into their diet and working out in quite an extreme way that I don't think they were, even when I was a teenager, because the way we communicate is just so much more visual with social media. We can put tones or filters on ourselves and shave off a few pounds here or there; it warps people's perceptions of what they should look like to an unhealthy extent and it can't not. It's such as complex problem that there's sort of no real way to completely obviously resolve it but you just have to try and remain vigilant especially when people are vulnerable.
AW: Did you have Siân in mind when you were writing it?
LB: No I didn't because the script went through a lot of development with Film London and BFI and BBC before we were in a confident place to show it to people because we were so aware that it's a really sensitive, tough subject so it went through a lot of stages before it was taken out. So I didn't have Siân in mind but I met her really early on in the casting process and I actually didn't meet that many actresses because it was kind of like love at first sight a little bit. I had seen her in other things but Aisha [Bywaters] the casting director really rated her as well, she was saying how great she is and she [Siân] was at the stage in career where she was willing to take a risk like this because it is a bit of a risk but also she's just a very cool person, she's very dedicated to her craft and she does want to go as far as she can go with things and that was what the role kind of needed so she was basically the perfect person and she did such a great job. The film wouldn't be half as good I don't think without her in it.
AW: How much input did Siân have in her characterisation of Stephanie?
LB: I think I'd always envisioned her identity not being super feminised, I would say cause I'm not really like that. I wanted to see someone that wears jeans. I used to have really short hair so I quite like that look. It was a really enjoyable process working with the amazing costume designer Natalie [Humphries] who was also just so invested in the material and really thoughtful about it but she [Stephanie] was always intended to look androgynous and cool. Natalie found that leather jacket that she always wears and we all were just like "Yes! That's so cool!" Actually Siân bought it off the production because she really liked it. So there was that stuff making her slightly ambiguous gender-wise and she also had that undercut done on her hair which was quite a bold statement and that was Siân's idea. Siân really goes into a lot detail and she's super thorough about her character development; she wanted Stephanie to have a tattoo and so she does have a really small tattoo on her wrist of a P for Pearl which I think you vaguely get a glimpse of in the shower scene but it's not something that's super lingered on.
AW: I wondered about the relationship between Susan and Stephanie and what it was like working with those actresses together because I found their exchanges really exciting to watch, the way they sparred off each other.
LB: It was so cool to meet Amanda Burton, I was really excited when I saw her on the list of actresses for casting cause I'd already cast Siân and I was like, that could really work because they have a similarity and Amanda's just great! It's so great to see a gorgeous older woman being unconventional as well [in the character of Susan], she's sort of got to a stage where she just wants to do her own thing and she's in a relationship with another woman; there's not anything made of that which I thought was a good way to deal with it. They [Amanda and Siân] worked together really well and actually my favourite scene is, the second scene where Stephanie tries on the dress and then Susan's like "I can't do this anymore" just before the wedding. When they were shooting that, we all were like on tenterhooks cause we knew how powerful it could be because their performances are really good and also Susan, Amanda's character, she's been through this so many times with her daughter that she's also sort of rejecting motherhood's endlessness - not that I am a mother - but my impression of motherhood is that you're meant to be endlessly forgiving and endlessly there in a way that men aren't really expected to be and she has been there. I try to, I think I do, feel sympathy for all the characters because it's so complex but she has been there for her daughter all these years and she also takes care of her grandchild so it's sort of like she does want to carve out a life for herself but her daughter is still self-destructing and she can't really watch it anymore. To me it's just the mess of human relationships but yeah I found that they bounced off each other really well so I'm really happy about that.
SPOILER ALERT: a question and answer for post-watch of the film
AW: The film in my interpretation dealt with the exploitation of bodies. We see the character of Shaun abuse his position of power and then with Pearl there's an older guy asking her to do things that she does consent to but the power dynamics are off given that he's older and he treats her like shit after these interactions. I just wondered if you could talk a little bit about your intention showing sexuality and lack of agency with women's bodies in this story because even when Shaun and Stephanie are having sex, it's a very pleasure-less interaction for her.
LB: To me the sex scene with them is more about her self-hatred and her inability to enjoy sex and is actually nothing to do with him, it's just how she feels about herself. I do know a lot of, particularly women who have body dysmorphia, anorexia and things like that, they really struggle with sexual intimacy because they hate their bodies so much. You know trying to have any kind of pleasure is verboten cause you know, eating is sort of about pleasure and if you can't allow yourself to relax about that then it's sort of by extension, logical that you probably wouldn't relax in a sexual circumstances either and just feel rigid. After the act she [Stephanie] cleans herself really thoroughly but I do remember talking to someone who had chronic anorexia about that and she's recovered now but she used to hate sex because she had lots of hair on her body because she was so thin, that was another thing she felt really self-conscious about. In terms of the exploitation question; I was really interested in this character who purports to be kind of caring, the face of caring and he's a cute chappie [Shaun] and trying to do his best but then in effect he consistently oversteps the mark and doesn't know how to control himself. Then with Pearl she's exploring her sexuality in a free way, she's kind of sexually confident, you know you can be at that age - you've sort of recently realised that people are sexually attracted to you and it's a really potent and powerful thing so to me she was sort of at that stage and she sort of like saw through him [Shaun] but also saw him moving in on her mum and didn't like it so it's almost like she's pursuing him to take him off her mother but it's also because she's a bit jealous, to me anyway, that he's managed to get in with her mum when she can't.
I also find like when girls are coming up to an age when they're sexually active, they're interested in sex and men become interested in them, how some mothers respond. Stephanie's not an average mum but I just find that collision of identities really interesting. I think Pearl does have a degree of sexual agency, it's just kind of misguided which to be honest was my experience when I was a teenager. You know it's often going for inappropriate people just because you think you can and you feel invincible. The point about Shaun, a really questionable character is that through him the women come closer eventually anyway, he does sort of serve a purpose to them.
AW: What's it like releasing your first feature in this weird cinema landscape?
LB: It's so weird isn't it? It's so sad about Cineworld like I wasn't an avid Cineworld goer but bloody hell, that's a big shock. We had the premiere just before we went into lockdown. The premiere was at Glasgow Film Festival in February. You know there were festivals going on but it was obviously very different so we took the approach of let's just get a release whenever we could and Verve [Pictures] were a pleasure to work with. We weren't actually sure if we were going to have a cinema release so that was a bit stressful. You know, there's not a snobbery about having just an online release now cause you know, that's the reality we live in and in a way it's quite freeing but as a filmmaker, you want to see your things on the big screen and get people into a cinema and have that experience because it is different so I'm really glad we've got a cinema release. It's a limited release but we're gonna have that opportunity on the 16th around the U.K. but it's been a real changeable thing, we had to push the dates back once I think and yeah it was just such a movable thing and I know a lot of indie film releases got pushed back and quite a glut of them seem to be coming out now but yeah it's a shame for cinemas because actually the screening I went to with you guys [Unruly Bodies at Genesis Cinema], I thought, actually I feel really safe in here. I think it's a shame that people are still going to bars and whatever but the cinemas are getting so neglected. I hope that people manage to go and see my film but I kind of understand it's such a stressful time for everyone but at least now they get the opportunity to watch it at home now as well at the same time.
AW: Finally what is your hope for the film industry after this year since there's been a shift in discourse and a global pandemic? Post 2020 what would you like the film industry to look like?
LB: I'm not going to say anything new here but obviously the landscape of so many creative industries is just going to be completely changed forever. I feel particularly sorry for those working in live music and theatre because there's only so much you can do to mitigate all those losses, it's a real shame. However film, I was really sad about the Bond thing affecting Cineworld so much and that is a really damning indictment on how much cinema has become a big business and how much it relies on these huge budget films to sustain companies; there's something not right about that. So I'm hoping if anything comes out of it, it's that smaller scale cinemas are appreciated again and perhaps build up a more connected local audience because they might not have the option of the bigger cinemas anymore. I'm hoping that the small independent businesses can survive with the loyalty of the people that have gone there in the past like the Genesis and the Rio and all those cinemas that are loved so I'm hoping those can sustain but I just don't know - I would love it to be as simple as that but it just looks pretty cataclysmic at the moment doesn't it?
Body of Water is released in the following cinemas and on the following streaming services from Friday 16 October! Be sure to catch it on the big screen whilst you can (providing you feel safe to)!
ArtHouse Crouch End
The Depot, Lewes
Curzon Home Cinema
Read Brydon's diary of making the Body of Water from pre-production to distribution here.