Olivier Award winning playwright Jessica Swale makes her feature writing and directing debut with Summerland, a resonant and intricately crafted drama about a reclusive writer (Gemma Arterton) who unexpectedly forms a bond with a London evacuee named Frank (Lucas Bond). During the interview, Swale discussed the joys of working with Arterton and how she approaches creating stories and characters (it is a rather insightful approach).
Set in World War II, Alice (Gemma Arteron) wants to be left alone to write in her home by the seaside cliff in Southern England. She is tasked with taking care of Frank (Lucas Bond), a London evacuee who needs a bit of shelter and comfort. Although she is antisocial by nature, Alice gradually forms a friendship with Frank that impacts both of their lives. Gugu Mbatha-Raw co-stars as Vera, a woman whom Alice once loved long ago (Swale previously worked with Arterton and Mbatha-Raw on her play Nell Gwynn).
Summerland is currently available in select theaters, Digital and Cable VOD. If you are a fan of Arterton or for that matter first rate and emotionally charged drams, Summerland is worth checking out.
What was the biggest challenge for you regarding directing your first feature? Did your extensive background in theater help make your transition a bit more seamless?
I felt very lucky to have a lot of experience in the theater. I had anticipated that there would be more difference between working in the theater as a director and on set. But actually, it’s essentially the same job. (It is) everything which I love; working with with directors and working as a team.
For me it’s all about collaborating and coming together to tell the story in the most imaginative way you can. That is the same with whatever medium you’re working on – you have a responsibility to the audience to tell your story clearly and with as much detail as possible. The joy of getting to work with a team of creative people keeps you going, even if there is a steep learning curve in terms of the elements of the process you might not be familiar with.
I was really grateful to have made several short films first, so it wasn’t my first time behind a camera. But the challenges of film weren’t really what I expected. I thought the technical knowledge would be the most tricky thing, and actually it was for me much more about timing with the fact that you just don’t get very long (laughs) and there is always someone saying ‘Alright final shot.”
The other part of it was you have to shoot out of order and you can’t go back and change things. In the theater, you’re very used to sort of getting to know the story over the period of rehearsals and if you discover something late in the rehearsal process in the early scenes, you’ve still got time to adapt the rest of the story to accommodate that. Whereas obviously you can’t go back to something you shot in week one because you found something fantastic in week five. Hopefully it happens beforehand.
Can you talk about the key to creating an organic story as opposed to a narrative that follows a rather predictable structure? Your story feels very lived in and realistic.
Well I think it’s about writing what you care about, because then you write honestly as well. I was very lucky to write a story that wasn’t based on anything, so you’re not trying to meet said markers. For me it’s important for a writer to be spontaneous and not plan too much.
I feel like if I tried to plan it in three or four pages, there is no way that it would surprise an audience because I couldn’t write anything just on spec that has those sort of twists and turns. They take a long time and you knowing the characters in order to understand how they behave.
Through the process of writing – that is when you get to know the character’s voice and through getting to know that person, you get to know how they might behave.
I can only speak from my own experience but I write in real time pretty much. When I write a conversation, I’m never thinking “Oh I wonder what that person is saying next.” It’s always like I’m listening to those two people talking and I’m writing very quickly, which means sometimes something comes up that surprises me as well (laugh). There are various twists in Summerland which I didn’t anticipate and I didn’t plan in advance but they sort of fall out naturally where in the moment you think “what if?”
I know in those moments if I am surprised and shocked, then the audience will be too.
This story is evergreen. But can you talk about, especially in the times we are living now, this movie talks about the importance of connecting with other people and breaking out of your comfort zone.
Good. I’m really glad you say that. Thank you. It’s so important to me because I think one of the great benefits of working in the arts community is that it tends to be a community which is open minded. I’ve really enjoyed in my career working with different sorts of people from all sorts of different backgrounds.
It only struck me in a conversation I had a couple of years ago that there are a whole generation and whole groups of people in our community even in London whose experience with the people they mix with is quite limited. I realized that somebody that I had known through a friend of my parents didn’t know anybody that was gay for example.
I work in a community that fosters acceptance. There are a lot of people in the theater from all sorts of different backgrounds. There are lots of gay artists who have been out and where it’s totally acceptable. It was quite shocking to think that is not everybody’s experience.
Actually I really want to make films where the reality of the brilliant diversity of life is really reflected back on the screen. That is so vital to me. And also to be able to be yourself.
I’m so lucky as an artist that I feel like what’s important to me I get to share. The idea that someone could not be themselves because of social pressure is horrendous. I suppose that is where the theme came from with Alice for the idea that she would be gay and she would be a woman who didn’t want to have children as well. All of those things, in terms of social acceptability, are difficult.
As someone myself – I don’t have children. I am in my late thirties but I am in a relationship. I’ve had various people ask me at points why I have (not had children) – and that like it’s a failure in my life. That’s a very usual experience for a lot of people. The more we can question those notions and the more we can accept people for the choices they make, then the better.
What is it like having Gemma Arterton as a collaborator?
I love collaborating with Gemma. I’m very lucky that we became such good friends when we started working together a few years ago on the play called Nell Gwynn. We really hit it off because we have a very similar sense of humor. But also we have similar politics and sort of a hunger to fulfill our own creative desires. We both like to create our own work and I think that is something in her which allows her to make choices to choose roles she’s interested in and she’s challenged by.
One of the greatest assets she has as an actor as well as being able to be chameleon-like is that she is so game. She is really open to trying things and she’s very open minded and willing to make herself vulnerable in order to express herself fully. And she has no vanity. She was the one requesting no makeup. Greying hair. Hair that was as tangled as possible. She didn’t want to look sort of beautiful – As Alice, she wanted it to be real. And I respect that.
Love your film Jessica and thank you so much for your time!
You’re so welcome. Those were really lovely questions. Thank you.
Summerland is now out in theaters is available on Digital and Cable VOD.