The Incident: An interview with director Jane Linfoot
Jane Linfoot is the BAFTA award nominated director of The Incident, released in cinemas on 25th November. After the critical success of her short Sea View, The Incident is Jane’s feature debut telling the story of what happens when the lives of an affluent British couple collide with a troubled teenage girl. Tense, gripping and unnerving, the film is characterised by a stripped-back script and exacting aesthetic. We sat down with Jane to find out more about the movie’s theme of social justice, the importance of aesthetic, and playing with genre and expectations of women on screen.
Hi Jane, thanks so much for speaking with us. First of all, what drew you to this story for your first feature-length film?
My style is making very intimate, observational portraits and I’ve primarily focused on young people in my shorts, extracting these very naturalistic performances. I think if you’re able to capture the emotional volatility and uncertainty that surrounds young people, it’s really fascinating to behold on camera. I wanted to push that observational filmmaking further with a feature and put a young person in an adult world. I don’t write from a plan, I write from my subconscious, so it’s a combination of marrying subconscious imagery with conscious concerns. For this particular film I had an image that I couldn’t escape from and it was of enhanced youth dancing frenetically whilst trespassing grounds where they clearly didn’t belong. I started to think about the challenges that young people face, doing some research into youth crime at Middleborough Youth Court. I thought it was a really interesting idea to explore social injustice through an act of restorative justice and I started to build a story around that.
With the theme of social injustice in mind, is there is a statement or message in the film or is it more simply a study of such themes?
I think it’s a combination of those things: I’m using this contained narrative that focuses very much on guilt to talk about bigger themes. I started writing a script in the wake of the economic crisis, and there was this rhetoric being used by the government and by the media that was encouraging division between opposing social groups rather than uniting them in difficult times, and I felt this was leading to a pervasive lack of empathy. Obviously this was pre-Brexit, pre-Trump – all that has escalated and it just shows how dangerous it is. With the film I am making a comment but I am not forcing the audience to think what I think, I’m not imposing a kind of moral judgement: I’m showing how easy it is for a shift in consciousness to take place, without necessarily knowing it is. The film explores this sense of disconnection that surrounds the characters and for Annabel and Joe it deepens after the incident, and the incident has been provoked by their inability to empathise with Lily’s situation.
Joe’s guilt feels slightly different from that which Annabel feels. Does the film seek to comment specifically on the way women interact or feel empathy for each other?
It’s interesting the interpretation people take of Annabel, of what she does and doesn’t do. Her reaction toward Lily in the aftermath of the incident is often interpreted as an outburst of emotion. What I’m trying to communicate is that her reaction is very much a reaction to her guilt as opposed to her empathy for Lily. When she finds out that she’s pregnant, she questions that and she’s anxious, not because she has a natural maternal instinct toward Lily but the opposite – she’s challenging whether she and Joe have the wherewithal to take on the individual responsibility of being parents. I place the incident and the interaction with Lily at exactly the time she’s found out she’s pregnant to bring all this to the surface. It’s interesting to challenge these characters at a point when they’re just about to bring a new life into the world; I don’t think there’s a better time in life to challenge someone.
With Joe, I never felt that there needs to be an explanation for why he did what he did. He’s put in a situation and he has a choice whether he crosses the line or he doesn’t – and he crosses the line. For me, he does that because he has a kind of connection with Lily – he sees her as raw, as real, as fascinating. He’s emotionally immature and gets completely drawn in by her. He feels emasculated in his relationship, and there are very, just short, one-liners that elude to that after their interaction. It’s like he puts his guilt back on Annabel, trying to suggest her dominance is why he did it with the line, “On a leash”. He crosses the line because he wants to know what it feels like on the edge. He divorces his desires in that moment from the consequences – it’s not that he wishes any malicious intent on Lily. He just has no comprehension of the impact of his actions on Lily. It’s almost like he sees her as more mature than he is and that she is in complete control of herself.
Was the idea of control important in the film?
Well, you’ve got this young couple and this young girl from very different worlds and it’s almost a given where the power dynamic lies. I wanted to shift that and explore this whole idea of how people respond when there’s a cloud of uncertainty over their lives. With Annabel and Joe it seems like everything is mapped out for them whereas with Lily it’s like she has this cloud of uncertainty running through her life and throughout the film. When I shift that onto Annabel and Joe, that’s the point when they can truly empathise with her woeful situation. You see the very ordered way they live but then after coming into contact with Lily you see everything start to unravel emotionally, so this loss of control and shift of power dynamics was really important.
How important was the aesthetic and use of space in telling your story?
Really important: the script is very stripped back but it’s very precisely written, very exacting, and I knew that I was going to tell the story visually with vivid imagery and visual metaphors and symbolism. I’m quite fascinated by the idea of “pure cinema”: that you don’t tell you show. And also I knew that I wasn’t making a social realism piece. You’re in the rarified world of Annabel and Joe and that’s juxtaposed with Lily’s world – there’s something kind of surreal created I wanted to capture. I wanted the performances to be really naturalistic but for the film itself to transcend reality at times and move into something more heightened, more elliptical. I also had this idea that the couple, Annabel and Joe, would inhabit this glass house, firstly to play with reflections, which are obviously a big part of the film, but on another level there is a visual metaphor in that this young couple are, in effect, protected. They are valuable museum pieces put behind glass, out of reach and Lily, in contrast, we always see her exposed: in her dress and in the way that she wanders from scene to scene throughout the film. I definitely wanted to play on and challenge what we choose to protect in society and what we choose to neglect. My style of having these very naturalistic, very observational character studies set against the very considered, thoughtful framing of the backdrop was really important.
Tension builds throughout the movie, particularly in the second half but never spills over into a full blown thriller – how did you want to use tension in the film?
I find it quite frustrating, with British film in particular but American cinema as well, that we’re so used to seeing our films delivered in a genre package – they have to be defined by that and if they’re not, it’s like there’s something missing, or you meant to make a thriller and you haven’t. I didn’t set out to make a thriller: I always knew that I was creating a psychological drama with some thriller elements. I wasn’t interested in exploring the dark side of Lily’s exploitation because I didn’t want to put a young girl in distress on screen. But the issues the film explores are serious: they have impact and I’m concerned about them. So for me it was about adding weight but without doing it in a typical way, like a social realist piece or changing it into a thriller. Lily is a real threat to Annabel and Joe’s baby and their relationship and when she picks up that knife I’m portraying that symbolic threat. Of course, I want to take the audience to the edge because for me the issues are serious: bringing life into the world, whether that relationship survives, the impact of what Joe has done on Lily’s life. I never set out to make a thriller but I’m intrigued by films that play with some of those conventions, that don’t deliver what’s expected but try to do something different with them. Films that aren’t necessarily defined just as a thriller or a horror but combine elements of drama and character study.
A final, more general question, what do you think the future looks like for female directors?
I think as a woman working in film, I have to think about it whether I want to or not because without a doubt there are issues surrounding women being able to make it in film. I think it’s incredible that there are lots of groups out there talking about the issue now to try and make a change and it’s accepted that it is an issue, whereas before it wasn’t. I think for me, though, we have to think about, not just woman making films, but what representation of women on screens we accept. I’m not surprised that men have expectations of who women should be on screen but I’m surprised that there are also women who feel that there is an expectation of how a woman should be on screen. I find it quite interesting with the character of Annabel that quite a few women have said to me, “I didn’t actually like her, I didn’t find her very likeable but then as the film progressed I grew to like her”, and I think why is that a problem? Why did it make you feel uncomfortable that I’m portraying a woman that isn’t immediately sympathetic? Isn’t it more interesting that I’m suggesting all these characters are flawed and challenging you to think about your perceptions of these characters and how that might shift as the film progresses? I think as well as how we support women making films it’s also about how we represent women on the screen. We accept flawed male characters why can’t we accept flawed female characters? It seem it’s only acceptable in arthouse movies. The world is full of complex women so let’s portray them.
Thanks Jane, fantastic to meet you, thank you so much for your time!
Watch the trailer for The Incident here