Hey, friends. Barbarella here. I think, pretty much everyone has had to deal with someone who’s attempted to manipulate them, whether it’s a friend, significant other, coworker, boss, advertiser, or just random person on the street. However, the majority of people probably haven’t had to deal with it in the same way as Alice in Alice, Darling, now playing exclusively at AMC Theaters. The film, starring Anna Kendrick and Charlie Carrick, offers the most authentic depiction of the damage that emotional abuse could cause that I’ve ever seen. Written by Alanna Francis and directed by Mary Nighy, it covers friendship, those secrets we’re too ashamed to share, and the physical and psychological destruction unleashed when emotional undercurrents build to tsunamis and batter the psyche. Anna Kendrick gives a stellar performance as Alice, and Charlie Carrick is so effective as Simon that he awakens dormant emotions around some negative experiences I’ve had with men, making me want to lash out at the screen. I don’t do that, though. Instead, I take the opportunity to speak with director Mary Nighy about this powerful film. Check it out.
What an incredible representation this film is of that kind of subtle emotional abuse and the impact that it has. How did the screenplay come to you, and what kind of conversations did you have with the writer?
“Thank you for those comments, first of all. I was sent the screenplay by Katie Nolan and Lindsay Tapscott at Babe Nation, a small production company from Toronto in Canada, and I’d been introduced to them by another producer, from Elevation Pictures, who also came aboard as a producer on the film, Christina Piovesan, when I visited Toronto about a different project many years ago. We got along very well, and we’d been looking for some time for a project to work on together, and they had produced Alanna Francis’ first feature which was starring Heather Graham, and it had gone to TIFF; it had done quite well. They reached out to me with Alanna Francis’ second screenplay, Alice, Darling and wanted to know if I would be interested in directing it, and I immediately said, “Yes.””
Was Alanna involved at all once production began or did you have conversations prior to the shooting with her?
“Alanna and I had almost a year‘s worth of development conversations. I read quite an early draft of Alice, Darling, and she and I spent a lot of time speaking about each of the friends and trying to render those characters very distinct from each other. Alice, as a character, was always very clearly drawn, but Alanna and I worked a lot on how does this group dynamic work? What does Sophie bring to the group in contrast to Tess? I talked to her a lot about what the two friends’ careers were, and how that could provide tension. For example, the fact that Tess is an artist, Alice is working in sales, and Sophie is working for a charity, how does that create tension? The fact that Tess doesn’t have an income but is possibly the most gifted of the group, but feels quite at sea because she doesn’t have a boyfriend, doesn’t have an apartment. Alice, on paper, looks as though her life is very set up; she’s living in a beautiful apartment, she has a steady job, and so on. They’re all turning thirty so it’s quite a critical time hoping that you’ve got your life all set up. The other thing Alanna and I spoke a lot about was how to humanize Simon, the part that Charlie Carrick plays, because I think in the early draft, Simon was more horrible and more sinister right from the beginning, and I felt that it was very important that it was a reveal, and that it was gradual as the film continued. He actually had to be quite attractive, and that’s why it was important that we cast somebody as handsome and charming as Charlie Carrick, because we needed the audience to understand why Alice would be with him at the beginning before they see exactly how he treats her.”
What kind of discussions did you have with the actors prior to filming and what kind of changes were made as a result of those conversations?
“I think Anna had brilliant insights at the script stage, and she spoke a lot about the language that Simon uses to control Alice. One thing I found really fascinating that she said was that Simon should see himself as the victim, and that he’s also probably able to weaponize the language of therapy to serve his own purposes. For example, he is the victim, and Alice is the perpetrator, and that came through in the script in the sense that he tells her that she’s incredibly selfish. He makes it a big thing that she wants to spend time with her friends, as though that's something she’s taking away from or doing to him rather than a completely ordinary and natural thing to want to do. I found that really interesting, and it feels quite contemporary to me, the idea that you take the language of the victim, and you use it to control someone.”
It just plays so well because people in those situations don’t ever think they’re the villain. I believe part of the director’s job is to make actors feel comfortable. What did you do to ensure the safety and mental health of your cast given that they were working with such emotionally taxing material?
“Completely. I think that’s a very good question because it is very difficult, especially when you’re working at speed in a nineteen-day shoot. I think a lot of what we did before set was really crucial, all of the Zoom conversations I had over many months with Anna. I managed to have rehearsals with her and Charlie Carrick, both over Zoom, to block through some of the more intimate and physical scenes with Charlie and Anna and also with our intimacy coordinator. In terms of the relationship between the three women, we had limited rehearsal. I would’ve loved more but, of course people’s availability is tight, but we were able to sit down for a full day at one of the actor’s lakeside houses and talk through all the key scenes and chart the journey of the friendships.
"I also said to Anna when she was doing a make-up test early on. I said, “Tell me if you want me out of the way.” Because this material is so intimate, I was really aware of trying to keep people out of her space. It was difficult to do because we didn’t have any resources, but I said to her “I will never be offended if you say to me, “Leave the room.”” I also get that some of this, you almost have to feel like you’re not being witnessed to do it. I was also very explicit with the crew and said, “We’re going to have to be very sensitive here and aware, and I need a certain level of quiet on set, as well.” I also managed to close the set quite a lot for a lot of the scenes in the bathroom. Because the bathrooms were very small, there was a practical element to it, as well, but it meant that when Alice is having big breakdowns in the bathroom or in the intimate scenes with Charlie Carrick, it was just Anna, Charlie, director of photography Mike McLaughlin, the sound person, and I. Hair and make-up, first AD, everybody else was out of the room, and I think that helped the intimacy of it.”
I have a lighter question now. I love the drunk singing in the street scene. Would you talk about directing that scene?
“That was so much fun, and it was so funny to do. We discussed that scene before we got there, and Anna said to me that with that Lisa Loeb song, no one ever remembers the middle verse, so we incorporated that into it. I asked them on the day to do that, and what was fun is, I think, that song was a song that Anna grew up with and writer Alanna Francis grew up with and loves, but Wunmi Mosaku, who plays Sophie, is British, and so like me, she didn’t really know the song as well, so Anna‘s kind of leading Wunmi’s singing and Kaniehtiio just forgot the words, I think, during the song, which works perfectly because she’s the friend who’s less into it and more reserved. We shot it all in long takes with our poor cameraperson Mike walking backwards a lot of the time. We were in this completely deserted, rural place so we could afford to be as loud and as raucous as we wanted to be, and I think it was such fun to edit because it did feel like they were really drunk. Hopefully, it feels quite natural and authentic.”
How many takes of that did you do?
“Not many. We did single-take coverage, and we did five different set ups.”
Anna Kendrick is just stellar in this. (Not to take anything away from her but,) what do you think was the most valuable direction you gave her regarding any part of her performance?
“That’s very difficult. I think it’s always very difficult to judge the usefulness or not of what you do. I think maybe the biggest thing was trust, and rather than a specific direction, there were moments where Anna came up to me and said, “I’m not sure this is right. I don’t know if this is working,” and I would reassure her that it worked brilliantly, and that she was doing exactly the right thing, and it was reading perfectly. I think sometimes directing is knowing when to stand back as much as it is to get involved, and I tried to be as sensitive as I could and provide the context, the story, the shape of the scenes, but also know when to get out of the way and let things unfold. I think timing as well, the camera person, Mike McLaughlin, and I were very aware that Anna would sometimes be building herself into a certain state in order to deliver. For example, the panic attack scene, [we tried] to shoot her at the right moment with the right impetus and not let it go on too long, not let it burn out.”
Of what are you most proud regarding this movie?
“I think I’m really proud of our team, because the conditions under which we made it were very difficult. It was Covid, a very short amount of time in which to film it – nineteen days, only two weeks of physical prep, which is very rare. I saw how all of the crew threw themselves in, and how hard all of the actors worked, and also the journey that the film went on in the edit with Gareth C. Scales editing it, and really how it took on a whole new dimension at that point. I think I’m really proud of the way in which the film was crafted at every stage and how hard the whole team worked and how I was able to, I hope, bring out the best in my collaborators, which I do think is part of a director’s job.”
Alice, Darling proves to be a captivating probe into the impact a person’s relationships, good and bad, have on one's mental health. It is now playing exclusively in AMC Theaters. Here’s the trailer, but it has some spoilers, so if you want to go in with a blank slate, maybe don't watch the trailer. But,definitely watch the film. It provides an incredibly authentic look at this type of relationship, and I think the more people who understand how these situations manifest, the more we could recognize when our own loved ones encounter similar situations and relationships.