In Conversation: Elaine Constantine (Writer/Director of Northern Soul – BAFTA nominee)

Hi Film Folk!

 

It’s BAFTAs day and we have an awesome read for you as we await the awards. This time with nominated Northern Soul director – and acclaimed photographer – Elaine Constantine.

 

Elaine Constantine - Film Doctor interview

 

You have a dressmaker grandma, tailors mother and your sister is a designer, so presumably you came from a very creative family where such things were encouraged.

What was your life like growing up?

Pretty non-Academic really. The thing about my Mum being a tailoress is a bit grand. She worked in many jobs, one was working for a tailor,  and she had 5 children so she did whatever job she could do. We’re not talking arts school or anything. We’re talking ‘make do and mend’.

In terms of influence, my Mum and my Grandmother were always trying to make us do things and were very positive people. My father was a carpenter so yeah, it was very much about what you could create rather than about going to University. We weren’t from that background. There wasn’t an assumption that you’d go to University.

 







 

When did photography enter your life – or you into its – and what was your relationship to film throughout the years?

Going back to my childhood, my father was a very keen cine-enthusiast. He would film any events on his mini-cam. He was an older father. He served in the war and married my Mum after he came out of the war. So he didn’t really start his big family until he was 40 or late 30s. He’s still alive now, 95.

He was a very keen cinema fan. He’d been in the war and had seen all of these foreign lands and he’d had some little Brownie camera and done lots of stills, lots of snaps of himself, in his sailor outfit walking down different proms, in different parts of the world.

So we had these, sort of, exotic pictures of my father and sometimes he’d put up a screen on a Sunday night and we’d beg him to watch cine stuff. That was really exciting for me and I think part of that went in somewhere. Being a teenager and on the dole in Thatcher’s Britain in the early 80s, there wasn’t really any opportunities at all.

Quite a few clubs for unemployed people started in town and one of them was a camera club, and my Mum said  ‘you’ve always liked looking at photographs. Why don’t you go to that camera club? There’ll be some cameras there that you can use and they might have a dark room.’

So I enrolled into the camera club and sure enough there were cameras and a dark room, flash equipment and lenses. I learnt black and white print there and the tutor who was working there said ‘you might be able to get a technician’s certificate’. So I took the exam and passed it, and I took the higher level exam as an apprentice and I passed that one and then I wanted to be a photographer.

 

Elaine Constantine - younger years
Elaine Constantine – younger years

 

I did a couple of years on Government schemes then got a job at a Technical College in Manchester, called ‘Demonstrating Photography’ which I did for 4 years and then I got a job in London as an assistant to a photographer called Nick Knight. I lasted about 6 months with Nick because I felt I’d learned enough.

I don’t know if you know much about this role for very successful photographers. I’m not knocking it but you become that person’s slave, you work every hour and you don’t get much sleep, you work weekends and you do what they want you to do and that involves everything, not just photography. It’s brilliant for a short time as a baptism of fire into high-end commercial photography but it isn’t something I wanted to do forever.

I knew if I went to The Face they’d probably start me off on small jobs and that I could work for them because anyone coming away from Knight would get that – he was such an inspiration. Even if you didn’t have any ideas, you’d know how to light or take a picture and get it done very quickly.

So I went to The Face and i-D and sure enough I got very small jobs for a while and then The Face really started to take me seriously and within a couple of years I was their most active photographer. I was freelance but I was shooting for them constantly. I was doing about 2 jobs a week for them. It was amazing.

They started asking me to do big spreads, cover shoots and they were actively encouraging people to approach fashion in a completely left-field way. Great for me because I was just using real people. A lot of photographers are just desperate to get supermodels in front of the lens but I wasn’t interested at all. I just wanted to get people that I was inspired by.

So I just asked whoever I could who had energy, regardless of whether they were perfect looking. I sort of got a reputation for being a photographer who was good at doing very real stuff and making it look not like fashion, look a bit like documentary and a lot of clients were digging that then.

So I soon started to be a big deal and there was one point where I went into i-D magazine and the fashion editor said to me there ‘Cor, you’ve turned things around, haven’t you? Even Steven Meisel is copying you at the moment’ and I went and looked at what he’d done and sure enough it was far removed from anything he’d done and was pretty similar to the stuff I was doing, so I was doing something right! [laughs]

 

Elaine Constantine
Elaine Constantine in her younger years

 

You have been a successful, established photographer for decades. What was the one thing that made you turn your hand to writing and directing?

Was it just your love for the Northern Soul movement? Or is there something beyond that? (i.e. if you had no one passion like that, would you have made a film at all?)

Well, a few things happened at the same time. A few people I knew through commercials asked me if I wanted to direct, so they’d asked me to come in and do stills and choose a DP to shoot moving versions of that. So a couple of times that happened. Also, at that time, I was flirting with the idea of making a documentary about Northern Soul, which I was actually filming myself.

I would go to hire places and said ‘can you give me a camera and show me how it works?’ and then I’d go to an all-nighter and film it. I wasn’t even thinking beyond that at that point. So that was happening and I was getting these commercial offers at the same time.

A couple of years down the line and I’d done maybe 30 hours of footage and I just realised that it’s not the scene I remembered as a kid. The scene I was involved in was very energetic and beautiful and we’d moved on 10 years. It was more late 30 year olds, late 40 year olds, collecting but not with the same kind of excitement about new moves on the dance floor. It had lost its energy at that point – not in enthusiasm, but definitely on the dance floor.

So I was sat with a bunch of friends after an all nighter, they were going ‘why don’t you try and do a fictionalised version of it? Imagine putting our group of friends now into a film, it’d be hilarious. And ‘so and so got completely off his tits last night…imagine showing that in the film.’ So every time I went to an all-nighter everybody was like ‘(gasp) did you see that? (gasp) Did you see him use that disc as a Frisbee across the floor?’ So all these anecdotes came to me. People who come up to me and say ‘oh, you’re doing a film. Put THIS in it!’ [Laughs]

But at that time I wasn’t thinking I was gonna write a script. I was thinking ‘maybe I can find someone to write the script’. So it was always something on the back-burner and at a certain point I approached a producing team who helped me and they were like ‘you need to get a writer’.

I systematically went through five people. Four of which never got back to me. One got back to me and said ‘yes’ he wanted to do it, and I would be paying him and it just sort of faded away. I kept emailing him saying ‘do you want to do it?’ and he kept saying ‘Yeah, yeah, I want to do it’ and I’d say ‘Right, I’ll meet you at so and so’ and then he wouldn’t show up….

But in the time I’d been dealing with all of this, I’d been writing ideas down and coming up with a synopsis to hand over. A friend of mine said to me ‘there’s a screenwriting boot camp’…obviously in all this time I’ve been to Robert McKee, read William Goldman and I’m getting a sense of what it is but I’m still not thinking ‘This is me, I’m gonna write this’. So my friend said ‘Right, let’s go on this Hollywood boot camp. I want to write scripts. I reckon you should try writing scripts. You have to login for 2 hours every day on an open forum. People in the class look at your work’ and I was thinking ‘Oh, shit. Really?’

So me and this guy Angus Smith, went through this course together. He was writing something else, I was doing Northern Soul. At the end of the 7 or 8 weeks, we came away with mini scripts and even though I didn’t buy what I wrote and it felt a bit phony, I sort of got an understanding of the 3 act structure, at least, and how to develop character. So, I just ploughed into it. Changed the story from how it was.

The brilliant thing about the boot-camp was you got to speak to a mentor, like a script doctor, once a week from America. This guy that I’d been set up with was brilliant. So I said to him, “do you fancy going this alone with me and every two weeks I give you my progress and you tell me what’s wrong with it and I’ll pay you?” So, we arranged quite a reasonable fee and we had a phone call every fortnight or whenever we could fit it in and it worked out really well. He was a brilliant guy and I had a first draft.

I started to send it round to producers and I didn’t get any response whatsoever, and then I started at second draft, third draft, fourth draft – back again, more producers, introductions to everyone and anyone who’d listen. By this time, I’m spending a lot of time writing and not really doing my photography. I dedicated myself to that for a while, had a baby, so it got sidelined for a bit and then once he’d grown up a bit – to about 6 months old – I started writing again.

My accountant introduced me to somebody he’d just met – a producer at ITV, doing factual – Debbie Gray. Basically, she said to me. I want to get out of factual. I want to do features. My heart’s in drama, let me read your script.’ So she read it, loved it and said ‘right, let’s make a plan’. I couldn’t believe it. Somebody had actually a.) Read it and b.) Thought it was worthy of being produced!

 




 

Was Debbie liking the script a validation of the script being ready or did you feel it was ready before?

No, I didn’t think that it was ready at that point. I kinda knew it wasn’t ready because I’d take time away from it and read it and go ‘oooh’. Plus, I was constantly doing this thing where I would show it to new script doctors through the course of the draft, I probably showed it to about 5-6 script doctors who came back with varying comments.

So I never actually felt it was finished. It is a very..I hate the word.. but ‘organic’ thing making a script. It’s a bit like a bottle of wine – as it matures, it gets better.

 
 

How did the production experience feel? Because, presumably you’ve been working in more controlled or controllable environments as a photographer and now you’re working on scenes with hundreds of people….

You know what? People say to me ‘aren’t you scared about directing?’ I think the only thing that scared me about directing is that if you get to scenes and then recognise that it might not be working in the script. The process is very similar but I actually think it’s harder to be a Photographer, because as the Photographer you’re your DP, your focus puller, you’re your operator, you’re a f***ing wrangler for every bit of talent that’s involved (!), well at least I did for the first 15 years as a Photographer and it’s testing, especially when it’s big ideas on low budgets.

So, when you’re a director doing that, it suddenly liberates you to only concentrate on what’s going on in the picture and what it sounds like. So, it’s brilliant. It’s like ‘Oh my God, this is so simple’. Because obviously all the rest of it is what I do anyway – I hire teams, I have discussions with set designer, I have discussions with stylists or wardrobe or whatever.

So, all of that is second nature now. I know who I want and what I want. A large part of it was nothing new – the scary part of it was ‘is this script working?’ and ‘is it gonna cut well?’

 

Elaine Constantine on set
Elaine Constantine on set

 

The film is listed on the always 100% accurate [laughs] Wikipedia as being privately invested in and using a substantial amount of your own funds. Presumably there were tax breaks of some description? 

Yeah, we did an EIS scheme which for some people it made it a tax incentive.

 
 

Did you have feelings – good, bad or neutral on using your own cash?

We didn’t have a choice really. It was just, we do it or we don’t make this film. It wasn’t coming from anywhere else. For other people to invest there had to be some confidence there. Literally, we did try every single fund that was available to us and we got turned down by all of them.

 
 

Is there anything you would say to anybody thinking of putting their own cash into a project? Dos and don’ts?

I think, at a certain level, you have to put your own cash into projects because nobody will hand you a project if you don’t have anything to prove that you can do stuff. Small amounts are what everybody does. If you’re a young director, you have to fund it. It’s a hobbie. You can’t just go into directing and think you’re gonna earn money if you’re no good at it.

So you have to make stuff to be good at it. Unless, of course, you’re coming up from the crew route and you’re already good at it when you start.

I think as a director, if you want that experience, you have to pay for it – and that also involves begging, stealing and borrowing.

 

 

How did you got about catching the familiar fish? McKay, Coogan, Tomlinson, Stansfield etc?

Ricky Tomlinson was brought in by a casting director called Manuel Puro who did a really brilliant job right at the end – to fill in the blanks. Steve Coogan we approached through Baby Cow and a couple of other contacts, through Manchester.

Lisa Stansfield I already knew because she is from my side of town. Christian McKay – his late Grandad was my Dad’s best mate and they worked on building sites together.

 
 

Simon Tindall shot the film. He’s done some great work. Tell us about working with him. Obviously you have a photographic background, so did that make it harder or easier, in terms of working with someone else and the camera?

When I met Simon Tindall to work out whether or not we could work together, he recognised me and said ‘I think you taught me’ and it turned out he’d been at Salford Tech for a couple of weeks, coming from another college to use the photography facilities.

 
 

Did you prepare special reference images or storyboards?

We did get some key scenes storyboarded but we couldn’t afford to get the whole lot done. I collected a lot of reference images and handed them to Simon. The thing I liked about Simon’s reel was, he hadn’t done much but what he had done wasn’t gratuitous.

There was nothing in there that had a really extreme look to it, which you could have gone ‘Oooh, I’m scared of this guy. He might go too far’. 

 
 

By gratuitous you mean substance over style?

Well, he comes from an operating background, so he knows how to tell stories. Sometimes I look at DP’s reels and I think ‘you’ve gone too far there’ because as a photographer I’ve got a very specific thing that I want.

I’m not someone who can be talked into stuff. That might have happened in the past when I first started working with DPs. I’m happy to listen and to get benefits from it but I certainly wouldn’t be talked into doing a bleach bypass or to push or pull the film 4 stops and end up with something I hate.

Whereas you do get DPs who want to play around and have fun and that’s all right for them but it’s no good for me. I don’t want that.

 
 

You shot on film, is that right?

No. We shot digital.

 
 

Wow. We didn’t know that. From seeing it – we were convinced it was film.

Well that’s Simon Tindall for you, you watch, he’s a rising star! [Laughs] We’d like to have shot on film but we didn’t have the budget.

 

 

What was great was that it had such energy. The temptation with lower budget or unsupported projects is to have the camera on sticks or to cheat scenes but it doesn’t look like you did that at all. What kind of conversations took place, even between yourself, about things like that?

I definitely didn’t want it all handheld. I just didn’t want to go there. I wanted it to feel a little more smooth and how you actually see it. I mean, in your own head, you’re not walking around like you’re in the ‘Blair Witch Project’. You’ve got your own steadier inside your brain.

So, I wanted it to feel like you’re really there – unless you’re cast running like crazy, like when Simon decided to run after them when they were smashing the windows of the youth club, it felt like the right moment.

So, I wanted it to feel like you’re a person in the group, experiencing everything. That was the main kind of direction for the camera movement – when to choose when to go handheld, when to go on dolly. It depends, scene by scene, on what the mood was, what the energy was going to be like.

 
 

Did you do any multi-camera stuff at any points?

Yeah, we did the Wigan scenes with multi-camera. 2 cameras. The crash scene and the chase.

 
 

In a lot of your interviews on Northern Soul authenticity is mentioned as crucial element. I mean, we heard you talked to the lead about authentic 1970s Bolton accent vs the modern Bolton accent. That is meticulous!!

What do you think was the key to finding and achieving this sort of authenticity? Did you work with people from those backgrounds or educate creatives about the look?

For clothes I hired Adam Howe who wasn’t from a film background to do the men. Just because I had a trust with this guy who is very good at styling men and he’s the same age as me, so he knows that period well.

We needed a woman as well and thankfully we met Yvonne Duckett a couple of months before we shot. She was someone who has not only been on the Northern Soul scene but was brilliant at wardrobe. It was her first gig as top liner costume designer. 

Same with our Production Designer – it was his first film. It was Simon’s first film. It was the Editor’s first film. It was made with so much love for it. There was none of that  ‘I’m going on my break’ attitude when it came to getting it done.

 
 

Northern Soul - Official Poster
Northern Soul – Official Poster

What advice would you give an emerging photographer or filmmaker?

Get a really good script or idea. Script is king. If you’ve got a shit script, and you don’t discover that until you’re on set, you’re buggered. You’re going to hemorrhage cash trying to fix it later. Don’t go anywhere with a bad script and think it’s going to work.

One of the things that I did lots was I just begged, steal and borrowed and workshopped the script, with anyone and everyone. Actors or non-actors or aspiring actor. Obviously, you’ve got to try and get the best kind of improvisational people you can. It’s all about developing the script really.

 
 

You make films. You happen to be a woman. What’s your 2 cents on the opportunities for women? ?

I don’t really think, when I get into something, ‘Oh, I’m a woman’. I just think ‘let’s do the job’ and I do it. I never think ‘oh right, I wonder what this person’s thinking because I’m a woman’. 

If someone is inappropriately rude, for no apparent reason – I don’t automatically think it’s because they are sexist, unless I blatantly see them treating men differently, and if the case is proven in point, then I’ll let them have it big time. Like the guy who was running the storage unit we used in Bury, he’ll think twice before being a sexist pig again.

In fact, we were approached by the Bird’s Eye View Festival last year  to enter the film into their competition and Debbie said we should put it in. I was like ‘Do we really want to? Do we really want to be judged against other women? Surely, it’s about being judged against other filmmakers.’ ‘

This is a film made by a woman Director/Writer and a woman Producer and we didn’t get in! So, there you go! I think sometimes it doesn’t matter what you are it’s more what you do and our film didn’t appeal to the woman’s festival. So we didn’t get a leg up or a ‘leg down’ for being women.

Maybe there are some women held back by men….I don’t know that. If ever anybody’s tried to hold me back, my determination has overridden that.

 
 

What would be your “Top 10 films to watch”, be it as a professional guide, recommendations to aspiring filmmakers or just personal favourites?

Tales of Manhattan

It’s a Wonderful Life

Sweet smell of success

The Leopard (Il gattopardo)

Sunset Boulevard

Glengarry Glen Ross

Breaking The Waves

Kes

The Deer Hunter

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

Rita, Sue and Bob Too!

 
 

THANK YOU so much, Elaine, and we wish you the greatest of luck at the 68th EE BAFTAs tonight!

 

You can follow Northern Soul on Facebook here.

If you’ve missed some of our previous interviews, check them out here.

 
 

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