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Thursday, October 31, 2002

A Director Speaks
A very cool thing happened today. Two weeks ago, after I saw Between Two Women at the Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, I did a little write-up, in which I said: "I'd love to know more about the movie’s back story ... It’s hard not to imagine that it’s not autobiographical in some way." Well, in the world of blogs, I guess it's a question of ask and ye shall receive. I don't get a ton of readers, but if one of them happens to be a movie director you've asked a question of ...

Here's what Steven Woodcock said about his motivations for making the film (The Jealous God, which he refers to, is his second movie, recently finished shooting, based on John Braine's novel of the same name; here's a New York Review of Books review of the novel from 1965):

BETWEEN TWO WOMEN is autobiographical in the sense that the family and the way they live—and where they live—is identical to how I was brought up. Some of the scenes were filmed in places I had known since I was a boy. Also, I used many props, curtains, and fabrics that came from my grandmother's house after she died. Only I know they are there but it is very important to me, in somehow acknowledging the influences on my life and where I have come from. Even the jewellery the two women wear belonged to my mother and grandmother.

The white 50s shopping bag that Ellen carries throughout the film has been with me all my life. I have photographs of me sitting next to it in 1961 as a toddler on the beach, with my parents. It originally belonged to my grandmother (bought in the mid-50s) and was then passed on to my mother. Besides producing, writing, and directing my films, I also production design them under the pseudonym Christopher Sutton and organize all the set dressing and costumes, and source all the locations. So every single visual element in the film is mine, which is why all the textures and colours and places gently work to compliment one another.

You mention "Northern cliches" but this is how people lived and there were so many men who worked in the mills it is inevitable that when films portray their lives it will seem as if there is a tendency towards cliche. Many people still keep sauce bottles permanently on their dinner tables even today, by the way! (Although we don't.)

The boy Victor—who was played by my own son Edward in real life—is really me. I was very artistically gifted as a boy but attending working-class schools in England I was given no encouragement. In a way, Miss Thompson is the teacher I wished for but never had. (Although I do remember having an obsessive crush on a very pretty teacher called Miss Pinnance when I was about six years old.)

She is also a manifestation of various aspects of me—she was revealed as a vegetarian in a scene that I cut from the film (as I am) and also as a fairly accomplished landscape photographer (which I also am). This is why there is the reference to the photographs at the flat but I removed a scene where we saw Kathy showing Victor how her camera worked in the classroom. Her car, the grey A35, was the first car I ever drove and my mother passed her driving test in 1953 in a grey one exactly the same—which is why I wanted it to be the same colour.

By the way, the same grey A35 is the "lead car" in THE JEALOUS GOD. Vincent, the lead character, was described by John Braine in the novel as driving an A35. I want my films to appear to be part of the same universe—although THE JEALOUS GOD (set in 1964) is far sexier and more upbeat than BETWEEN TWO WOMEN—and so I have written in a scene where Vincent goes back to his girlfriend's flat for the first time, and she asks him if he has had the car since it was new. He says that it had one previous owner, "a woman school teacher from Bradford". This is a deliberate reference to Miss Thompson, so that it is made plain for those who are interested in my films that Vincent now owns her car, which presumably she has sold since 1957. It sort of links the two films together, as if we have dipped into the same universe at two different points in time, when events begin to intensify.

On a more serious note, the relationship between the two women is not something I have any experience of but I do know that women experienced love as Ellen and Kathy did and I heard occasional rumours when I was younger. I wrote a novel first then adapted it as a screenplay. When I started writing the novel in 1995, Miss Thompson was originally Mr Thompson. But I just couldn't get the story to gell, and banged away at it for weeks producing some nice chapters but with something still missing.

One morning—I remember this very clearly—I woke up at about 6.00am and laid in bed brooding about what I would write that day, then like a lightning bolt, the idea flashed into my head that the teacher should be a woman. It was like an explosion going off; and then the novel took on a poetic, understated quality and suddenly had an edge. I seemed to find the right tone of voice in which to tell the story but became so convinced that I was somehow "channelling" events that had really happened that I made enquiries with Bradford Education Authority to find out if a woman teacher called Kathy Thompson had taught in the city forty years earlier. (They could find no such record.) Having said that, a couple of minor but quite spooky coincidences occurred that still leave me wondering ...

My wife says I write sympathetically about women, and says that when she first met me, she noticed that I didn't try to dominate her intellectually but treated her exactly as an equal, and made no attempt to impress her. The women I write about are always quite strong and are usually shown as being—dare I say it—superior to men. If there is a reason behind this (and why, to refer to your review, I should have made a "women's film") it is perhaps because my father died when I was only four years old and I was brought up by a single mother in quite a harsh industrial working-class environment. This shaped my outlook during my formative years.

My mother worked in a mill and all her work friends were women. I therefore related to the world very much from a woman's perspective from an early age and as a consequence have always felt easier in the company of women. If anything, Ellen's emotional predicament is a metaphor for what I remember noticing about my mother, who always seemed at odds against a predominantly masculine/ industrial environment.

Many people have asked if I will make a sequel to BETWEEN TWO WOMEN. I wouldn't want to do this, but having just shot THE JEALOUS GOD, I am wondering whether I could do a "prequel" instead, so that we learn more about Ellen and Hardy. It's just a thought, but when I was developing the novel, I wrote lots about Ellen's and Hardy's life before they moved to the new house and Victor started at his new school. Whether it would work, or whether it would lose its impact because we know, ultimately, what the outcome of the story will be, is something for me to think about.