Broken, the debut feature film from British theatre director Rufus Norris, is a story of fear and paranoia in the suburbs. The protagonist of the story is a strong-willed young girl named Skunk, and it was the depth of this character that drew Norris to the project. “I think that for me and for most storytellers, the way into any story has to be personal,” he says. “I have two young children, and while they’re either side of Skunk’s age, the same issues come up. I worry about protecting them enough, and loving them enough, and the ways we all manage to screw up our parenting. I myself also associated very strongly with Skunk, in terms of her personality and her naïve optimism.”
Norris and the producers saw close to 850 girls around Britain before deciding on Eloise Laurence for the part of the plucky 11-year-old Skunk. “We didn’t give up until we found someone we were really happy with,” he says. “As soon as I met with her and started reading with her, I felt an immediate affinity. She was coming at it very fresh, because she had never acted before. We knew we wanted her to have a trusting relationship with everyone in the cast, especially Tim Roth, who plays her father. Everyone who worked with her got with the program, on the understanding that if we didn’t get a good performance from her, we didn’t have a movie.”
Roth and Laurence make for a convincing onscreen father and daughter – a fact that may be down to the bonding they did before filming began. “At the start of rehearsals, Tim asked for a day when he could take Eloise and Bill Milner, who plays her brother, and have a family day out. They went to the zoo, they mucked about in London, Tim spoiled them and they all took the piss out of each other. They had a great laugh together,” he continues, “and they created a family unit. Tim really gave himself over to it. Tim is a father, so he understands. He’s very much a family man. That was a crucial aspect of the film, and the bonding they did makes it seem far more real.”
Before embarking on Broken, Norris spent years directing theatre, and many of the lessons he learned in his former career carried over. “Film and theatre are very different mediums,” he says, “but there are many ways in which they cross over.” Ultimately, he says, your job as a director is to tell a story in the way that you want, and extract the best performances that you can from your actors. “In that sense, they’re the same,” he continues. “The visual style and the rhythms are different, the tools are different, but I think the basic craft is very similar. It’s often been said that there is a closer correlation between theatre and film than between theatre and television.”
If you go and see a piece of theatre, you leave the house, you go and sit down in a dark room with no distractions and watch the story unfold – if you don’t like it, it’s difficult to leave, unless you want to leave at interval. Film is similar, Norris says. “As a filmmaker, you can work on atmosphere – you know you have 90 minutes or 120 minutes to tell your story,” he explains. “With television, it’s different, because the audience is watching at home, and are therefore much more easily distracted – someone comes in and talks to them, they go and make a cup of tea, so as a storyteller, you have to keep people from reaching for the remote. There’s a very different pressure on you.”
BY ALASDAIR DUNCAN
Broken is in cinemas now.