Director and screenwriter David Farr’s debut film, The Ones Below (2015), joins the likes of Mark Pellington’s Arlington Road (1999), Joe Dante’s The 'Burbs (1989), Curtis Hanson’s The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (1992), and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) in its treatment of pregnancy, postpartum depression, and dubious neighbor relations. Like its aforementioned forebears, The Ones Below successfully taps into the tropes of a good domestic psychodrama, demonstrating what can happen when everyday fears and anxieites are amplified through the lens of suspense and dread. When yuppie couple Kate (Clémence Poésy) and Justin (Stephen Campbell Moore) strike up a tentative relationship with their new downstairs neighbors, the sleek and foreboding Teresa (Laura Birn) and John (David Morrissey), it's only a matter of time before the neighborly friendship turns uneasy and destructive.
ScreenPrism had the pleasure of speaking with long-time theater director David Farr about his new film, the difference between film and theater, and the inherent drama of dinner parties. The Ones Below premieres in the U.S. on May 27th.
SP: How did you come up with the film’s psychological premise?
DF: It started with a conversation [I had] with a friend about pregnancy and childbirth – we’re both Londoners and both fathers. [We were talking] about the strange loneliness that can come from [living] in a very big, very populated city like London. In those circumstances, people, particularly women, can experience a strange and unusual isolation. [We also talked about] how weirdly frightening birth still is, even in our sophisticated, modern world. It’s the one area where we don’t feel like we have a lot of control and things can go wrong. Psychologically, we don’t really understand how or why we’re going to react.
We had this conversation, then I went to sleep that night. I came up with the idea very early in the morning, in that half waking, half dreaming state. The story, which was very strange, just arrived into my head. [It was] about these two couples, one who lives above the other, and both women being pregnant and the strange bond that would develop between them before it all goes wrong.
SP: I read that you initially had the film rooted in the fathers’ perspectives. Why did you change the story to be about Kate and Teresa?
DF: The most important thing to me was that I realized the film had to belong to the women, that this would be a strange story about two pregnant women who become friends quite quickly. They don’t know each other at all in the beginning of the film, as you know. They just happen to live in the same apartment block. But this coincidence, their pregnancy, brings them very close together. I found that to be very fertile terrain to work on.
SP: Did any of the characters change after you cast Clémence Poésy and Laura Birn?
The character Teresa, who is the newcomer in the apartment block – I always knew she would come from abroad. I wanted to find a European actress to play her. Her partner, John, is British, played by David Morrissey. They’re both somewhat nomadic characters, outsiders, and they’ve found each other. They’ve found love together, and they’re obsessively in love. They're going to be great parents. Kate is, I suppose, more representative of modern, liberal London. London is a hugely cosmopolitan city now, rather like New York. I was very happy for Clémence, who is actually French, to play the role. She had a fantastic English accent, and I was very happy to imagine someone who perhaps had a French father and an English mother. It felt very important to try to create a modern London.
Clémence Poésy in The Ones Below
SP: You've spoken about wanting to make a film that was “unusual for a British movie.” Can you talk more about that?
DF: I think a lot of British cinema has, quite proudly, been in the social realist tradition...Currently my favorite movies are, I suppose, more European or in the more European tradition, and to some extent, the American tradition, whether it be Polanski or David Finch or even Hitchcock. He is British, of course, but to me he's very much an American filmmaker. The Ones Below is a much more bold, formal kind of movie; it has a slightly heightened quality sometimes. I was very interested, for my film – which sidelines truth – to [be] very real, as well as having a fairytale quality. I wanted to embrace that. There is a fairytale quality, perhaps because [the story] came to me in the night. I wanted to keep hold of that slightly dreamlike quality that it had in my imagination.
SP: What was your inspiration behind the film's colorful, Alice in Wonderland-esque set design?
DF: It was based on the idea of a fairytale, of one princess seeing another princess in a garden as she looks out of her window. I was also keen on the film – which has very dark [subject matter] – not having a very dark atmosphere, but to be the exact opposite, to be strangely bright and sunny. On the surface, Teresa is an extremely optimistic character: she’s a ray of sunlight. I wanted to push that right through everything: her apartment, her garden. She’s someone who gives out a very strong external image of optimism and positivity, which of course masks the darkness inside of her. But it’s something she genuinely means. She really does want, at the beginning of the film, for things to go well. But then we discover that all the [internal] tension and anxiety and terror, when unleashed, can prove to be very destructive.
Laura Birn in The Ones Below
SP: The contrast between her internal and external selves is interesting.
DF: She’s a very frightening person, to a certain extent. One [could] say she’s a psychopath. However, when I write any character, I have to find what drives them. And in her case, she has waited seven years to conceive a baby. Seven years is a long time. She’s desperate to have a child and she is pathologically determined to give [John] what he wants. When it doesn’t go well, things takes a very dark turn. But I think her psychological state at the beginning of the film is something that is very understandable, and probably [something] that many women have experienced: desperately wanting a child but, for some reason, not being able to. It’s a terribly painful – and still quite private – thing that many women go through and she reacts to it in a particularly extreme way. But this is an arena of humanity which is extreme. People are very extreme about babies. It pushes all our buttons.
SP: The film's unease and suspense really becomes apparent during the dinner party. What attracted you to that setting?
DF: I suppose because I like dinner parties. They’re a dramatic event. I find them interesting. I worked in theater for a long time [and] I was interested in using my skills in dialogue and character to explore a scene that on the surface is extremely normal. Four people sit at a table and talk and eat and drink, [but] all sorts of stuff are going on underneath in a very animal way. [There's] some element of jealously and some sort of erotic or sexual rivalry as well. The men are sizing each other up, and the women are constantly looking at each other to figure out what’s going on. We’ve all been in those social situations; it’s fundamentally normal, if slightly bourgeois. And this dinner party, which is by far the longest scene in the film, to end how it ends – without spoiling the story – that pleased me. It felt to me like a good exercise in suspense, conducted entirely through a very normal social event. I also enjoyed the comedy that is in that scene. I think most really frightening films have comedy in them. I think the dinner party is the funniest scene in the film.
Laura Birn, David Morrissey, Clémence Poésy and Stephen Campbell Moore in The Ones Below
SP: You’ve worked in theater for quite some time, but this is your filmmaking debut. What were the biggest differences between working in theater and working on a film?
DR: It’s true that when I left university, I was so clear that cinema was my first love. But there wasn’t enough happening at that time in the British film industry. I’m someone that really loves to make work. I don’t want to sit around talking about making work. I want to make it, learn [from it], and then make the next piece. In theater, there were so many opportunities to do that, and I was grabbed very young, at 21 years old. By 24, I was running a theater. I loved my time in theater and I hope to do the odd piece again.
When I was a teenager, I watched movie after movie. It was my imaginative escape. So coming back and suddenly being able to write for movies like Hanna (2011) and direct, it’s fantastic. It’s something I want to do more of. Interestingly, I find it less stressful making a film than directing a play. People are surprised by that. But the filmmaking mechanism and process is really deliberately focused around the director’s vision. In the theater, it’s somewhat different. I think the mechanism is, at the end, around delivering something so that the actor can have a relationship with the audience. And another thing about theater is that the director really has to crack the whip. In film, you’ve got someone else doing that. I much prefer not to crack the whip; I much prefer being left to focus on the creative side. For me, [making The Ones Below] was a very pleasurable surprise. I had a wonderful crew that was very focused on what we wanted to do, and an amazing cast [who were] totally committed, fantastically talented and had a lot of experience. So even though we didn’t have a huge amount of money, we got what we wanted and, crucially, had a fantastic director of photography, Ed Rutherford, and a wonderful production designer, Francesca Balestra Di Mottola, who were both prepared to take risks and go for something a little unusual.
Clémence Poésy in The Ones Below
SP: They did a great job developing the look of the film.
DF: There’s a lot of contrast in the film. There are moments where the colors almost bleed through to reflect some of Kate’s emotional exhaustion. Clémence gives an astonishing performance. She inhabits the role in a very intense way, which was absolutely required. The film doesn’t work unless she commits 100% to that state of mind. Having a baby is absolutely exhausting and she thinks she’s going mad. It’s very frightening.
SP: Do you have a favorite scene?
DF: The [scene] that I’m most proud of is probably when Stephen Campbell Moore, who plays Justin, arrives at the canal. It’s difficult to talk about it without spoiling the story but it’s an incredibly intense [and] emotional scene and we had to get that fast, because of the nature of the schedule. He is a wonderful actor and I thought we really nailed it. The film wouldn’t work without that, so I’m very proud of that moment. And we’ve already discussed it, but the dinner party scene is the most elegantly conceived and executed piece of the movie. It really works. This is when the audience really gets the film at that moment; they become very involved in it and feel the suspense. I’m really proud of it.