On directing first-timers, being inspired by the Up Series, and the challenge of filming across 52 Tuesdays.
Sophie Hyde’s 52 Tuesdays is a compelling film, telling the story of Billie (a stunning Tilda Cobham-Hervey) as she comes to terms with her mother’s gender transition and the time constraints the two put on their ongoing relationship. The film was shot over 52 actual Tuesdays, and the formal constraints placed by Hyde and the script match the barriers to understanding each other that the characters place in front of each other. The film, while uneven at points, carries a real emotional wallop, and the fine acting and intriguing direction add considerably to the story.
* * *
BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM: Why film?
SOPHIE HYDE: I grew up doing youth theatre and being an actor. I knew very quickly I didn’t want to be actor, so I thought I’d direct theatre. Then I went to univeristy and I studied film, and I loved film theory so much. Originally I loved documentary theory, and the Michael Apted series 7 Up. I did a tutorial on that. I found it so fascinating, [especially] the way the film impacted on the people. That’s what made me become a filmmaker, I think.
BG: With the 7 Up series, there’s a sense of growing up with the characters and each film builds an understanding in both the characters and the audience. Did that help influence the structure of 52 Tuesdays, because in a sense, each week builds on the previous?
SH: The concept of 52 Tuesdays came from Matt [Cormack], who’s my co-writer, which is to film two people who meet on a Tuesday for a year and film it on Tuesdays, and for it not to be scripted. I guess my interest in unusual processes comes from that background, and my theatre background as well. I like things that ask you to what’s going on and is made in unusual ways.
BG: Do you think those constraints have a certain result? If you’d made this film on a three week shoot, would it have had the same effect or performances?
SH: I think it had a huge result. Some people can walk in and feel like they could have made it any way. But I know that, through my collaboration with the writer, the cinematographer, and the actors in particular, it was a completely different film. For me, the process and the content are intricately tied together and they create each other.
BG: Do you think looking back, in hindsight, knowing what you knew, on the 52nd Tuesday, you might have done something differently on the 2nd Tuesday?
SH: Oh my god, we would have done so many things differently. That’s part of the process. We kept having to tell each other, stick to the rules. Inside rules and restriction, there’s creativity, and something to learn. Of course. When you write an essay, after you’ve written it, it is really easy to go back and rewrite that essay. If you’re looking for perfection that’s the best thing you can do, write it, and rewrite it. For me, I’m looking for something else. The film is a flawed film, but part of that is also what’s interesting about it.
BG: The structure worked beautifully, in terms of the rigid boundaries we set, no matter how well intentioned, can often hold us back.
SH: Absolutely. All through the making of it, it felt like I was with a character who had set a boundary and a rule that was untenable and unhelpful. Yet we had created exactly the same thing for ourselves. There was always this push/pull between control and rules and breaking those rules and pushing against them. I felt like we were experiencing what the characters were experiencing.
BG: I think thematically it matches the journey you go through with the two leads.
SH: Everyone assumes the change will be physical but we discovered the emotional change for the cast and our characters was more important.
BG: Given the 52 Tuesdays, that meant you would have had to have 52 scenes. Was it an interesting process trying to come with the scenes? Some of the scenes only last a matter of a few seconds.
SH: We were very clear we weren’t going to have a monotonous structure, i.e. the same length of time every week. We needed to find our own rhythm. It’s a very particular rhythm that comes up. You try to tell the story and stick to those rules, and you’re trying to make it feel okay for an audience. Those things are interesting to manage together. We expected there to be less going on. We expected more of ordinary life. With those boundaries and with the structure we set up, it felt like there were loads to do. Too much to do. A lot of what I’d do differently is to refine some of that stuff down a little bit. That was what we didn’t have the opportunity to do—have a whole script and pull out things that were unnecessary. We had to create quite a lot of stuff and then find an economy in that.
BG: So editing played an important role?
SH: Editing was full on. Six months of work, which is funny for something that is scripted and chronological. It’s crazy. Discovering that point of view and refining that, which is the job of the edit a lot of the time, is a tricky thing. When you have rules like that, you can go anywhere within that. The edit was very hard. It did change the film a lot. All of the parts changed it.
BG: In that respect, it’s kind of a documentary film in terms of finding the story…
SH: It’s got a real documentary air to it. Even though the people in it aren’t playing themselves, the situations the characters are in are completely fictional. That’s my background in documentary filmmaking, and for me the interest and thrill goes right through to the end.
BG: You focus on Billie—why her, rather than James?
SH: When we first started filming, I had a really strong sense that it would be a two-hander. Their stories would be very strong. As we got into it, there were two reasons. One was that Tilda was such an incredible collaborator. She was so curious and interested that we naturally started working intensely together. It shifted things enough that I felt for James’ story to be the focus, I needed to really focus on him and see things outside of the Tuesdays. Whereas James’ story on the Tuesdays was very limited and mostly about his daughter. Therefore if I wasn’t getting enough access, I needed to limit that access.
BG: Did James get marginalised as a character through that?
SH: I think there was a point where I felt the balance was more leaning towards Billie. But I sort of marginalised James more. I was getting some stuff and it felt like we were telling his story but we weren’t. We weren’t seeing his outside life and there was no way for us to do it in the film itself. It felt much stronger to say this is a story from this person’s point of view, so we don’t know if what we’re seeing is his whole truth. We’re seeing it from somebody else. It happened quite naturally. In the process, you work with what you have, how the performers are, how they’re interacting with each, and how much access you have to them. At times, we didn’t have that much access to James or [actor] Del (Herbert-Jane) and the film naturally shifted that way.
BG: You’re helped a lot with the performances and by how fearless they were. Did you know them beforehand?
SH: None of them had been in a film before. They’re all first-timers. They were fearless. They were all really invested in the process and committed to it. I don’t know if they felt like we were making a film at times. It was like we were making a project. Part of it is that they’re all generous, interesting people. They were able to bring that to the table. Part of it is the form. We talked so much outside of the Tuesdays. We could talk about ideas, things we loved and hated, about the world. On the actual Tuesday, all of that could drop away and we could just do the scenes. They’ve got this very natural kind of quality around them all, and they really understood where things were coming from. I don’t think that’s always the case. Often you just have to go on as an actor and perform. I think they rarely felt like that, if ever.
BG: Obviously the performance of Cobham-Hervey was central. How did you discover her?
SH: She came to an open audition and it was a lot of teenagers and we played games. We knew her parents. They’re in the arts and I had known her a few years before. I thought that she was very young, like 12. When I re-met her, she was just about to turn 15. She came in with a bunch of friends, three of whom, were one kind of circle of friends and Sam [Althuizen], he had done work experience with us and he brought the others along. There was an idea that Tilda wouldn’t be right for the role, from herself and other people. She was not a sexual being. She was something else. She had a very clear idea of who she was. It was in the audition, she was talking about that idea of herself that she had clung to and everybody had told her she wasn’t quite right. I thought she was at this amazing age, and she was very fearless and smart. That was exciting. This is not the person, if I was to draw a picture of this character, it would have been. She offers something else. And she did. She completely transforms the film I think.
BG: It lives on her performance.
SH: When she first started, she felt like she was so different from the character and then during production, it was a worry at times, because she felt like she couldn’t tell the difference between herself and the character. And we were a bit uncertain. Now looking back at it, they’re so different. She just got inside of her. She says she can’t imagine who she’d be without doing that role. It’s very 7 Up, isn’t it? You can’t separate what you’ve made from who you are.
BG: You present the camera in the film interestingly. It’s used for self-expression and power, but also has these uncertain consequences, or consequences you can’t control. Does that mirror your process?
SH: Definitely. As someone who makes documentaries and also this, I feel that you’re constantly in a delicate situation: there is a control you have, and a privilege you have in being offered up people’s stories, and there is power in that. You have to choose how you use that. At the same time, the consequences are not always what you think they will be and sometimes it’s overbearing. I certainly relate to that part of Billie’s story. There are some parts where I’m sitting behind her, and she’s sitting behind her camera with the kids doing their things, thinking, “what’s going on here.” It’s kind of weird. It’s interesting to think about now. We’re so aware of the recorded image and we’re so aware of what can happen with it, but actually trust and friendships don’t always fit into that.
BG: Billie’s blasé about it at points and it seems every day to her.
SH: Yeah, she is blasé about it. We often talked about her as someone whose questions about sex are the same as questions about breakfast. That’s something I love about her, and that comes out in the filming. Something the three teenagers and I talked a lot about is representation of young people on the screen and nudity, which is a huge thing for all of us. Tilda always kept talking about, “is it the worst thing that could happen is that you might be seen naked or engaging in some sort of sex? There are so many terrible things going on in the world, and we’re so worried about that?” It was a chance for her and the others to think about that.
BG: It was interesting with each Tuesday how you interspersed it with news footage or a collage of other things happening in the world. What was the intention of the juxtaposition between these world events and personal challenges?
SH: We never thought we’d mark the Tuesdays. We always thought it’d be told. It became clear in the edit we needed to play homage to the process and understand the time it was set over. There is a kind of inward looking that happens inside a story like that. It was really important for an audience to engage emotionally but also step outside a little bit to think about time and to recognise all of these things that happen to us and the characters in the film are happening at the same time as all of these things in the world. Some are huge and some are tiny and every day. It felt like a good important balance, and I think the process and the time we made it is important. And it’s not like everybody needs to understand it completely but understanding the timeframe is crucial. Those were news stories, things from YouTube, natural events, they all had to happen on a Tuesday or be posted online on a Tuesday. We had to afford it, because we couldn’t afford anything!
BG: Do you think it adds a date stamp to the film, of when this is made or the era?
SH: It’s interesting. It sort of feels old now. It’s certainly of its era that people recognise as happening. The Julian Assange stuff always stands out as something people recognise from a particular time. I find that fascinating. It feels like a long time ago. I mark it by the news stories, and Tilda’s about to turn 20. She was 16 when we started.
BG: Could you have predicted the success it has had with the Sundance Best Director prize and Berlin?
SH: Of course no, I couldn’t. With this film, our intention or goal was to get it into an A-List festival. It was always the thing. We knew it was low-budget. We knew it wasn’t going to be this massive commercial success, there was no cast or anything. But when we were making it, we didn’t think about that stuff at all. We had to switch off from that whole idea of anything and be really inside it. There were times when we felt like we had failed and it wasn’t going to do anything. It’s a very satisfying thing to be recognised, because as a creative you don’t know. I think the thing that has surprised us has been the breadth of the interest, different kinds of audiences have responded to it. It doesn’t feel like it’s been in a niche.
BG: How has the release gone in Australia?
SH: Beautifully. We’re a tiny release in Australia and I think, importantly so. Everyone would have liked more audiences to come. For me, I talked to the audience so much. It was really blissful. It was a much stronger recognition of the film than had a larger audience come to it. People felt like they knew it. It’s really hard to get audiences to Australian films in Australia and if we could have released on VOD straightaway, I feel like we could have done really good numbers but for me. I found it amazing just to be in the cinemas. It was a great experience.
Screening: Auckland | Wellington | Dunedin | Christchurch | Other