'Get out there and make something' Dark River director Clio Barnard shares her filmmaking journey

Clio Barnard is a two-time BAFTA-nominated British filmmaker who won a London Film Festival and a BIFA award for her debut feature film The Arbor. Now the director, from Otley, West Yorkshire, has been awarded a Platform Prize Honorable Mention at the Toronto International Film Festival for her new film Dark River which follows Alice (played by Ruth Wilson) as she returns to her home village for the first time in 15 years, to claim the tenancy to the family farm she believes is rightfully hers.

7th March 2018
/ By James Collins

Clio Barnard at the Dark River premiere GETTY

Here Mandy News talks to Clio about her filmmaking, the challenges of shooting Dark River and what filmmakers can do to get noticed.

Clio, please tell us how you got involved in the film industry.
I’m a film maker and I got involved through the individual arts. I went to art school and was making film and video work, more as an artist, rather than as a conventional filmmaker. I really began by making records on film of my drawings and, from there, developed the practice as an artist using film and video.

Fantastic. Whereabouts did you study?
I went to Newcastle art school a long, long time ago!

And the transition from video art to cinema and such, how did that transition come about?
Well I’d sort of been working a bit between the two, in that I’d been making experimental shorts, but also made a more straight-forward narrative short film and one documentary film that was somewhere between documentary and fiction. 

Then I started making gallery installations and got a commission to make a feature-length artist film which was The Arbour. That was commissioned by Archangel who are an organisation that work with artists, rather than a film production company.

That was my first theatrically released feature film and it was because of that, that I then made The Selfish Giant and Dark River.

Tell us how Dark River came about? Was it because of The Selfish Giant? How did one become the other?
It was more that The Selfish Giant grew out of The Arbour. The Arbour is about a community in Bradford (West Yorkshire, UK) and, while I was making it, I met some kids who were collecting scrap metal on horses and I knew I wanted to make a film about them – a kind of contemporary fable.

Dark River came about, to begin with at least, in a more conventional way. I was sent a novel by production company Leftbank Pictures, who asked if I would be interested in adapting it. I read the novel and was very taken by these characters called Audren and Aramond who are Alice and Joe in my film. 

My process, in the past, has been very much about a particular place or a particular location and I felt I needed to find the place where the story takes place. So I took the story and set it there.

So the story wasn’t initially set in a country location?
It was set in the country but it was set in rural France.

How long was the shoot for Dark River and what were the challenges that you came across shooting it?
The shoot was about five and a half weeks, the subject matter is very challenging and working with sheep is very challenging. I don’t know that I’d do that again! There are quite a lot of animals in the film and that was tricky but the sheep were the trickiest! 

The weather was quite hard. Even though we shot in the middle of Summer, the weather’s really changeable – it’d be pouring with rain and then the sun shining the next minute which was a bit of a nightmare for continuity as a lot of it is shot outside!

Some of the locations, even though they look really idyllic in some ways, we shot at a waterfall and the waterfall is actually a really difficult location because it’s like working in white noise for three days!

Woah! How did you deal with that problem?
We just had to raise our voices! I think it’s quite a weird one. I think people didn’t realise how frustrating it was because it’s just a constant noise. It was a difficult location for health and safety reasons too. There were slippery rocks with people in very cold water, even though it was one of the hottest days of the year! 

It was quite treacherous, what we had to do there was quite difficult. It was a beautiful place but quite difficult!

With the editing techniques, for example, when the female character is preparing the rabbit and the male character is destroying the house, was that pre-determined when you were shooting or something that you worked on afterwards?
Well, I’ve worked with the editor, Nick Kenton, for a really long time and we were all up there together. The cutting room was very close to the set which was brilliant. It meant that I could be in the cutting room when I wasn’t on set. 

I can’t remember now whether it was scripted that way but I think it wasn’t. Quite early on in the edit, I’d go to the cutting room after the day’s shooting. We probably shot that stuff the day before and he showed me that scene and I thought it was fantastic because you understand something about the impact her being back is having on him. She’s not deliberately stirring things up, provoking or making him confront the past but just by being there, I think it’s incredibly difficult for him. 

It's really conveyed by, I guess, what you'd call montage – creating meaning by what images you put next to each other. I was really excited by that when he showed it to me..

So, as a writer-director, you’ve written a lot of projects that you’ve directed. What are the extra challenges that you feel, or the positives and negatives of being a writer-director?
The positives are about authorship, I suppose, and if I need to change something, I can feel my own way into it. Whereas, when I have been working with writers that’s quite different because sometimes you're both coming at it from a different place and that can be tricky. Or you have to say "OK, I’m going to hand this over and see what they do with it”. 

Sometimes there’s another project that I’ve got where it’s come fully-formed and there’s something fantastic as well – that it’s all there! I suppose the thing about authorship is, if you’re writing then directing is really lovely. A disadvantage: we had a read-through quite close to the shoot and, from the read-through there were some notes that came back and I needed to be a writer right up to the wire of shooting and I think there’s a certain point where I needed to stop being a writer and fully focus on being a director so that was quite difficult. 

Maybe I would give myself a cut-off point, I’m not going to do any more writing after this point because, from this point on I need to prep as a director.

That makes perfect sense. It must have been quite difficult having to be a writer in pre-production all the way up to that point.
Yes, it was. I don’t know why but, for some reason on The Selfish Giant, it didn’t feel that I needed to. It felt more fluid somehow. I’m not sure why. It was difficult on Dark River.

There have been stats recently shared – and it’s been in the news quite a lot recently – about the low percentage of female writers and directors in the industry at the moment compared to male writers and directors. You’re out there doing both! What do you think the industry needs to do to give more opportunity to people like yourself who have amazing stories to tell and amazing directing skills to show to the world?
Well, I think positive discrimination is a good thing. Part of what’s really great is that it’s being spoken about and thought about and people are aware of the percentages and aware that something needs to be done about it. 

I suppose, in some ways, as a female director, I just have to get on with my job but it’s the structures, the financiers or the industry that needs to think about how they can make that happen. The commissioners, the exec producers in some way need to be consciously making that happen. I think there is a will to do that and there certainly is raised consciousness about it.

So, what’s next for you?
I don’t know yet, I don’t know! There’s a project of my own that I’m working on and a few different other things but I’m not quite sure what it’s going to be yet.

What advice you would give to budding directors and writers out there wanting to get into the industry, wanting to get their projects made and seen by people?
I’d say get out there and make something, no matter how short or low tech it is. Have something that you can show. Have something that you can experiment with and develop skills with and something that you can show to people who can support you in your work. 

Get out there and make something is what I’d say.

Dark River is in cinemas across the UK now.