NOCTURNAL – Interview with director Nathalie Biancheri

 Set in an unremarkable Yorkshire coastal town, NOCTURNAL follows the story of Pete (Cosmo Jarvis), a disheveled and darkly compelling thirty-something who works as an occasional handyman at the local high school. There, he meets Laurie (Lauren Coe), an emotionally withdrawn student-athlete who recently relocated to town with her mother (Sadie Frost). After a series of curt interactions, these two strangers form a precarious friendship built on their mutual connection as outsiders. As they spend more time together, their unique bond grows, unraveling the truth behind Pete’s motives. Rife with simmering emotional tension, the elegantly controlled character study boasts remarkably natural central performances from Jarvis and Coe, whose playful banter may conceal something more ominous.

Interview by Cara O’Doherty.

The original screenplay was written by Olivia Waring and then you worked on the script with her. What drew you to that story?
Nathalie Biancheri: When I received the script, I was rereading Lolita, the Nabokov book. I received an email from a producer that I didn’t know. I’d only made short films so it’s very rare to get interviewed for a feature film when you’re a film nobody. I hadn’t even done film school. It was extremely strange! I was given the synopsis of this film about a father who meets his daughter for the first time. It was elusive even at that stage. I met with the producer, we had a chat, I then read the script and I had just been thinking I’d love to remake Lolita, which I still would like to do. I think the coincidence of reading Lolita and this script coming in meant I was open to the themes. I was interested in the relationship and the ambiguities there. I started working with Olivia on the script. I am also a writer and I’m more in the art house sphere. I feel like I really need to own a film to be able to direct it. I asked myself what I wanted to explore and I realized it was very much the story of a man who was so inhibited by his fears. I wanted to examine what it means to be so human and so fragile and so, like, hindered by our inabilities. That is something that really fascinates me about humans and became an essential thing. Then I started participating in the rewriting. I changed the timing of the reveal. Initially, it was towards the end. My biggest input, or interest as a director was to stagger that, to not make it necessarily about just the tension, but rather why is he behaving that way? You start to understand he’s not sexually interested in her, so what could it be? Is he a relative? He gets so moved when she talks about her father abandoning her. Then you’re watching this car crash because you know that she’s seducing him.

It is essentially a two-hander. How did you know that Cosmo Jarvis and Lauren Coe were the right actors?
Nathalie Biancheri: Lauren was the first that I cast and it took me a long time to find her. I saw 136 actresses. When I saw her tape and saw her in the room again and filmed with her, I felt she really had something. I think it’s a very tricky role to navigate. Cosmo has weight in his part. It’s easy to overlook how subtle Lauren is in all her choices. She could be this annoying teenage girl, but she isn’t. She’s so truthful in that. I was always very happy with her. With Cosmo it was different. There was another actor attached but he didn’t work out. I’d seen Cosmo’s work and I really liked him, but we didn’t have dates and he was just coming off the back of Calm with Horses and busy doing Peaky Blinders. It was a bit of a gamble. We offered it to him and then I met him and I thought, well, this guy has a lot of the elements of Pete. We had very little time, we had no chemistry test, no rehearsal time. I was very lucky with them both. They were phenomenal and our time was so limited. We shot the whole film in 17 days.

I did know that you had quite a short shoot, so I presumed that you would have had a lot of pre-prep and rehearsal time.
Nathalie Biancheri: You can believe as much as you want about your project and your vision for it, but it was also my first feature. I felt like, is this going to be a suicide mission? We got the money eight weeks before we shot it. We had no locations. No, no prep time. The budget was reduced so I had to rewrite everything for the budget and cut half of the locations. It was challenging.

You must have been exhausted by the time you were finished?
Nathalie Biancheri: I think I was a terrible human being during that shoot. We were all pushed to our limits because I think we also all had a high standard. The cinematographer is a super perfectionist. He’s super intuitive, the camera work is beautiful and it’s free. It’s not freestyling because it was blocked precisely, but he knows how to find those moments and be truthful to the characters. Cosmo and Lauren are super, their craft is so important to them and, like everybody, would have wanted more time. I wanted to make a good film, my tastes are quite good and the level is quite high. We were all so frustrated but it meant that we had to just push, push, push and put our best in. But by the end of it, we were broken. We didn’t even have a proper wrap party. We were staggering zombies.

You had a complete baptism of fire!
Nathalie Biancheri: They told me making my second feature was going to be easier and here I am making my second film in the middle of a pandemic!

You mentioned your cinematographer, Michal Dymek, and there is one shot of a factory that should be so austere and unfriendly, but it is used to create a beautiful backdrop.
Nathalie Biancheri: I was shooting a documentary the year before and we went around the UK. I’ve lived in the UK for many years, but I hadn’t explored it. I remember lots of grim places and faded seaside towns that were fascinating and depressing. One night we went out and there was a mist that had descended. They turned on all these, like, lights and this dark place became magical. It was stunning, they cast silhouettes. It was incredible. We took lots of photographs, as filmmakers do. I always loved the title of this film, Nocturnal, but initially, it wasn’t even set at night. I love the title because it’s a mood, it’s a sensation. I thought something is fascinating about these towns. They are one thing in the daytime and at night something else. That darkness becomes the visual motif for the film. As soon as we found the factory location, I found it beautiful. We had blocked a lot of angles, but when I saw what Michal did with the factory, I rewrote the scene for that footage. It is my favourite moment there.

Lauren and Cosmo are both in their late twenties, but you asked Lauren to tell Cosmo she was 17. Was that to create a specific dynamic?
Nathalie Biancheri: My thinking was we don’t have rehearsal time. You can build things organically when you have time, but we didn’t have that time. We were shooting in chronological order at the beginning so I thought if I can’t use time in my favour, I’ll try and use the lack of it in my favour and see if he thinks that she’s a child, that affects his perception of her and how he looks at her. It was tricky for her because she didn’t want to lie to her co-star. Cosmo was shocked when he found out that she is 27. I don’t have any regrets about it. It gave the dynamic we needed.

What do you want audiences to take from this?
Nathalie Biancheri: I didn’t have a message at all. I saw it as an observation of these two characters. If they leave the cinema with a sense of emotion for them, for all they’ve gone through, if people have empathy for them, I will be happy. Pete could have been such a douchebag character, he’s a bit of a womanizer, but in the end, he’s so real. Cosmo was just incredible in that respect, and brought him to life and brought out his vulnerabilities. We can all recognize ourselves in that, so that is what I would want people to take from the film.

You’ve mentioned there that you are working on a new feature, Wolf, and that it will be impacted by COVID. What can you tell me about your new project?
Nathalie Biancheri: It is a very different film set in a slightly more surreal world. It is a story about a boy who believes that he’s a wolf and it’s set in a clinic which cures people who have this illness, which is actually a real illness called species dysphoria. They believe that they’re an animal trapped in a human body. There’s a love story, but it’s also an ensemble piece and I have fantastic actors in the lead, George MacKay and Lily-Rose Depp, and I have Paddy Considine and Eileen Walsh playing therapists. I have a lot of Irish actors – Fionn O’Shea and Lola Pettigrew are also in it. They’re brilliant. And then also some young discoveries like Senan Jennings who was the child in Vivarium.

How are you going to manage it logistically with COVID?
Nathalie Biancheri: The producers have been incredible because it’s really, really hard to make a film in COVID, and very expensive as well. We were supposed to shoot here in Ireland in April. As soon as the phases came out in Ireland, it was like, okay, phase four we can prep and phase five, we can shoot. The producers fought to get their financiers to approve it. Some of the cast and crew are in a bubble. Anyone who needs to is isolating, depending on where they came from. We obviously can’t go out and we won’t. There will be loads of precautions on set, hand sanitizers everywhere, you wear masks. The key thing is that as a bubble, we can rehearse, but it will be hard when we film. I can’t imagine a film where I can’t hug my lead actor.

I’m getting the sense that you’ve enjoyed your change from documentary to feature work. Do you think that this is the path that you’ll stay on or does it depend on the project?
Nathalie Biancheri: I thought today randomly that I would love, after Wolf, to make a film with nothing, no budget, and self-shoot. To be a good director you need to retain humility. Sometimes you look at directors that you love and feel like they lost that. They started their career and they were truthful to their craft, but later in their career you think where did that go? I have always felt that documentary is such a humbling experience because no ego – you look, observe, learn, find, be quiet and discover, and then shape it. It is like an ice pool. You dip yourself in like once in a while amidst features. Especially if you happen to be, hopefully, progressing and being able to make bigger things, then maybe also make something smaller and keep yourself in check.

NOCTURNAL is at Irish cinemas from Sept 18th 2020