INTERVIEW: Garry Sykes | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Following eight teenage girls through one truly unforgettable Saturday night in Newcastle, Garry Sykes’ Drunken Butterflies, originally released last year, proved to be a hard-hitting female-centric movie about what it’s like to be a teen in the modern age. Using techniques usually found in “scripted reality” TV programmes such as Made In Chelsea and The Only Way Is Essex, the local cast improvised the script to create a harrowingly realistic script. Ahead of a special screening next week at the Tyneside Cinema, I talked to Garry about the film itself, female-centred films and what’s next for Drunken Butterflies.

This year’s Under The Skin went a similar route mixing the genres to capture something unique. Was there a particular thematic reason for this style, and which, if any, influences did you look at for guidance?

Under The Skin is an amazing film! I think the influence for trying to mix genres and film styles like this is pretty much everywhere. I think we don’t really think of moving images in terms of the cinema or TV anymore, they come at us in all shapes and screen sizes and we like every scene to take us somewhere new – maybe it’s a symptom of short attention spans. For this film, we were interested in how that can break down narratives and stories and how things can jump from one style or perspective to another, and then use the threads that run through that to turn something that could otherwise be really random into something as traditional and structured as a feature film.

There were so many conscious and unconscious influences, it’s a magpie movie and not just because it was made in Newcastle. Vine clips, Mean Girls, Dogma 95 films, ‘scripted reality’ TV like TOWIE, silent movies, A Clockwork Orange, The Wanderers. If you haven’t seen The Wanderers, look it up. We wanted to throw it all together and come out with something we hadn’t seen before.

The film’s labelled as a “scripted reality”, but were there any problems unique to this style that you maybe wouldn’t have encountered if the movie was purely scripted or purely a documentary?

I like to think we got the best of all worlds, and felt like if we’d done it as a straight documentary or a scripted film, we’d be repeating what others had done many times before. The idea of doing it this way was that the cast all lived as their characters and reacted to prompts in situations and events in the story as if they were real. Once we’d started, their reactions and developing relationships ended up in the driving seat of the film. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a ‘scripted reality’ movie before, we definitely wanted to try something that sort of struck out on its own.

I think if we did hit any snags caused by the format, they were more about having to make some tough choices, say when it came to having three or four equally cool directions that the story could take. All of the cast and crew grasped what we were doing very instinctively though, and I don’t think we ever fucked up majorly.

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“All of the cast and crew grasped what we were doing very instinctively”

With that, what benefits do you think film can gain from this style?

You end up with something much more immediate and real and immersive than anything scripted would be, while at the same time you can be funny and entertaining and dramatic in ways that many documentaries would struggle with because in most documentaries, the filmmaker has to observe without interfering. It’s like a documentary where you can play with the reality of the situations as they unfold. Doing things this way means you’re totally open to everyone’s ideas and contributions, everyone has so much space to let their imaginations run, and you end up with amazing material you could never have envisioned at the beginning.

With the budget being the size you had, were there any moments where you found yourself improvising more than you thought you’d need to, was there ever a moment where you couldn’t do something you had your heart set on because of the limited resources?

You can do a lot with very little, but we learned on this film that the most valuable thing money can buy is time. I’d have loved to go on shooting for a few more weeks and see where that took us, because we had some amazing performers playing really interesting characters and you can always delve deeper. I think the only thing I’d go back and change is I’d schedule an extra day to film the big party that makes up the film’s climax, because we did all of that in a 24 hour period, but then that ended up being one of the best parts of the movie, a lot of it down to that urgency we had on set, so maybe not.

At the same time I’d imagine in a way the budget and this style of filming allowed for a much wider range of freedom. Was there any particular time where something turned out better than you imagined purely due to necessity or a particularly spontaneous opportunity?   

I think one of the best things was getting to see a particular side of Newcastle that I knew from growing up in Cramlington and spending all my weekends in town. We couldn’t do anything like hire out big locations and close them down for shooting, so we had to rely on the generosity of local businesses allowing us to film, places like Attica and Flip and Trillians that have been in the city for a long time and have served generations of people just like our characters. Not just the businesses either, but the customers and punters floating round in the background of shots, or local kids who’d see us with a camera and wanted to perform, which is where the idea of putting talking head interviews in the film came from, it gives everything a real sense of place and community that I don’t think you get when you ship in a huge scale production and lock everything down.

One of the biggest draws to me was the movie’s score, but how much of a collaboration is it to decide on that style? Was it something you knew going into the movie, or did it spring organically while in production or post-production?

I’m very lucky to have some stupidly talented music friends, and when you’re constantly listening to their work, through headphones, wandering around town, it seeps into your head and influences the images that end up on screen. I had worked with Shape Worship on another film I made called LXHXN, and knew from the outset that he would do the score for Drunken Butterflies, it just felt very right and there’s an energy to his music that I knew would work great for these characters and this world. We used a lot of music by a brilliant artist called Moon Gangs too, taken from an EP he’d recently put out, and I knew it was going to chime with the world of the film straight away, his stuff is awesome.

We were really fortunate in being able to put together a great soundtrack of local and international artists – The Pipettes, Still Corners, Zyna Hel, twin, Internet Forever, Venus In Furs – who I think I last saw live at The Black Swan in about 1999 – and so many more. We’d originally wanted this Owen Brannigan recording of the Blaydon Races (it’s amazing), to do this big operatic Stanley Kubrick thing, but when the rights turned out to be too complicated, the staff at Windows were fantastic and helped us find an even better version to use in the film.

Was it always your aim to make a film that’s so female-driven? Was representing north-east teenage girls in this way at the forefront of your intentions while you were making the film, or did it end up this way purely because it was the story you wanted to tell?

It was always the aim to make something female driven, yes. The characters and events in the original outline were partly based on things that happened to me as a Newcastle teenager and people – girls particularly – that I had known, but we always wanted to make a very contemporary film, and have young women in the region tell their own stories from their perspective. I think the main motivation for that was just that there are a lot of coming of age films, especially realist British ones, about gangs of young boys already and we wanted to, in a small way, redress that balance a bit.

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“I’m very lucky to have some stupidly talented music friends, and when you’re constantly listening to their work, through headphones, wandering around town, it seeps into your head and influences the images that end up on screen”

You made some comments a while back about how the reaction you received from people who had seen it would stem from perhaps sexist attitudes towards the female leads. Why do you think there’s such a knee-jerk reaction when people see a film like this about young girls instead of young men?

I think on the whole, women on screen are still so much more restricted in terms of what they’re allowed to do than their male counterparts. So if you make a film about female toughness, about doing what’s necessary to survive the wars they can and do go through as teenagers, in some quarters is taken much less seriously than a film about teenage boys doing a similar thing. There’s a lot more pressure for women to be prim and proper and act like role models, whereas boys can get away with much more. That was definitely something we set out to challenge, and so there’s bound to be those who take issue with it, but having said that, the vast majority of the response so far has been extremely positive and supportive, and a lot of people, men and women, have really identified with what we were all hoping to put across in the film.

You also mentioned the reaction from locals could be negative in that they thought the film represented the area in a bad way. Why do you think people in the north east have such negative reactions when they’re represented in the media?

I hope people seeing Drunken Butterflies don’t feel that, as we had always set out to flip those kinds of perceptions and tell a very relatable, non-sensationalised story about real teenagers, and show off some local talent at the same time. Sure, there are things about Newcastle that the characters hate, but they’re at a difficult age, they hate their best friends half the time. There’s a lot of local pride in the film too.

I think there are a growing number of people in all regions who want any representation of that area to be whitewashed clean, to look like a business investment proposal that will help push up house prices, and I don’t think that’s a very honest way to make a film or tell a worthwhile story. On the other end of the scale, ever since TV was invented there have been these terrible stereotypes of anyone who doesn’t have an RP accent – Geordies, Brummies, Scousers – and there are still lazy shows and films that get by on recycling those stereotypes. You can easily see why people are fed up with it, especially when the region generates so much real talent. I do think things are slowly changing though. I saw Sket the other day and Aimee Kelly is brilliant in it, and she doesn’t tone down her accent at all.

Do you think it stems from the fact that we have limited exposure in the media world in the first place? Do you think there needs to be more films about local areas like this? The North East in particular isn’t really known for its extensive filmmaking, but do you think movies like this are important in energising, maybe not the local film industry but in motivating people to pick up a camera or get interested in film?

I think that has a lot to do with it. We live in such an image-led society, and that’s only going to increase with time – think about how there are now feelings or ideas that are best and most understandably expressed through emojis and not words. Image is communication and currency, and if you’re in a situation, as I think we really are, where the images being put out in mainstream media are only representing a small group of people and their ideas about the world, that becomes a problem. The less visible people are, the more they’re swept under the carpet.

I think we’re at a point where it is getting much easier for anyone to make even a feature film, and there absolutely needs to be more films about all areas, I think it’s part of a filmmakers’ job to tell new stories. Everyone with a mobile phone camera can make a film, and everyone who watches movies or YouTube videos or Vines or Snaps wants to see something new and exciting, they want fresh perspectives. The North East is an incredible region, with so many stories to tell, and so much talent that’s aching to get those stories out there, and that is already getting those stories out there, and I think we’re gonna see more and more great work coming out of the region, even if the big industry money doesn’t start flooding in any time soon – if we can do it, anyone can.

Finally, I think people are just interested to know what’s next for Drunken Butterflies? It has a few upcoming screenings if I’m correct but are there any plans to develop it further?

Yes, we’re still promoting the film and adding more screenings. I think without that promotional machine you get with a large budget, things have to happen more organically and take a little more time, but that’s great because you get to meet so many cool people along the way who are really into the film and want to talk about it and help spread the word. So we’ve got a screening coming up in New York, which I hadn’t dreamed of when we started out. After every round of screenings or promo I think maybe it’ll start winding down, but then something new comes up and we move to another level or another place and reach more people, it’s a great experience.

As far as further development goes, the film was always meant to be self contained and I think it’ll stay that way, though there are a couple of ideas I have for some of the characters when they’re a little older that I’d love to explore one day in the future.

Are there any future Garry Sykes projects in the works?

Times are busy, yes, there’s a few different things and I’m not sure just yet which one will make it out of the gates first. There’s a Christmas horror movie that I think will be a lot of fun. I’m shooting a web series right now that will hopefully lead into a much bigger story playing out across a few different films, and there’s a smaller scale film in development too, a suburban relationship drama set in the North East. Lots to do.

Drunken Butterflies screens at the Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle on Monday 2nd March.

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