Brighton based filmmaker Eva Riley sat down with The Badger to talk about her upcoming debut feature ‘Perfect 10’ and the things that inspire her in her creative process.
This year saw only 4% of the top 100 films directed by women, and a further 8% of the top 250. Whilst many of the variables that comprise these stats are questionable (how do you define the ‘top’ films?!), the bottom line is that female filmmakers are severely side-lined in the industry. This week, actor ‘Tessa Thompson’ challenged her industry peers to break the mould and commit to working with at least one female director this year; the suggestion here being that the female talent is out there, it just isn’t being allowed to showcase itself. Living proof of this notion is Brighton’s very own Eva Riley. After graduating from Edinburgh Napier University with a BA in photography and film, Eva went on to hone her skills at the National School of Film and Television with an MA in Directing, perhaps the most prestigious filmmaking course in the country. In the process, she has both written and directed six shorts, with her graduate film Patriot (2015) being selected for the official competition at Cannes, and in 2016, was named as one of Screen Internationals ‘Stars of Tomorrow’.
Now, Riley is in the process of editing her debut feature Perfect 10; a project which has presented new challenges and forced her to grow as a filmmaker.
“It was definitely the right time to start making features. If there was a career in making short films I’d probably do it, because I like short films, but there’s no money in it.”
“It’s all the same thing, but the structure is completely different in terms of writing. Even though I’ve watched millions of feature films, it took a long time to get my head around how to write one. I went through maybe 50 drafts in two years.”
“When you are making a feature film there’s obviously a lot more money involved, so the stakes are higher for everyone involved. The mechanics around the film are a lot bigger which I don’t like. I don’t like politics or mechanics, I just want to make a nice film”.
A director as modest in their approach as this is somewhat of a rarity in today’s landscape, but Riley is well aware of what the industry demands to break into the mainstream.
“People can start off with a good idea but quite often they got diluted. Your job as a director is to navigate all these different people and still come out with something that’s your vision and your idea”
“I think it can be really intimidating the world of filmmaking, and there’s a lot of bullshit and a lot of talk and a lot of competition… Obviously, you’ve got to play the game a little bit, but like all I’m interested in is making and seeing good films, and that comes out of people doing something different”.
Shot in and around Brighton, Perfect 10 tells the story of Leigh, a 15-year-old gymnast focussed on her first competition, but when a half-brother she didn’t know existed turns up to stay, her world is turned upside down. When Leigh’s confidence at gymnastics is knocked, she finds herself caught up in the underworld of her brother’s bike-crime exploits.
The subject matter of Riley’s films are all fascinatingly nuanced, yet they’re grounded in the incredibly humanist approach to their storytelling.
“Even though (Perfect 10) it’s a film about sports and crime it’s essentially a film about a brother and sister that come together”
“When developing the idea, I watched a lot of specifically sport genre films or crime genre films and they were interesting, but they’d make me think, ‘oh now I need to make this kind of film’, and that wasn’t good because I’m not a genre filmmaker”
Another running thread throughout Riley’s work is her willingness to cast amateur actors in central roles. Whilst its Frankie Box and Alfie Deegan that make their feature debuts in Perfect 10, in Patriot, it’s the even younger Halle Kid and Rafael Constantin that star.
“In my casting I try and be very open and take a chance on people and not always just look for the known names, I just want the right person for the part”
“I don’t think that first time actors are necessarily better than trained actors, because at the end of the day it’s about the instinct to act… but what they can do because they don’t know the process so well; they’re not experts on how film sets run, they can sometimes think less about what they’re doing and get more in the zone with their acting”
“Growing up when I first started watching interesting films, I always loved foreign films because I didn’t know the actors, and so when I watched it I just felt like I was watching real people!”
“If I watch a film that has Brad Pitt in it, I’m always aware, ‘oh that’s Brad Pitt’, and that’s fine, but for me I just sometimes prefer first time actors”
“Also, the industry is very lazy, in terms of who it casts in films, so you see a lot of the same actors far too often which I think is a shame. Drama school is so inaccessible these days it’s unreal… it’s just nice to find new young actors that wouldn’t have been found otherwise”
As both the writer and director on all her projects, Riley has been able to foster her specific sense of humour into films where the dialogue feels entirely natural, containing a coherency befitting of a genuine auteur. Riley credits this largely to having a structure that allows her actors to improvise and try things out on set, but like all the best directors, her mind works off of images and their visual resonances.
“It usually comes from an image or scene idea. When I’m writing, and I don’t have that image in my head I do bad writing. But when it clicks, and I can visualise it, it works better”
“With Perfect 10 it was slightly different, my original impulse was to write something about a brother and sister, that was the main thing. I don’t know why I found that interesting, I have a brother, and I love him, but I don’t think it came out of that, it just felt like I hadn’t seen a brother-sister relationship on film, so I think that’s what kept me going.”
“I also got really excited about gymnastic floor routines, I thought they were a really beautiful thing… and then seeing motorbikes would trigger ideas… so all very visual cues.”
“The next feature I’m working on is about teenage girls having sleepovers, something that interests me as I was a teenage girl that had sleepovers! I remember walking past someone’s house, and you know how sometimes people have their front windows open, I remember walking past and seeing this bunch of girls talking and being teenagers together, and then I saw this dad walk in and they all stopped and looked at him like really angrily! And I just thought, ‘wow I love that… this weird world that these girls have’ and that really stayed with me… but of course, you then have to create that into this big thing.”
Whilst Eva would modestly deny this comparison, and claim to still be an amateur, I can’t help but think of fellow NFTS graduate Lynne Ramsey when I watch her work. Aside from the Scottish roots, Riley has that same quality of knowing exactly what she wants to draw out of her story and letting this drive the visual narrative.
For those thinking of pursuing a career in filmmaking, Eva represents how far a passion for the craft and a modesty in your approach can get you.
“My advice would be to hold on to your ideas, your currency as a young filmmaker is in your fresh perspective on the world and your fresh ideas, not to make films because you think other people will like them or work on stuff because people will give you money to do it.”
“Secondary to that I’d say to really educate yourself in other films. I’m amazed sometimes how few films people watch! My pet hate is people who bring out the same filmmakers over and over again… there’s a gazillion different filmmakers out there who are all really exciting”
“People need to push themselves out of their comfort zones, because that’s part of the job”.
“Find your own mark!”
Perfect 10 is due to be released later this year and Eva’s second feature The Circle is currently in development. This will most certainly not be the last you read of Eva Riley, a director whose career has gone from strength to strength and is showing no signs of slowing up.