A Look Inside Black Mountain Poets
Last week the fifth LOCO Film festival drew to a close, following twelve days chock-full of top drawer filmic comedy. One of the festival’s closing events was a screening/Q&A of Black Mountain Poets, a British film featuring Alice Lowe, Dolly Wells and Laura Patch, amongst others. We were there to take notes:
If you’re looking for a standard film review, there are a fair few for Black Mountain Poets already out there. The Guardian called it “very silly and likeable”, The Telegraph described it as “a hoot” and Variety referred to the film as “a deftly escalated farce as humane as it is hilarious.” Reviewers have been united in their enthusiastic praise of the performances (especially Alice’s and Dolly’s) whilst sharing a degree of forgiving cynicism about the flimsiness of the plot. Simply click on the links in the publication names if you’d like to read them in full.
So, because we’re The Velvet Onion (and because we’ve had the good-fortune to talk to Alice Lowe about the film), instead of adding to the collection of traditional reviews that already exist, we thought we’d dig into the film a bit deeper…
The original Black Mountain Poets were a group of progressive poets who, in the 1940s and 1950s, were associated with the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina. This film relocates the rhyming couplets to a present day Welsh hillside, where a group of earnest would-be poets gather to roam the countryside and write verse. The film is the final part of a trilogy from director Jamie Adams (the first two parts being Benny & Jolene and A Wonderful Christmas Time), with each of the films representing a different life stage of what’s been described as ‘modern indie romantic comedy’. Whilst each film stands alone, the trio are linked by their fundamentalist approach to improvisation (more of that later) and a handful of shared cast members.
In Black Mountain Poets Alice and Dolly play siblings who, for reasons unknown, have ended up pursuing an undefined life of crime; when we first meet them they’re attempting to steal a JCB. Via a series of mishaps and a stolen car, they find themselves borrowing the identities of a pair of bohemian beat poets (the famous Wilding sisters), and end up hiding out on a low-fi poetry retreat. The film’s main narrative focuses on the shifting romantic dynamic between the two sisters and the object of their affections, Richard (Tom Cullen) and his competitive mean-spirited girlfriend/ex, Louise (Rosa Robson).
But the real treasure is to be found in the relationship between the sisters: petulant firecracker Lisa (Alice) and hesitant, gauche Claire (Dolly). Even the best acting talent would struggle to recreate the divine natural chemistry that we witness between the two leads. Funny, warm and utterly convincing, their friendship is a joy to watch.
We asked Alice about the dynamic between the pair: “It just evolved quite organically, which was incredibly lucky,” she explained. “I sort of knew some kind of magic would happen, as I’m a fan of Dolly’s, and I was excited about seeing what would unfold. What emerged for me, which was most interesting, and genuinely we hadn’t thought about before making the film, was the sadness and pathos of these two sisters clinging to each other as they get closer to being ‘over the hill’! That was a nice surprise.”
There’s a strong degree of honesty and authenticity underpinning the interplay between all of the characters across the entirety of the film, and in large part that’s down to the scale and scope of improvisation involved. For each scene the actors were simply given a topic to include in their conversation, and then they were given free reign to create the dialogue for themselves. There was no framework or plan for them to to work within – it was just them and a camera (and at times the cast even controlled the lighting too, with carefully positioned torches on the night shoots!).
Handing this much control to your actors is a risky strategy; in less capable hands we could have ended up with a flabby, directionless and unwatchable film. Kudos then to the cast, who inhabit the narrative absolutely. Alice’s live comedy credentials come to the fore, as she delivers a series of cracking one-liners so sharp it’s hard to believe they’re unscripted.
The overall effect is a marked contrast to the meticulously prepped films that we’re used to seeing, as it lacks the tight, controlled dialogue with which we’re more familiar. The fact that we’re not used to viewing the meanderings of natural conversation on the large screen means that it sometimes feels like Black Mountain Poets slightly misses its mark. Or perhaps we’ve simply got too used to the rigid, fake wordplay that traditional script writing represents?
Filmed in just 5 days on a shoestring, Black Mountain Poets cleverly ekes as much as it can from its small budget, by adopting an impro attitude to production too: the actors wore their own clothes (so no need for wardrobe), the cast and crew’s actual accommodation doubles up as the poets’ retreat (so no need for a set location), and some of the scenes were filmed at their real life counterparts, like the breakfast scene above (so no need for an expansive art department). If that’s what it takes to get a film made today, then respect to the production team for their entrepreneurialism.
However, it’s an approach that raises a couple of interesting quasi-philosophical questions: To what extent is the final film a reflection of the director’s creative vision, or were its guts and overall shape primarily controlled by the cast? And also, where do the actors end and their characters begin? Given the extent of the responsibility, personal control and freedom that the cast were given, one wonders whether the film would have been any different if this same collection of people had been placed on a Welsh hillside, given a scenario to play out and told to simply be themselves?
I ask Alice how much of what we see on screen is her and how much is Lisa, her character. “The director had said that my character shags loads of people, and Dolly’s character was more shy, so that gave us a good starting point.” she explains. “Then more detail came out as we went along. I don’t think the sisters’ dynamic reflects our real dynamic at all though!” she adds. “I think Dolly’s much more glam and confident than me, but that’s just my viewpoint…it was quite useful to make Lisa such a loose cannon, because it gave the film a kind of crazy engine, created chaos and narrative drive. Like a firework going off and going in the wrong direction into someone’s fence or dog or something!”
Alice describes the duo’s relationship in terms of the classic double act: “That’s the usual thing with a double act: one has to be pushing forward and the other usually will be dragging back, and that’s what makes it entertaining. But we had to pull that out of the bag, as we genuinely didn’t know how it was going to turn out.” She makes an interesting comparison to Howard and Vince’s dynamic in The Mighty Boosh: “I’ve always said that what’s amazing about the Boosh is that they are both children. But Howard is a teenager. So that means he cares about what people think and he thinks he’s grown up. Vince is a total child, hence he doesn’t care about anything! Therefore he wins the high status. I guess we were some bastardised version of that classic clown double act, in a very thrown together way. But I trusted Dolly’s instinct and experience, and I hope she trusted mine!”
Black Mountain Poets is available on DVD or to rent or buy at Sky store, Google Play, Blink Box, Virgin on demand, Talk Talk, Curzon Home Cinema, iTunes, Amazon and BFI player now.
Many thanks to Alice for taking the time to answer our questions.
I grew up a few miles from Black Mountain in North Carolina!! When I initially read about this film, my first thought was Black Mountain College, then I saw it was set in Wales and thought it was just a coincidence. Now I am even more eager to see the film! Black Mountain College was an amazing place, especially for its time.