In an age over-saturated with slick American teen drama series with a supernatural theme – many still characterised by the enduring influence of BUFFY and all of them hoping to be as long running as SUPERNATURAL – HEARTLESS is a distinctively Danish take on the form. Played commendably straight and without the smart-arse, self-aware humour that tends to dominate its U.S. equivalents, it’s an absorbing, if sometimes ponderous, eight-episode serial that has scope for further seasons.
In the early going of episode one, we witness photogenic teen twins Sofie (Julie Zangenberg) and Sebastian (Sebastian Jessen) luring and feeding in an almost vampiric fashion from an unfortunate young man in a nightclub who, as a result of their necessary act, promptly bursts into flames. The siblings have to feed on the life force of other people in order to survive and fatal consequences result if their feeding reaches a certain level. Sebastian, the more sensitive of the duo, wrestles with his own conscience of their activities, and together the twins set out to find out who and what they really are. They revisit the orphanage from which they originally ran away as infants, and discover that their mother attended an ultra-strict, rural boarding school. Joining as second year students, they learn about the dark history of the school itself – with the sadistic modern hierarchy carrying on old traditions of persecution and torture - and its inextricable links to their own bloodline.
Shot in muted tones and colours with the central school permanently enshrouded by mist, HEARTLESS is an atmospheric series built around a premise that inevitably echoes significant earlier American genre works. Sebastian (who tortuously reins in his need to feed wherever possible) gets the come-on from various girls at the school but his perfectly normal lustiness blurs with the unavoidable needs of his monstrous self when aroused, a la CAT PEOPLE. (The notion of a tortured, handsome male lead unable to fulfil romantic relationships due to the threat he poses, is of course, a throwback to BUFFY and ANGEL). The concept of family members with a desperate compulsion to feed on humans and a peculiarly incestuous relationship with each other has echoes of Stephen King’s far sillier SLEEPWALKERS. There are also CARRIE-inspired sub-plots involving the telekinetic powers of key secondary characters.
It could very easily be reincarnated as a generic, slick U.S. series, but the execution here is very Scandinavian. The tone is sombre and understated, with an underlying erotic charge and a real effort to minimise FX and melodrama in favour of a realistic approach to the potentially outlandish material. The backstory, including flashbacks to 17th century witch-hunts linked to the school principal’s three daughters, is effectively integrated into the contemporary narrative, and the performances are strong all round: the two leads are striking. For those that crave such things, there are occasional intrusions of predictably bad CGI fire and some fleeting, gratuitous shower-room nudity, but HEARTLESS has a beguiling style of its own, even when retreading age-old plot threads like the old “Only love can break the curse…” chestnut that we have seen in sundry earlier genre projects.
INTERVIEWS, FILM, BLU-RAY, DVD AND BOOK REVIEWS
INTERVIEW – FROM HEROINE TO VOYEUR - ACTRESS ANGELA DIXON DISCUSSES NEVER LET GO
From the imagination of a writer to reaching an audience is a long winding journey for a film. Howard Ford’s NEVER LET GO, a tale of a mother's race against time to find her abducted baby played on the Discovery Screen at FrightFest 2015. Over twelve months later the film is only now receiving a theatrical release, which illuminates the disconnect between filmmakers and audiences – disconnected by time in which the latter are always chasing the former’s present. It is a point NEVER LET GO’s lead actress Angela Dixon reflected on, saying: “The point that you and the audience are involved are disconnected. So you have no control over how they receive it, apart from what you give on the day.”
In conversation with FrightFest, Dixon reflected on her relationship to the film, then to now, the extensive preparation and the influence of preparation on instinct. She also discussed the place of the actor in the different mediums, the connection of performance with an audience, as well as the role of the audience in the reception of a performance and film.
Looking back on the experience, how has your perception of both the film and the character changed with time?
Well I'm still hugely invested in the character, but I think there has been a shift. I've not really thought about it, but I had an experience in a combat class a couple of months after finishing shooting, and that was the first time I realised my character had left me. I had been with that character for quite some time. She was in my head for months before I even did the shoot, and even before I was in place for the casting, and so my connection to her became slightly less at that point. I feel fondly towards her, and although the experience was extremely challenging, I look fondly on the experience. So yeah, it is different, but I'm not sure I can articulate what that difference is because it's from being in it, to almost being a voyeur of it.
I've interviewed actors who have spoken of a clarity that comes at the end of the process, and their wish that they could then start all over again. Did you experience a journey towards clarity with this character?
I didn't experience that at all. I did so much work on it that by the time I started, I was so clear on exactly who she was, what she needed, what she wanted and what she was going through, that I had that clarity from day one of the shoot. And I had to have that clarity because this was guerrilla filmmaking. I wasn't sitting in a Winnebago or a green room waiting to be called. We would film this quite ad-hoc, and filming out of synch from one moment to another I literally wouldn't know what we were going to be filming next. So when called upon, I had to be one hundred percent clear exactly where I was in the script and what was going on for my character. And so I didn't experience that because I knew very clearly right at the beginning who she was and where I wanted to take her [laughs]. So I had a different experience.
Having spoken with filmmakers of the goal of honing one’s instincts within the filmmaking process, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on instinct within the mode of performance. Also through these conversations the guiding thought seems to be that preparation does not hinder instinct, but rather enhances the opportunity for an instinctive approach.
Oh, I think instinct is extremely important. I do a lot of improvisation, and every week I'll be working as an improviser where you are a hundred percent working instinctively in the moment. When you are working on a film script, on a production, on stage or on TV, you cannot have that one hundred percent instinct because you have more parameters to work within. But I absolutely agree with you - I think you have to do the preparation and then you have to let it go. You let all the other unspoken instinctive creative stuff emerge from you, within the boundaries that you set in your preparation. And so preparation I think frees you to be instinctive in the right way, at the right time.
In speaking with actors they have explained that the process of developing a character can lie in the discovery of the smallest detail, such as the way the character walks. How does the process of discovering a character work for you personally or how did you go about discovering this particular character?
Well I did all of this really by myself. I obviously started by working on the script and identifying who she was, and all the general facts you can gather from the script. Then I started exploring it and trying to find out what it was that I could bring from my own life. She's quite a physical character and so her physicality was very important, and that was one way into it for me - a lot of boxing and combat work beforehand. I found part of her drive when I was working physically, but I think the emotional journey for me happened when I found who I could use as the substitute for my daughter in the film. I literally had someone in mind, and I was convinced that they were the right person, but they were not. I chose somebody else, went through the same thought processes, went through the script, and I literally fell to the floor and sobbed. It was like a complete visceral reaction and that unlocked for me a whole wealth of her character.
While theatre is the actors medium, film is the medium of the director, and as an actor you are inevitably placing your performance in their hands. Although not the hands of the director, but the editor. So you give your performance to someone familiar, but also a person who you may have never met. This suggests to me a significant need for trust from any actor working in film.
Well I had absolute trust in Howard and also we knew the character more than anybody else. He'd written it and on set we actually seemed to be in synch most of the time. Mostly we did it in one take and only occasionally did we have to do more than one. But Howard said that when he would sometimes give me a direction, he would then look at the rushes afterwards and realise I was already doing what he then asked me to do [laughs]. So we had such a good understanding of the character that I didn't need to trust Howard in any way. But I think you are right that there is a difference between theatre and film, and in other circumstances, and perhaps also on larger projects you are very much at the mercy of the editor and the director. Therefore it is your responsibility, and something I have learned over the years is to make sure you are in control of what you give them. So anything that you give them, you would be happy to be used… It's quite a pressure.
A film is made to be seen and experienced by an audience, who it could be asserted are fundamentally co-creators. But if the audience through their experience help to complete the film, does it follow that there is a transfer of ownership, where it ultimately belongs to the audience? With NEVER LET GO about to have a theatrical followed by Home Entertainment release, it must be both a nervous yet rewarding moment?
The ownership at the end of the day goes to the person that is watching it. As creators you come up with, you make and you present the stories, but you have no control over how someone interprets it. So it is very much in their hands. In theatre, if we go back to your previous question, you have a direct contact with the audience, and you can feel them. On any night in the theatre the audience get the performance they deserve, because it is a communion, it is an exchange of energy and it's special to that group of people. In theatre you are all completely part of the process in that moment, whereas in film the point that you and the audience are involved are disconnected. So you have no control over how they receive it, apart from what you give on the day or when you are working on it. I guess to a certain extent it is a little nerve wracking. You always want audiences to appreciate it, but that's not always going to be the case. What we've noticed from people that have watched NEVER LET GO is that those who engage with my character’s journey become very involved in it, and quite emotionally involved. And I see the shift when you meet people before the film screens at festivals and then you meet them at the end – they have gone through an emotional change. And if people can do that then that's very special. So if there is some kind of emotional reaction and a change within them, then I am very happy.
How you provoke an emotional reaction is one built around uncertainty, and perhaps the source of the magic of cinema is this said uncertainty. But it is one that cannot be taken for granted or taken as a given owing to the unpredictable audience.
No, and of course we’ve all got different filters, experiences and reference points. So we experience any story from our own point of view, and it is going to touch different elements of us. I've had people come up to me after screenings who have been so deeply moved by it. A woman from Refuge told me that she wished she could show this to all the women she works with. She got such a sense of empowerment throughout the film from my character that she really wanted to pass it on. But that's through her filter, and someone else will have experienced it differently.
German filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?
Any experience you have transforms you or certainly adds to who you are. The process of filming this, but also being behind it, I have been much more invested in it than just as the lead actor. It's certainly reinforced my resilience in this industry, but I don't feel necessarily transformed by it. I brought a lot of myself to it, and therefore it was the character’s transformation and not necessarily mine.
NEVER LET GO will be released by ICON Film Distribution theatrically and on digital download Monday 3 October, and on DVD Monday 10 October. Writer/director Howard Ford and lead actress Angela Dixon will be in attendance at theatrical screenings for a post Q&A event at the following venues:
Mon 3 Oct: LONDON, Picturehouse Central, 9.30pm, Tues 4 Oct: CANTERBURY, Curzon, 8.30pm, Weds 5 Oct: PORTSMOUTH, Vue, 7pm, Thurs 6 Oct, BRISTOL, Vue (Cribbs), 7pm, Fri 7 Oct: MANCHESTER, Vue (Lowry), 4pm, Sun 9 Oct: BRIGHTON, Picturehouse, 8.45pm, Mon 10 Oct: CAMBRIDGE, Arts Picturehouse, 9pm