In 2015 I went to the Edinburgh International Film Festival for the first time and was completely blown away by the beautiful choice of films. One of my absolute favourite films of the festival was CHICKEN, the directorial debut of Joe Stephenson, starring Scott Chambers and Morgan Watkins. Now the film is finally getting into british cinemas on May 20th 2016. In Edinburgh I had the chance of talking to the director and the actors about the film. But first, let’s watch the brandnew trailer:
I rarely do have the feeling in the first couple of minutes, that a film is gonna be good. But mostly this feeling doesn’t last until the end. CHICKEN was different. When you were walking around in this beautiful landscape, I instantly thought, that this has to be good. And it was until the very end.
Originally, CHICKEN was a play, right?
Joe Stephenson: Yeah, it was a play in London, but was only on for five days.
What did you change to make it work as a film?
Joe Stephenson: Quite a bit change really. We did a lot of expanding, because there’s a lot of restrictions in a theater. They had very limited sets, so it had to be either outside the caravan or on these crates, where Richard and Annabell would meet. That means they couldn’t explore many things, so the play was only an hour long and very much hinting in things. We were able to expand on these things and go into more depth.
Morgan Watkins: It was quite different. I read it years ago and just talked to my girlfriend about it yesterday. The realtionship between Richard and Polly was quite different and it was more like a love rivalry between them for Annabell. Polly had something like an almost relationship and he was getting at his younger brother at one point to show him that he could get the girl. That’s not what’s going on in the film at all.
Joe Stephenson: Obviously Fiona is a very big character in the film, but in the stage show there was no chicken. At least you couldn’t see the chicken, but you could sense Richards relationship with the chicken. That was something I also wanted to use as well. So I had to make Fiona a natural character. Also Richard killed Fiona in the play and gave it to Annabell as gift, so shes doesn’t have to kill hers. There were a lot of different things going on.
Scott, I am really impressed by your performance and since I haven’t heard anything from you in Germany so far, I had to look up wether you’re an actor or someone who really has learning disabilities. (everybody laughs) There was this film from Canada a couple of years ago called GABRIELLE about a girl with learning disabilities, who wants to live on her own. She really has that, so she’s playing herself in that movie. That’s why I had to look you up. How did you prepare for that role?
Scott Chambers: I saw it more like looking at the Williams Syndrome, because I didn’t want to do autism like it is done a lot. I wanted to have something, that is not portrayed that much on the screen and I liked the Williams Syndrome a lot. I saw a lot of documentaries and Joe wanted me to focus on child development and how little things can affect you when you’re young, like getting shaken, getting hit or not getting the right food. But ultimately we started thinking it’s a bit technical, so I started playing the disability rather than just being the character. The we saw it again and at that time my niece was six years old and she talked a lot. I recorded a lot of it and used a lot of that for Richard. He doesn’t how he has a disability and he is very child-like. So she was perfect and she also had a lisp because her teeth had been falling out. So I gave Richard that lisp because I thought it was cool.
Also Morgan and me did these orographies, which was epic and in the rehearsals we were always talking about it. We literally knew everything, that we’re talking about.
Morgan Watkins: We had to build up the whole backstory, because it’s sometimes very vague in the film of what’s going on. But we knew the whole history of these guys. How they got this caravan to the hill, what happened with their parents – or at least what their perception of them was, because Richard had a very different idea of what happened and Polly knows it exactly. So we had to build those stories.
Morgan, you are here in Edinburgh with two films, CHICKEN and SCOTTISH MUSSELS. What was the difference in shooting these two films?
Morgan Watkins: SCOTTISH MUSSELS is a romantic comedy, quite silly and funny and with a star-studded cast of british comedians. It was a very different experience, because it is very light-hearted and jovial, while CHICKEN was kind of gritty, where you had to do all these emotional preparations to bring that sort of integrity and authenticity to the screen. SCOTTISH MUSSELS was justr more like a fun project to work on.
When Anabelle first met Richard, she doesn’t seem to be afraid of him. Usually these kind of girls coming from the city, they bully people like Richard. But she doesn’t. She seems kind of different and she seems to have this kind of unconditionally love like Richard has.
Joe Stephenson: Yeah, that’s interesting. She is a character and she has that in her. She’s been spoiled quite a lot and she’s not aware of how good she really has it. I thing when she first meets Richard, it’s more of a curiosity. She thinks it’s interesting, because she is bored. She just got there and there not many friends around. So Richard to her is someone to have fun with. But obviously then she starts to realize, that that’s not what he is and not how she should treat him. She’s definitely not scared, but she doesn’t connect to him immediately in that way. That takes time.
Even if Richard has never been loved, he has that deep understanding of love and the meaning of life. What do you think, where does that come from?
Scott Chambers: I think everyone wants to be a part of something or to be accepted into something. Richard is weirdly so simple, all he wants to have is a family. Literally that is it. He doesn’t want to have a nice house, he just wants to live in any house with a family in it, that is happy and always smiling. He is very simple about what he wants, even though he can’t get any of that.
There are some deleted scenes and in my character work, that’s where he got that link from. In these scenes he goes to the shops and he sees people getting on. There’s also this shopkeeper who is nice to him, just like a mother figure. When he sees things like this, he probably sees other stuff too. So he sees people getting on and he sees people having fun in these nice little shops with all these jam jars and all of these foods he would like to have. Also looking through the windows of Annabell’s house before she lives there and thinking it would be nice to live in there. You observe people and you want to have what they’ve got. You experience something and then it’s all gone. We did live with our parents and it was all good and it was perfect and he loved that.
Morgan Watkins: In Richards perception it was like that, but Polly obviously knows what was going on at that time. Richard was just too young at that time. He just sees his big brother, his mother and his father. Richard sees the world through love-tinted glasses and that’s kind of beautiful.
Joe Stephenson: I think Richard observes people in the community and he sees this idea of a perfect family. The adverts and posters and kind of things that represents what a perfect family ist supposed to be. That desire for that comes from the outside world. It’s almost like his disability saves him from the awfulness of reality. If something bad happens, he can sort of forget about it. So I think his disability does save him a little bit.
I kind of have the feeling that the chicken is more than just a chicken. Is there maybe a deeper meaning to it?
It’s not a particular meaning, it’s more like there’s always some kind of unconditionally love with an animal and that’s where Richard got that from. Fiona might get moody, but she’ll never fight back, she’ll never hit him, there’ll never be a nasty word. It’s unconditionally love, like with any pet. I think that’s more what Fiona is to Richard and that’s what she represents.
I heard that making this movie was a lot of trouble.
Joe Stephenson: It was kind of hard.
What have been the problems?
Joe Stephenson: You’re going from raising the money to actually make it and put things together. That was very very difficult, because there was no company behind it . It was just me and my co-producer Tina and she was there to help manage the budget things. We had five different budgets of different levels, depending on how much money we could get. We got about a third of what I wanted. I thought we just have to make it. Otherwise we could be waiting years to get more. So we shot for a lot less that ww should have shot it for. We only had 19 days of shooting and it was all exterior. Even in the caravan we’re shooting through the windows. All the crew and equipment are outside, so even the interiour scenes are exterior scenes. That means that you’re open and exposed to the weather, which made it a very difficult shoot.
Then you obviously come out on the other side and have to fight to get people to watch it, because they’ve never heard of you and they don’t know anything about it. You’re not on any radar or on any sort of lists. It’s very difficult to even get festivals to watch it. It’s a really hard job. That’s why it’s great being in Edinburgh, because that means getting on some lists and hopefully get a little bit more of a conversation. A lot of films like this have a producer, who has done this several times before. This is my first film as a producer and director. So it’s been a massive learning curve for me.
Let me assure you that I think you couldn’t have done anything better with more money. I think it’s perfect the way it is.
Joe Stephenson: Oh, that’s lovely. Thank you for that.
Let’s switch to the character of Polly. I think there’s more to him than meets the eye. I’m not talking about the backstory, that is revealed at the climax. How did ypu approach to that character?
Morgan Watkins: It’s funny, because when I watch the film, I see in a completely different way than the people who watch it. I know Pollys story and I know what’s going on. So I don’t se him as this villainous, awful character. I know why he is the way he is. I had just basicly try to understand him. The outside world just sees this wonderful and beautiful Richard and thinks “How on earth could he be so cruel”. But I know that Polly is struggling with so much, he’s caring for and looking after this person, who symbolizes something so awful to him in many ways. He is so tortured and torn as a character because of his experiences, that he’s just struggling to exist. He just survives. He spends his money on cigarettes and alcohol and that’s not a good thing. None of us would think that. He dosn’t know what to do, he’s just surviving in any way he can. I even thought about it yesterday when I saw it. When he goes with Richard looking for food, he kind of is looking after him in one way. He is mean, but if Polly is there, Richard is really loved. I thought why is he the way he is and then I build up all these stories. I had this idea that he had this slightly dicky arm. When he was born, it was damaged in the birth. That’s one of my little backstories. So he has this slightly weird left arm, which you won’t really notice on screen. I tried to build him with sort of integrity. He is just angry and upset.
Joe Stephenson: I think after one watch you see, how Polly really really loves Richard. Even though he does all these awful things and behaves like that, he is so much a victim. But he does love Richard and he’s trying to do the best he possibly can.
Morgan Watkins: He just doesn’t know how to love him.
How did you all came on board this film?
Joe Stephenson: I saw the play and I knew Scott beforehand and Scott was staying at mine’s when rehearsing for the play. So I went to see the play and it was clear, that no one else could play Richard anyway. Also I knew based on our friendship, that Scott was able to technically get in the direction I wanted him to. Morgan came on board just a few weeks before production.
Morgan Watkins: I got a message from Scott on Facebook, saying “We’re doing this film about CHICKEN amd I told Joe, the director, that you’d be brilliant for Polly”. I was potentially gonna do the play a few years ago and met Scott at the auditions.
Scott Chambers: Yeah, he was epic and scared the hell out of me.
Morgan Watkins: I said to him, that I’d love to do a british film with an emerging director and basically just rang up Joe on the phone and said “Hi, I’m Morgan”. So he said “Why don’t you come over” and I went to Joes flat the next morning and than that was sort of it. We said “Let’s do it” on a monday and started rehearsing two weeks later.
Joe Stephenson: I went straight to Yasmin Paige with the script, because I liked what she’d done in SUBMARINE and I knew that she had even more to give. She read the script and came on board. It was very easy.
You’re using the landscape like it’s a character on it’s own and you’re giving the characters the room to breathe by using these wide shots. Was that your idea and/or who was your director of photography?
Joe Stephenson: That was Eben Bolter. He had a film here in Edinburgh last year which is called GREYHAWK. He’s a very good DOP. I did a lot of storyboarding, so it was all very much designed. It’s very easy on a low budget to go and shoot this all handheld. It’s very quick and easy and it’s also become a fashionable thing as well. I didn’t wanted to to that, because that isn’t me and not my taste in film. My taste of film is more like the traditional cinema is supposed to be. Subconsciously the audience should be feeling something about a character from the way they’re framed and where it’s placed. So I was very conscious about it all. For example, in the caravan, we’re always looking up to Polly. There is no instance in the caravan, where we’re looking down on Polly, because that’s the only place where he has that control.
Morgan Watkins: Just as you said it, I realize it myself. It’s interesting that someone says, Polly looks completely different, when he’s with Richard in the caravan than when he’s with Bill.
Joe Stephenson: Because that’s when we’re looking down. We’re looking down on him and we’re on eye level only when we’re outside.
Morgan Watkins: Ah, okay.
Joe Stephenson: Those are things to make a character dominate a frame in a way their relationship is. It was a very conscious decision. And when it comes to landscape sight of things, it was always about trying to make a nice contrast between how awful their life is and how difficult things are, yet they are surrounded by this beauty. There’s something nice about that that I kind of wanted to make sure we did. And also it helped not being a hard watch all the way through.
Do you know if there will be a theatrical release in Germany?
Joe Stephenson: Well, hopefully. That would be nice. I’m half german, so I wanted that. I don’t speak german, but I’m half german. At the moment we don’t have a distributor.
Let’s all hope that this will change in the future. Thank you all for the interview.
This interview was held in Edinburgh at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on June 28th 2015.