Sophie Hyde: Being a Woman, or Human

September 7, 2019
The 52 Tuesdays director returns with her Sundance-praised, Australian-Irish second feature, Animals.

Animals, a film that mixes reckless debauchery, the verse of WB Yeats and millennials trying to understand who they are, stars Holliday Granger (The Borgias, Cinderella, The Finest Hours) as Laura, and Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development, Search Party, Transparent) as Tyler; hedonistic best friends in Dublin, Ireland. Living up one big party and avoiding the monotony of suburbia, the girls find themselves facing competing futures when Laura announces her engagement to Jim (Fra Free).

We caught up with Hyde to talk about the film’s casting coup, resisting conventions, and the complex but exhilarating challenge of shooting her second feature internationally.

How did this project come about, Sophie?

The film is based on a book called Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth who ended up adapting the novel. They sent me a script, I read the script and the book the same day. I was never really thinking about whether it was sitting inside conventions or not. But I felt like there were things in the book that I’d like to see in a film that weren’t necessarily what we see usually.

What was your response to Unsworth’s book?

I sent them (the film’s producers) an 11 page letter, a lot of imagery that was just really ramshackle kind of things that I felt would elevate the film in some way, and lots of thoughts about the story, lots of things that I loved. The ending of the book I thought was really beautiful. Often, you’re reading something to think about adapting it and you kind of want to get to the end to know what it means, what the take is. But I really liked this book. Sometimes you just have that feeling. You can see a way of doing something, and they were up for that.

Did the story instantly grab you as cinematic?

It did. And it’s the weird things that really helped. I really connected with the central character, Laura, and her way of dealing with her own body. The feeling that you were inside a body from the writing, and the feeling that you understood her desires. And there’s all this (poetic) stuff about smell, she was really interested in her own smell and the smell of other people. And that was spoken about a lot. And I felt like this was really like something that felt very normal and human, but I wasn’t seeing much exploration of that.

This is your first film after 52 Tuesdays. Do you see any parallels?

They’re really different movies on the surface, and I also think that they’re both the kind of films that people go in thinking they’re going to be one kind of film, and they are different to what they’re expecting. So 52, people often think it’s going to be very sort of wordy. And it’s quite a different movie. There’s a lot of that teenage stuff, and the sexuality part of it. That is not what people anticipate. And similarly, with Animals, people think it’s a sort of a buddy movie, a kind of girls getting drunk film, but it’s really about someone trying to find who they are.

They’re both about central characters that are very curious about the world. And are trying to work out their place in it. And doing that in a way that’s full of conflict, that isn’t really clear; their wants are based on muddled, conflicted ideas. And I think both films are like that. And they’re both very frank in their exploration of sexuality and being a woman, or human.

Was working with a bigger budget thrilling, or did it come with restrictions?

It was a bigger scale, but it wasn’t huge. And because it was an official co-production, a lot of money went into that. And we were shooting internationally. So, it wasn’t mega bucks or anything. And it was less time, which is crazy. Because as soon as you get more money, you get less time. And it’s like, ‘what the hell is this?’ There will never be anything as free to me as making 52 Tuesdays, because although it had rules and restrictions, they were our own restrictions, designed for a purpose. And there was nobody telling us what that film was meant to be like, there was no market, no anything. And so, Animals, there were a lot more of those people. Yes, it’s true that they were very supportive, and they backed us. But there is a freedom to making something well outside of the rest of the world that is almost impossible to capture again.

How did you land on casting Alia Shawkat in the part of Tyler?

Well, like all movies, you get sent all these lists of people, and you’re sort of thinking ‘What’s going to be great for this?’ What was amazing about this, is our first choices became our leads and we never really considered anyone else properly. I’ve watched Alia in Arrested Development, and she’s in all those indie movies and everything, but I think she’s always presented as someone that’s a little bit cool but dorky, with this awkwardness. She’s very cutting and smart. And I felt like that wasn’t always there. She’s like that in Arrested Development, but in a different way. But she was great. Really smart. I love the idea of somebody like her in a role, and the two girls together in roles, it just seemed really unusual.

I really wanted Alia to do it. She seemed really excited to do that version of Tyler, and to really embrace what that could be. I’m always looking for an actor that feels like they have a life outside of the role. They’re not just that role in that one little narrative. And someone like Alia always brings that I think.

Did you go after your leads separately or together?

We went after them separately. And they never came together until we started. Which was a bit of a risk, no chemistry test or anything. But they’ve both been on screen since they were really little, they’re very highly qualified, highly skilled. I have a trust in actors that they’ll work out how to bring chemistry, even if it’s not immediately apparent. And chemistry is very different on and off screen, but we did a lot of work just managing the chemistry. Having them hanging out and getting to know each other. Managing how they met and the things that they did together helped to create a shared history of some sort.

You gave them little tasks to do together to achieve this?

I love a task. It was challenging because all of the cast met differently. Holliday had to take Alia on a tour of Dublin and to very specific sites. And those things helped, so that once the girls got to set, they knew their characters and their relationship, which you don’t always have.

What’s next for you?

I have a few projects that I am developing myself, and I will go and interrogate them. And then I’ve been sent a lot of stuff. And it’s just whether anything feels like the right fit or timing wise will work. I’ve been sent more stuff than I expected. They’re all at different stages. What is going to be right, I’m not sure. And it’s a moment where you’re like, ‘What do we really want to make?’ I mean, the world’s in dire straits. Is there an imperative to make something that speaks to that? Probably. But I don’t know what that means.

Animals opens in cinemas on September 12, 2019

Read our review of Animals

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