Director D. R. Hood and the Dramatic Poetry of ‘Wreckers’

Writer/director Dictynna Hood is a master of words as well as images. Whereas reviewers describe Wreckers as “smart” or “splintery”, with “an impressively musty mood”, she often refers to it as “alluring”, even “seductive”, and she believes in the poetry of making a film. If Hood’s cinematic vision could be reduced to one catchphrase, it might be to “bring magic to British filmmaking.” She prefers to add magical or mythic elements to her stories. Anyone from Cupid to the dead to ghosts is fair game as a character in her scripts. Even Wreckers’ script initially incorporated a few such elements that didn’t make it to screen.

Although her word choice can be romantic, Hood pragmatically calls writing “the engine room. Directing is a rollercoaster. I’ve done a lot of writing over the last ten years. Really I’d like to do more directing now.” Making her first feature, Wreckers,, has had its ups and downs. It’s an exciting ride, but Hood is ready for a wider audience to see the film.

In December, when we met for coffee in a London patisserie, Wreckers was a week from a December press screening and a limited release in that city. While showing the film in Soho, the Curzon theater chain simultaneously offered Wreckers on a pay-per-view basis online to anyone in the UK. Within a few short months, since the film’s September premiere at the London International Film Festival, Hood has received global attention in trade publications like Variety, as well as the UK press. Wreckers’ next stop is the Palm Springs International Film Festival, a starting point for possibly getting the film onto more screens in the US.

The rollercoaster seems to be speeding up, but Wreckers has been in development, filming, or post-production for nearly five years. The 20-day shoot began in May 2009, with reshoots and ADR (Automated Dialog Replacement, also known as “looping”) taking place in January 2010. Hood quoted the filmmakers’ axiom: “they always say—especially for indie filmmakers—there’s the planning of it, the making of it, the editing of it, and then there’s the selling and promotion of it, which is a third of the time again. I think it’s taken almost as much time to sell and promote [Wreckers] as it has to make it. I want to see it out there, and it’s about to be out there.” Yet, paradoxically, when asked what she would most like for her next project, she sighed, “More time to shoot.”

From the beginning of filming, Wreckers has taken on a life of its own and steered Hood in directions she couldn’t have anticipated during preproduction. Such is the reality of filmmaking—it requires more time than anyone might expect and throws in a few surprises along the way. No matter how long the process, the director still might hope for another chance to re-do a scene or add more atmosphere. Hood particularly likes Wreckers’ “poetic quality”. She smiled when she discussed the “poetic shots” of landscapes captured during reshoots that enhanced the mood she wanted to create. These exterior shots offset the often-claustrophobic tension created by interior shots of a rural cottage. If she had had more time, she could have infused even more visual poetry into her film.

At home Hood has dozens of scripts waiting to be given cinematic life. She likes stories exploring families. Likely Story, her and Simon Onwurah’s production company, lists upcoming projects like a “twisted romantic comedy”, Over and Under. Revealing the intricacies of relationships is Hood’s forté.

A Suspenseful, Unsettling Story

Wreckers is an intriguing first feature that introduces audiences to Hood’s storytelling. David and Dawn have set up house in the small town where David grew up, but the façade of their superficially tranquil life quickly fractures. The arrival of David’s brother Nick threatens to drive a wedge between the newlyweds when he challenges Dawn’s perception of her husband. Only after a series of revelations does Dawn, and thus each filmgoer, understand these damaged people and their possible future.

As both a teacher and filmmaker, Hood clearly loves film and draws on a variety of international styles and themes. She watched Korean horror films, Turkish film Climates, Russian film Stalker, and David Lynch’s work, for example, to help her create the mood for Wreckers . She doesn’t emulate others’ styles, but looks at the way directors have made their films visually interesting and full of feeling. She loves Edward Hopper’s paintings, another influence behind David and Dawn’s home.

Through Dawn, the audience enters the story and watches the drama unfold. Hood explains that “seldom are all three characters in frame at the same time, but if they are, the frame tends to emphasize Dawn’s separation from the brothers.” Establishing the film’s visual “grammar” helps audiences retain their focus on Dawn as she tries to make sense of David and Nick’s family dynamic.

The soundtrack subliminally ratchets up scenes’ cumulative sense of dread. Intimate conversations, distant music, birdsong, a panting dog—the minutiae of everyday life—add up to a realistic soundtrack that also could represent events the way a character remembers them. Within a scene, Wreckers’ moody atmosphere can blend the present action with characters’ memories, and the soundtrack emphasizes this duality.

Through these visual and aural elements, the film’s suspense deepens as the layers of David and Nick’s troubled sibling relationship are gradually peeled away. Dawn, like the audience, becomes trapped between the brothers. The actors’ powerful performances capture the audience’s attention, but the elements Hood so carefully developed, first as writer, then as director, form the structure on which these performances could be built.

A Terrifically Talented Cast

The director knew what kind of performances she wanted from her trio of “hungry young actors”. As the film’s writer as well as director, Hood knows everything about the characters, but she decided to limit the amount of information given to the actors. The resulting film differs from the original script, but its three leads have won accolades from critics.

Hood is “proud of the brothers” in her film because they are “so different from the actors.” The casting director, who was familiar with Shaun Evans’ work, first brought him to Hood’s attention for the role of traumatized war vet Nick. “The character of the younger brother is very mercurial and could go in lots of different directions,” the director explained. Because the script is “limitless” and invites the actors to develop their characters based on their own interpretation of the material, casting Evans made Nick younger and more vulnerable than indicated in the script. She calls the on-screen character “beautiful.”

The director similarly praised Benedict Cumberbatch as David, because “the character of the husband could’ve been much less sympathetic. He could’ve been much more aggressive. Because Benedict plays him with this marvelous ambiguity, people are responding to that. They are unsettled by it, but they like it. It’s much more interesting than ‘I married a psycho.’” Another actor might have made the character too harsh or frightening, turning Wreckers into a horror film. “But it’s not. It’s a relationship drama, and the actors understood that very well, because they are such good actors.”

Claire Foy (Dawn) does an especially effective job of “luring you in through her eyes”, so important because audiences see the story from her perspective. Hood added that Foy liked to jump into a scene’s action and was “not afraid [for her character] to be unlovable”. Despite the characters’ sometimes disturbing behavior, the director believes the cast gives the film “a certain charm” while also making it more “seductive”.

Hood is pleased that audiences “are engaged with [the film],” but she knows that “it’s not a film for everyone. Because Benedict is in it, it’s attracted different people than would normally see it.” Since Wreckers wrapped, Cumberbatch became a household name from his starring role in the BBC’s Sherlock. Hood admits that her independent film wasn’t made with a mass audience in mind, but she’s pleased if people come to the theater to see one of the actors but take away a greater appreciation of the film.

Reviewers’ Perceptions and Audience Expectations

The Guardian described Hood’s directorial debut as “sure footed and confident”, and The Observer called the film “smart, engrossing, and well-acted”. Wreckers received four out of five stars in Total Film’s review. Hood noted that reviews typically fall into two groups: the popular (such as entertainment media) and the purely film oriented (such as the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound). Although both types are important for Wreckers to grab the public’s (and the industry’s) attention, this film is not easy to summarize in a review title or promotional blurb.

Photo of D. R. Hood (partial) by John Hoare

Hood described her film as “suspenseful because of the narrative”. She realizes that not everyone may get it, which can be frustrating. If audiences or critics have preconceived ideas about the type of film they expect Wreckers to be, they may be surprised or dismayed when it “unfolds in an unexpected direction”, and the film ends with “an ambiguous conclusion”. Hood prefers to call Wreckers “a relationship drama”.

Within the next five years, Hood hopes to explore more relationships on film, whether in romantic comedies or war stories. She wouldn’t mind directing someone else’s script, especially if it means having a bigger budget. Whichever script comes next, Hood won’t be getting off the rollercoaster any time soon.

Wreckers will be screened at the Palm Springs International Film Festival on 6, 8 and 13 January 2012.