The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described “anti-romcom”, is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.
Split into two halves, Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back to discover the moments of those first sparks of love. Starring Grower herself in one of the vignettes opposite Noel Fielding, the film’s trajectory from tragedy to hope is perhaps indicative of Grower’s own perspective on matters of the heart: “…there’s always the hope, always the risk and always the jump.” This comedic take on the subject uses romance and break-ups as a reflection on the disconnect between the past and the present, as well as memory and the moment, providing the film with a resonance beyond the laughter that derives from the painful experiences of its ensemble cast of characters.
In conversation with PopMatters, Grower reflects on art as a means of escape, the camaraderie of cinema and the flexibility of film to live life backwards. She also discusses the filmmakers’ inherent vulnerability, the edit as a mix of pain and pleasure, and the sacrifices that bring to the filmmaking process a sort of control — or a lack thereof.
Why a career acting? Was there an inspirational or defining moment, and was there an aspiration to direct?
Well it has all been part of the same thing. As a kid I was always writing my own little sketches and making things up. I ballet danced quite a lot, and I also painted and played music. So it was always the arts — I was born that way. I was very visual and always found things quite funny and my main way of dealing with pain, life and the dark stuff, was to go to that even as a kid. It was my out, and so I suppose it’s quite natural.
Then when I started acting I was writing my own comedy sketches in a double act. I’ve always been acting, but I’ve also written and filmed stuff, little projects I’ve been making and TV shows I’ve been in talks and development with. So it hasn’t been that new and I’ve always wanted to direct. This project happened quite organically, as I was waiting on a couple of things that were in development. I just started making it and it progressed to what it is.
Describing the film as coming together in an organic way, what was the initial seed of the idea?
I’d been talking to some of the cast — the comedian bunch I know quite well — about this idea for ages. Noel Fielding and Julia Davis, Steve Oram and Julian Barratt are quite old friends. I’d been saying that I was fascinated by the idea of break-ups and wouldn’t it be good to have a whole film that was just about them? Then I said: “I’m actually going to do this”, and Julia (Davis) was very encouraging, telling me: “You should do it, it’s such a good idea.”
Break-ups are weird and funny, deranged and hysterical, and we all go through them — men and women, young and old. They’re sort of universal, yet so individual. They are all of those things and are very heightened and sometimes they change you forever and other times they are so meaningless by the end.
It was interesting to just chase those ideas backwards in your head, because when you go through them in real life, you don’t get to live them backwards. The magic of cinema is that you can, and those beginnings and endings are quite heightened. They are explosive times in your life and so I thought it would be both interesting and funny to go backwards.
The reasons for people connecting can seem so distant and irrelevant by the end and so Brakes can be seen to play on that disconnect we suffer between our past and present selves.
Yeah, and also when you are in it, you are so unbelievably in it. It’s just so intense; it’s everything, and then to step away from it a year or two later is odd. How many times do we do that in our lifetime? Do you do that a lot, or just once or twice? I was just interested in the whole thing.
Storytellers and audience alike find an entertainment value in what is a painful experience. In your opening answer you spoke of how you personally retreated into creativity. Is storytelling a means to address a shared painful experience, even if it’s presented in the form of comedy and entertainment?
We are trying to connect the whole time, trying to connect with ourselves and to those people around us who we’ll have shared stories with. There’s a Greek philosopher who used to say love was a state of madness, like being ill for a bit. I like that idea, and even though we are talking about the pain of it, there’s also hopefully a positive aspect. And you do end on a high with my film, which is you go back and you say: “Oh yeah, but it all fucked up.” But then you can say that the next relationship might work because there’s always the hope, always the risk, and always the jump. You’ve got to have faith to try things out again and so it’s a leap of faith.
There’s a moment in the film when Susan (Kate Hardie) tells her on and off again boyfriend Peter (Paul McGann): “We are a pair of fucking children… immature, stupid children. But unlike you I was actually stupid enough to have children, and now I want to honour them by behaving like a fucking grown up.” Upon hearing that line it struck me as being truthful, in the fact that adults are kids themselves and if we are honest, we never really grow up.
No we don’t, and I loved Kate saying that. Sometimes I wonder if I feel any different to how I did at six? I remember thinking at that age: I am going to remind myself that I know what I’m feeling even though I’m a kid. But there’s this weird feeling you get as you grow older. Falling in love you are vulnerable because you are being open. You’ll be very childlike with your partner, not always, but often you are very open in that way and so you will have shown a vulnerability that you maybe do not show everyone. That’s what makes it so difficult I suppose, because it’s letting go of a childhood quality.
Oliver Maltman (Raymond) and Julian Barratt (Elliot) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)
As a filmmaker, by putting a film out there, are you essentially putting yourself out there – like a target on you that creates a vulnerability?
Oh God, yeah! It’s totally like that. I’m feeling really exposed right now and especially talking about this subject. I keep saying this over again, but your take on it is so personal. I have made a whole film about it and even talking about this issue so publicly is a peculiar position to be in. It’s hard to be dishonest about it, otherwise you can’t hit the highs and lows of the situation, which is what it’s really about — the seesaw effect.
Looking back, how did the expectations compare to the realities of the experience?
I don’t know how anyone else works, but I was almost just day to day — making it, that’s that stage, now I’m editing it and now I’m trying to put it out there. They felt like very different stages, but I tried not to put any expectation on myself apart from to be involved and immersed in the work. I don’t know if that’s the right answer, but to be in the moment with each part of the process, without expectations.
But then what do expectations mean? How is it going to end up or where is it going to go? I tried to only think about that later, as it started to become more formed. But in double-edge way, the secret side of me hoped that the film would turn out like it did, if that makes sense.
In that sense, was the film a journey of discovery or were you working with a clear idea of what the film would be?
No and yes. Making a film is always going to be a discovery. I think I told that to myself to get through it, but actually I did know what I wanted to do. I knew that I wanted to have vignettes on love at the end and beginning and I knew I wanted them to go backward. But I didn’t know if I’d be able to do it all in one big swoop, so I suppose when I was editing it, it was like collaging it altogether a little bit. I think somewhere, part of me did know, although it was like a paradox jigsaw puzzle in that I didn’t have a clear picture, but in a sense I did.
Interviewing Alice Lowe about the editing process of Prevenge (2016), she explained: “…in the edit you’ve got to make the film worse before you can make it better. You have to explore every avenue and say, ‘Okay, now the film is as bad as it is ever going to be, we have to not be scared to pull it apart again and reassemble’, and actually that’s a normal part of the edit.” Would you agree with this idea and how do you look back on the experience of editing Brakes?
Well yeah, I suppose, but mine was almost the other way round, like I was building it. You lose and you have to get rid of things and those are really painful and torturous decisions. I remember reading something Woody Allen wrote about how the best edit is to just cut everything, but I was: Oh my God, I can’t cut this scene.
I loved the edit and I was in there for every single second and because we had no money I had a lot of different editors. People were doing big favours, Yesmine (Almosawi) Lizzy, (Dyson) and Andy (Hague), and it was actually an amazing process. Thank God I had the people I had with me because structuring the vignettes, what worked with the seasons, with night and day, the couples and which psychologically worked, owing to the way it was filmed, there were loads of little metaphors and complicated things I put into the edit that might not even be noticeable.
Speaking with Carol Morley for The Falling (2014), she explained: “You take it 90 percent of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” If the audience are the ones that complete a film, does it follow that there;s a transfer in ownership?
You’re probably right and I definitely think that Brakes is more of an audience film than a critics’ film. I don’t know, but because it’s comedic as well as dramatic, it’s much better in a room full of people than watching it on your own on a laptop. Everyone giggles and goes: “Aww God, that’s so cringey” at the same point. There’s a camaraderie through watching it with people and so you are right, the film merges with the audience and that’s a good thing… it’s lovely.
Interviewing filmmaker Christoph Behl he 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?
Yeah, I think so, but I’m so fearful of sounding pretentious, feeling that way. But I do think so and that could be just because it has been so many years for me. It has been a very long process and I have learned so much making this film about myself and the friends who worked on it for free, giving 100 percent. Actually finishing something is just an amazing feeling and then to let it go out into the world, as you say, putting yourself in a vulnerable position is very bold.
It was weird and I must be a mad person because I’m sure only mad people do this. Does it get any easier? Maybe it does, but this has been such a guerrilla-type film that maybe it will be a different process next time.
If the experience had been an easier one through more financing, you’d have likely had more people looking over your shoulder, which would have resulted in a loss of control. It may have also compromised the film you wanted to make, which the guerrilla approach afforded you.
That’s true, and it’s only at this end bit of getting the film out into the world that I can see how the real film world works, because it has now gone into a different zone. Even though I didn’t realise it, I was very lucky because it was such a mad struggle. But I think you’re right that I was free to do what I wanted.
Actually, a producer said to me: “You might as well enjoy this because that’s the last time you are ever going to be this free making a film”, which is probably true. But you sacrifice some things and you gain others. Maybe I will not be as free, but I will be a bit less insane and not take so long [laughs] and people will get paid properly. That will be a nice feeling to honour everybody in the right way.
Brakes is screening in select UK theatres. For further information visit BrakesFilm.com.