The country we know, the fairytales we forgot
By Ellie Fernyhough
As entire economies worldwide have been placed on indefinite hold while coronavirus sweeps the globe, the impact on the film industry is hard to overstate. Filming has paused, social-distancing rules making the scenes which are written illegal to enact. There is a rising cacophony of concern regarding the future of the industry beyond lockdown; one concern being how punters will be persuaded to return to the cinema after months of watching films online from the comfort of their own home.
I asked about the pandemic almost immediately when I sat down, the two of us cities apart, in conversation with writer/director Fridtjof Ryder to find out more about his debut feature Black Twist. “For a lot of people, things feel totally unachievable” he muses down the phone, echoing the sentiment of many within the industry that something needs desperately to be changed if a solution to film’s unique crisis is to be found. For him, the project hasn’t suffered, the dynamics of its development have simply changed. “It’s lots of video calls, sending our cinematographer out to scout shoots on his own, but it’s progressing – we’ve been lucky”.
“There’s a part of me that really hopes something positive will come out of [the changes coronavirus has instigated]; film is something that connects so many people”. Fridtjof believes this young generation of filmmakers in the UK could be the ones to enact a genuine sea change within the industry. A crop of innovative independent British films - such as Mark Jenkin’s decade-defining Bait - shows, for
Ryder, that “there’s more of a shift now to being experimental [within the British independent scene], unlike the gritty social realism we’ve been known for”. He takes inspiration from innovative directors like Jenkins, who show recognisable elements of British life in a way not so stringently tied to hyper realistic documentation.
Having previously worked on shorts, recently directing for a NFTS and BFI collection, Ryder has picked up praise from the actors who worked with him, including Ronald Pickup (The Darkest Hour, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) who commented,
“Fridtjof is a wonderfully strong, nuanced director”
Black Twist, a dark but delicately humorous thriller, is a film entangled with folklore - tales that Ryder heard when growing up in Gloucester (also the setting of the film). In the film, echoes of magic and faeries touch a young Romany man’s life as he returns to the city he grew up in; they cling around the edges of suburbia within the murmuring trees of the forest. The main character (played by Bristol Old Vic graduate Rory Alexander) carries a dark burden of his past back to his hometown, reconnecting with old friends and trying to ignore the pull of something wild in the countryside around the city.
Ryder’s film does not set out to force a certain message, he insists. “I feel reticent to say that it intends to “say” something... it started out as one thing and has become something else - I think of [English playwright] Jez Butterworth, who says when you’re writing you’re just feeding off heaps of stuff and following what feels exciting”. The atmosphere of Butterworth’s outstanding play Jerusalem has certainly seeped into Black Twist; the play represents a chronicle of rural England recognisable to any who grew up there, where the county fair is a much-anticipated event. There are underage drinkers, Morris dancers, busy-body local councils - and a town drunk telling tales of giants and fairies, a mysticism that dances playfully in this small island’s cultural history.
“Fairy tales and folklore don’t have to moralise; they just exist”, Ryder explains; he follows on from Butterworth by using fable to create atmosphere and, in the case of Black Twist, “as a reminder of nature”. Hence the film’s utilisation of the Green Man, a nebulous character who exists across much folklore surrounding woodland and nature back to the second century A.D. Through experimentation with fantastical concepts, Ryder and his team hope to highlight the “liquid border” in Gloucester “between the urban and the forest” and bring to the fore concerns about our present ecological crisis - discussing humanity’s relationship with the landscape we survive upon without reducing the film to dour realism.
Despite its shoestring budget and a team for many of whom this is their first feature, Black Twist has attracted the support of heavyweights. One of these is of special significance for Ryder, who hand-delivered the screenplay to Mark Rylance’s door and has been living the “surreal” experience of direct praise from one of his heroes since. Rylance, Oscar Award-winning actor, writes:
“This screenplay wakes me at night [...] I am disturbed and excited by it at once.”
In it, Rylance sees elements of Lynch’s Blue Velvet, “films I loved, but don’t see many of anymore”. Ryder seems still unsure if Rylance’s support is actually happening - “to have people like that take notice for even just for a second is great”.
There is a sense that this film is really championing a move towards more exciting experimentation in British filmmaking, an attempt to have more fun with cinematic imagination. Ryder and the other young filmmakers and cast involved in Black Twist are collaborating on this project because they “believe in the strength of the script” and want to see it succeed. Bringing together a collective of different minds, each perceiving the film uniquely, is “crazy when it works, and crazy when it doesn’t”; the process has changed the film dramatically since its conception over a year ago and has been a learning curve for Ryder, but simultaneously incredibly fun. He repeats himself, laughing, “I keep saying it’s like being a child, but it is - you just get to go and play”. Bringing to life the most personal project he has ever worked on with exuberance and passion, Ryder hopes simply that the film inspires other young creatives that it is possible to “just go out there and do it”.
Black Twist is currently fundraising for further production costs to bring the story to life. For more information visit the fundraiser through the link below:
My own work is self-labelled as documentary photography, out of a lack of a better title. By carrying a camera daily, I aim to embody the spirit of the Brownie in making the means to photography ready to me at every moment, without obstruction – by doing so, I can take a photograph of anything that captures my eye and interests me enough to preserve. Any of us can do this these days, with a camera readily available in our pockets around the clock – and many of us do so without even thinking about it. Next time you take your phone out to take a photograph, whether it is of your friends or of something that caught your eye, think about how you are participating in the act of documenting your life through photography. Make prints of your favourites, display them on your walls, share them with your friends and family. Follow the tradition of those who came before you and took their own snapshots documenting their lives. Everyone is a documentary photographer today, and this is a good thing.