An unerring warmth radiates through every frame of “Amorous,” the haunting feature debut of director Joanna Coates. Winner of The Michael Powell Award for Best British Feature Film at the 2014 Edinburgh International Film Festival, “Amorous” (originally titled “Hide and Seek”) revolves around four young adults—Max (Josh O’Connor), Leah (Rea Mole), Charlotte (Hannah Arterton) and Jack (Coates’s husband and the film’s co-writer/producer, Daniel Metz)—who find the modern world far too constraining for their liking. They abandon their lives in London to pursue freedom in a secluded countryside. Within the coziness of their cottage, the foursome experiments with their identities, swapping sexual partners while bonding through their shared intimacy. Avoiding exploitation at every turn, Coates has made a beautiful, provocative picture that will cause audiences to reevaluate their own views regarding what constitutes a “healthy” relationship.
Indie Outlook spoke to Coates—who was eventually joined by Metz—about the endlessly fascinating questions that their film raises, as well as the controversy that it has garnered.
How did this project spawn from your collaboration with Daniel?
Joanna Coates (JC): We met at the Glasgow Film Festival, where we both had different films showing. We struck up a conversation about cinema, and it was really exciting. I was looking to work with someone from the American indie scene, because I respected the way in which it allows new voices in, and the critical response to those new voices is really considered. That feedback loop and the idea of auteurism seem strong in America and that, in turn, creates really interesting films. I was keen to be a part of that because, although you have the same potential in England, the feedback loop isn’t always there. There isn’t that same sort of film scene, and there isn’t necessarily the same sort of critical excitement for it.
So Daniel and I started talking about filmmakers and ways of making films that we found exciting. Then we went back to our respective countries and we stayed in touch. We eventually met up in France and wrote the film together because we were basically both at a loose end. [laughs] Then he came to stay with me in England for as long as his Visa would allow, which is six months. In that time, we wrote the film together and then we made it. I am the director, there’s no doubt about that, but his writer’s voice and his producer’s voice is a hugely important part of guiding that forward. It’s a collaboration, definitely.
The film does seem to reflect how young people are redefining the concept of relationships, perhaps as a rebuke to the repression of past generations.
JC: I’m not trying to bash the baby boomer generation. There was a feeling that they tried things that didn’t work, and that they might as well buckle down and be good capitalists because there isn’t much as an alternative. I think the film is very much a reflection of people beginning to realize that they have internalized this disillusionment and that it’s better to try thinking outside the box than to not try, even if you fail. I see people in England thinking about what would make them happy. They’re reaching a point of genuinely questioning whether the things they’ve been told will make them happy actually will. I’ve seen friends of mine reach that breaking point when they’ve been denying the thing they really want to do, and suddenly they can’t deny it anymore.
There are ideas of failure and success that people are trying to get away from. In your twenties, you may have a long relationship that you think will last forever. When it doesn’t, it throws into question all these different things about what actually will work for you. I’ve seen this pattern with a lot of people. When that first sort of pseudo-marriage doesn’t work out, then it suddenly opens people up to all kinds of questions about what they want out of a relationship or what kind of grouping they want to live in. But I think we are a long way off from people really questioning these things. Film is the space in which that is questioned more than I would say in real life. I think that’s why our film has power for people. It’s a space for things that are dancing around the edges of people’s minds.
People used to get married before they really knew each other. Now marriage is more of a formality for couples that have already lived together for years.
JC: Totally, yeah. The film is also about loneliness and people’s fear of it. That is something that strikes a huge chord because we’re in this position where if you don’t find a partner, you are alone, which is so unnatural. It can force people to make the strangest decisions just to remain with someone as opposed to being in a healthy dynamic. The film asks whether there is a way not to have to make a choice of being alone or staying with one person. What if you could have a group scenario where you’re not forced into making that choice? Maybe that would be more nurturing for all the people involved. I’ve read about how we used to live in prehistoric times, and it always was in a group. The fact that we now live in such an atomized way is really quite strange. The film is saying that there are alternatives to these atomized little pockets of units. There are other ways that we could potentially be.
I like how the culminating image of body parts blending together suggests the dissolution of divisions that so often separate us in society.
JC: I agree that we have divisions between us, and it’s tragic. I believe that there is an essential human component in everyone that’s beyond what we’ve been conditioned to think or how we’ve been socialized to think of ourselves. We are trying to get at that in the film, not necessarily to deny cultural specifics or how people define themselves. But I do think that it has something to do with how humans interact with each other and with nature, which is fairly universal, however culturally it becomes filtered or interpreted. That is something that the film is looking for and our way of shooting bodies in nature was something that we were really keen to use to do that.
How did you go about earning the trust of your actors?
JC: The first thing was that we decided not to use a traditional script. Daniel and I wrote out a 40-page outline of what would happen, and then presented it to the actors that we were auditioning. It was through honest conversations in the auditioning that we worked out who we cast. The actors knew coming into it what the story was roughly, and they knew what the demands were, in terms of sex and nudity and commitment. So we started off from a good point, and we also brought people in who would be able to improvise dialogue—not improvise story but improvise how they would express themselves, moment to moment. A lot of that trust was earned through the process of who we decided to work with, so we knew that we were starting with people who were committed. That was the most important thing. We all started from the same point, and we were interested in what we were doing. It wasn’t just a job for people—because we were young and didn’t have money. [laughs]
We worked for about a month in the house together, and we did exercises like taking baths together or sunbathing together. There was a physical intimacy that we worked up to. It wasn’t a case of signing a contract requiring you to take your clothes off on a particular day. People were setting their own boundaries in terms of what they felt comfortable with. We tried to look at all of our own vulnerabilities before we went on the set, because it was located hundreds of miles away in the countryside. Once you were there, you were there. People brought stories about the break-ups they’ve had or the sadness they’ve experienced, and we talked about them. Daniel suggested an exercise during one of the auditions where the actors brought the suitcase their characters would’ve packed, containing items such as letters or paint sets or birth control pills. All of these details fed into the structure that already existed.
Where did you find that location?
JC: Well, the idea for the film came from a music video that Daniel acted in and I directed for a musician that I knew. It was set in this musician’s parents’ house, which was an Arts and Crafts mansion not far from London in the countryside. It was a very peculiar space and the parents were hoarders, so there were five TV sets in one room. We wanted to set our film in that house, and we told the couple that we would pay them to be on holiday for two weeks while we shot, but they refused to leave it. They didn’t want a free holiday, they didn’t want anything. [laughs] Plan B was a house that my friend’s parents rent on the border of England and Whales. It’s really isolated. No phone reception, just a landline and one room with Internet. There was sheep and mist and luckily for us, sun. We knew that the space would work because it had one huge room that we could do the performances in, and it also had enough space for the crew. So we fit the story around the location, and the bareness of that house sort of became part of the story, whereas in the first iteration, the clutter was part of the story.
This is the film film credit for Rea Mole, who bears a striking resemblance to Tilda Swinton.
JC: Yeah I agree. She is a friend of mine, actually, and I thought she would be good for the role. When she heard about it, she wrote to me and said, “I really feel like this is for me.” She had done a lot of physical theatre, but had never done film. She was in a play at the Edinburgh Festival, and she sent me a video of herself just looking through some boxes. I showed that to Daniel and we talked about it. I loved the fact that she could be onscreen doing nothing, which is something that a lot of theatrical actors find difficult. She pushed for the role and it turned out to be a really good choice.
What inspired you to portray theatre and dress-up as a liberating force in the characters’ lives?
Daniel Metz (DM): A big part of it came from a series of conversations that Joanna and I had about the role of creativity in our lives, and what we think of as intrinsically human. One of the problems of the world today is the professionalization of creativity. People feel like they need to do something for a living where they are discouraged to express themselves and let their creative side show. We wanted the characters to feel free to explore those kinds of ideas because they are getting in touch with a more primal element of the human experience.
JC: It was very important to me that they were performing to nobody. They are performing to each other and for no reason beyond that, which is paradoxical because we are capturing it on film and people are seeing it. But it is meant to be a series of private, spontaneous gestures that aren’t meant to be graded, and are inspired by things that they’ve seen, like ballet, talk shows or circuses. It is all kind of pared down to the bare minimum, like a prop or two.
DM: It reminds me a lot of when we were children and we would put on a play or pretend that we were in “Star Wars” and hit sticks against each other. As we were beginning to create this world, we thought that one of the biggest issues these people would face is boredom. When I was a boy, I went to many meditation ashrams in different parts of the world. For a few weeks or a month, I’d be living in an isolated place in the middle of nowhere, and my main memory about this was how boring it was to be away from everything. You’d have endless hours and hours to focus on yourself. We obviously didn’t want the characters to have television or computers or phones or any of the things that we think causes stress and anxiety and sadness and insecurity. Then we thought about what kind of things people did before they had these devices. So we came up with the parlor game and the private concert. I hesitate to call it “entertainment,” but it’s a purer form of passing the time and enjoying the human aspects of being together.
I was struck by how the first instance of nudity in the film is male, when Charlotte comes upon Jack masturbating. It immediately defies the stigma on male nudity recently evidenced in “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
JC: I’m glad you picked up on that. It was absolutely key for us that one type of sexuality wasn’t privileged over the other.
DM: Male pleasure is often expected for the viewer but not on the screen, so the idea to show a man masturbating seems taboo. When we think about the semiotics of sexuality on film, it seems to be about enjoying women, but we can’t stand the idea of seeing a man enjoy himself onscreen.
JC: That moment occurs ten minutes into the film, and it’s funny how people react to it. A lot of people get our intention, as you did, but there are others who find it offensive from a feminist perspective, which I find incredible. They are confusing the celebration of male sexuality with a portrayal of it as being dominant and invasive. I would say ninety-nine percent of people who appreciate the film don’t share that feeling, but it has occasionally become the sticking point.
DM: One thing that we’ve seen in showing this film for the last year or so is that there are a lot of strong feelings in all directions and a lot of times, people don’t really know how they feel. There’s often no way to please everyone. There are some people who find it the most misogynistic thing in the world to see female nudity and some people think it’s the most misogynistic thing in the world to see an erect penis. These things don’t make any sense to us, but somehow, there’s a way to upset somebody.
JC: The most interesting thing that I think is controversial about the film is that it rejects the idea of work and the morality centered around work, which is not the same to me as saying the rich deserve a life of leisure at the expense of others. Is it moral for us to spend our life doing what we don’t care about in order to benefit a corporation? To disrupt that is, for some people, extremely confusing and upsetting, and that is incredibly telling of where we’re at right now and what our anxieties are.
I also appreciated how Charlotte’s ex, Simon (Joe Banks), is a more complex character than he initially appears.
DM: Jo and I were talking about using the trope of the romantic comedy. We were looking at movies like “Love Actually” and seeing how there’s that moment where a wounded man comes in and tries to redeem himself by getting the girl to go with him and leave her new partner. We thought about how we could use that moment and have the man be turned down. We wanted him to do everything he could to get the audience on his side, but then be pushed away.
JC: Joe did such a great job in that role. He makes the character three-dimensional rather than a cartoon. He’s bewildered, and he voices things that some members of the audience will agree with, which is very useful. He throws a different perspective on where the audience is positioned. You go from being outside the characters to suddenly being with them against this new person, or he articulates something that you’ve been wanting the characters to have to defend against. Simon feels that he has the answers, but within him is a sort of cynicism that he hasn’t dealt with. He doesn’t think that he’s cynical, but he is, and that’s what the characters are trying their utmost to get away from. It was also important for me that he has an “artist’s life.” He’s a musician, but he doesn’t actually embrace the ideas of the unknown or have the open-mindedness that you would hope that profession brings with it.
What was the reason behind changing the film’s title from “Hide and Seek” to “Amorous” for its U.S. release?
DM: It’s a really easy answer because our U.S. distributor, Film Movement, has another movie called “Hide and Seek.” We still definitely think of the film as “Hide and Seek” because it’s had that name for a really long time. It’s still “Hide and Seek” in England and in every other country, but there’s something that I like about “Amorous.” Love is obviously the theme of the film, and in a lot of ways, I think should be the theme of almost every film. I think that’s what John Cassavetes said. But I like “Amorous,” I think it’s a bit more intriguing. “Hide and Seek” can be confusing to people because a lot of times it’s the title of a scary movie.
JC: Yeah, it sets up expectations in a good way. I was fine with the title change. Had it been something that was a bit more fallacious, maybe not, because the audience’s expectations would’ve been askew. But it was good.
What’s up next for you?
JC: We have a project in development with the British Film Institute, and we are writing it right now. Hopefully we’ll have that in production in a year or so. We have ideas across a huge spectrum, but this one will have an urban setting, and we’ll be looking again at what constitutes love and freedom.
DM: We are really excited to continue exploring the topics that we started to look at in “Hide and Seek,” and to expand them. We’re trying to find answers and ask questions about what life is now, how we can best be happy and how we can find some kind of peace in the world.
JC: That plus some voyeurism as a visual motif, something new in the aesthetic, but we’ll definitely continue to deepen those themes.