Writing a Female Sociopath: A Conversation with Award Winning Writer/ Director Martin Stitt
An intimate tale of love and revenge, LOVE/ME/DO is the first feature of award-winning writer/director Martin Stitt whose shorts have screened in Venice and Sundance as well as being nominated for a British Independent Film Award.
Screen International Star of Tomorrow Jack Gordon (Northern Soul, Ronnie Biggs in The Great Train Robbery, A Royal Night Out) stars alongside Rebecca Calder (Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth, Ron Howard’s forthcoming Clan of the Cave Bear for Fox).
The film premiered at Raindance Film Festival in London, where it was nominated for Best UK Feature. The film went on to play internationally on the festival circuit where it picked up 20 nominations and eight awards including Best International Feature Film at Idyllwild in California, Best Director and Best Feature at Unrestricted View Film Festival in London and Best Actress at the European Independent Film Festival in Paris and Best Actress at the Cardiff Independent Film Festival.
The Fan Carpet’s Camila Sayers spoke to Writer/ Director Martin Stitt about Love/Me/Do, he tells Camila about the inception of the film, the casting process and what it meant to him…
Well, first and foremost I’ve watched your film and it was absolutely gripping. There’s the subject matter obviously of love within this film, what inspired you to write a film based on love, but obviously from such a different perspective?
Good question, I guess a number of things. I really wanted to write a sort of female driven film and I was sort of very aware that a lot of female roles can be very thin, so I realised very quickly on that if I was going to have a female lead character she’s got to be really well rounded and as I sort of explored the material I realised that she had to be both the heroine and the villain and I thought that would be a really interesting conundrum to play, sort of almost a Hitchcockian way, that you actually start to love these people, and then you start to realise what their up to.
And I think that was partly one of the things, the other bit was, I’ve had quite a few different careers over the time and I’ve always been intrigued to know, how and why people survive in careers, especially in a very capitalistic world and the sort of, become much more aware of the dark character traits needed to get to the top you know, a corporate sociopath does very well the investment banking world, the legal world, a strong narcissistic streak is required in the arts these days and obviously the other one is the Machiavellian in the political world.
I kind of got really intrigued by why these people survived and sort of started to understand more about these dark role models and I sort of went, if I can put these into a female character, you hear less about female sociopaths but they are around, I thought it would be a really interesting role to play, because a lot of these sociopaths are lovely to be with when they want something out of you but they are also driven by hidden agenda and a lack of empathy.
So, I sort of put those together and suddenly went “oh a female character in this” I thought it was rich ground to play with and how do you get audiences to like a character, I think love has to be at the centre of it, it’s amazing what we give up and what we do to someone and how honest they are, this couple have real attributes you can admire, because through their love and understanding of each other and be really honest, but at the same time their driven by a very dark motivations which come from their sort of darker individual character traits.
Yeah absolutely. A follow on question from that was actually that that these characters are obviously very complex and throughout the film you explore that slowly, and the audience gets to know them more. What do you think makes them such an explosive pairing, because they are very different archetypal characters like you where saying. But what is it that when their brought together, all these dire consequences, passion erupts?
I think they exhibit certain traits which we find very admirable without realising it, their actually remarkably honest to each other. For example, when Max is first asked, “what does he do when he’s alone?” He at first tries to sort of bluff the question and then comes up with a very honest answer, “I do what you do, I look around, I have a snoop.” Then she sort of questions about it, and it is the way he’s very honest, takes the telling off and at the end “we’re now a couple”. I agree with that so when she does the same, her version is through the webcam, she’s very honest to him and you think there’s no way of coming back, and she says how badly she’s been burnt in former relationship, he kind of understands her insecurities in trying to be safe, we all want to be safe, we all want to understand the person, we do and then they accept each other and acceptance is a really powerful character trait, to accept someone who has sort of harmed you or wronged you but you understand it and you can get over it, it can make a couple incredibly strong as friends or in a relationship as in this, and I hope that audiences kind of understand that and go without saying “would you do the same?”, “have you done the same with other people”, and we do bear grudges, we can be quite petty about things and fall out.
So when we see people not doing that it makes them richer and more believable. Funnily enough when you say about complexity, quite a few people in the industry having a look at the script prior to it being made, and I had people saying “these are horrible characters” and I’m like, “you can’t make this film”, this is people in the industry saying “you can’t make this film, these aren’t likeable characters, you’ll never get people to like them”, and I just thought there was a sort of lack of understanding of human nature because written very clearly in the script is this act of forgiveness, even though your tainted by what they finally do, the process of how they get there is, sure by the very end it’s morally ambiguous, it’s morally wrong what they do, let’s be judgemental, but you have to ask the question “how can people do really bad things?” but understand the motivations to get there, and actually they can show some very human characteristics to get those dark places.
But it’s really interesting when I’ve had people not from the industry read it or sort of look at an early cut and go “I so want them to get away with it” and I’m like “seriously” and their like “yeah” and I say “but do you know what they’ve done?”, and they would be “yeah I had a slight problem with the final thing they do”, so it is that slight complexity in nature, we’re not black and white, you know good and evil, it’s not so clear cut, and I think that’s the thing I found fascinating about it, and was something I certainly gave a great deal of thought, because I didn’t want to write two fairly horrible characters which you don’t want to spend time with and are not intrigued with and get to the end because that kind of defeats the whole purpose of the story.
Absolutely, when I watched it, it was intriguing and at parts you where horrified by these characters and their intentions and what they do, you’re still gripped and again that complexity played into it and made part for the intrigue. So obviously a lot of, a big part to do that where the actors Jack Gordon and Rebecca Calden, they obviously have a very intense chemistry on screen. How was the creative process of working with them and creating these two characters?
Oh it’s brilliant. I think where it really started was, I must give praise and credit where it’s due is we had Manuel Puro cast the film and he was brilliant, very patient, because it’s a two hander, so finding the right two people was pivotal, so we had some quite high profile actors interested, but they didn’t quite have the chemistry or the buzz or the drive and then the interest in it. So it was a slow painstaking process of trying to figure out who had the desire to play the role, because it was low budget so it’s not as if you’ve not got a tonne of time, you have to make sure you cast well to make the most of a very short shooting schedule, so it’s got to be someone really devoted and really want to do it.
And we started off trying to look for both characters, that didn’t work, we then focused on the female character, finally came up with Rebecca who was wonderful and very still and very cerebral. So the next one is to try and find a male character to play opposite her and so we saw some wonderful actors and we did narrow it down to three who where fantastic, each in their own right, but there seemed to be a real chemistry and buzz and friction between Jack and Rebecca, he’s a very much more physical actor, she’s much more cerebral, and actually when we put them in a room together and acted out a few scenes and did a bit of improv there was a real danger there, he’s a slight bit unpredictable and I think that made Rebecca kind of uncomfortable and she upped her game and was very focused after that, and the two just got on really well and we could spot it, and when I did go through with Rebecca to choose who she could possibly play against, to sum out how she felt about each of the actors, and when she came to Jack she said “dangerous, I felt very unsettled” and I thought that was perfect.
And so trying to keep that going, they both so wanted to do the film, it was a real pleasure and that was the pivotal moment so once I could see that inherent danger it was a lot easier and it really kind of worked, it was quite nerve racking going in, because Rebecca was unfortunately ill before the shoot and so our rehearsals where somewhat limited, but then working with them they were both very generous and just great, it was a very collaborative process so we could try things out and I was quite happy to, I didn’t have a set agenda, I was looking to be surprised. We would do a scene a number of ways and they both embraced that sort of ability to push the roles and it was being given those choices in the edit that really made the film, they were so committed, very collaborative.
In terms of the cinematography, a lot of the film or most of it, takes place in the flat, you know that’s the couples space and that’ where it takes place. You did talk about your intrigue with the darker side of human nature and within the film there was some quite unusual camera angles within it that where really interesting to see. Was that a way of you tying in the fact that these characters where unusual and obviously some camera angles where used quite unusually, was that sort of a link at all?
Yeah, I worked very closely with Robin and we had a very simple plan and looking at this film grammar as a whole, at the start the couple, the two are not a couple, so we made sure that their predominantly framed in single shots in a slightly longer lens, and then as the relationship grew we did more and more wider lenses and having a lot more two shots, being shot at in a single shot because they’re in it together. So when they start to fall out or you think they’re not there, their relationship might be falling apart, we don’t sort of go back to the single shots, we use the side of the frame very simply, stronger character would be on the left and weak on the right. So having really simple rules meant that we could be, it meant that the narrative and the characters ended up being much more complex, because we knew what we were looking at, who was going to be where in the frame, size of frame, and a lot of thought was put into how to keep the space intriguing and entertaining for the duration of a 90 minute film, because we had other cinematographers and other people we auditioned saying “look there’s only so many places you can put a camera, I’m going to get bored of this” and Robin wasn’t like that he was really intrigued by the possibility about how to keep us motivated, the story would do it, the performances would do it, but also the camera is very much part and parcel with all that and that’s why we came up with a simple plan of where to put the characters and where there would use 50 mil or 24 mil.
So I think the unusual shots work for timing the emotion of it and Robin really got the emotion of the film and the idea of the claustrophobia and I had one person turn round and say, do you remember the scene where they come down the stairs?
I had one viewer and critic have a look and go “oh my god I completely forgot we were in one space until that moment” and like “oh my god is that the real space?” and I’m was like “yeah it was”, so even 3 quarters of the way through you’re not fully aware of the geography of the house and that was designed to keep us interested, if you know where everything is it could get boring, and we always wanted to be, in even in the cinematography and the space, still revealing stuff at the end of 90 minutes, which is kind of bold for a film in such a small location, you should have seen this location for real, it wasn’t big (laughs).
Wow, well it looks it on screen, but also you’re absolutely right throughout the film that was noticeable and that did play a part in my intrigue, it was very interesting those shots for sure. In the film you’ve spoke about how you’re motivated to write from a female perspective and obviously gender roles are explored a lot in the film, or the reverse of traditional gender roles. Was this intentional in your writing?
Yes very much so. I think as I, I see it in modern day society you do actually see these gender reversals, I know a few people who’ve got, whose partners, the female have got the professional career, I know quite a few guys who are looking to have children and their partner doesn’t want to because they’re so invested in their career. Kind of seems quite more apparent now than it was 10, 15, 20 years ago, so it seemed right to be sort of looking at that role reversal.
Although I have to say from my side, my dad died when I was really young when I was 7, so I was brought up by my mother and an elder sister so I had a sort of female driven upbringing, and from a very tough mother who really had to embrace both the male and the female role in parenting and I think that was sublimely part of why I wanted to have such a flip of the roles and break with those conventions, because life isn’t a stereotype, I think they both exhibit a modern day zeitgeisty comment on the times now.
Wow that’s really interesting that, as well as also personal influence of yours. The root of the couple’s problems and ultimate flaws and the cause of what makes them do these horrific things really, are kind of rooted in their insecurities of their past lovers or their past life. Is that correct first of all, and was that something you where keen to explore throughout the film?
Yeah I think you’re spot on there. Part of it I think as I write characters I’m sort of very aware of their sort of upbringings, what their motivations are, I made sure, like she was an only child, she wondered sometimes if she was a mistake, if her mother really wanted a child, parents don’t live in the UK, it’s alluded to. So looking at her background was very pivotal. So psychologically you could understand why or how her almost sort of sociopathic tendency could be materialised, the same with him, I think he was the second youngest of a very large family, I’m not sure if it all fully got into the film.
Certainly very much aware that his position in the family, he was second youngest of a local family, the rest of the family never really moved away, he was more the wild rebellious one who could get away from it. I think it’s really important to have that sort of psychological backdrop, you can’t just say a characters going to do X, Y and Z, really to understand why people are really able to do it you need to know their propensities, what they take from their parents, who they’ve been brought up I think is very pivotal and i think they are systematic of current times and especially in this day and age with social media, our drive for self fulfilment or worse narcissism, you know I think they both have very sort of self centred goals and aims, they are able to co-exist because of that and actually they do share it, almost like two damaged people in a very damaged world together.
We’ve touched on the style of the film, and your choices as a director. But overall how would you describe your style as a director, does it vary from project to project?
I think it varies from project to project to be totally honest, the one thing I am interested is less the sort of whistles and bells, I think I’m very much a character driven director, be it genre or a in a drama. But you know I think the characters are what I’m most drawn to and a performance, an electric performance on screen for me is just a dream to watch and normally where films fall apart for me is when I’m sitting there going psychologically plots make a character doing something, but the team behind it haven’t always thought about the reality of the character, so the plot may need that to ground, a story has to be a plot and character fusion, so I think for me complexity, character is at the heart of all films, and that’s what I’m interested in, be that in a drama or be that in a genre, you know I think something, it’s taken me a long time to realise that for me a film is looking at human nature in a way that entertains an audience, it has to entertain an audience, you’ve got to find it intriguing and entertaining, if that’s a horror you’re scared, if that’s a comedy you’ve got to laugh, if that’s a drama you know you’ve got to cry and laugh and be shocked, at the root of it is the human character, human nature, you’ve got to shed light on that, even if it’s got giant monsters crashing down buildings or spaceships and things like that, which I still love.
Yeah I think that’s kind of a perfect tagline for this film, it’s exploring the human nature in a very intriguing and, as you say, perhaps entertaining way for the audience, because I was glued to the screen because of these characters and because of their chemistry and because of what they ultimately end up doing. So we’ve just passed the 60th BFI London Film Festival, I wondered if you had a chance to catch up with any of the films and if there are any favourites you have in there?
I had aimed to be, weirdly one of the casting directors I worked with out in LA was over, so I had to scorch all of my viewings and screenings before the BFI, I was really looking forward to it, but unfortunately a family tragedy had gotten in the way. I don’t know if I can sort of answer that in a different way. I guess my influences, I studied at the American Film Institute in LA, so I’ve always been sort of drawn to European, sort of hybrid of European and American films, I think American stuff is amazing at sort of genre and Europe is incredible on character and that’s the kind of thing that’s always drawn them together for me, you know fusions of Herzog, Haneke are some of my favourite directors, along with Terence Malick and David Fincher, Malick less so on genre, but he did Badlands and that sort of really stimulated me to go the AFI I guess in a sort of small way, Love/Me/Do is almost a sort of little homage to Badlands.
Great. Also I know that you are part of the BFI Guiding Lights scheme and you’re mentored by Sam Mendes. Can you talk to us a bit about that experience and your highlights of that?
Yeah it’s an amazing opportunity, I’d just come back from LA and I managed to get on to the scheme and I was really lucky to get Sam Mendes, he’s certainly a director I hugely admire, the performances he gets from actors are amazing and I think that’s what I was drawn to, and to have that opportunity to discuss film, working with actors, to spend time on the Bond set, was invaluable, especially as a writer/director, and the thing I found in the industry you tend to work so much in isolation, hoping that the choices you make and how you go about working with actors, working on a film are the right ones, you never really get an insight into how other people can do it.
So the mentorship scheme with Sam and seeing just how a set as complex as the Bond set can operate, you can’t help but draw great points from it, and I guess the key lesson I learned, the atmosphere on the Bond set was so family, such fun, hard working but it felt like a brilliant team.
That’s the one thing I really wanted to do in Love/Me/Do, you know, no one makes you go off to be a filmmaker, it’s tough all day you’re spending at work, you love it and you make sure the set was fun and was enjoyable to be with, and I think our 3 weeks on set was brilliant, we didn’t have any fall outs, went to the pub once a week and everybody came, moments when everyone’s exhausted and frictions can arise, but we haven’t had any why is nobody falling out and we’re in a tight tiny space so credit to the whole team, everybody pulled together, everybody wanted to do it and we really made sure we had a fun pleasant set that everybody could enjoy being there, because no one’s getting paid a fortune, and that really came from that opportunity to work with Sam through Guiding Lights and seeing how he managed the set, seeing, our set’s nothing, their catering budget must for the cost of a day was more than our film, maybe not quite, but that’s the key thing, he was brilliant. He did give me some, there’s lots of things he discussed with me much more in confidence which also really helped, but that was his generosity as a mentor.
Wow that’s such an interesting insight. So finally the film for the characters ends positively, albeit obviously a twisted fate or end let’s say, but for them as individuals they can kind of let go of those insecurities we were talking about, you know and that ending shot of her popping her keys through the letter box because that house meant a great deal to her in the past. What do you think the future holds for those characters, and what would you have liked to have happen to them?
You know I have my own views and I think when I wrote this and discussed it with Rebecca and Jack, and particularly with Rebecca because she’s the one whose leaving that house, it really is corny though it may sound but that clearly has a lot of emotional impact for that character and I remember her asking “what’s this about, is it premeditated, what’s going to happen in the future?” and I was like “well what do you think?” and I think the whole point of the film is, it’s never meant to be sort of judgemental and it’s never meant to give a definite answer, and I hope the audience can sit there, and this is probably the real heart of the film, I hope it’s one of those films where the audience are interactive when they watch it, they wonder what’s going on you know, I think at the very start people think “oh is he being taken in, oh I know what’s going to happen, she’s going to have a baby through him and kick out, maybe go dark and maybe she’s going to be taking out the boss” actually being what it is at the end, and it should keep guessing till the end as they go along as they try and work it out.
And at the very end I hope it’s one of those films, the aim was always to have it that you don’t know what’s going to happen next, there’s a reason for the film to end at that point, but the next phase is a couple may go watch this film and I hope they can sit down and debate, discuss what is going to be the future for Max and Antonia, will they still be together, will they get away with the crime, you know what’s going to happen, and I think that’s the point of it. I have my own views as the writer and originator but I hope audiences have different views, maybe there are things I’ve missed you know, maybe they’ve picked up on other things, maybe they’ll debate on it, you know it depends on what they bring from their own lives, and how they think of relationships.
I hope it’s an open ending, a fulfilling ending, but on in which audiences can sit there and discuss the intricacies of the relationship, especially maybe committing a crime like that, but you know also they’re clearly committed to each other and that’s what couples do these days and you have to start to figure out how you can stay together.
Well you hit the nail on the head, it was an open ending, that’s why I’m asking (laughs) that, also it does make you think and want to discuss, that film, because there’s all this discussion of all this, what does it take for something that horrific, is it just a partner that rises as a catalyst to explore your sort of darker, the darker side of you as a human. You know, it brings up all these questions and discussions, so yeah I thought it was fantastic.
Ah thank you. You never know as a director whether an audience or an individual is going to get a film, you know it really depends on what kind of films you like. It seems to me, it’s touched something with you and made you… intrigued. That’s great, made my day. (laughs)
LOVE/ME/DO IS OUT NOW ON VOD