In advance of the release of his debut feature film, The Film Blog sat down for a chat with British director James Gardner. Here’s what he had to say…
Jellyfish is a story of survival in an unforgiving world. It is a film about liberating your voice in an environment that would sooner silence you and about finding comedy in the face of misery. As a cinematic experience, however, the latter emotion predominates.
‘It’s a harrowing story,’ agrees the film’s director, writer and producer, James Gardner. ‘It has to be because it deals with real world issues.
‘There’s a responsibility that I felt as the storyteller to get these things right. There’s only so far you can bend the fiction before it becomes disingenuine to the nature of the issues that you’re talking about.’
Gardner may be new to feature filmmaking – Jellyfish was filmed in 2016, having been conceived two years earlier – but, when it comes to shorts, his record speaks for him. His most recent offering – Ferris and the Fancy Pigeon – won a Royal Television Society award, whilst there’s talk of his first being transformed to feature length itself. ‘I’ve got people very excited’ says Gardner happily.
The journey from short to feature was by no means straightforward, however, and Gardner is keen to quash suggestion that the production of a sophomore film will be any simpler than the first.
‘Independent filmmaking’s really, really hard so you kind of have to keep making sure you’ve got a lot of irons in the fire. So, if somebody thinks that’s great but that’s not quite for me then you go, well how about this one? It’s wherever the money comes from I guess. Not easy to find but fingers crossed we get something else going soon.’
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Barry Glitter can wait. Right now, we’re talking Jellyfish and there’s much to discuss.
The film tells the story of Sarah Taylor, a brash fifteen-year-old whose stinging tongue – hence the title – only goes so far in disguising her vulnerability. With her bipolar suffering mother either bedridden or bouncing with immaturity, Sarah is the sole caregiver to her younger brother and sister. To make ends meet, she balances school with a part time job at a grim local arcade. If you think Sarah’s situation is rough when we meet her, it gets worse.
There is, however, a glimmer of hope. Seeing the potential of her sharp wit, Sarah’s drama teacher suggests she should give stand-up comedy a go. And the rest is history. Except, it very nearly wasn’t. Casting the part of Sarah was no mean feat, as Gardner remembers all too well.
‘At one point, I thought we’d written an impossible screenplay,’ he says. ‘To find a fifteen-year-old girl who was able to carry the film on her shoulders, it’s not an easy ask and it was proving quite impossible really to find somebody who I felt had all the qualities I needed in order to pull the film.’
In the end, Liv Hill – the BAFTA nominated star of BBC series Three Girls – was found but not before the cast had begun to get itchy feet.
‘I got very, very lucky finding Liv. I’d spent about seven months looking, trawling through spotlights, going to Facebook groups for am-dram societies and turning up to drama school showcases and all sorts. In the end, it just came down to a little bit of luck because Cyril, who plays Mr. Hale, his agent called me and said that he had been offered another job for the second shoot window and was the film still going to happen? I said, yeah of course it is because at that point you have to have this tunnel vision belief that it will and you’ll find this needle in a haystack in the actress that could play Sarah, and then she said: ‘if you haven’t found her yet then it’s not going to happen’. I said ‘no, we’ll find her, we’ll find her’ and she said ‘listen, let me send you a tape of somebody who we’ve just signed’ and then she did the next day and it was Liv.
‘Obviously, her talent’s been recognised by so many more people now because a lot of people have seen the film but there are other film directors that have cast her too. Lenny Abrahamson, for example, who cast her in The Little Stranger.
‘She’s an incredibly talented young woman, she’s incredibly humble and I feel very, very lucky to have worked with her.’
While Jellyfish tells a very specific story, Gardner – like Ken Loach and Mark Gillis before him – has wider aspirations for his film. ‘I really hope people go and see it and I hope that they’re moved by it and I hope that they feel like they’ve been offered a window onto a world that we kind of know exists but don’t really talk about.
‘Then maybe we can figure out how we can better support young people, better than we do now, because I think that it definitely needs to improve. We need to get better at it and hopefully Jellyfish can contribute to that conversation.’
Having seen the film for ourselves, we’d say he’s got a point.
Read our review of Jellyfish here and catch it in cinemas from 8 February.