Adult Life Skills is a bereavement comedy feature about a twenty-nine-year old woman who’s retreated into her mother’s garden shed. Having won the Nora Ephron Prize at Tribeca, the movie made its European premiere at the 2016 Edinburgh International Film Festival. Features Editor James T Harding talks to writer-director Rachel Tunnard about working with children and spiders, script development, and the film editor’s perspective.
If you aren't willing to have a go at directing it, then you can never moan about the fact there's no female directors ever again
One of most memorable moments of Adult Life Skills involves about a hundred spiders marching over the sleeping body of the main character Anna (Jodie Whittaker). ‘It was included because when I lived in a shed in Crouch End in London it really happened,’ Rachel Tunnard (without a hint of regret) explains. ‘I thought there was this really beautiful plant on the inside of the wall of shed. It had these little white buds. I used to lie there and think, “This is a really beautiful thing to have in my bedroom.”’
‘And then one night I woke up and there was a spider in my mouth. I turned my light on and the whole bed was covered in spiders. Those little white buds were sacks of baby spiders. They were erupting. I moved out of the shed in the middle of the night.’
‘I like the idea of something that you think is beautiful turning into something that's rotten. Or that always has been rotten, but you haven't noticed until that moment.’
The process of filming spiders is complex. ‘The spider wrangler drove up and gave us all these spiders in tupperware boxes of different sizes.’ A body double and a studio were hired, and all of the spiders had to be caught up again and returned to their tupperware, then counted to make sure none had been harmed. ‘It was awful. I'm not working with spiders again. Or cows.’
Like many writer-directors approaching their first feature film, Rachel Tunnard’s route was through short film. ‘I had written the feature-film script first. We were talking about whether we go going to make it, and whether I was going to direct. At first, I was like, “Meh.” But the execs at Creative England and BFI said, “If you aren't willing to have a go at directing it, then you can never moan about the fact there's no female directors ever again.” And I really like moaning.’
‘So we agreed that I would have a go at making a short film. But it didn't have to be a short film. They said I could take just a few scenes out of the feature film. It was planned as a financing tool, and to see whether I would enjoy directing. A tool for demonstrating the tone of the film. But we felt it would be much more satisfactory to do a stand-alone short film that used the characters and some of the scenarios from the film.’
The proposed pilot became Emotional Fusebox, which was nominated for a BAFTA award. But what really mattered to the financiers was having a proof on concept for the full version. ‘It meant we could go immediately to funders: this is the script, and this is what it's going to look like. Everything came together very quickly after that. We were shooting the feature film before the BAFTA nomination.’
The process of piloting the feature also helped to develop the content of the film. ‘I did a new draft of the feature film while we were financing. I'd written a talking otter… It sang songs by Seal to Anna. It was becoming an elephant in the room, because all the financiers, everyone who read the script, loved the talking otter.
‘After we'd made the short, I started getting emails. “So let's talk about the otter. There's an otter farm in the Peak District. Maybe you should go and look at it. Are you gonna film a real otter and visual-effect its mouth talking? Or are you gonna put subtitles over the otter? Or are you going to have a puppet?”’
By the shooting draft, Rachel had moved away from magical realism, and the otter had evolved into the snorkeler we see in the final edit.
What else was removed? ‘My favourite joke in the whole thing is the fact that Alice is constantly laminating everything. There's still some tiny moments in there about it. But we filmed all these sequences of her laminating everything. All her sexual tension was coming out in the laminator. But we didn't have enough room to set it up, establish it, and pay it off.’
‘They all had those beats. Brett had his book. I filmed him writing his book, pitching his book, and everything. And it just didn't fit. Loads of Brett running. Oh my God. I got him in for a whole day of pickups doing running and squats and strange exercise, pelvic floor movements. I've got a 15-minute short film of them.’
Rachel has a dark (and award-winning) past as a film editor. I asked her how that changed the way she approached writing and directing. ‘As an editor, you're always encouraging the director or the writer to forget what they've written, and forget what the shoot was like, and just to see what they actually have in the can. And then to reimagine their story using those materials rather than thinking about this genius line that they wrote that was never able to be delivered in the way they wanted or something.’
‘It's great. I find it really liberating. Especially working with a seven-year-old kid who was not an actor and had never done anything like this before.’ This is Ozzy Myers, who plays Clint. 'He had some complicated sentences to say. I wasn't concerned that I needed to get him to deliver them all verbatim correctly every single time. I knew that provided I had each word in one take or another, I'd be able to cut it together in order to make sure it felt cohesive.’
‘I sat with the script ticking off lines as he was doing it. Sometimes I would shoot him in a close up and I'd sit next to him, hold his hand, and make him mimic me. So I would do the line with the intonation I wanted and he would mimic me. As an editor, I knew that would work. It made me feel, it's going to be alright.’
So the secret of working with children (and spiders) is to learn how to edit? ‘Maybe. And also pound coins and chocolate.’
‘At the beginning Ozzy was really nervous walking onto a set of fifty people. It gave him the right kind of energy. But he was in for twenty days. By week two, he’d realised that if he had a tantrum, fifty people would go “What's she gonna do now?” looking at me.
‘I would basically bribe him. “If I give you, one pound, will you do the scene?” “Yeah.” Then I would give him a pound, and he would give it to his parent whist he would do the scene. While the scene was happening, his mum or dad would give me the pound coin back. The whole shoot, Ozzy was kinda like “Well, I've earned £20.” And he hadn't. He'd earned £1. It made me feel bad at first.’
‘There's a scene in there when he's having a tantrum, when he's hitting a bush with a stick. He wouldn't do the scene, so I was like, “Alright well I'll just film you doing that then.” And it made it into the cut. The energy was right.’
You can support Adult Life Skills on Twitter @AdultLifeSkills and Rachel @racheltunnard.