Daphne director: ‘We don’t see London women reflected on our cinema screens’

She drinks, smokes and enjoys casual sex, yet characters like Daphne don’t come along very often. Director Peter Mackie Burns tells us why his debut is a modern London film with a difference.

Nikki Baughan

Daphne (2017)

Daphne (2017)

In the diverse south London neighbourhood of Elephant and Castle, thirtysomething redhead Daphne lives as best she knows how – working in a local restaurant by day and frequenting pubs and clubs at night. She seems to be enjoying herself as she talks philosophy, engages in casual liaisons and drinks slightly too much.

That Daphne is also consciously avoiding any kind of emotional intimacy, with the men she meets (including nightclub bouncer David, played by Nathaniel Martello-White) and her unwell mother (Geraldine James), seems not to be a problem, until she finds herself caught up in a traumatic event that forces her to look inwards.

Featuring a stunning, natural lead performance from Emily Beecham, Daphne is a bracing character study that marks the feature debut of Scottish filmmaker Peter Mackie Burns. After trying to get a full-length film off the ground for a decade, Burns and his writing partner Nico Mensinga decided to turn one of their ideas into a 10-minute film, which became the prototype for Daphne.

“We looked at the short, and we thought the character was really interesting,” Burns says. “We thought there would be more juice to squeeze out of the character and the situation.”

Watch the Daphne trailer

Although the resulting film is a snapshot of life over the course of a few short weeks, as an individual Daphne is dramatically deep and richly textured; there’s a great deal going on underneath the surface. “Nico and I work in a slightly unusual manner, in that I do the character work and Nico does the draft,” explains Burns.

“I do a very long biography for the character and, for this feature, it took a couple of years to write. Everything from Daphne’s reading list when she was at uni, before she dropped out, to working in a restaurant. And I would send Emily to work in a restaurant, to listen to all of the music, to read all of the books and to absorb the back story. Emily being a brilliant actress, she took it all on board.”

Peter Mackie Burns

Peter Mackie Burns

This extensive development also extended to the film’s look, which is completely in service to the character and her location. Working with production designer Miren Maranon (Lilting) and Amy Winehouse pianist turned score composer Sam Beste, Burns has created a vivid depiction of modern London. “We thought if we’re going to make this character as authentic as possible, let’s make the design as authentic as possible,” he says.

“The movie is shot in my friend’s apartment, the shop [Daphne frequents] is 150 metres away. We filtered everything through the character; all of the places, all of the clothes, all of the soundtrack. It’s all things that the character would buy or listen to. Everything was bought from the street market outside the apartment where she lives, including the secondhand records.”

Daphne (2017)

Daphne (2017)

Creating an indelible sense of place was also important to Burns, as he wanted to showcase an area of London little-seen on the big screen. “As an urban area, Elephant and Castle is fascinating,” he says. “It’s so diverse and, like our character, it’s undergoing massive regeneration and change. Families are having to move out and new people are coming in, and there’s constant change. It’s a really good model for this story and, for me, one of the most interesting places in London.”

Burns’ determination to highlight the vibrancy of the neighbourhood he knows so well is reflected in Adam Scarth’s evocative cinematography, which contrasts the familiar gleaming edifices of the London skyline with Elephant’s eclectic microcosm, and a vivid colour palette that draws on everything from the red of Daphne’s hair to the deep blues of the night sky.

Daphne (2017)

Daphne (2017)

“I like to balance the realism of the performances against an expressionistic use of colour,” says Burns, who credits Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai as a key influence. “When people hear that you’re making a movie in Elephant and Castle, they immediately assume that it’s going to be grey and cold. So we tried to use colour in a way that felt authentic to the area.”

While Daphne most certainly celebrates the capital’s colourful multicultural identity, its heroine is a very particular breed: a street-smart, opinionated and independent spirit who has adapted to life in one of the world’s toughest cities. Despite the fact that she is inherently a sympathetic, tragi-comic character, her on-screen behaviour – drinking, smoking, casual sex – has led to some commentators calling her ‘unlikeable’ or even ‘difficult’; something to which Burns takes exception.

Daphne (2017)

Daphne (2017)

“Those adjectives are never applied to male characters,” he rightly notes. “Let’s face it, there have been a lot of stories about men. I’m a man, and I don’t know if I can be a feminist, but for me, gender is a construct just like character. I have concentrated on women’s stories because I find that perspective slightly different from my own, and interesting. As simple as that.

“Producer Valentina [Brazzini, of The Bureau] and I were talking at the genesis of the project and we said that we don’t see, in the context of London at this particular time, women that we know reflected on our cinema screens. So we thought, let’s try and make a character that we feel reflects living in Elephant and Castle right now.

“The question was, how do you live in London as a normal person? How do you survive? What happens when you become the person you’ve been pretending to be, and you realise the way that you are living isn’t the way you want to be living? To live, Daphne has made a carapace and she’s stuck in it. Nico and myself, we share her worldview. We see life as light and dark. For us, the balancing age was to make a character who stayed on that tightrope between lightness and darkness.”

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