Spaceship director Alex Taylor: ‘We are time-travelling in our own personalities’

Alien abductions in Guildford? Debut director Alex Taylor discusses his hallucinatory new teen movie and why modern movies need to raise their game.

Nikki Baughan

Spaceship (2016)

Spaceship (2016)

For his debut feature, award-winning short filmmaker Alex Taylor (Kids Might Fly) has combined the potency of adolescence with a wilfully ambiguous genre narrative to create a hypnotic look at the agony and ecstasy of the modern teen experience.

Expanding on his own 2012 documentary short, the story follows a group of young misfits who take existential inspiration from their friend’s supposed abduction by aliens. As they attempt to find their own ways out from the trappings of everyday life through drink, drugs and talk of unicorns and vampires, Spaceship plots a visceral path through the wild terrain between youth and adulthood.

It’s an experimental work that nevertheless wears its thematic heart on its sleeve; no surprise as it’s inspired by writer-director Taylor’s own experiences as a teenager growing up in Guildford, where the film was shot. “I was always a bit of an outsider myself,” he reveals. “I never fit into the mainstream teenager groups. I used to have these fantasies that time would stop; that everyone in the school, teachers and pupils, would just freeze, and I could walk out of school and be free. For me, life was an oppressive treadmill of opinions around me that I didn’t fit into, and it was relentless.

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“I went down to Guildford to research the film and befriended some teenagers, to see what they are like nowadays,” Taylor continues. “They are exactly the same, doing exactly the same things. I spent several weeks with them over the summer before we filmed, and immersed myself back into their culture.”

It was this universal connection between his own experiences and those of today’s teenage outliers that made Taylor determined to give his young protagonists a strong, authentic voice. “I’ve got this theory that we are all still teenagers,” he says. “We are time-travelling in our own personalities. When we’re young we have the future adult inside us and, now we’re a bit older, we still have that teenager inside us, travelling with us. I don’t think we ever leave those versions of who we are behind.

“Yet I feel like a lot of films about teenagers are made from an adult point of view,” he continues. “I really wanted [the characters] to own the film, and that goes down to the structure; that’s why it’s structured like a teenager’s mind. That’s the best way I can think to describe why it can be frustratingly obtuse and chaotic – it’s going in all kinds of different directions and it’s not sure why it’s doing it.”

Spaceship (2016)

Spaceship (2016)

Taylor says that his astonishing young cast, many of whom he found through street castings and who he calls his “soulmates”, were also a continual source of inspiration. “I wanted the actors to bring a lot of themselves into the role. This was the first film Tallulah Haddon [who plays the mesmeric Alice] has ever done, and she is full of cinematic energy with a dark depth that fitted the character. Lara Peake [who plays the troubled Tegan] has a beautiful vulnerability as well as being a defiant young woman, which I thought would illuminate the character.”

Indeed, one thing that Spaceship has in abundance is vivid female characters, and Taylor says he was also driven by his desire to subvert traditional gender expectations. “The film is full of female energy,” he says. “I see so many films that have a strong female character in the central role, usually being put through a traumatic experience, and think that means it’s a feminist film. You have to do so much more.”

Taylor says that he is influenced by a broad range of filmmakers, from the arthouse to the mainstream. “I love Harmony Korine’s earlier work like Gummo (1997), which put people on the outside of society at the centre and celebrated their strange weirdness without judging them. And Larry Clarke’s Kids (1995). I think he had a way of letting the kids be themselves in front of the camera. Also Todd Solondz, with his examination of the quirkier sides of our characters, and Gregg Araki, with his explosion of colour and energy. And Lena Dunham, who won an award at SXSW for Tiny Furniture the same year we won a Special Jury Prize for Kids Might Fly (2010); her examination of contemporary society with fewer boundaries really influenced me as well.”

Alex Taylor

Alex Taylor

“I also love 80s films,” Taylor continues. “The 80s had an overall atmosphere of hope, energy and exuberance. There’s a scene in The Lost Boys (1987), where the vampires are on motorbikes, revving their engines, which directly inspired my shot of Luke [Charles Collier] on his motorbike with the lights [of the alien spacecraft] in the background. What I love about films like The Lost Boys is that it was about danger, excitement and the celebration of our energy. The main character of Michael [Jason Patric] gets addicted to the world he is brought into, and that world is kaleidoscopic and colourful.”

Despite being inspired by an eclectic mix of filmmakers, there’s no doubt that Spaceship has an identity entirely its own, and Taylor a singular voice. “I hate any boundaries,” he says of his determination to blur traditional lines of both subject and form in his filmmaking. “When I meet kids who love Spaceship, I get the sense that they are really glad there’s a film out there they can actually relate to.

“Film is moving fairly slowly. Television, with things like [US comedy series] Transparent, moves more quickly in terms of how it perceives people and their freedoms, but I feel we are still making quite stuffy, traditional films. There are some glimmers of hope, but there’s a lot of work for us to do.”

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