Silver Haze: how we made our arson-attack survivor drama

Following on from their acclaimed collaboration Dirty God, star Vicky Knight and director Sacha Polak discuss their new hard-hitting drama, which uses its lead actor’s physicality in a central, even more personal, context.

26 March 2024

By Leigh Singer

Silver Haze (2023) © Viking Film

In 2019, indie film Dirty God took its lead actor, Vicky Knight, far beyond her comfort zone. As a child, Knight had suffered severe burns from a suspected pub arson fire that killed her two cousins, as well as the man who saved her life. The ongoing trauma and personal abuse severely affected her mental health. Yet Dutch director Sacha Polak convinced Knight to star in her film about Jade, a young woman disfigured by an ex-boyfriend’s unprovoked acid attack, trying to rehabilitate her life.

It meant Knight showing her body (her own burn scars augmented by prosthetics), and, more importantly for someone who had never acted before, revealing herself emotionally. Knight’s performance, and the film, were lauded, awarded and selected for film festivals around the world.

Now, Polak and Knight have reteamed for Silver Haze, an even more personal story.  Here, Knight’s character, Franky, works, like Knight herself, as a nurse, and is desperately seeking justice from the arson attack that scarred her for life. At the same time – and, thankfully, fictionally – Franky gets romantically involved with an unstable former patient, Florence (Esme Creed-Miles), while dealing with her chaotic east London home life, including an alcoholic mother and a sister converting to Islam (played by Knight’s own sister, Charlotte). Interviewed separately, Knight and Polak discuss their experiences of making both films.

On the changes between making Dirty God and Silver Haze

Vicky Knight: I felt more prepared going into Silver Haze because I knew what to expect, in the sense of being more aware of how things are done on set. With Dirty God, I’d never been in front of a camera, and it was quite exposing. For example, Sacha wanted to add more prosthetic scars to my face. It affected me mentally because I already had an issue with the way I looked. I had quite a few mental health breakdowns on set.

Sacha Polak: When we shot Dirty God, [Vicky] was really lovely to work with, but sometimes she would get emotional, for example if I would film her [burn-scarred] hand. This time, she had grown so much, it was really remarkable.

VK: It boils down to who you’re working with, and with Sacha, I can trust her with my life. I feel so safe. I remember sitting in the cinema in Soho watching Dirty God and I didn’t see myself but someone else with my scars. That made me realise, there actually is nothing wrong with me. And from that moment on, I’ve embraced my scars. I’ve turned up today in a sleeveless top, which five years ago I would never have done.

On the inspiration for Silver Haze’s story and approach

VK: Silver Haze is based on true events in my life. It’s always been my dream to have something made around what happened. I lost my cousins in the fire and the man that saved my life, he died as well. And there was no justice. So, the idea came about when me and Sacha were travelling the world with Dirty God.

SP: Seeing her in the Q&As, how much impact she had on all these people because of the way she spoke and her stories about her own life: that made me think, okay, there’s a movie in there. And seeing her with her sister, who was immediately up for being in the film too.

VK: Charlotte always had a part in the film because Sacha loved our relationship. We improvised a lot of the scenes.

SP: I wanted to do something very free, with a very small crew. And I wanted a lot of days [to shoot] so we could play around. I wrote a 20-page outline very quickly. Then, closer to shooting, I thought, okay, we need a script. So, some scenes are very much scripted and some are very loosely improvised. And then the editing was really writing it again.

VK: If me and Charlotte actually had to relive something – for example that part where her mum buys her the same iPhone, that actually happened – we could take ourselves back there and get ourselves laughing.

Silver Haze (2023)
Viking Film

On the real-life parallels to Vicky’s own life

VK: Franky’s journey shows a vulnerable person trying to live their new life. She’s ready to end that story. I haven’t gotten justice yet – the whole [storyline] of me messaging [my dad], trying to fight for justice, going to the police station, that’s all true. I’ve not done any attempted murder – yet! It’s a tough film. But it’s a hopeful film. After something so traumatic, you have to pick yourself up and move on.

On being considered a ‘professional actor’ and future projects

VK: If I tell people in the hospital that I’m an actress, they can’t believe it – why am I still working in the hospital? But realistically if I could be an actress full time, I would. I’ve got a few things in the works – a short film coming up that I’m going to be filming this month. And another feature film hopefully just waiting for funding.

SP: It would be nice to make another film [together] when she’s like, 40; something completely different. It’s good for her learning process to work with other directors. She is a great actress, and it would be good to see her in something where [her scars] don’t play any part at all. Of course, it’s a visual medium, and as soon as you see something like that, you need to know a little bit why this has happened.

VK: It’s not been an easy ride, this journey. I don’t want to be typecast. That is the one thing that really does affect me, because I’m more than my scars. I can do other roles. I’ve always wanted to play a soldier in a war film.

Silver Haze will be released in UK and Irish cinemas on 29 March 2024. 

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