County Lines are nationwide drug-dealing networks, whose snaking tendrils lure, trap and exploit vulnerable children and youths into trafficking mainly crack cocaine and heroin from urban areas to more rural or coastal UK locations. Writer-director Henry Blake’s powerful, often harrowing debut feature of the same name was inspired by his own experiences working in an east London PRU (Pupil Referral Unit), whose kids from impoverished, damaged homes were often at great risk of being swallowed up by this dangerous underworld.
Blake’s film focuses on a 14-year-old groomed into this system, and the impact it has on him, his single mother and younger sister. One might make easy assumptions of how this particular story would be depicted, given Britain’s strong tradition of film and television social realism: unvarnished visuals shot with handheld camera. Perhaps it’s in part due to Blake’s New Zealand heritage, and working with a DoP, Sverre Sørdal, from Norway, but their film is striking for how it actively pushes against so many of these traditional tropes.
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“I think that was one of the first things we said,” recalls Sørdal. “Okay, this is a social realist issue, but let’s not make a social realist film, even though we both love those films. I love Ken Loach and Alan Clark – I’ve even bought Clark’s [BFI Blu-ray] box set and it’s incredible! But it wasn’t what we wanted to do.”
“Sverre and I try to be premeditated in developing a very clear philosophy of what the visual language of the film is going to be,” says Blake. “And one of the major compliments of the film is that it never veers off its tone.”
There’s a finely crafted lyricism to County Lines’ visual style, its deep-focus images, shadows and negative space used to isolate their emotionally cut-off characters. It’s also fiercely experimental. Sørdal happened upon the Alexa digital camera’s native RAW 3:2 aspect ratio that he and Blake then adopted wholesale. “We didn’t want to shoot Scope,” explains Sørdal, “and we didn’t want to go 4:3, because a lot of people just go, ‘Oh, this is somebody trying to be artsy.’”
Similarly, the pair are adamant that their visual inspirations often fall outside the world of cinema. “If you were to really say what was the source of inspiration for us, it would be photography,” says Blake. “There are 2 or 3 major ones that really drove the visual philosophy of the film.” These – alongside the cinematic references below – show just how rich and varied their influences are.
Nan Goldin and Hannah Starkey’s photography
Sverre Sørdal: Nan Goldin is probably the photographer we looked at the most, but to be honest, I think they share a lot of similarities. Both of them obviously capture realism, maybe on the grittier side of the spectrum. But there’s always something about their photography that takes it away from being social realist, something slightly magical, like a strange shaft of light or a dapple on the wall. This kind of beauty takes it away a little bit from the sad reality of life.
Henry Blake: Hannah Starkey is a British photographer, and her photos are incredible in that they depict the everyday, but they’re rigorously formal. She has a lot of control and authorship; she’s not just snatching or grabbing [images]. And I think that’s also part of the philosophy around the film – we’re shooting everyday life, but within that we’re being very formal, very rigorous and specific.
Vilhelm Hammershøi’s paintings
HB: I remember emailing Sverre saying the family in the story is compartmentalised because there’s such a lack of togetherness. So we need to try and visualise that compartmentalisation. He sent me Hammershøi [pictures] and I was like, “Yeah, chief, that’s why I love you!”
SS: Hammershøi is a Danish painter and his paintings are, again, very realistic, very minimalistic, but also very crafted and composed. The light is shaped and the contrast is measured, but it still feels super real. And he very often paints rooms within rooms and frames within frames.
HB: When you work very closely with a cinematographer who has an awareness of art outside of just cinematography, you end up being able to execute these ideas, which is very satisfying. You can do close-ups on a face and a face can say a thousand words, but seeing someone within their living space says so much more about that person’s life. One of my favourite little moments in the film is when Tyler’s making a pizza in the kitchen and Aliyah is [in the other room] on an iPad taking photos. And maybe the temptation with another [director and cinematographer] would’ve been, let’s put the camera on the shoulder in the kitchen and see Tyler, and stay on him for a moment. But actually, when you work with Sverre, he brings this great discipline. There’s so much more information we can get.
Come and See (1985)
SS: Something we talked a lot about is, how do we isolate this character in this world? And I guess that’s where the first film reference came in, Come and See, which I think is probably the greatest film ever made. The isolation of the boy in the film is obvious, but it’s really clear and powerful. And that’s built in 4:3 aspect ratio, which is similar to photography rather than the kind of Scope film look, which is more associated with what you only can do in cinema.
HB: I think Come and See gets as close as you can in cinema to the truth. I’m not a huge fan of narratives in war, I don’t think there are any heroes – the truth is far uglier than that. And this film is brave enough to examine that. But it also examines the boy’s trauma, how he absorbs trauma over time, and in the film, as he becomes more traumatised, so his frame starts to fray.
SS: I don’t know if you’ve noticed in County Lines, there are a couple of moments where we’ve used a lens which makes everything super soft around Tyler.
HB: It’s when Tyler is becoming increasingly more traumatised, and he’s been attacked in the marsh, at his lowest point. Trauma, when you go through it, is not linear in any way and everything is quite fragmented. So it was about visualising that idea.
William Eggleston’s photography
HB: Another photographer we like, and I think this guy from a colour point of view is very clear, would be William Eggleston. There were 2 shots particularly for me: a boy on a chair inside, and a boy on the side of a road. When I saw them, I was like, that’s the film, you know. There’s always a bit of colour in Eggleston’s work, again, this everyday feel, but with an eye that is seeing an interpretation of that everyday, which slightly heightens it, and gives us a sort of cinematic experience, if that makes sense.
Fukase Masahisa’s photography – The Solitude of Ravens
HB: Fukase did an amazing book, a black-and-white masterpiece. It’s not a direct reference in as much as you probably won’t see it in the film, like when you look at Eggleston or Goldin or Starkey, but it’s a feeling of sort of bleak isolation.
He took a series of these photos of ravens when his wife left him, to cope with it, And for me, when Tyler goes out of London, we have to get this sort of lyrical sense of his isolation; this feeling that he’s being let loose, so he’s leaving his own walls and prison. But at the same time, that feeling of isolation remains in him.
We were very lucky shooting in Canvey Island, that beautiful sequence in the film where he’s dealing out the cards, and then he ends up looking at the sea. And just by chance, a flock of birds kind of exploded in front of us. And Sverre and I looked at each other and were just like, it’s poetry!
SS: Zvyagintsev is maybe the filmmaker we talked most about, and one of our favourites, along with his cinematographer Mikhail Krichman. If I was to look to one cinematographer in the world, I’d look to him. The images are so considered, but at the same time, it’s so human: the colours, the life, the compositions, the movement, the storytelling, it’s just perfect.
Leviathan (2014) is probably his best movie, but for County Lines, thematically closer is Loveless (2017). It’s the first time he ever shot on digital and the night scenes are truly like night, really dark. There’s an amazing scene with torchlight where you don’t see anything, just the torch moving around. Sometimes it swipes across the person’s face. Sometimes it doesn’t. And that was something we wanted to bring to our night scenes when it’s not naturally lit by the city. When Tyler comes home at night, he goes into his mom’s bedroom. My wife was there to visit the set that day, and said, “Henry, you can’t see anything.”
HB: And I was, like, this is fucking perfect!
SS: Lee Chang-dong on Burning, that was his first movie on digital too. And I think what these 2 directors are clearly incredibly good at is that when they use this tool, they don’t try to make it look like film. They say, “OK, we have a digital camera – what can that do for us?” I even think at some point, Henry, we were thinking about channelling his earlier film Secret Sunshine (2007)?
HB: That’s such a beautiful film. The way he navigates space, inside her house is fucking incredible, so lyrical. It’s kind of handheld, so different to ours, but really beautifully judged in the distance that he plays with.
SS: I think this pushed us in that direction saying, you know, be bold.
HB: We changed in abandoning that word ‘rule’ and replacing it with ‘philosophy’. It’s purely psychological, but I’ve always said language in approach is so important. Here, the word ‘movie’ wasn’t really used at all. You know, when Tarantino makes a movie, he’s about ‘making movies’, and they’re fucking amazing, don’t get me wrong. But it has that pizzazz about it. And I certainly didn’t want to make a ‘movie’. We wanted to kind of illustrate these philosophies and execute them as efficiently as possible. For me, if you take the experimentation out of filmmaking, I’ll just go and do something else.
Originally published: 25 November 2020