Carol Morley: these are the films that inspired The Falling

In this exclusive feature, the director lists the movies and TV series that fuelled her inspiration for her acclaimed new film about a mysterious outbreak of fainting at an all-girls school in the late 1960s.

Carol Morley
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Carol Morley's scrapbook for The Falling (2014)

Carol Morley's scrapbook for The Falling (2014)

There are so many films and TV shows I haven’t mentioned below, like Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994), Frederick Wiseman’s High School (1968) and the TV series Within These Walls (1974-78), because I have run out of space and time, but below are some films that did inspire The Falling into existence, and my attempt at a rationale as to why they inspired me.

Saturday Night Fever (1977)

Director John Badham

Grease (1978)

Director Randal  Kleiser

Saturday Night Fever (1977)

Saturday Night Fever (1977)

I first became aware of John Travolta in Grease when I was 12, which I saw at the Davenport cinema in Stockport with my school friend Lisa. She came with her new boyfriend, so I was the gooseberry. To hide my ‘left-out’ feelings I bought 10 No6 and smoked the whole packet of cigarettes during the film (yes, you could smoke in cinemas back then.) Watching Grease in 1978 I had no idea it was a period film, I just thought that was how America was at the time I was watching. As old as some of the cast who played the teenagers were, I still managed to identify with their adolescent angst. I had been too young to see Saturday Night Fever, starring John Travolta, when it came out the year before, and I was so anti-disco it never occurred to me that I would ever want to see it. When I did check it out years later, I couldn’t believe I’d ignored it for so long. I watched it again before I made The Falling. It’s so good on teenage experience and the scene on the bridge towards the end is heartbreaking, emotive, powerful cinema.

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

Director Peter Weir

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

Picnic at Hanging Rock has lived inside me ever since I saw it, though I can’t remember when that exactly was. It’s such an enticing, hypnotic film, with wonderful cinematography and use of sound. Having gone to a large comprehensive school I often fantasised of attending a refined boarding school and while the school in Picnic has dysfunctions in its own right, it was my ideal. Rachel Roberts, who plays the headmistress, is glorious and frightening and many of the schoolgirls seemed poetic and enigmatic, like they had stepped out from a painting. I wanted to be in their gang. The supernatural quality of the natural world is something I was aiming to achieve in The Falling and so Picnic was most certainly a film that kept floating about in my mind as I researched and wrote the script. I watched Picnic with Agnès Godard, director of photography on The Falling, and discussed it a lot with her. We weren’t trying to mimic it, but we did want to embrace it as a film and acknowledge it within ours. In fact, as a little footnote that the audience might find fun, Abbie (Florence Pugh) in The Falling has the same hairstyle as Miranda from Picnic!

A Girl’s Own Story (1983)

Director Jane Campion

A Girl's Own Story (1984)

A Girl's Own Story (1984)

When I was at Central St Martins College of Art studying fine art film, a fellow student, artist Mark Aerial Waller, and I, formed a film club with a grant from the student union and called it The Flea Pit Film Club. We showed a whole range of films and it helped that Mark was the projectionist at The London Filmmakers’ Co-op, as everything we showed was on film. One time we hired a Jane Campion short film, A Girl’s Own Story, on 16mm from the BFI. It was the first time I ever saw it, and I thought it was a beautiful evocation of girls growing up in the 1960s. I loved how Jane Campion dealt so skilfully with taboo subjects and the pain and mystery of adolescence and how she included the girls’ singing so movingly. It’s a film I like to return to every now and again, as it was so inspirational to me in those early days of discovering films and filmmakers, and it most certainly found its way into The Falling and the filming of the alternative school orchestra.

Sweetie (1989)

Director Jane Campion

Sweetie (1989)

Sweetie (1989)

Jane Campion’s feature film remains a beautiful and powerful film for me. In The Falling Lydia’s (Maisie Williams) mother calls her “sweetie” at one point, which was a direct reference to Campion’s film. Just like in The Falling, which features a majestic oak tree, there is also a significant tree in Sweetie, in fact there are two. One that doesn’t grow and one that Dawn (Genevieve Lemon) climbs. Sweetie looks at female subjectivity and explores the complexity of relationships for all ages in the film, which is something I wanted to do in The Falling – to not only explore the lives of the young people, but to look at the struggles of the older characters too. While Sweetie looks at painful subject matter and experiences, it imbues the pain with humour, which I strived to do in The Falling.

“Don’t Look Now” (1973)

Director Nicolas Roeg

Don’t Look Now (1973)

Don’t Look Now (1973)

Nicolas Roeg’s film is a beautiful contemplation on grief. It is imbued with mystery and an eerie atmosphere, that dances with the supernatural and otherworldliness, something I was aiming for in The Falling. And there is also some fainting and falling in “Don’t Look Now”, which I studied from a visual point of view. From Laura (Julie Christie) fainting onto the restaurant table after meeting with the blind sister, to her husband, John (Donald Sutherland), falling from scaffolding in the church. “Don’t Look Now” is structurally fascinating, using flash-forwards and flashbacks to alter audience perception, something Chris Wyatt, the editor of The Falling, and I would talk about, particularly in our usage of flash frames to try and disorientate the audience and to suggest there is more going on than meets the eye. Nicolas Roeg makes such exciting and compelling films and I was honoured to receive an email from him after he saw The Falling congratulating me on a very original film – a highlight of my life!

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (TV, 1978)

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1978)

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1978)

While Maggie Smith’s portrayal of Miss Jean Brodie is brilliant, it’s the TV series I remember the most, which starred the great Geraldine McEwan, who brought a pathos and humour to her portrayal. I must have watched it on TV in the late 70s, and I think I longed to be part of Jean Brodie’s “crème de la crème”.  So making a film in a girls’ school was probably deeply rooted in me, even before I knew I was going to become a filmmaker. The intense relationships and crushes, and the sexual and political awakening of the girls, was completely tantalising television for a young girl such as me watching in the 70s, so I owe Muriel Spark’s novel and the subsequent adaptations a big shout out for inspiring The Falling.

The Devils (1971)

Director Ken Russell

The Devils (1971)

The Devils (1971)

There’s a lot to celebrate in Ken Russell’s film. From Derek Jarman’s epic sets, to the wild performances, especially Vanessa Redgrave, who is entirely wonderful as the sister of the convent. Based partially on Aldous Huxley’s book The Devils of Loudun, about a witch-hunt and mass hysteria that took place in Paris, it was a film I knew I had to watch again before making The Falling. I felt quite overawed by how Ken Russell had captured the physical exhibitionism of an outbreak of a mass hysteria – properly entitled mass psychogenic illness – and knew I had an awful lot to live up to. So I didn’t really try. Overwhelmed by the brilliance of The Devils, I just knew that the outbreak in The Falling had to capture the feelings and emotions and chaos of an outbreak for a group of young women, and belong to them.

The Owl Service (TV, 1969-70)

The Owl Service (1969-70)

The Owl Service (1969-70)

This was the first TV series made in colour, based on Alan Garner’s book, set in Wales and based on the mythical woman Blodeuwedd. It was made in 1969, but was transmitted in black and white as there was a TV technicians’ union strike on, so they couldn’t show it in colour. They only did that in 1978, in honour of the director of photography, David Wood, who had recently died, which is when I must have seen it. It’s now available on DVD and I watched it again before making The Falling and thought back to what had fascinated me as a child, which was likely to have been a combination of how investigative the girls in the film were and the supernatural aspects, which were completely compelling. I also got very involved in watching the extensive DVD extras, which talk about all the strange things that happened during the filming, which inspired me to be very open during our filming of The Falling, including tapping into the dreams I was having, which included dreaming that Tracey Thorn had already done the music for The Falling (which is what instigated me to ask her to do the music). Some people who have seen The Falling says it taps into folk horror, and I reckon it goes back to watching The Owl Service (though there must be a bit of The Wicker Man inside me too!).

A Swedish Love Story (1970)

Director Roy Andersson

A Swedish Love Story (1970)

A Swedish Love Story (1970)

I only discovered A Swedish Love Story while I was writing the script for The Falling. I love it. It’s a bittersweet and compelling look into family life and young love. It made me wish I was Swedish. And still smoked. Though I shouldn’t say this. A few years ago I was involved on a jury for CUT Films, which is a charity in memory of Deborah Hutton, and a creative outlet for young people to make anti-tobacco films. Because of being involved in CUT Films, I decided in The Falling not to have smoking equaling cool youth – and only have the older people smoking, so smoking is kind of old hat and anachronistic! But A Swedish Love Story, from 1970, has the youngsters smoking all over the place, and renders the feeling and awkwardness of youth, and teenagehood, populated with baffling adult behaviour, beautifully.

If…. (1968)

Director Lindsay Anderson

If.... (1968)

If.... (1968)

Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 film If…. was definitely on my mind while I was writing the script of The Falling, which I set in 1969. If…. is a film about sexual and political awakening, and so too is The Falling. While in If… the schoolboys use guns to form the heart of their protest, in The Falling, the girls use their emotions to protest against the strictures of the time, converting those emotions into demonstrations of fainting. If…. is a film that concentrated the counterculture of the time, and recreates the feelings and energy of youth, and it is a protest film, which is what I wanted The Falling to be: young women demonstrating their objection to the powers that be.

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