Strawberry Fields is a film that feels woozy in the way that late summer often can. Emotions are heightened, stakes are raised, and caution is thrown to a mid-August wind.
The film follows a group of transient strawberry pickers as they muddle through their emotional problems amidst the beauty of the Kent countryside. Primarily a claustrophobic drama about the battle between Gillian (Anna Madeley) and her emotionally unbalanced sister name Emily (Christine Bottomley), Strawberry Fields focuses on issues of sexuality, family, and mental illness.
To coincide with its release on DVD, we spoke to writer-director Frances Lea about making the film.
Did the film have any direct inspiration?
I went strawberry picking once and there were three ex-cons and some Cambridge students and a small romance between two of those so there were many things that came together.
Photo: Catching the sun; Gillian (Anna Madeley) in Strawberry Fields.
Even though it’s set in Kent, it feels like another world. How did you try to achieve that dreamlike quality?
It was a very conscious decision to make the film feel timeless through the art direction and the costume, so you can’t quite place when it was made by the clothes or the cars or other objects. With the cinematography we focused on using handheld and slow motion and certain camera angles to get a sense of Gillian’s perspective. She has a peculiar and particular view of the world that’s also been distorted by her relationship with Emily. I wanted to distract the viewer, in the way that Gillian is distracted by the beautiful environment.
Did you feel a responsibility in how you portrayed mental illness? Obviously you want to make something dramatic and emotional but you’re dealing with conditions that people actually have as well.
That’s what I was trying to do with the script, balance the two: make it a dramatic story and also one that at its heart had a message I thought could be important to others, a universal point in it that other people would relate to. I was a writer in residence at Bedford prison for two years and I’ve worked with people who have special needs and I’ve also made a documentary about psychiatric hospitals. Over the years I’ve had a lot of interest in mental health and institutions and how they deal with people. In prisons now lots of people who should have been in institutional psychiatric care have slipped through the net and ended up in prison.
Photo: Sisters Gillian and Emily reconcile. The emotional drama surrounds their shared love interest in Kev.
You made Strawberry Fields for a very low budget in just 28 days. Are there benefits to that kind of compressed filmmaking?
Mostly I think it’s a really tough way to make a film. But the film was proving difficult to get made and funded, possibly because of the content, and maybe the remit of the scheme that financed it meant that they could take a risk.
They were actively looking for people with distinctive voices who couldn’t get their work made in the mainstream, I suppose that’s the benefit of making a film on this budget, because it got made and wouldn’t have otherwise, but it’s a very, very tough way to make a film. To make a quality film on that budget is difficult. But at least I made the film the way I wanted to make it. That’s definitely a big positive.
Photo: Gillian and Kev (Emun Elliott).
It looks very striking considering how little time you had.
We were very prepared for what we were looking to achieve, and worked very hard to make everything come together in the time we had. There were no accidents in the creation of the film, thankfully. We were amazingly lucky with the weather. It was one of the only months in the last eighteen where we had three weeks of glorious sunshine and then it rained after that. We had two or three days of horrible weather and those were the ones we weren’t filming in the fields, so we were blessed.
It was very important that it looked sumptuous because that was what was bigger than Gillian, what was taking her out of her shrunken world was this bigger picture, this beauty around her. I wanted it to seduce and entice her with that bigger world.
Strawberry Fields is released on DVD this week. Watch a trailer of the film at BBC Films.