Billie Collins speaks with filmmaker Marley Morrison on her feature film debut Sweetheart.
Marley Morrison’s debut feature Sweetheart is basically a full house on the bingo card of my favourite things. A lesbian coming-of-age story set beside the seaside? Mr Whippy and authentic queer representation? An offbeat counterpoint to the growing canon of sombre lesbian period dramas, Sweetheart is the film I wish I’d had as a teenager.
Developed through Film London’s Microwave scheme - in partnership with BBC Films and the BFI, using National Lottery funding - the film centres on AJ (Nell Barlow), an environmentally conscious teen armed to the teeth with sarcasm and withering looks. Dragged on holiday, the last thing she expects is to fall – bucket-hat-over-heels – for spellbinding lifeguard Isla (Ella-Rae Smith). But fall she does. And hard.
I caught up with Marley to chat visibility, intimacy and haircuts ahead of Sweetheart’s upcoming release.
In Sweetheart, Isla says the best thing about going on holiday is that you can be whoever you want. What was it about the British seaside holiday that excited you as the set up for the film?
Holiday parks are a bit of a British institution, and if you’re working class they’re a space you can recognise yourself and other people in. I grew up going to holiday parks every year, and I think there’s something magical about them. They feel stuck in time; you could go in the 90s or now and get pretty much the same thing. There’s also a lot of humour in those places – British people are funny without even trying. So I thought it was an interesting space to look at from an honest and very British point of view.
This is your first feature after shorts like Leroy and Baby Gravy. What did you feel you needed as a writer-director to make that move?
I needed a bit of confidence; it took me a while to believe I could do it. Baby Gravy was the longest film I’d ever made. To go from like 13 minutes to an hour and a half was insane. But the Microwave scheme [with Film London, through which Sweetheart was developed] felt like a great training ground.
I’ll be honest, what really helped was having my producer, Michelle. If I’d tried to do it on my own, I would’ve talked myself out of it. It was a deal we made with each other – ‘we’re doing this, and we’re going to stick by each other no matter what.’ I think that friendship and trust is what got me over the line.
Sweetheart is Michelle’s first feature too, right? How did you get to the point where you’re like: we’re ready for this?
We took a shot in the dark. I look back now like, ‘what were we thinking?’ The original script could never have been made on the money available. But we thought if we can get on the [Microwave] shortlist then maybe there’s something there. We’d made a few shorts, I had the script sort of half-written, and we said let’s see if they select us for the first bit. We never expected to get the final commission. We just wanted to get on to the scheme, improve the script and take a step. Neither of us went to film school; we were very green, but we agreed to stick together, and it worked out.
It did! One of my favourite things about Sweetheart is that it captures so many aspects of a specifically female queer experience – like not knowing if a hug means she’s into you or just your mate, or battles over haircuts. Were there particular facets of that experience you really wanted to capture?
I wanted to capture the relationship between the teenager and the parent – or whoever it might be – who’s trying to encourage the feminine in them. Not from a place of homophobia, but from a natural, honest place – a place of love. I think it’s probably because I grew up being forced into dresses, when really the best thing is to encourage young people to dress how they want. And things change over time. I just wanted an authentic character that was relatable to me and that I hadn’t seen on screen before.
On that mother-daughter dynamic, it’s ace that you have a pro like Jo Hartley (Tina) playing opposite newcomer Nell Barlow. What’s it like to have those two ends of the spectrum working together? How do you facilitate that as a director?
It was mad working with Jo – I’m a huge fan. She has so much energy and love, and she genuinely wants to do her best for emerging filmmakers. Nell was relatively new, and I worked with them both independently. As a director, you have to give each actor something different depending on where they are and where they’ve come from. I spent a lot of time with Nell just boosting her confidence; she doesn’t realise how good she is. Jo saw Nell’s talent and they built a relationship separate to me – I’d hear them talking on set, they really helped each other. I didn’t have to do much because they got on so well and made it happen on screen.
That sounds like a skill – being able to read what an actor needs and assembling a cast who support each other.
That’s a huge part of it, especially on smaller budget films. It’s about people coming together and wanting to do the project. Attitude is a huge part of filmmaking; you can only make it work if everyone’s on the same page.
There’s a wonderful intimate ‘first time’ scene between AJ and Isla in the film. What advice do you have for new directors on approaching those moments?
Having an intimacy coordinator is amazing if you can get one – they’re hot property right now. A lot of it is down to trust with the actors, constantly make sure they’re 100% happy, and if at any point they aren’t, give them the freedom to say, ‘I’m not okay doing that.’ And only have people on set who are necessary for shooting those scenes – you don’t need the whole crew there. Just really communicate with your actors. Be open and honest with them.
Bit of a tangent, but in terms of visuals that holiday park setting really lends itself to a bright, colourful aesthetic. It reminded me of Martin Parr’s photos...
Yeah! You’re the first person to notice that actually. That was a big thing: a lot of Martin Parr’s old photographs.
Really? What sort of visual references were you drawing on?
So, Martin Parr was one. Then the coming-of-age films of the 90s and 00s. Cheesy stuff like 10 Things I Hate About You, Clueless, She’s All That. Films I grew up watching and wondering why they were always about straight people. I wanted to make something uplifting and romcomy. Britain gets a bad rap for making grey, depressing films – and we do them brilliantly – but I wanted a bit of colour. I was also inspired by quirky American indie films like Ghostworld and Welcome to the Dollhouse. I wanted to make something that wouldn’t be relegated to a small, niche LGBTQ part of the shelf and could stand on its own in the coming-of-age space. The character happens to like girls; it was never the main focus of the story.
I first saw Sweetheart at BFI FLARE, where it was met with a lot of love. Has there been anything that’s surprised you about the way it’s been received?
People probably say this all the time, but I genuinely didn’t expect it. Filmmaking is such a long process – Sweetheart took 5 or 6 years, so it’s only now that I’m reflecting on it. I thought if this can just reach a couple of young lesbians and they can have an uplifting film, something I didn’t have when I was younger, that will make me happy. I didn’t expect this super warm reception. It’s completely overwhelming. But lovely, of course. It’s lovely.
I think it already has connected with lots of young queer people, girls especially. It’s no small thing, to see yourself in a coming-of-age film for the first time.
Yeah, and knowing it doesn’t have to be a coming out film or an ‘issues’ film.
Right! I want a film where I see my mum begging me not to wear snapbacks.
Yeah, “grow your hair back!” or something. “Your hair was so lovely!” It’s still lovely. Lovelier with my mullet.
Exactly! Finally, can you tell us anything about what you’re working on next, or what you’d love to work on next?
I’m working on a TV show at the moment. It’s called Tell Me Everything: a teen drama for ITV2 that should come out early next year. And then I’m writing something with Sophia (Di Martino) who was in Sweetheart. It’s a dark comedy based on a true story, set in the 1800s, about a group of women. That’s probably all I can give away… And hopefully my second feature next year. I’d just love to keep making films really. I’ve learned a lot doing TV recently – I love what I’m doing, and it’s a great show, but I think my heart is in film.
Sweetheart will be in cinemas from 24 September.