Q&A with film director Joe Stephenson on his forthcoming film about learning difficulties and friendship, called ‘Chicken’
Having recently written about and done a video blog on disability in film we thought we should let you know about a forthcoming film. The film is called Chicken and is about a teenage boy with learning difficulties and his journey to finding his first true friend. Described by Sir Ian McKellen as being ‘intriguing, enchanting, moving’, Chicken is touching and completely original and well worth a watch. It will be showing at the Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley on December 1st with a Q&A. Below is our very own Q&A with the director of Chicken, Joe Stephenson.
How would you describe Chicken?
Chicken tells the story of Richard (Scott Chambers) a 15 year old boy with learning difficulties, who lives with his destructive older brother Polly (Morgan Watkins) in a caravan. When the land they live on is bought, the electricity supply is cut off and their living conditions get even worse. While his older brother makes plans to move on, Richard forms a friendship with the new landowner’s daughter (Yasmin Paige) and for the first time starts to see through his brother’s lies.
What films might you compare Chicken to?
This is a difficult one for me, as I deliberately avoided thinking about other films while making it. It is often too easy to be influenced by others, even subconsciously, and I wanted very much to make something original to me.
In hindsight, it has obvious comparisons with What’s Eating Gilbert Grape – although Leo DiCaprio’s character (who is autistic) was not the lead character in the way that Richard is for us. The film does ultimately sit with a particular type of British social realism, the type born through Ken Loach’s work and most recently Clio Barnard’s ‘The Selfish Giant.’
Chicken is based on a play by Freddie Manchin, why did you decide on this particular play and these themes as your focus? Do you have any personal connections to the themes in this film?
I chose this play for the simple reason that I was moved by it in a way that is very rare for me, and perhaps even rarer is seeing a play you believe can be translated (and expanded) cinematically.
The actual reason I was so moved, and the reasons it’s themes truly spoke to me, were constantly being understood and re-understood during the whole process of making the film. Central for me is the fact that it speaks of how we develop as children, and what happens when we are deprived of essentials most of us take for granted: a secure roof over our head, food in the cupboards, a basic education, a loving parent.
My mum now foster’s, and because of this I’ve heard about many instances where just one of these is not provided and the long term effects can be very difficult to overcome. With the brothers in the film, both of them are lacking in all of these things and the damage is almost irreparable. However, while some of the damage is indeed permanent, their lives can be improved but they are unable to affect that change themselves, it requires the kindness of strangers. I guess you could say the underlying theme is, ultimately, empathy and its value in our society.
Scott Chambers, who plays the main character (Richard), is particularly sophisticated in his portrayal of somebody with learning difficulties. Do you think most modern films portray disability appropriately?
There are certainly instances in film where disability has been portrayed appropriately but I think it is quite an intimidating subject for a lot of filmmakers and because of this, a lot rarer than it should be. Intimidating in that you need to sensitively and accurately portray an experience of life that you may have no first hand experience of, unless you have learning difficulties yourself of course.
With Richard, it was important to me and Scott that we look at everything from his perspective. So we didn’t research particular disabilities, but rather focussed on how he experiences the world – we didn’t want to know details that Richard himself wouldn’t know. This, I feel, is often what trips up actors and directors when dealing with learning difficulties. In an effort to understand their subject as best as they can, they end up losing the characters emotional experience and focus too heavily on the physical representation. What Scott has done so beautifully to hold on to a raw honest performance, is understand that how he behaves physically is completely tied into how he thinks, and not a separate technical aspect of a performance.
Do you think disabled people are well represented in the film industry as actors, directors, runners etc.?
I do not. I think there is probably quite a long way for the industry to go here. However it should be noted that on low budget first films such as ours, you rely on favours and personal connections for crew etc and as people with disabilities are under represented in general it has a knock on effect. Not one of the people recommended to me had any disability, as the people I was working with had not worked with anybody themselves. There are however many charities and industry bodies working to break this cycle, and it is the same cycle that has meant other minorities are also under-represented in this industry. While still a way to go, I’m certainly positive things are changing.
There will be some Special Advanced Previews of Chicken with Q&A’s after each. Three are now confirmed: First Site (Colchester – where the film is set) Phoenix Cinema (East Finchley) and Arthouse (Crouch End) Links for booking, details of more screenings when they are confirmed and more on the film in general, can be found at www.chickenthefilm.com