Dreams of a Life - Interview with director Carol Morley

Dreams of a Life, nominated for a Grierson award for Best Cinema Documentary, aims to understand the backstory that led to this macabre and intriguing headline in The Sun in 2007: Woman dead in flat 3 yrs.

It's an article that summons the cinematographer/director in all of us: a skeleton lying on the floor, wrapped Christmas presents nearby, the television still on after all that time. Static keeping vigil over a length of bones that used to be a beautiful woman. What happened? Who was the woman who lived there? Why had no one noticed she'd died?

It's easy to fall prey to one's inner Hitchcock-y/noir/"ooo, darkness!" side, and fall in love with the bittersweet murder mystery circumstance of it all. But director Carol Morley saw the deeper meaning behind it, as it is her talent to do, and set out to make a documentary over the next five years that aimed to answer the question: who was Joyce Vincent?

I got to chat with the charming Carol Morley about this film and what's coming up next for her.

As a creator and filmmaker, Carol has what she calls an "obsession for finding things that are no longer there." For a long time, her stance has been that "we are all constructed through other people," something that is as evident in her acclaimed film, The Alcohol Years, as it is in Dreams. In keeping with this idea, this is going to be a "quoteless" interview. (Note: I/me/my only refers to me. The interview is free of spoilers.)

On how the story first struck her:
For Carol, making this film about Joyce was a natural response. The story was so anonymous, and Joyce was so young and so forgotten. Carol felt the circumstances triggered a lot for her, especially being a woman, living in a city, and being around the same age as Joyce was.

On working with actress Zawe Ashton:
One of the first things that struck me in watching Zawe Ashton's performance as Joyce in the film, was thinking about how one goes about preparing to play someone that didn't actually "exist," at least not to the audience. Carol explained that in prepping Zawe, she didn't let her see any of the interview footage with the people who knew Joyce, which makes up a lot of the film. Instead, she let her see pictures of Joyce, seeing how different she could appear and how different she probably seemed to everyone she knew, while always being described as beautiful.

On reactions from Joyce's friends, colleagues and exes:
The interviews in the film with Joyce's friends, exes, and former colleagues show a varying amount of reactions upon learning the facts surrounding Joyce's death. But Carol didn't want to give the impression that she was out to blame anyone for how Joyce's life had turned out or how she died. Her aim was more to gain an understanding. The predominant feeling among everyone was of course sadness. Carol explained that Martin, an ex of Joyce's who I think was the most endearing of all those interviewed, kept trying to make sense of a chronology, with new details coming up about Joyce every time he talked about her. To Carol, this demonstrated that the circumstances always play a key role in how we are constructed by others. Perhaps if Joyce wasn't dead, Martin could be remembering Joyce in a completely different way. Martin saw the film in the cinema 16 or 17 times and has been active on Facebook about it. According to Carol, Martin said that appearing in the film and learning about what happened to his beloved Joyce has changed how he looks at his past, and how he interacts with people in the present in a positive way.

On the multifaceted life of the modern woman, beauty, and Joyce's makeup stunt:
For me, one of the reasons that learning about Joyce's life through this film is so intriguing, is that Joyce never really fits into one role. She was mysterious about her past, could be a bit of a comedian, was beautiful and sought-after, never married, never had children, she was a woman of color who transcended class, and meant many different things to many different people. For Carol, Joyce definitely represented all the many lives a modern woman can lead at once, especially in being a beautiful woman. Beautiful women have many expectations to live up to, yet their beauty does a lot of the work for them, so they tend to be more passive. They probably don't have to voice their needs as much, and there's a kind of softness and passivity to them that she imagines Joyce likely possessed as well.

Carol related a story (which doesn't appear in the film) where Martin told her that he and Joyce were in a train station one day. The woman that attended them had great makeup on, and Martin had commented something to Joyce about it in passing. The next day, Joyce had the same makeup on as the woman in the station. Apparently this was supposed to be funny, but Carol saw how this could have also been a way for Joyce to seek more recognition for her beauty. There's a kind of need for acknowledgement through beauty and how women are visually perceived that places a particular focus on appearance for a lot of women. There's also a lot of pressure on women too, to not just be beautiful but to have a certain kind of life by a certain age, and there's a deep sense of failure felt if that isn't attained. Joyce was not living the kind of life expected of a woman at around the age of 40 at the time of her death.

On dark vs. light:
While Carol admits to being attracted to darker stories and events, and "absent people," her take on heavy subject matter is to not wallow in the darkness. It's crucial to look at these things, she believes, but it's just as crucial to show that there IS a way through the darkness. She didn't want Joyce to look like a victim, or somehow fulfill the horrorshow expectations that come with learning about a woman who'd died alone and wasn't found until three years later. Instead, Carol aims to make the film something that sparks dialogue and discussion, that prompts people to connect, to get to talking more to each other. If that could be Joyce's legacy, then Carol hopes to be able to create such a positive legacy for all her films to come.

On what's coming up next:
Carol is currently working on the script for a film set in the 60's about mass hysteria. It's not quite Picnic at Hanging Rock, but it's definitely a story that takes a look at female adolescence to the fullest, something that Carol feels she hasn't seen enough of in film.

So there you have it. There's a great bunch of video diaries shot by Carol on the making of the film, press, candid interviews and a lot more, which you can find here: Dreams of a Life director Carol Morley's Video Diary.

My reaction to the film:
There's a reason so many people are haunted and changed by Dreams of a Life. It's a film that makes you examine the quality of your own life, the friends you keep, your family, your legacy, your heart. And it's not something that prompts this reaction out of fear; it's not a film that deliberately scares you into thinking "I could die alone too, I should call my friends!" But it makes you realize how natural and human it is for us all to ebb and flow into and out of each other's lives, and sometimes we don't realize how much people mean to us -- or how much we mean to them -- until time and distance have played their roles.

I hope you watch it. You can order the DVD here, and also watch via Netflix or iTunes.

My thanks again to Carol Morley.


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