The NFTS was delighted to welcome back writer-director and NFTS graduate, Clio Barnard for a masterclass with a preview of her acclaimed new film, rural drama Dark River.  Praised as A moving, North of England set portrait of marginalised working class cultures and the resilience of damaged children”, Dark River is Clio’s third feature, following her BAFTA nominated, British Independent Film Award winning The Arbor and Cannes winning, BAFTA nominated The Selfish Giant.  

Clio talked to NFTS Head of Screen Arts, formerly Artistic Director of the BFI London Film Festival, Sandra Hebron about how she came to make Dark River.  “It’s inspired by the novel Trespass by Rose Tremain” Clio began, “I’d originally set out to do a more traditional adaptation of the novel, but Film4 encouraged me to make it my own, so after the first draft I took it somewhere else.”  Clio began developing the idea shortly after finishing The Selfish Giant in 2013, taking time to immerse herself in the rural community and landscape in which Dark River is set and feeding that into her writing.  “I realised that was a big part of what I needed to do” Clio explained, “finding the location and the farm.  I wrote the script and then re-wrote it after finding the location and getting to know the local people and the place.”

(Still from Dark River)

Set amid the bleak beauty of the Yorkshire Dales, Dark River tells the story of Alice, played by Ruth Wilson, who returns to her family farm after the death of her father (Sean Bean) to claim the tenancy from her brother Joe (Mark Stanley) and in so doing confronts the darkness that has haunted them both since childhood. 

For this emotionally intense story, Clio consulted a team of psychoanalysts, spending time with them while developing the story and script - “We talked, amongst other things, about memory and how that works in post-traumatic stress situations and intrusive memories.  There’s a difference between consciously reflecting on something and intrusive memories that come out of nowhere.  I was interested in the damage that had been done, to both of them, how Joe had also been damaged and how he carried this burden of guilt.”

Clio praised her actors, their commitment to their roles, preparation and performance.  Ruth Wilson was attached first and then they looked for the right person to play her brother, Joe.  “Mark Stanley came to the casting as ‘Joe’” Clio recalled, “In the middle of London, suddenly there was this Yorkshire farmer coming into the room!  He’s a very physical actor and did a lot of prep.  They both did, Ruth needed to look like she’d been shearing sheep her whole life, she had to get those skills, plus play a psychologically demanding role.  She spent a long time with farmers, she castrated lambs, lanced a boil!  Similarly Mark spent a long time with the farmers where the story is set.”

Asked by one of the students about working with the animal members of the cast, Clio said “The barn owls were trained and fantastic, but the sheep were really difficult – they didn’t want to come near anyone!”

(Still from Dark River)

Discussing the screenplay Clio explained “I tried to pare the dialogue back as far as I could while writing it, I wanted it to be the last thing, to mainly use action and expression and sound and then for dialogue to just be the icing on the cake.  And we kept paring it back working with Ruth and Mark, and then we could pare it back even further in the edit because Ruth and Mark’s performances are so strong, you get so much from them.”

“Bringing in the father was one of the most difficult things creatively.” Clio said, “It felt risky. In a novel you can jump around in time, but I wanted to physically show the intrusive memories, how they trespass and how it affects how we behave in the real world.  It was very difficult in the edit to know how much was enough to show and how much was too much.”

Talking about the importance of location and the look of the film, Clio said “We’ve had all this Hovis, cosy representation of the Dales and I wanted to show something different.”  Adding, “Part of what I wanted to address in the film were tenant farmers, they’re a dying breed, as gentrification and developers move in buying up and selling off land they might have farmed for generations.”

(Still from The Selfish Giant)

Discussing the film’s spare and haunting sound and music Clio told students she had worked with Sound Designer Tim Barker since 1998, “he’s a sound recordist as well as a sound designer - I think it’s brilliant the way he works.”  Composer Harry Escott has provided music for all three of Clio’s features.  “The two of them are so attuned to one another there’s a crossover, making the sound and music work together.”

The folkloric ballad is sung by PJ Harvey.  Clio said, “I knew I wanted a song with lyrics and knew we wanted PJ Harvey’s involvement.  Harry wrote the song and I love the simplicity of it, and how it sets up the question of what is this ‘acre of land’ in exchange for?  I hope the song makes you think about the land and the history of it, and also about the commodification and objectification of the land and the commodification and objectification of Alice’s body.”

Dark River is in cinemas from 23rd February, released by Arrow Films