As an actress, Jessica Hynes has been a mainstay of British film and television since her breakthrough role alongside Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in Spaced. Since then, she’s gone on to star in The Royle Family, Son of Rambow and W1A, for which she won a BAFTA Award in 2015. This year saw her step into the ring as a director for the first time with The Fight, a drama about a mother of three who uses boxing as a way of facing her demons…
After such a successful career as an actress, what made you want to move into directing?
It’s something that I’d wanted to do for a long time, but by the time I reached my forties, I’d kind of given up on the idea. Then I met a great, prolific filmmaker called Jamie Adams, who makes micro-budget feature films that only take a few days to shoot with his friend, Director of Photography Ryan Eddleston. He’s made loads of features that way, and I think it’s a really interesting phenomenon. Seeing how they made these sorts of films made me think I could make this idea work.
It was on the set of one of Jamie’s films that I met Noel Clarke and Jason Maza (of Unstoppable Films, who produced The Fight), and Maggie Monteith (the head of Dignity Films). I asked her if I could send the feature idea over to her, because there was no harm in asking, and she said yes! That was January 2017, and we started filming in July of the same year.
Where did the initial concept come from?
I was doing a boxfit class in this amazing Victorian boxing gym – the same one that we ended up filming in. I walked down this old metal staircase, and the first thing I saw was a bit of graffiti that said “Ellie smells of shit.” I took a photo of it for some reason. The whole place just felt so amazing and cinematic.
I was doing some classes there and, on one occasion, these two local female amateur boxers got into the ring to spar. I was watching them, and looking at the other women that were also there. We were all different ages, shapes and sizes, and it made me wonder what would drive a woman to actually get into the ring. Who would she be? What would her story be? That was the initial seed of the idea, and from there it evolved into a story about rage, cycles of dysfunction and why people harbor pain and anger, and the effect that has on their families.
What makes boxing a good conduit for exploring those sorts of themes?
It’s because it’s all about anger and rage. Combative sports are the only sports – other than ice hockey – where you’re supposed to fight. Some of the best boxers are the angriest, but if you’re an indiscriminate brawler that is out of control physically, life will get very hard for you. Boxing allows you to understand and channel that rage, because once you do that, you can control and harness it – that’s what the sport is about. It has a great redemptive quality.
Is it difficult to promote a film about boxing that isn’t a tradition Rocky-style movie, without it getting put into that category?
This is not a traditional boxing film, and I’ve been very upfront about that. It isn’t Million Dollar Baby; there is no end fight. I wanted to make a film that had a visceral triumph. I love fighting films, one of my favourites of all time is Kung Fu Hustle, which I feel has the best end sequence of any film ever. The protagonist has this mental, emotional epiphany that is combined with this epic battle, and the relief is so tangible and visceral. So I wanted to create something similar, but for middle-aged women. There are a lot of rewarding visceral moments in The Fight, but it’s not about winning, it’s about getting in the ring.
What was the biggest challenge about directing for the first time?
The challenging part was everything that led up to getting finance. It was continuing to believe that I could make all of this happen, and allowing myself to keep believing. As time goes by, it can be easy to let go of your dreams and think that it probably won’t happen. But as soon as it began, even though I knew that there was still a lot of things that could go wrong or fall apart, it all felt very natural and extremely unstressful. It was just a joy; I loved it.
How did it feel to see the finished film for the first time?
It was very much what I wanted it to be, but there are always moments that you’re not happy with. I compromised on a couple of things with one of my editors, and as soon as I saw the film on the big screen, I realised that I was never going to do that again. I don’t care what they say! The first time I saw the finished film was in Folkestone, and I invited everyone that worked in the old people’s home, factory and school that we’d filmed in. I’d just found out that the film had got into the London Film Festival, and it was just magic. I knew it was all going to be ok when, after the screening, a lady came up to me. She couldn’t talk at all because she was just too overcome with emotion. That’s when I knew that I had my audience. The film might not be for everybody, and people will review it however they want, but there’s an audience there. That’s all the validation I needed.
You can listen to the full interview with Jessica Hynes by downloading the LeftLion Film Podcast from iTunes