Written and directed by Carol Morley, sister of former NME journalist Paul, The Falling is a beguiling British film that follows a mysterious fainting epidemic at a girls’ school in 1969. Game Of Thrones‘ Maisie Williams stars as Lydia, the first girl to fall into a strange trance-like state before fainting midway through a routine lesson, while newcomer Florence Pugh makes an impressive screen debut as her charismatic best friend Abbie. Impressed and intrigued by this quietly haunting film, which also features original songs by Tracey Thorn, NME met up with its writer-director to find out more.
How did you come up with the idea for The Falling?
“I was on the phone to my friend Bev, who taught me film in the first place, and we just started laughing over nothing as you do, and she said she’d heard about this village in medieval times where everyone couldn’t stop laughing. This really appealed to me so I Googled it and found a village in Africa in the 1960s where the same thing happened – everyone couldn’t stop laughing. Then this term ‘mass psychogenic illness’ or ‘mass hysteria’ came up so I met with a psychiatrist and did a lot of research into it. I just became really obsessed with this phenomenon and made a short film about it [2006’s The Madness Of The Dance], but I always knew that eventually I’d make a feature film about it. And here we are 10 years later!”
Why did you decide to set The Falling in a girls’ school in 1969?
“From my research I found out that many cases of mass psychogenic illness do actually happen in girls’ schools. The experts still don’t really understand why it happens – they know the patterns, but not the reasons. But I think it happens more with girls because they talk more than boys, so they’re more likely to pass on their symptoms. And maybe they’re more open to the idea of experiencing it, or it could be a way for girls to express themselves or even to protest: ‘Fuck, look at me’. I also noticed that in the 1960s there were a lot of cases of mass psychogenic illness connected with sexual anxiety – there was a girls’ school in America where there was an outbreak of phantom gonorrhoea! These were changing times, but though we think of the 1960s as ‘swinging’, the social changes didn’t affect a lot of people until much later and there was still a lot of sexual repression. So it was a fascinating time to look at adolescent culture, and I also wanted to look at teenagers without social media or people on phones and tablets getting in the way.”
A lot of the girls in the film are making their acting debuts. How did you go about casting them?
“The casting agents leafleted the Oxford area because I’d found the school location there early on, and I wrote the script around it, this amazing run-down, unused school. So a lot of the girls came from the Oxford area and I have to say it was really joyful working with them. Florence [Pugh, who plays Abbie] had never done any acting before but as soon as she came in, I knew she was right for the part. Maisie had a lot of experience from Game Of Thrones, which I’d never seen by the way, and I think she taught the other girls how to behave on set and stuff and made them comfortable. There was a very supportive feeling on set and they’re all really good friends now.”
How did you cast Maisie without seeing Game Of Thrones?
“Well, Lydia’s a very complicated character – she’s flawed and not entirely likeable. So I wanted someone really strong who could also show a lot of vulnerability. Maisie was busy filming Game Of Thrones when we started casting, so she came in later and I got her to tell the other girls a story. I’d never seen her act, and actually I wasn’t interested in seeing her act because I wanted her to be my Lydia, not another character. But when she told the story, that was it. She was just so compelling that I knew she was right.”
The cast also features some very experienced older actors, including Maxine Peake and Greta Scacchi. Was it hard working with such a wide-ranging cast?
“There was one scene in the kitchen where I was directing Maisie, Florence, Joe Cole [who plays Lydia’s brother, Kenneth] and Maxine Peake and I realised they all had very different acting methodologies. Florence had never done anything before, Joe Cole loves improvisation, Maxine is quite method I suppose and Maisie is very instinctive. So there was this huge range of techniques but actually it wasn’t overwhelming to me, it was interesting. As a director, what you’re mainly trying to do is support your cast. It doesn’t matter how well lit the film is or how great the music sounds, because nothing else matters if you don’t get the casting and performances right. You have to make the world of the film their world, so it’s almost intimidating for anyone else to come into it.”
Tracey Thorn has written some very evocative original songs for the film. How did she become involved?
“Well, during filming I actually had a dream that Tracey Thorn had done the music for the film. So I found her on Twitter, sent her a message and gave her a call. She was like, ‘I’ve never done music for a film before,’ and apparently I said ‘brilliant!’ because I liked the idea of there not being any baggage. Then I went to meet her in London and brought her all the [school orchestra] instruments that the girls play in the film. She saw a five-minute clip of the film, and went off and composed the songs on those instruments. She started to feed in music very early in the edit so we were able to create the film with her music. Sometimes in film we use what we call ‘guide tracks’ and then at the end of the process, the composer comes in and tries to match the mood of the guide tracks with their own music. That can become very difficult because the director tends to become attached to the guide tracks, which is why scores can often be rejected.”
So Tracey wrote the music without seeing the vast majority of the film?
“Yes. It wasn’t until much later, when almost all of the music was in place, that Tracey actually saw the film, and then she came up with a little bit more music. What she did was brilliant. When I asked her to compose songs for the film, I think I was after a Marine Girls kind of vibe and that’s what she created with the DIY instrumentation and slightly otherwordly sound. I think it adds an occult feel to the film, which is perfect really, even though I didn’t specifically ask her to do that.”
You’ve said you wanted the film to have an occult or supernatural aspect to it. Are you pleased that people seem to be interpreting what happens in the film in different ways?
“I am. Historically people have put mass psychogenic illness down to different things – possible occult things, possible neurological issues, possibly to do with being female because of damage in the uterus. So I wanted the film to have different possibilities too. You bring yourself to a film, and that’s what completes it, so if everyone were to go away feeling the same thing or interpreting it the same way, I’d find that disappointing. It might mean I’d over-explained it or closed it down too much. In a way when you make a film you want it to echo that experience of listening to an album – yes, there are central themes, but at the same time your reaction to it can be quite different to the next person’s.”
The Falling opens in UK cinemas on April 24. Read the NME review here.