This interview was originally published in the print issue of Filmhounds Magazine – October 2020
Body of Water, the directorial debut of Lucy Brydon, is a quietly powerful drama following a woman, Stephanie (Sian Brooke) with an eating disorder trying to balance her relationship with her mother, Susan (Amanda Burton) and teenage daughter, Pearl (Fabienne Piolini-Castle). The prevalence of eating disorders in society, and the prominence of telling the stories of younger girls battling with them, led Brydon to the subject of her first feature.
It was a story that had been in the works for quite a while, she tells us, having wanted to write about an adult woman suffering from an eating disorder even prior to the making of her 2013 short film Babe, about a 13-year-old loner who takes an interest in boxing. “I felt like it wasn’t something that’s ever really represented. The stereotypical portrayal tends to be a teenage girl, but I know there’s a lot of older women, men and trans people who have these issues. That was something I was really conscious about, that was the starting point.”
Body of Water had an inspiring journey for the upcoming writer-director, with her feature script being picked up for Film London’s Microwave scheme, backed by the BFI and BBC Films. Helming one of twelve projects on the scheme, Brydon was mentored by fellow female directors Lynne Ramsay and Clio Barnard, with the scheme green-lighting only two projects. “We heard we were one of the two projects in the summer of 2016. By then the script was developed and I did loads of research because with this thing you have to do it justice. We went into production in April 2018, so two years from the point in which we got that stamp from Film London to production”.
Body of Water made its world premiere at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival – a fitting location for such a film as not only did the Festival place female voices at the heart of their programming, but also because of Brydon’s own connection to the city. “It was really great. Being a Scottish person, I was really happy to take it there. Also, it really had the vibe for our film. It is a challenging film, not an easy watch, but Glasgow really got behind us.” Taking place in early March, Body of Water was one of the last films to have an in-person screening as the height of Covid-19 lockdown struck only just after the festival closed its doors. “We were very lucky,” says Brydon, “It is special to touch base with people. That was a real buzz for us”.
The film received a welcome response, with high praise for Brooke; her performance focuses on the dichotomy of Stephanie’s character, being at once strong and fragile. “I have the most respect for Sian”, says Brydon. The biggest challenge for the actress was the physical transformation, having to lose weight for the role. Brydon took this as a duty of care, ensuring Brooke had the emotional support as well as physical. “I remember her saying at the [GFF] Q&A that she was a little bit scared of reading the script because she knew what it would involve if she liked it. But then she read it.”
The physical effects of anorexia are only one part of the depiction of Stephanie’s eating disorder in Body of Water, instead viewing the disorder as a prism for the ways these people see each other and the shadow it casts on all of their lives. Brydon places Stephanie as the in-between of three generations of women and mothers. “I’ve always been fascinated by women’s relationships with each other and how messy, but also how incredibly powerful, they can be.” Brydon references her own relationships with her grandmother and mother as motivations for this as well as a lack of interest in films about men. “There’s enough films about men and men’s problems, so I wanted to make it a very female-focused movie”.
This femininity also turns the focus to the idea of motherhood; in several scenes it’s easy to condemn Stephanie and Susan as bad mothers but the film holds on these moments as if to ask you whether those snap-judgements were fair to make. “We’re fed this narrative about how mothers are supposed to be and if you have a child of course that’s a fantastic thing, but you don’t stop having these impulse drives. So there is a drive for having more layered female characters. [Ours] are all unconventional in their own way, which I really like and there needs to be a bit more of that as far as I’m concerned”.
This strong female presence also stretched behind the camera, something that Brydon regarded as an important factor in telling this story. “There was a kind of camaraderie. A lot of people had known the degree of connection with this material and because of the budget everybody had gone above and beyond really.” Brydon attests to the idea that having a lot of women on set helped the actors achieve that sense of vulnerability that is key: “It really shaped the shoot and the post especially. Most of the post-production was done by women and their engagement with wanting to do their best by it was really inspiring for me.”
One element of post-production that articulates Brydon’s understanding of the loneliness of eating disorders is the sound design. Throughout Body of Water, Brydon uses long-drawn out takes of Stephanie eating, sometimes with her family and more often, alone. The crunching of salad, or gulping of water are dialled up significantly, heightening these moments of isolation and struggle. “That was actually a conversation that happened afterwards but adds this layer to the finished piece as a result of the sound designer Carine Koleiat and Rory [Atwell]. As someone that’s had an eating issue, I think the thing that’s inescapable about them is that you are back like an animal”. Enhancing these bodily sounds reminds the viewer of that animalistic nature, where Stephanie is ruled by her body’s wants.
As Brydon mentions, personal experience with eating disorders both inspired and shaped the story of Body of Water, providing a visceral sense of empathy to the finished product. “I didn’t recognise myself. With these things you sort of lose who you are. It’s incredibly lonely. You can’t just go out for dinner with friends or go for a drink, so you avoid all those situations.” Brydon goes on to note the similarities with OCD, “you have these compulsions, that’s what you develop and it’s really hard to shake it off.” Visual repetitions in the film are reminiscent of these compulsive behaviours and feelings; feet on pebbles, inching towards the ocean, Stephanie sitting alone at the dinner table staring down at the plate in front of her.
Body of Water isn’t a film about anorexia; Stephanie’s treatment inside a treatment facility, her triggers, and her emotional relationship to food are excluded, left out as part of an unspoken, complex history. “I was aware that the really difficult point for most people who have issues and are having to go into treatment is when they leave the facility and they’re going back to their normal lives. You step out and the draw of those patterns are really alluring and I think that’s something that happens to Stephanie. She does try to get over this thing, it’s just the grip of it is so strong. In a sense it’s the lack of support or perhaps the support from people who are well meaning but not knowing how to deal with it that is what drags her down.”
Unlike many films about anorexia, Brydon isn’t afraid to sit into the darker tones. “For most of us in our actual lives, us people that have experienced these things, it will relapse; hopefully there will be a light at the end of it, but there’s also not. I feel like it’s [unfair] to say that everything’s going to be rosy”. Instead Brydon hopes that we think about how we care for these issues in our real world. “Not to sound too pretentious.”