Interview with Dreams Of A Life director Carol Morley

Dreams Of A Life is a compelling new feature documentary/drama which examines the tragic tale of Joyce Vincent, a lady of 38 who died alone in her North London flat in 2003 and lay there for three years before being discovered. I met up with director Carol Morley recently to discuss the process of piecing together Joyce’s life, what attracted her to the story, and her own filmic influences.

When did the title of the film come to you?

The title came immediately. I didn’t know anything about Joyce, and what was in the newspapers was so anonymous [Morley first heard about Joyce when she picked up a copy of The Sun on the underground] that I knew anything I did would reflect a dream of somebody else’s life. As the film and research progressed, dreams also stood for her aspirations and her hope for a life. We have ‘The Things That Dreams Are Made Of’ by Human League on the soundtrack, a tunnel with the word dreams scrawled on it, there’s other songs that mention dreams. I think somehow there’s a dreamlike quality to a life that’s gone, and it felt like what I was trying to summon up.

Thematically it has a lot in common with your earlier film The Alcohol Years, in which you yourself were the subject. Other than the hard work and time you put into it, how much of your inner life did you put into this project?

Weirdly, and I’m not sure if they meant it as a compliment, someone emailed me and said “How long did it take you to find another film to make about an absent person?” and I thought, “Oh my God! That’s not what I set out to do!” But I must be attracted to this idea of absence and I think with Joyce, I never could have made the film if it was about a man that had died in front of that TV. There was some connection in this film being about what it is to be a woman in today’s world. When someone says in the film “it’s bad enough being 40, yet being 40 and alone”, it’s those anxieties that women have I found interesting. With Joyce – and without me wanting to sound like a nutter – it felt like I was chosen to do the film. When I met the family, I found that they never called her Joyce, they called her Carol. We were the same age. I wanted to be a singer, like Joyce. Her mum died when she was 11 and my dad died when I was 11. I really understood the idea of how losing a parent early on in life can destabilise you. I didn’t want to impose my life on Joyce but I didn’t want to just make a film like “look at that person over there!” I wanted to make the connection to a real, breathing person.

In the flashbacks I found it hugely effective that often Joyce is isolated in the frame. But Joyce is described as petite and Zawe Ashton [who plays Joyce] is 6’ tall! Was this a stylistic choice or a necessity?

When you see her dancing in the club with the guys she looks tall, doesn’t she! I chose someone to play Joyce because I just liked this idea of a character drawing you through the film. I wanted her to appear like a ghost, a bit out of time, and when she’s in the nightclub with people, it’s just the three guys. And when she’s at the party she’s sitting there at the table and you don’t see the others. I liked this idea of an absence of people around her because, of course, that did happen in the end. We focused on the people around her for the testimonies and interviews, but when it was her, it really was about her so that was important. It wasn’t the height. The reason I went for Zawe is that when she walked in the room, she lit it up. She had that charisma and that was what was more important than getting everything right.

Zawe Ashton as Joyce Vincent

Had you seen Zawe in anything else before?

No, but the casting agent said her name and I looked up St. Trinians and I said “Ooh, I dunno!”, so it wasn’t from what she’d been in, it was how she was at the audition. She did two auditions, she got recalled because I wanted to be absolutely sure. We did workshop things together. We’d play music and she’d look at photographs, but she never saw any of the interviews. I never wanted her to come to the role through the people, I wanted to come to the role from the inside, not from something external. The only time she saw the interviews was on the TV; I did put those on the TV for real, it’s not added on over the top. When they popped up in the bedsit, that’s when we filmed them.

Joyce died before the full social media age flourished. Did you get a sense from the interviewees that she might have been saved if her situation had happened 5 years on?

It’s not in the film, but there were two colleagues who said that they thought Joyce would have been on Facebook because she was so sociable. It’s weird, though, because people have 300-plus Facebook friends and you wonder if you’d notice if one of your friends dropped off the list. If you have a closer friend, you don’t normally just do Facebook, you’d use the phone, contact them properly. I don’t think it necessarily would have [saved her]. Although the people from work said that Joyce told them she was going to New York and would’ve expected to see that on their Facebook page, the thing is that if someone goes abroad you get the feeling they’re just too busy. Actually, I think it [Joyce’s situation] is more likely to happen now. In the days when you had milk delivered and there was 18 milk bottles built up outside the flat, people would notice. I think it’s more likely to happen because the communication is less physical.

And how did you get your head around the 3 years undiscovered thing? 

It is incredible. It’s a long time. The film took five years to make, and when I was at the three year point – which was a long time, a lot of things had happened – I thought “God, that is such a long time in people’s lives for that to pass”. For me it feels like a sign that the film needed to be made. It’s so extreme. When the story unfolds and Joyce is the opposite to how you’d expect it’s important because you realise, “Oh my God, if someone like her can go unnoticed, then what else are we missing?” It makes you take a look around you.

The situation has an almost horror film-esque quality…

It does, because you know that she decomposed, became skeletal. I did a lot of research at the British Library to find out what would have happened to her body which is horrible, but it’s more an internal horror. I didn’t want to show it as such, only the things happening at the flat [with the police and cleaners who arrive]. But after 3 months there wouldn’t have been a smell anymore; it wouldn’t have gone on forever. It doesn’t get worse and worse. It just goes away.

Notably, the film is very restrained. It doesn’t take the route of reflecting the style of the tabloids that the story appeared in in the first place. How did you approach it to make sure you were being tasteful?

I spoke to a coroner and did research. I knew there wouldn’t be loads of flies. I wanted to be accurate. There wouldn’t have been what you see in CSI. I knew I didn’t want to focus on that side of it. It’s why I found the story interesting; concentrating not on how she died but on how she lived. While you do need to present the story, you need to do it in a way that’s not exploitative or just tawdry.

One of the most interesting things about the film is the almost Rashomon-esque way that the men in her life give directly contradictory views on Joyce. She remains elusive. Would you describe it as a feminist film and did you develop a distaste for any of the men?

I didn’t at all. What I felt was fantastic about them was that they were prepared to actually talk and I know that John who’s in the film [and talks about sex a lot] said afterwards “I’m a complete pillock!” Rather than being conscious of how they spoke, they brought themselves and their attitudes to it, and I respected that because it would have been easy to have not done so. They are very honest, and I was thankful because they gave an indication into the male psyche and also an insight into how Joyce was around men and how they perceived her. It’s a film about Joyce but also not a film about Joyce. It’s about how Joyce was constructed by a lot of people. She did seem to have more male associates than female, so it’s going to tell that story. I think it is a feminist film in that it’s engaging with ideas of what it means to be a contemporary woman. But I wanted to explore, so once you start to say “THIS FILM WILL DO THIS”, you shut everything down. I was very open with the people. I didn’t want them to hold back, otherwise that does a discourtesy to Joyce, and to themselves in a way.

Do you see a movement developing around the film along the lines of “Talk to your neighbour”?

I think that’s happening because there’s a lady on Twitter who came to a preview in London and has since held a street party; she said she’d been isolated from her neighbours and her community. For me, I never wanted to make a sentimental film about Joyce, I never wanted to make a film that revelled in tragedy so I think that people aren’t leaving the film and feeling terribly impotent, it’s like people are leaving and wanting to do something, whether phoning people up or just reflecting on life. I think if Joyce’s legacy is to create a more humane world, then that’s a great thing for all concerned. But hopefully people will find different things that they love about it, maybe the music! There’s an energy to it rather than a negative, sapping feel. Joyce just wasn’t that kind of person.

The real Joyce Vincent

What about the recurring TV motif?

It was the TV being on [for the 3 years that Joyce lay dead] that made me want to make it more than anything. It just seemed to invoke the modern age. We’re so tied up with images. And Joyce was tied up with that too, because everyone was going on about how she looked. We have the interviews playing on a TV in her bedsit and that was quite an early decision; to have the bedsit as a departure point, and to have interviews on it. The TV is such an important character in it, and this idea of what played over her body for three years is astounding. When people are lonely they watch television. When you go to the cinema there’s people around you. I thought it was quite profound that there was people, quite literally, talking over her.

Music is everywhere in the film, can you tell me a bit more about the music in the film and the decisions you made around it?

The soundtrack – but not the Barry Adamson score – came first. Once I started to get to know Joyce a bit I began to put together some of the music she liked. I knew she liked soul, and I knew she liked Kate Bush which we couldn’t clear the rights to, which may have been fortunate! And then I started to look at songs from the time she was born, and everything became connected to her. She had sung ‘Midnight Train To Georgia’ when she was 16 and really liked that song, that’s the one I’ve got her singing as a kid [in the film]. There was one song that didn’t make it in: ‘Missing That Girl’ by Tony Orlando and Dawn, and the backing singer is called Joyce Vincent. The music came first and the connection was very strong. Because she had wanted to be a singer it was important that the film was led by the music; it’s a very musical film.

There’s a very evocative feel for the music and the studios of the 80s and 90s…

The location person found the recording studio used in the film, and it was actually behind the flat where she died in Wood Green. But all the staff were from the 80s, like they’d never left. They had the computer stuff but they still had the same mixing desk and they had all the microphones, it was brilliant! I guess people don’t change as much as they do now but it was all original gear.

Which documentaries and documentarians have influenced your work?

I studied Fine Art and Film at St. Martins so I like experimental film, and when I first discovered what documentary could do it was through Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line and the Maysles Brothers’ Grey Gardens. One’s very constructive, one’s observational; cinema verite. Also, one of my heroes is Agnes Varda. With this film I was interested in Vagabond, which was a fiction film from the early 80‘s. It starts with a woman’s death, and goes through interviews with people on the street and they’re talking about her, and it’s almost a bit like An Inspector Calls; you wonder if they are all describing the same woman! And you see the last few days of this woman’s life. It’s a brilliant film. Also Cleo From 5 to 7, that woman is a singer so those that were on my mind. I also included an homage to Maya Deren’s Meshes Of The Afternoon, when the little girl looks at the window; I love that idea that if you’re a film buff, you can spot little references in there.

What’s next for you?

I’d like to adapt a book, but I can’t say any more than that for now because of rights. Also, I did a short film a few years ago about mass hysteria and I found an article from a 1970s medical magazine and it was the case histories and confessions of two girls and it was a case of mass hysteria that had happened in a North London comprehensive school for girls and the insight into it and the background is fascinating. I don’t know what form it’ll take, maybe a feature, but I have been trying to find the girls, or women as they’ll be now. Even if I didn’t I might still make it. There’s lots of interesting themes in it, and I’ve already started to think about the music too, what music they might have been listening to. That comes from Joyce, it’s a good way into a film.

A version of this interview first appeared on Little White Lies online.

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