Deborah Haywood on Pin Cushion, her dark modern fairytale

In her bruising coming-of-age film Pin Cushion, first time filmmaker Deborah Haywood explores teen angst and dark thoughts using a dreamy fairytale aesthetic

Feature by Katie Goh | 13 Feb 2018
  • Pin Cushion

“A fairytale,” wrote Angela Carter, “is the kind of story in which one king goes to another to borrow a cup of sugar.” Neighbours, fantasy, story-telling and a sickening sweetness: these are the themes of Deborah Haywood’s debut feature Pin Cushion. Set in what could be any small rural town in England, the film is about a mother, Lyn (Joanna Scanlan), and her daughter, Iona (Lily Newmark in her big-screen debut), moving into a tightknit community. Their relationship is one of co-dependence: they share a bedroom, fawn over each other, and innocently kiss on the mouth. As Lyn and Iona attempt to socialise with their neighbours, they are pulled further and further apart from one another and from the world of fantasy, innocence and comfort they had created within their fairytale house.

Pin Cushion is a difficult film to pin down. It could be described as Lyn and Iona’s bildungsroman, as both mother and daughter come of age as they begin to interact with the outside world. But Haywood doesn’t describe Pin Cushion in these terms. Ahead of the film’s UK premiere at Glasgow Film Festival, Haywood tells us she thinks of it more as a “drama with heightened genre elements.”

The film is esoteric and self-aware with regards these genre touchstones. Carrie was a direct influence and there are nods to Heavenly Creatures and The Virgin Suicides in Pin Cushion’s pale yet bright colour palette of pinks and creams and in cinematographer Nicola Daley’s meandering camerawork. “I knew I wanted the strong colours and it to look almost like a fairytale or a children’s book that’s saturated with colours,” Haywood explains. “And I wanted the characters to be almost fairytale or larger than life.”

Joanna Scanlan

This strong visual aesthetic grew from Haywood’s desire to make a heightened piece of cinema, one that would “be more palatable than a social realism film. It wouldn’t be as enjoyable to be in that world. But I think by doing it more like a fairytale, hopefully you can be in on knowing you’re being told a story.”

Pin Cushion’s moments of fantasy allow us to see inside our teen protagonist's psyche. In hazy, dream-like sequences, we see Iona becoming the queen bee of the school, popular and loved by the girls who have been bullying her and the boy she fancies. We also see her fantasy mother, a willowy and beautiful Nadine Coyle (of Girls Aloud fame).

“What I enjoy about novels is that you can get into people’s heads and you can know what they’re thinking but you don’t really do that in cinema – we watch them,” notes Haywood. “So, I wanted to find a way to be in Iona’s thoughts so we can connect and understand her more. But also because, when I was bullied as a child, I used to go into fantasy as a coping mechanism and imagine bizarre things, like huge pairs of scissors chopping the bullies up or I’d be really popular and friends with them.”

A strong connection between fantasy and desire pervades the film. Iona’s desire for a 'normal' glossy home life manifests in fantasy mothers and best friends. Fantasy and desire are also intertwined in how Iona experiences her developing body and explores her sexuality for the first time. When she masturbates and has her first orgasm, the camera blurs, as if entering a dream. Like in The Virgin Suicides, Pin Cushion’s muted tones and the dreamy visual haze is a depiction of the female gaze; we see how Iona’s desire feels to her.

"I wanted the characters to be almost fairytale or larger than life” – Deborah Haywood

Speaking about representing teenage femininity, Haywood says: “I think when you’re at that age you become quite tribal. Everyone’s got the same lipstick and everyone’s got to behave the same way and I think you can get trapped in that role even if it’s not your natural state. [Femininity] become masks for everyone.” 

The school’s queen bee and Iona’s chief bully is Keely (Sacha Cordy-Nice). There’s a moment in the film when Haywood allows Keely’s mask of performative femininity to slip. “With Keele I wanted to look behind who the bully is. She’s probably scared but she has to be this person to survive as well. Taking those masks off in a different situation, she’d probably be a different girl. But she’s having to play her part and uses make-up as a kind of shield and protection.”

There are clear elements of Haywood’s life in Pin Cushion. The bullying and Iona’s expeditions into fantasy are rooted in Haywood’s experiences. “When I was 12, I was really promiscuous and got really badly bullied for it. I don’t know whether it’s the same for you but around our way they used to say if a girl’s got a reputation for having a lot of sex, they’d say ‘She takes more pricks than a pin cushion.’”

While Haywood speaks openly about Pin Cushion’s biographical aspects, she says it’s more “emotionally autobiographical,” than autobiographical in detail. “There’s nothing in the film that actually happened in my life apart from a scene when a schoolboy asks Iona how many fingers she can take. Somebody in my class asked a boy how many fingers his girlfriend could take and he lifted up six fingers. But that’s the only biographical thing.”

The tendency for critics to call films made by female writer-directors biographical is a gendered cultural problem. Female artists are continually dismissed as transplanting their lives and putting it into their art. For a recent example, look to Greta Gerwig. Her comedy-drama Lady Bird has continually been called a biographical film despite Gerwig’s repeated insistence that nothing from the film happened to her. Speaking about these gendered double standards, Haywood says: “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having biographical inspiration because it turns into so much more anyway and into something completely different, but I think it’s patronising to say a segment of your life can happen in a film-like way or that female filmmakers can’t make up their own stuff! No one’s life happens like a biography because it’d be far too long and, well, really very boring.”

Pin Cushion has its UK premiere at Glasgow Film Festival: 26 Feb, GFT, 6pm & 27 Feb, GFT, 4pm