Role Play: Scott Graham on Shell

We speak to Scott Graham about his debut feature Shell, one of the highlights of Glasgow Film Festival 2013

Feature by Alan Bett | 04 Mar 2013

It was 1952 when Vladimir Nabokov wrote to his New Yorker contact Katherine A. White to suggest of his Lolita manuscript, “I shall show it to you under the rose of silence and the myrtle of secrecy.” Hopefully Shell, Scott Graham’s first feature film, will be treated contrary to this, shouted from the rooftops as an outstanding Scottish debut.

While both works deal potently with forbidden fruit, Graham takes a far more sympathetic approach to his father/daughter entwinement than the provocation of Nabokov’s nymphette (and of course Kubrick’s onscreen treatment). The director still admits to a level of trepidation, however, when we spoke in advance of Shell's Glasgow Film Festival screening. “I wasn’t sure if just because I felt empathy for a character when I was writing, whether audiences would feel it when they saw the film,” says Graham. “So I just had to hope that the same empathy that I have for Shell and Pete would carry into the feature.”

It would seem impossible not to. Both characters live in an isolated Highland petrol station alongside nothing but the gaping hole left when Shell’s mother walked out on them. Soon the lines blur between the roles they play for one another. “That’s the thing about co-dependency, that’s what Shell has with Pete, it would be better for one to let the other go. If it is torment [Shell causes] I think it’s not conscious. She’s meeting the needs of others without addressing her own, consciously or unconsciously making them more dependent on her.”

Pete is a fragile character, seemingly ruined by his wife’s rejection. His pain manifests itself in the infirmity Graham has afflicted him with; seizures so severe he bites deep into Shell’s hand, drawing blood. Shell (a strong, complex performance from newcomer Chloe Pirrie) is presented initially as a ray of hope, providing moments of joy for those who cross her path. In a well framed scene, warmth and light burst from a kitchen window as she sings and dances, unaware of Pete, her voyeuristic audience left out in the cold. But what begins as tonic turns to anguish as, while maturing into her mother, she only serves to remind Pete of his loss.

There is a deeply touching but excruciating scene where lonely customer Michael Smiley wraps his arms around her for an unbearably long time, desperate for the warmth he craves from his estranged family. Here Shell may be seen again as a succubus, or Nabokov’s temptress, revealing her demoniac nature to bewitched travellers. Whether she hurts or heals depends upon the way you look at it. My personal viewpoint changed throughout and was tangled for days afterwards, so I was pleased when Graham admitted, “I think I do respond to films that allow me to have space to feel and imagine and fill in blanks in terms of, not just history but emotions – everything that goes into making a human being. I didn’t consciously set out to make a film where people would feel an ambiguity towards the characters, but I do think I tried to make something honest and I do think people are quite ambiguous.” By providing little in the way of answers Graham offers so much. What might be seen as an empty table is in fact laden with possibility.

While tackling such delicate subject matter a deft touch is essential, also some research I presumed on the psychology of loneliness and loss, perhaps the Electra complex, Freud’s Oedipus reflection. I didn’t expect that this would be on-the-job experience. “I think writing’s quite a lonely thing to do anyway,” he tells me. “I went to Amsterdam for six months to write this. There’s a lab there and they take about 20 writer/directors each autumn and you live there for six months and work on your script. So, I was away from home, I was going through a period of loneliness anyway. Amsterdam’s quite a vibrant city but I was certainly feeling quite isolated. I think somehow all of that went into the film.” And this sense of loneliness permeates Shell. Its icy visuals will have you shivering as you watch.

Just as every word of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is covered in an inch of snow, each frame of Shell is whipped by bitter winds. They emanate from the screen. The stunning Highland landscapes hold a redundant beauty for those trapped by its intimidating space. “We felt claustrophobic while we were there, although it was this massive space,” he explains. “We thought a lot about how to photograph that. We had a rough idea that we would shoot the interiors handheld and almost be really aware of walls and create a claustrophobic sense of Shell stuck inside this comfortable cell or cage. When we were photographing the exteriors we shot a lot of wides but in quite a static way so that they would feel almost like postcards you can’t quite get out of. I don’t think it’s just down to photography. I do think that if you go there there’s a weird sense of both space and entrapment that’s really interesting.” Combine this with the distinct natural sounds of this world, captured by sound designer Douglas MacDougall, and Shell delivers a foreboding, melancholy onscreen ecosystem.

The film remains in touching distance with reality, but one infused with elements of the mystical. Enough to elevate the film above and beyond a kitchen sink drama into something more lyrical. “I think life is poetic,” says Graham, “so I actually think there is a lot of truth in poetry and art.” And in many ways Graham contributes to a specifically Scottish movement, something more than simply a current trend for our domestic filmmakers, which Hannah McGill labelled wonderfully as "an oft-maligned tradition of slum-bound Scottish miserablism that stretches from Bill Douglas to Lynne Ramsay and David Mackenzie". Graham agrees to a point, adding “I love Bill Douglas. He just has so much emotion in his images and in the faces of the people he photographs.”

It seems true of our fun loving nation that our filmmakers centre so often on pain and misery. What is it that germinates such feeling? “I think it probably goes to the heart of what it means to be Scottish,” suggests Graham. “All filmmakers and all artists do is try to express something that is true to them in the hope that it’s going to be true to someone else. And if so much of it is melancholy or miserable at times then that must be somehow in us, and I don’t know where it comes from. I don’t think it’s cynical; I’m not doing it because that’s just what we do. Maybe we’re all still healing in some way.” A bigger question for another day. But of the mood of his outstanding new feature, Graham is as optimistic as he fully deserves to be. “I think there is hope in Shell. I think there is light. Maybe you just have to look for it.”

Shell is released 15 Mar by Verve Pictures