Sophie Hyde on hard-drinking flatmates drama Animals

Sophie Hyde, the Australian filmmaker behind 52 Tuesdays, returns with Emma Jane Unsworth adaptation Animals, a tender study of female friendship starring Holliday Grainger and Alia Shawkat. Hyde sits down with us to talk adaptation, poetry and Dublin

Feature by Thomas Atkinson | 30 Jul 2019
  • Animals

For protagonists Laura (Holliday Grainger) and Tyler (Alia Shawkat), the night is always young in Sophie Hyde’s Animals, an adaptation of Emma Jane Unsworth’s book of the same name. The Dublin nightlife is their wacky racetrack, and white wine is their fuel. But once Laura, a novelist struggling with writer's block, falls for a tall dark piano player called Jim (Fra Fee), her friendship with Tyler begins to splinter.

Tyler is a free spirit, a wild, reckless Hawksian woman invoking poetry and literary references in every other sentence. On the surface, she feigns disapproval at Laura’s willingness to settle down outright. But go deeper and there’s a horrible fear in her that Laura’s settling down might mean the end of their riotous nights out, and their friendship as they know it.

Hyde met us at Sundance London, where the film had its UK premiere, to talk adaptation, friendship and Dublin.

The Skinny: There is a point in the film where Laura sees Jim playing the piano for the first time, and it’s intercut with them having sex. It feels like “watching” prose. I’m curious about how much you were trying to evoke the book in terms of your style.

Sophie Hyde: I really loved the book and how literary it was, but I also loved how connected to experiences I was in the book. So, certainly, we were trying to find ways to put that onscreen, particularly the very extreme point-of-view of Laura. We really tried to make it feel like we feel with her through the film, and that scene is a prime example. Whether it’s imagining or a memory, it’s so much through her gaze.

It’s such an interesting moment you picked up on, because when we were shooting it, I worked with my partner who’s the cinematographer [Bryan Mason], and in that scene, I wanted to take the camera and was doing some of the shots. We’d never normally do that. It was just trying to express the view [of Laura]. I don’t remember if we then used those or if Bryan just took on what I was doing, because it was such a visual idea.

What were your personal reasons for adapting this book?

I was really taken with the women on the page. They were very familiar to me, and I wasn’t seeing them onscreen. I was very connected to the visceral quality of the bodies, and the way bodies are talked about. I wanted to understand how the body operates as a young woman, how it’s imposed upon and how it drives you. I really liked Emma [Jane Unsworth]’s take on the world, that she was speaking to young women – young people, I suppose – in a very funny, frank way. But the comedy isn’t too broad. There was something else going on, like a seriousness and sincerity as well. I really loved that.

I wanted to see friendship on the screen, too, and the idea that these relationships that are important to you aren’t just romantic is something that I’m interested in. I think we’re sold this story all the time with the same kind of love that, a) it’s romantic and b) it always lasts forever, and if it doesn’t last forever, it’s not worth anything.

The book was set in Manchester. Why was the setting changed to Dublin?

When we first looked at the film, we were setting it in Manchester. Originally, we moved it to Dublin for financing reasons. But when we thought about setting it in Manchester and shooting it in Dublin, that felt like we were abandoning this beautiful idea. Dublin became the perfect setting in my eyes, and the film is so much better there. It’s a very literary city. There’s poetry everywhere, and everyone’s drinking really heavily, so they [Tyler and Laura] are not anomalies in that city.

So much white wine in this film!

So much white wine! And I loved the look of Dublin, this old-world, dilapidated strangeness that was a bit street as well. It elevated the story for me. Manchester would have just been quite different, and I think it’s important that the specificity of the city became something rather than just being a generic city. It felt like it needed to be part of it, which is how Manchester worked in the original novel. It felt like a character. So instead of taking that character away, we just shifted it.

There are lots of moments in the film where it builds up to a big conflict between the two leads and then doesn’t fully explode into that conflict.

The complication of a friendship is that it doesn’t happen in big dramatic beats all the time. There’s a real complexity inside a friendship between two women like this. You love the things that are annoying about the other person, so in those moments, you get how someone’s pushing and challenging you. You even like that they’re so abrasive, publicly.

The friendships I’ve had, you don’t have a big fight and then it’s all done. It’s moments, it trundles along, and I think it’s interesting to put that onscreen when we’re all taught to be so dependent on narrative structure and the satisfaction of a narrative that we understand. Trying to find ways to still be fulfilling and still have the feeling of catharsis, or whatever, but not just tell the same story, was a challenge.  

You mentioned earlier about the book being very literary. I was wondering if you, as a director, saw the way that Tyler invokes poetry and poetic language all the time as sincere or facetious.

My god, I always fall on the sincere side! [Laughs] I find things funny when they feel a bit real as well. I don’t need to LOL. I really enjoy that character, the broad about town, and I really love how abrasive she is and how literary she is. Somebody said in an audience at a Q&A, “She’s the poet! They’re in this relationship where Laura’s the writer but Tyler is poetic all the time.” And she kind of is! She has a fabulous way about her.

It seems a lot like the relationship between the two is that Laura is the novelist writing from inspiration, but the muse, the interesting character, is Tyler, who is living the life that Laura wants to capture in her book.

Tyler certainly thinks of herself as a muse. We laugh at that in a way. But ultimately, yeah, I think she is a muse to Laura. But not just because she’s a vivacious youth. It’s because she’s pushing Laura to not settle for things. That is what Tyler offers Laura. That’s a perfect muse in some respects. Not easy to be around, but certainly the idea of celebration as to who Tyler was is crucial to the audience. 

Animals is released 2 Aug by Picturehouse Entertainment