States of Consciousness: Paul Wright on For Those In Peril
Following its world premiere at Cannes’ International Critics’ Week, For Those In Peril reaches these shores on a wave of praise. We speak to Scottish director Paul Wright about bringing this intense sensory experience to the screen
It’s late September and Paul Wright is in a wet and blustery London. “Aye, man, no bad,” he says in his soft Scottish brogue when I ask him how his day’s going, “I’m inside at least.” Watching Wright’s debut feature, For Those In Peril, you’d think he’d be quite at home in the dreich, given that he makes such good use of the wind-lashed coastal landscapes around where he filmed in Gordon, Aberdeenshire. It’s the kind of village the director knows well, having grown up in Lower Largo in Fife. Was it his formative years in a close-knit fishing community that drew him to centre his first full-length film on the aftermath of a tragedy onboard a fishing trawler?
“Your first one chooses you, I think,” says Wright. “This kind of story had been floating about for a long while in my head as a potential idea.”
It’s a story floating around a character’s head – specifically that of the film’s protagonist Aaron (an extraordinary George MacKay), the 18-year-old sole surviver of a boat that goes down at sea, claiming the lives of five local lads, including Aaron’s older brother Billy (played by Conor McCarron in flashback) – that drives For Those In Peril’s narrative; it’s a bedtime fable his mother (Kate Dickie) used to read to him as a child about a devil who lives at the bottom of the sea and who swallows sailors whole. Aaron, in his post-traumatic anguish, believes that if he can slay this beast, like a young boy does in the fable, then he can bring his brother back from the depths of the drink.
“We had similar mysteries of the sea growing up – maybe it’s like that in all small villages, I’m not sure – but those myths were the starting place,” Wright explains. “I was interested in what happened when someone latched on to one of these stories out of desperation – someone who was old enough to know better. That, to me, was interesting.”
“It was about getting right into the character’s bloodstream. So his highs and lows are really tangible and the audience hopefully goes on this journey with him” – Paul Wright
The power of For Those In Peril comes not from the narrative itself, which is a rather modest one about grief and loss, but from the way it’s visualised. Over its 93 minutes, Wright plunges us into Aaron’s confused state. You become marinaded in his emotions and his environment; you’ll be checking your pockets for sea water as you leave the cinema.
“It was about getting right into the character’s bloodstream,” says Wright when asked about his filmmaking approach. “So the highs and lows of this character are really tangible and the audience hopefully goes on this journey with him, rather than just observing this character and his journey; I want the audience to really tune in to his states of mind, whether it’s his memories or his fears or the realtime action. It was about having a mosaic of different states of consciousness coming back to him.”
This intense storytelling is achieved by Wright’s singular style, which has been developed and honed through a trio of bracing short films, including BAFTA 2011-winner Until the River Runs Red. “I’ve always really been interested in images and sound and how you can play with them to make an emotional impact,” he says.
The signature technique Wright uses to create this impact in For Those In Peril is mixed-media collage: the main narrative, shot in velvety digital by cinematographer Benjamin Kracun, is peppered with grainy vignettes of myriad forms (lo-fi digital, video, Super 8), which evoke a range of emotions, from the nostalgic to the nightmarish. These are paired with haunting voiceovers, mostly Aaron’s as he works through his mental anguish, but also the voices of friends and anonymous village folk, who seem to be vox pops from a sinister local news station broadcasting into Aaron’s subconscious. It creates an intense imbroglio of images, sounds and visual textures. “I do see film as a really sensory experience,” Wright says. “There were probably half a dozen images in my head when I started writing, and then it was just a case of exploring them to find how to make them feel vital on screen.”
What’s so pleasing about this sensory experience is that its meanings and emotions aren’t telegraphed in. The sound and image is often disjointed and contradictory. There’s a feeling that your neighbours in the dark of the auditorium are having a completely different relationship to what’s on screen than you are.
“It’s a lot about leaving some space for the audience to put themselves into the film,” explains Wright. “A lot of my favourite films are the ones that kind of cause a discussion. I think that’s a healthy response. I like to leave some room for interpretation.”