Antonia Campbell-Hughes investigates what is in us all. Antonia Campbell-Hughes has worked as an actor in multiple productions across television, stage, and feature films, notably in Cordelia, 3096 Days and in Jane Campion’s Bright Star. Born in Northern Ireland but travelling around the world at a young age, Antonia developed multiple creative skills, including fashion design. She turned to screenwriting and then to directing with the marvelous and haunting film It Is In Us All starring Cosmo Jarvis. The film won an Extraordinary Cinematic Vision award at SXSW. Nadine Whitney spoke to Antonia about their journey from actor, writer, to director and the themes that inform their work.
Nadine Whitney: You have been on many sides of the camera, as an actor, writer, and now director. How did your experiences as an actor prepare you to shift into feature film writing?
Antonia Campbell-Hughes: I’ve worked as an actor on many sets, varying in scale and field, under directors of all different types for much of my adult life. Naturally, with each experience, you observe and learn from the filmmaker, the crew, varying approaches to the mechanism of the overall machine – which is the production.
I would sometimes observe other actors feeling perhaps that they weren’t being given enough by the director, that they weren’t being given enough attention and nurture. I personally don’t need that as an actor; but being alongside other actors I was curious about my colleagues needs. I stored the information, to be conscious of in the future as a filmmaker.
Actors have different needs, and processes. I learnt that being malLeable to the actors needs/process is a valuable skill to have as a filmmaker/director. Some directors that are really engaged with their actors and performance, some directors are more Bresson school and they look at the tableau- the entire sensory experience as a delivery of narrative and emotion. I feel I am naturally more the latter.
The tableau, the expansive sensory scenario is what I find so evocative in what I write. And obviously, the actors and the performances are very fundamental, but mostly I write the tone of the landscape.
Being an actor, and being a filmmaker are such completely opposing energies. For me, personally, I enjoy both equally. I continue to be drawn to other filmmakers, and ensembles as an actor, and continue to be drawn to fill the role that is needed to service someone else’s vision.
NW: In Cordelia, the film you co-wrote and starred in with Johnny Flynn trauma informs Cordelia’s world. Trauma is also central to It Is In Us All. How do you come to these stories and is there a psychological cost in telling them?
ACH: It Is In Us All has a single traumatic event that actually serves as a conduit. A tool by which to crack open the rigid choked repression of the protagonist Hamish. It forces a shift. The traumatic event is a brilliant explosive slap across the face, thrusting two people together, and the outcome being a unification. His aperture of perception is ripped wide open, allowing this sensually tinged relationship he begins to form with teenage crash survivor Evan.
The crash actually allows him to break his pattern. He is broken open and able to receive, experience and observe living for the first time. And what is really profound in life to me are those kind of moments – I find those moments that literally take your breath away so compelling.
Cordelia is about a woman who is imprisoned in her own self by a traumatic experience long before. Specifically about how that ‘invisible damage’ is not registered or valid within fast, high input/high output city life. She exists as a ghost in a metropolis.
I co-wrote Cordelia, but it is not my story. It is a very personal story for the director Adrian Shergold, and the actress who was originally meant to play Cordelia. Sally Hawkins, who it was somewhat originally inspired by.
I came in many years later, was offered the role(s) and then to do some writing work on it. It Is In Us All is entirely my own personal story, and truth. Hamish is very much a true version of my own life experiences and parts of my own father. I found I wrote myself as a male.
NW: You noted that mostly male critics have been responding to It Is In Us All. Why do you think that is?
ACH: I am a feminist rights supporter with a deep response to masculine and male. I find it confusing to carve up and divide what is “feminine” and what is “masculine.” Strength versus sensitive. This specifically plays into my work. It has made me very sensitive to how we define ourselves and find strength only in numbers rather than as individuals. I am very interested in how people conform to the image of a type. The patriarchal impact on the male and what he is expected to be and perform as. But then, I learnt that all of this luxury to reflect and have position, comes from privilege. And many do not have that privilege. Vocality and stance are the duty of those fortunate to speak and take position for others who are oppressed or without liberal accessibility. In terms of my film, I wanted to upend our understanding of ourselves, which includes our erotic selves. I wanted to give that stage and introversion to male and show how different ‘male’ is, in contrast with masculine. “Masculine’ is not gender but a performative way of being.
The critics who seemed to respond and have such connective insight, and who predominantly were men, I expect, felt this was a necessary and timely exploration…?
NW: Choosing to shoot in Ireland must have had some personal resonance. What does capturing contemporary Ireland mean to you?
ACH: For me it was specifically the timelessness of these incredibly remote areas of Northern Ireland and Donegal. It is my birthplace but also quite alien to me.
The film award fund POV, was a lower budget of 350,000 euros, needing to be set in Ireland. I had spent a few years making short trips to visit the place I was born and had left as an infant. I was yearning for some sort of land connectivity. This land to me felt alien and transportive in its atmosphere, compellingly so. Home adjacent. Like déjà-vu. I wanted to show my own experience of the work as sensory. The narrative is a culmination of lived truths and observations. During those trips, there was this continued difficulty in the sparse community of young children racing cars at night, along the narrow wild country roads, often crashing and repeating fatalities. They were children. The funerals were followed by these school children driving in convoy slowly along the road. They were tribal and captivating to me. Such absolute purity of soul, yet so naive in their spirit. I felt a deep kinship for this way of being. It reminded me of what a richer city landscape has often lost. The stifle of stimulus. Why we lose that potent vibration, where things are essential and worthy of self-sacrifice. Affluence of material access facilitates selfishness. These children were “men of mettle” in my mind. Yet so incredible vulnerable. I compared them to the men I see daily. Men who drive themselves for perfection and for any sense of satisfaction. Promiscuity, beauty, material acquisition, career success, status, and with that, a lack of connection. And, ultimately, a deep fatalistic hollowness. Both sides of these “male” to me seemed the obvious difference between male – an optional pronoun for a human – and masculine – the social ideal defined by our material society.
Science fiction in a pastoral setting is what I have always said about this piece. Science fiction is a tonality, and an experience that we can allow to be in in nature, in life and in cinema. I experience this as I write a visual setting that I know. It is splendid through the texture of the air, so harnessing this and creating that gradient was essential for me. I knew this landscape very specifically, where I would shoot. Delivering this experience on camera without additional artificial tools is important. Composition, throughout, is how I position an audience’s emotional impact. With sound levels and visual. This is a journey that will reach its release as end credits come to us. The house is the only structure we see, on an infinite vast expanse of planet. For added elements to create an alien experience.
Finding the house came first. I wanted a place that was austere, unique in not being able to name its place or country. I found an old famine house that has been there for hundreds of years, but recently painted white, sitting on the very northern edge of Ireland. Isolated. It looked like Norway but had the feel of forever. I was always very adamant to do as much in studio as possible.
I am a fan of the FC Bergman theatre group. Interactive camera use and moving stage sets. Also, the work of theatre director Katie Mitchell. Myself, DP Piers McGrail, who I have worked with as an actor many times since the beginning of both our careers, and production designer John Leslie, planned aspects of the house interior to match the exterior. I found floor plans of a space I knew how to shoot in with locked off camera positions. Always wanting to repeat these set ups and design the house interior lighting for camera. The interiors were chosen and dressed very carefully to go against a place we recognize. To create an unexpected experience.
To allow this home to envelope Hamish in a place that could have provided care, guidance and dignity. I referenced the work of photographers Rinko Kawauchi, Martina Hooglands, and the paintings of Andrew Wyeth, which I grew up with as a child in Delaware. The work of Danish painter Vilhem Hammershøi uses a frame within a frame to present the individual whom he is painting, always observing them quietly in the fullest space of the room. This work inspired much of the furniture style choices. We chose a mix of antiques, some of my own personal family items, and elements of contemporary. I wanted the house to feel timeless and also classic, not Irish.
NW: Both Cordelia and It Is In Us All have profound psychosexual themes. Both also deal with alienation. Do you feel one condition feeds into the other?
ACH: Humanity and social structures revolve around interpersonal connection and relationships. For some, this is not a natural leaning. Individuals who do not fit into a specific category, seem to make people uncomfortable. I am always intrigued by the level of discomfort people feel around something that does not have a clear grouping. We are in a time, when so much is accepted and conversational – our chosen pronouns, sexual orientation, demographic, identity signatures. Yet, when there is no clear label or grouping, it is taboo.
Alienation specifically is to become alien, by the lack of common ground with the majority. To have no connectivity. But it does not mean that the alien in question, no longer functions. No longer has fears, no longer pulsates. That aliveness can become intensified by the quiet of the alien experience. Sexuality and sensuality, that is other and imprisoned, is interesting to me.
NW: You are quite gender ambiguous. How does this impact upon your world view?
ACH: I had been awarded this “woman’s fund,” which immediately I felt presented a stress as I tend to write my own experiences in all that I write through a male identifying character. Or a version of male. When I was confronted with “gender choice,” I embraced that decision to infuse myself in the male form.
Even Cara (played by Campbell-Hughes), the only female identifying character in the film, was designed very specifically to be boyish looking. So that she had a similar gait and outline to the group of young boys. The purpose of this is to strip away what we have conditioned as appropriate in the meaning of ‘mother’. Her closeness to her son, we know only through the showing of her grief and her physicality. She is friend, she is true, she is rooted and connectivity. I wanted to show how gender is adjacent, rather than restrictive. Cara’s boyishness, and the scene where Hamish mistakes her for Evan, is specifically to show Hamish’s own sexual stress. And to push the viewers to assess our need for labels and identifiers.
I wanted to explore the isolation experienced by an individual who has a disconnect with social norms (gender, relationships). That disconnect can result in total stagnancy. That is what Hamish is – a form in which the human exists. Evan is bristling with life. I wrote a story about how to explosively collide two halves. And how that collision could alter the composition of the other, in a suspended reality/environment. I made a film to explore my own curiosities and to create a textured visual to show my own experience of life. Ultimately, we all try to find methods to communicate. Some connect naturally, some must find alternate tools. My work is my tool.
NW: According to some sources originally the role of Hamish played by Cosmo Jarvis in It Is In Us All was written specifically for the older actor Jim Sturgess (who you starred with previously). The character of Evan was supposed to also be older than seventeen. How do you think the shift of ages of the protagonists changed your original vision? Do you think it enhanced the film?
ACH: The film was never written for any actor. This is a character based on myself, and aspects of my father’s life experiences as an English man connecting with Donegal and Northern Ireland. I was working as an actor with Jim Sturgess on a film in Georgia- when I received the news of the finance award, so we spoke about the project and attached. Then with pandemic, Jim was held on a TV series in Canada, and we had to recast. I then took a very long time finding the actor who would be Hamish. I feel very strongly with casting, that you must allow the actor to be given the role and give freedom for them to embody it with parts of themselves on show. Cosmo Jarvis as Hamish is the only Hamish there is and will ever be.
No, the character of Evan was originally written as younger – fourteen. That was a first draft, which upset people a lot. Something I never quite understood. There is sensuality that permeates relationships and dynamics – without the need to be acted upon or even identified. Sensuality and eroticism is in the pulse and fever of fear and vitality. Regardless of age or gender. But I was pressured to rewrite Evan’s age to 16/ 17 to extinguish any potential taboo.
NW: What are the main reasons you would encourage people to seek out It Is In Us All?
ACH: We consider that there are certain things that are milestones in our existence on earth that are meant to be celebrated. But it is the minutiae that makes life worth living. And that is in the everyday if you just choose to see it.
I want people to experience a shift. This can come in the form of discomfort, fear, recognition… It is to awaken a sensation that has not been felt in a long time. Magic, in the basest level of our core naive selves.
NW: Can you tell me about any upcoming projects?
ACH: I am in development on my next film Diamond Shitter, with BFI. The critical reception and awards for It Is In Us All was humbling, but mostly it allows opportunity to continue communicating in the medium of film. My work is always very personal.
I grew up in Switzerland so that’s where the next one is set. It’s a much more ambitious film in terms of scale, landscape and energy. It’s very rich, very opulent. It’s about wealth and power, which segues into the celestial.