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Samantha Morton: The Unloved

We talk to the iconic actress about having the stunning directorial debut she made for Channel 4 last year screened at The ICA

Samantha Morton is a hugely-respected actress and has been nominated for two Oscars for her roles in In America and Sweet And Lowdown, plus two BAFTAs, for best supporting actress in Control and for best actress in Longford. Recently, she embarked on her first directorial project, writing and directing the feature-length film about the UK child care system The Unloved. First screened on Channel 4 in 2009, the film is being screend at the ICA between from today until March 4, alongside her film acting debut Under The Skin. Dazed was fortunate enough to catch some time with the ever-busy Ms Morton to talk about the inspiration and making of The Unloved.  

Dazed Digital: How does it feel to have The Unloved showing at the ICA?
Samantha Morton:
I’m thrilled it’s being seen in any cinema. And it’s brilliant that Under The Skin is being shown again. Now, I’m able to watch it as a piece of work, rather than as someone who is caught up in doing something for the first time. It’s great to have it shown at the ICA. It gives me butterflies to have work shown somewhere I have visited so many times over the years, and where I have seen such inspirational things. It’s an institution that I have a lot of respect for.

Dazed Digital: Tell us about the inspiration for the film? 
Samantaha Morton:
 The original idea for the film came about as I kept having this vision of a girl. I just had these really strong pictures of this girl in my mind since I was 16 and taking part in a drama workshop, where we were improvising along the lines of forgotten kids. We began to develop it into a play, and I started to find it very theraputic and I kind of took over – I’m very bossy, but it was in a good way. I pulled us all together and we turned it into a play. I filmed certain characters and had them appear on stage like talking heads, it was great. Years later, this story kept haunting me and the image of this little girl just wouldn’t go away – 98 per cent of the film made up of these images. When I came to start making the film my script was in a mess, the writer Tony Grisoni helped me come up with a script which was very different. It became more of a collaboration stemming from my original idea. People have asked me whether the film is about my life growing up, the film is not about my life but more about what it feels like to be a child in care. 

Dazed Digital: Where you inspired by any other filmmakers when making the film. It is quite evocative of the work of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh... 
Samantaha Morton:
 I was more inspired by European filmmaking, I like the work of Aki Kaurismäki and Visconti – very slow and beautiful films. I love Loach's and Leigh's work but it has a very different energy. The lead actress Molly Windsor and the other young actors in the film give such deep and affecting performances.

Dazed Digital: How was working with them on a film with such serious subject matter?
Samantaha Morton:
 There are many things that are special about Molly. I did a casting a long time before starting to make the film, and I just saw her and I knew it was her. Molly is the most resoundingly sincere person – she has this inner calm, she’s incredibly rooted and you feel safe around her. It was a difficult role to play. All the child actors were working professionals, and this was really important to me as I had just had a baby, and couldn’t bear the idea of working with children and worrying about what was happening to them when they went home; it was important for me to know that they were going home to a safe environment.

Dazed Digital: The depiction of Lucy’s relationship with her parents is very affecting, showing both the love and the problems in her relationships with them, was this something important to you when making the film?
Samantaha Morton:
 The complexities of families are huge. I think it’s far too simple to say that a child should simply be taken into care. You have to ask yourself whether the parents still have a right to love despite the abuse? It was intentional, but I was thrilled to have Robert Carlisle to give that depth to the performance. When we asked and he agreed it was like reaching for a dream and getting it. Also, with the character of the mother, getting Susan Lunch who is one of the actors I most respect to play her was like, ‘Wow’, I got my dream cast!'

Dazed Digital: To what extent was the film autobiographical?
Samantaha Morton: 
It is semi-autobiographical. There are lots of elements of my life which are not in it, my mother is not in it. It’s not a film about my life it is a film about the care system in the UK.

Dazed Digital: The film is visually very beautiful. Was this something you set out to do as a filmmaker? 
Samantaha Morton:
 Very much so. Every single shot was preconceived and planned out, there was only one quite extreme shot which was cut in the film – an arial shot of Lucy walking alone, towards the end. It was very important to me to make the film epic and to make Nottingham epic. It's where I'm from, and it's where I grew up. Every image is completely based on memory. All the places in the film are real places, apart from the care home, as we had to find one which wasn’t being used. When we were shooting it, I was very, very controlling and I was blessed with an amazing cinematographer who helped me transfer the images I had in my head to film. We had a lot of squabbles with the execs over the opening scene. The Unloved was originally made for Channel 4, and they weren’t keen on opening with so little action, and with these very religious overtones. The sound was very important in making the viewer feel like they were in the world of a little girl who is in this dreamlike state, almost an aspergers state.

Dazed Digital: After making The Unloved do you think you would like to write or direct any films in the future?
Samantaha Morton:
 I think I do! Not right now, but in the next couple of years. It’s not easy making a film and raising the money to make a film and it’s even more difficult to get it distributed. Although we just got distribution in the states for The Unloved, which is amazing!

Dazed Digital: What did you want to achieve in making the film. Also, it is set in 1989, do you think there have been any changes in the care system since then?
Samantaha Morton:
 I was haunted by these images and the story, I felt like a vessel  for the story and after an amount of time, it became clear the film had to be made,  not underestimating how hard it is to make a film. In regards to the care system, I think the whole thing is a disgrace, there should be no such thing as the ‘At Risk Register’.

The Unloved screens at The ICA from today