An interview with writer-director Tom Beard, on casting Samantha Morton and Billie Piper, and capturing raw sensitivity in his debut feature film
Two for Joy is a film about the voicelessness that follows loss. It’s the heartfelt story of a family struck by the loss of a father to kids Vi and Troy, and partner to Aisha. In this pertinent drama, Samantha Morton and Billie Piper, alongside Daniel Mays, expose the issues of suppressed mental health issues and a lack of expression in suburban England with a raw sensitivity. Shot entirely in 35mm film, this anonymous pastoral story could potentially be happening at any point in the last decade.
Writer-director Tom Beard first picked up a camera in his teens. At age 16, he had his first photo job, shooting Jamie T’s first album cover. In the years that followed, he wrote and directed short films, and produced music videos for Adele, FKA twigs and Florence + The Machine. He grew up in Twickenham, where his observations from behind the lens – owing to a head injury that robbed hearing in one ear – sparked a curiosity to dig deeper. Two for Joy is the realisation of his urge to understand the complexities in people’s home lives; the why behind everyday suffering.
For Beard, shooting on film is essential. “It’s not a gimmick,” he says, explaining that he’s made all his short films the same way. According to him, this story would not have worked if he shot digitally, because he wanted the audience to be completely absorbed.
As he released his debut feature film, Tom Beard spoke to Dazed about being on set with Morton and Piper, shooting on 35mm film, and the Freudian undercurrents of his story.
How long has Two for Joy been in the works? And do you remember the exact moment that inspired you to write the story?
Tom Beard: I think from the first time I put pen to paper, to now, is about three years. Realistically, it’s a six-seven year process and I’ve been working on the ideas and themes forever really. The whole way through growing up, you start picking up your interests in whatever work that you do. You begin to form a vision of what it is you want to say. Everything I’ve ever done, leads – in some way – to the process.
I read that you grew up in Twickenham. How much is what you saw around you in this film?
Tom Beard: When I was at school, I had a terrible head injury. At 13, I lost the hearing in one ear, and therefore the whole way I dealt with school massively changed. I struggled with school for those very important few years of character building. I was in and out of school, and it just changed my whole perception on the world. When suddenly you can’t do the things you used to be good at, like sport, that frustration has to find another avenue, and I turned to photography at that time. I had to observe the world a lot more than partake in it. So I had kind of a safety net there. I began to notice the kids around me that had all this ‘hard man bravado’ that they would put out to the world. But I always wondered what was going on behind that – how they really suffered and the situation at home – and it was those kind of stories that really inspired me. I wanted to know the cause of the cause.
What was the biggest lesson you learned making this film?
Tom Beard: To trust your instinct. Don’t let the frantic-ness of the set cloud your judgement. You’ve got to go with your gut. Don’t try and control everything. The magic on set happens when there’s this freedom and you’re just trusting the energy. Trusting the actors. It’s easy to trust the Samantha Mortons, the Billie Pipers and Daniel Mays because there’s just so much experience there. But with the kids as well, give them the same degree of respect and trust their intelligence for the characters, and you’re likely to get the most magic.
Why did you feel that Samantha Morton and Billie Piper would be right for the roles that you cast them in?
Tom Beard: I had Samantha in mind for Aisha from the very beginning, so it’s a dream come true that she was playing the role. You know, you watch films growing up, and she did one called Beneath the Skin which I thought was an amazing, and so delicate. She hadn’t done a role like this for a very long time, and I just thought about those films and how I could develop these roles into something more about today. And Billie, she’s proved to the world that she’s an absolute tour de force, she’s just incredible. I’m blessed to have them.
“You can get into the heads of these characters so much more with their silence. You’re forced to watch and absorb, you’re not being fed any information” – Tom Beard
How did you shoot the scenes underwater?
Tom Beard: That’s a film camera with an underwater kit on it. Getting out there in a wetsuit and doing it. There’s no trickery there. It’s all in cameras – there’s no special effects. That’s very important to me to create that realism. It’s like the fourth person. That’s why I’ve chosen to do so much handheld. I want the audience to feel like a part of the family, like the missing dad. The audience can almost play that role, being the spectator in the corner of the room just watching over his family.
How did shooting in 35mm film create a timelessness in the film?
Tom Beard: For me, shooting on film is how I make movies. I’ve always preferred it, both aesthetically and methodically – you know, the way you set up the shot. You just talk about it more, and it just allows for the action to happen in front of you. It’s really the most honest and authentic way of capturing these kind of stories. If you shoot on digital, not in every respect, but it gives it this kind of sheen that dispels the reality, which wouldn’t work for a story like this.
I tried to set it in 2008, because it was before everyone had phone. I think the world has changed a lot in ten years. Kids of every age, have their mobiles and are constantly glued into them and it doesn’t make for particularly interesting filmmaking if everyone’s faces are constantly lit by an iPhone.
Would you say you drew upon your own memories for some of the characters in the film?
Tom Beard: The caravan where we shot is the caravan I used to go to as a kid. And their caravan is the one I went to, so it was all kind of written from my memory. We used to take those boats out and get in trouble for staying out too long in the boats. Their world, where they have sprawling freedom, is what I had growing up. So it was really amazing going back there and seeing it again. It hasn’t changed. Because I wrote it about that block. And I hadn’t gone back there to research. I just wrote it from my memory.
I haven’t been through the loss of either of my parents, but a lot of what Samantha Morton’s character Aisha (went through), that was quite similar to what I had – because I’ve always suffered from bipolar, and particularly her waking dreams and sleep paralysis. So when you’re writing, you’re just getting stuff down and it’s just honest and raw. I think that raw reality is what the actors, when they first read the script, really responded to. It jumps off the page at you. I think really all of the characters in some way are an extension of me in some way. I didn’t realise till afterward, but I’d called all of them kind of ’I’ – Aisha, Miranda, Lias, Lilah, Vi – they’re all ’I’, that’s one of the those Freudian things that I didn’t realise till afterwards.
You like to write silent characters into your films – Alf in your short Generation of Vipers and now Troy. How do you get these child actors to convey the multitude of emotions without words?
Tom Beard: You always hear these stories of youth that don’t have a voice – the disadvantaged youth of the UK that can’t speak – and that was something I knew really worked. You can get into the heads of these characters so much more with their silence. You’re forced to watch and absorb, you’re not being fed any information. I want the audience to have a degree of intelligence to really have to absorb themselves in the characters. If you look at horror films, the scariest thing is what you can’t understand or what doesn’t speak. It’s always what you don’t know.
What’s the significance of the title Two for Joy?
Tom Beard: I give all my projects bird names before I actually title them. This one was Magpie… When the characters’ lives are on their own, they’re sorrowful, and it was the idea that when you’ve got these two kids and when they come together, there’s happiness. And so that was Two For Joy – Aisha has these two children that bring her joy.
Two For Joy is out in UK cinemas now