Watch Pagans, a short film about grief and girlhood in the UK countryside

From Lucy Luscombe, Dazed 100 alum and the director of memorable music videos for Blood Orange and Darkstar

Back in 2016, director Lucy Luscombe appeared on the Dazed 100, our annual list of definitive names making waves across youth culture. Initially working as an actress, the Central Saint Martins graduate soon found her way into directing. Luscombe quickly made a name for herself as a filmmaker, with a striking ability to capture British life in all its multiplicity, from her depiction of London’s multiculturalism in Blood Orange’s “High Street” to the community centres of northern England in Darkstar’s “A Day’s Pay for a Day’s Work” and the youth of Huddersfield in “The Days Burn Blue” commissioned by Random Acts, Channel 4.  

Since then she has been busy working on campaigns for the likes of Nike, Liberty and Vogue, while also writing and developing her new short film, Pagans. Premiering here for the first time, Luscombe’s latest foray into British culture follows three best friends from London on a hedonistic, drug-fuelled night out in the English countryside. Their freewheeling antics take them from a bonfire parade to an underwhelming student party to a Pagan gathering at dawn. Despite the ecstatic moments peppered throughout, the women’s adventure is tinged with sadness: their partying clearly a form of escapism to dull the pain of losing their friend Sasha. During this excursion, which is at times surreal – as is the experience of loss – the women make some discoveries about grief and life along the way.

Here we speak to the director Lucy Luscombe and actors Frankie Giffen, Juliette Motamed and Vivian Oparah about the ritualistic nature of female relationships, the catharsis of partying, and the alchemy of adolescent grief. 

Lucy, tell us about your interest in paganism. What prompted you to incorporate it into a film about girlhood and grief?

Lucy Luscombe: I’ve always dabbled in Pagan-related stuff and I’m pretty earnest about Stonehenge. I go a bit wild in the gift shop. I suppose Paganism is a practice that encompasses the unknown through ritual. Death is the ultimate unknown and there’s a bunch of ritual in girlhood. That being said, the film is more about the alchemy of adolescent grief; dealing with the death of a friend in your formative years. When you’re too young to rationalise the horror of death, the mind often compensates by playing tricks.

The relationship between the three leading women is very natural. How did you find them? What was the casting process like?

Lucy Luscombe: My casting director, Coralie Rose, invited some memorable people we knew, and their mates, to a disused office block in Southwark one Sunday. We did some improv and tried out different group dynamics. I had met Frankie previously while filming a documentary, The A-Z of Modern Girlhood, and found her to be so unaffected and genuine. Juliette bowled in with her big hair and big eyes, all raw and open. Vivian was our only professional actor; super film-literate and excited to do something different. They’re all really interesting people, which brings something else to the film - Frankie is a beautiful writer; Vivian and Juliette are both next-level musicians. Most importantly, they all had this mad chemistry, despite not really knowing each other. They would oscillate between taking the piss and going at it. They were also just down to jump a train and go on an adventure with me.

Frankie, Vivian, and Juliette, your characters appear to have a close bond. How did you gain this level of trust with each other that allowed for such a natural performance?

Frankie: I think our roles are quite true to us as individuals anyway so I didn’t really do much to ‘prepare’ other than spend time with Vi and Juliette before filming started. Also, because we used our real names for our ‘characters’, it just all felt quite real and normal. 

On the second day of filming in Lewes (after Lucy had finally told us what the film was about) we spent the whole night essentially oversharing and crying, and I think this played a big part in how close we are now. I actually live with Viv, and Juliette’s a close friend of mine!

Vivian: We were all kind of going through it at the time, so naturally upbeat harmless gossip sort of morphed into tears and exchanging pretty harrowing stories. It didn’t feel weird though. We laughed and cried loads – and impromptu freestyled loads – which helped create memories we could reference in the film.

Juliette: It even feels crazy to me to answer this question because I feel like it looks like none of us got the memo that we were meant to stop chilling after the film ended. We're all still very much entangled in each other's lives.

A lot of the music in the film features female voices, such as Flohio and All Saints. What was the thinking behind the soundtrack choices?

Lucy Luscombe: I think there’s a lot of pathos to Y2K girl bands and I don’t mean that in a nostalgic way. I also believe there’s a romantic element to friendship, there’s heartbreak there and I think it’s interesting to apply love songs to that. I wrote the dance scene at the house party around All Saints’ “Never Ever” as there’s a lot of ritualism and grief in that song – Y2K girl band moves morph into pagan dance rituals. The evocation of a wandering spirit through pop choreography. When it comes to Flohio, I’m just a mad fan. She’s such a great lyricist; both tough and existential. God Colony were really cool to gives us their tracks and also score the film; I feel like their music is underpinned by this melancholic euphoria and we spoke about creating a score that felt like post-rave blues – a bit jittery and transcendental.

Were there any directors you were inspired by in the making of Pagans?

Lucy Luscombe: Morvern Callar (2002) by Lynne Ramsay will always mean a lot to me. The humanity of Lukas Moodysson’s body of work and the quiet heartbreak of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Decalogue (1988) were an inspiration, probably. The live and kicking Mardi Gras parade of Easy Rider (1969), most definitely. In regards to process, there were perhaps some Loachian surprises for the cast in there and I might have gone a bit Cassavetes shouty/earnest/method on set at times. But I think it was Paul Wright’s Arcadia (2017) during which I actually dreamt this up.

What was your favourite part of filming?

Frankie: My favourite part of filming was the bonfire. Not gonna lie, I was shook the whole evening during the initial parade because there were so many people just acting mad, but once we reached the actual bonfire I was just in awe! I love fire and to just be free and not care whilst around burning effigies felt amazing.

Vivian: We made up a dance to All Saints and it was actually sick! The Capricorn in me jumped out as we had to choreograph it ourselves. I was grieving something ugly at the time, and so the general bonfire, sisterhood and cathartic themes were really healing for me. 

Juliette: A really special moment came when we went out to film on the cliff at 4am after the bonfires. We had our makeup still on from the night before and everything. Watching dawn break over this lush, green valley felt transcendent after all of the devilry of the night before. It felt so momentous.

At first, it seems as though the film is going to carry some underlying message warning against the dangers of drugs, but then it ends up feeling more like a celebration of partying as a form of escapism. Was this turn something you intended to convey?  

Lucy Luscombe: Yeah, I don’t see drugs as wholly bad or wholly good either. I believe in the respite and catharsis of a party; being three sheets, imperfect and fun. But there is a turn in Juliette’s character within the scene as she goes from trying to maintain a level of mental control to embracing a certain nihilistic celebration. There’s an opening of Pandora’s box – pingers at the carnival.

The presence of technological devices is prominent throughout Pagans, with particular attention paid to the significant role they play in relationships. Why was this important for you to include in the film?

Lucy Luscombe: I find the technological afterlife interesting. I think in this day and age, if you’re struggling to come to terms with the death of a friend you might bargain with the internet. You might like an Instagram picture or keep a group chat alive. Our phones have become such an extension of us that it felt right that Indra’s character (Sasha’s mum) wouldn’t be able to throw her dead daughter’s phone away. Instead she passes the burden on to Juliette’s character, who goes on to compulsively try and unlock it in an attempt to understand her friend and why she’s dead.

Have a look at the Pagans Zine below.

"I believe in the respite and catharsis of a party; being three sheets, imperfect and fun” – Lucy Luscombe