George MacKay as Tim in Duane Hopkins's new film Bypass
Bypass is the second full-length film from British director Duane Hopkins. His first, Better Things, is a sprawling exploration of heroin use in central England, where he grew up. The film featured real people Hopkins encountered during his extensive research and received the Critics' Award for Best Film at the Stockholm International Film Festival.
The seed for Bypass was sown when Hopkins was working on Better Things. He interviewed three kids who were about to break into the houses of people they knew in the area and steal their stuff. One member of the trio seemed more conflicted than the others, and Hopkins found that this figure stuck with him after making Better Things. Had he gone through with the crime? And what had become of him since?
Hopkins's new film follows Tim, played by George MacKay, as he struggles to provide for himself and his sister by selling stolen goods in an anonymous satellite town. I spoke to the director about his motivations for making the film, his creative process, and the realities of working-class life in post-industrial Britain.
VICE: First of all, can you talk me through the research process for Bypass?
Duane Hopkins: I spent about six months researching the film before I started drafting. Part of the point of doing this project was to broaden my experience of what life is now like in these working-class towns, because it seems to have changed so much from when I was growing up. What struck me was how generous these people are in telling you what they're up to. It felt like they didn’t really have any outlet to discuss these things. One kid in particular, who'd recently been released from prison, talked me through his career as a car thief. He reckoned he'd stolen 300 cars and, at one point, was doing three cars a night.
How do you go about forming a narrative from all of that information?
The narrative came quite naturally because I heard so many similar stories. It was amazing how many kids I met who were between 17 and 21 years old and were responsible for holding their family together. What I’ve made isn’t a documentary, but at the same time everything I’ve used in the film comes from the research. I wanted to make a film that showed what these kids’ lives were like in a sensitive but also a compelling way.
Do you see Bypass as a work of social realism?
No, I wouldn’t say so. My work needs to be extremely authentic, but it has to be emotionally and narratively honest. Even though I use ingredients of social realism, I want to make something more poetic, more lyrical, with them. Those ingredients are just a starting point.
The camera work in the film is almost intensely intimate. Is that a way of bringing out this lyricism?
It’s way of trying to put some beauty onto the top of the hardness of what you're seeing, because all the characters have internal lives, and their internal lives are very different from their external lives. Even though their circumstances are tough, there’s still hope for them. Tim and Lilly are characters trying incredibly hard. I wanted to articulate that as much as possible and move away from the realist register.
An excerpt from Bypass
The intensity of the soundtrack plays a big role in suggesting this interior life. How closely did you work with the guys who scored the film, Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans?
They were involved with the last third of the editing, which is quite unusual. I wanted the composing to be part of the editing itself and for it to shape the narrative.
I also put a lot of emphasis on sound design, which I think a lot of films underuse. We worked with a guy called Chris Watson, who used to be in Cabaret Voltaire and then moved into field recording. He now does sound recording for David Attenborough’s shows. I used a lot of material from his archive to bridge the gap between sound design and the composed music.
These elements all come together to produce something quite raw and harrowing. Why do you think British directors in particular seem to be drawn to the grittier, bleaker aspects of life?
I actually don’t find my films that bleak. I find them sort of Romantic in the same kind of way as the Romantic art movement. For me, the most interesting thing about film is the same as what's most interesting about music: You can experience an emotion without actually having to go through it. The dark in cinema space is a safe place to go in order to see how other people live and what their experiences are like.
I’m not sure why Brits have the tendency to go to this place, though. In some way it must be a reflection of what our society is like and something that needs to be shown. It always surprises me that people in London will react to these types of films by questioning if this is really what the rest of this country is like. And you have to say: “Yes, there are these people leading these other lives.”
Yeah, the lack of a specific location for Bypass struck me as positioning the town to be anywhere that isn’t London.
Yeah, I’ve lived in and out of London, and when you’re in it there is this idea that it's only London that exists. The film is basically set anywhere that manufacturing has disappeared and the communities still haven’t recovered. What's developed there is a new class of people and a new kind of identity.
In Better Things, the elderly and the young are both united in their suffering. In Bypass, the older generation seems to pity the young. Is this a response to how things have changed since you made Better Things?
I made Better Things because some of my friends started dying through drug use and I needed to find out why my other friends were still doing heroin when they could see the mortal end of it. I found that their drug use was a way of providing themselves with continuity, like being in a relationship. So within Better Things the younger and older generation are after the same thing; they just have different avenues to get to it.
The attitudes of the older people in Bypass are a reflection of what I found when I spoke to people during my research. The older generation often said they'd had a job for life, but their grandkids now have a job for a few weeks on some shitty zero-hour contract. They all have sympathy for these kids because they don’t have the stability they had.
Even in the past few days we’ve seen more cuts to benefits, and to justify this politicians attempt to ascribe agency to people, suggesting a life of crime or a life on benefits is a choice. Do you see your film as working against that falsehood?
The thing is that these guys in power know that these kids are depoliticized. So the politicians know there’s no reason to appeal to them, because it won’t get them votes. I don’t think it’s conspiratorial to discuss these things; it’s just actually how it is. I hope my film shows this reality.
Bypass is political in this way. but I didn’t aim to make something dogmatic or didactic. It comes back to authenticity. When I meet these kids and set a film in their environment, I have to be true to the subject matter, and I have to be respectful of what their lives are like.
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