“The more interesting the times, the more that films are important,” Dictynna Hood is talking about the role that films and art have in society. We’re chatting about her second feature, Us A mong The Stones. That was before the times became more (or less) interesting with the response to the coronavirus.
Now, the film is being released online with the launch accompanied by a Q&A Zoom with film critic Tim Robey. The launch will take place on the Youtube channel on December 4.
Dreaming with the filmmaker
“When I watch a film, I’m dreaming with the filmmaker,” says Dictynna. “When I read, I’m inside somebody’s head. The value of that is that we are communicating with each other, our history, and our politics.
“Stories are how we make sense of things – they make shapes out of life. I’m quite obsessed with stories even though the stories that I tell are very light touch.”
That sense of storytelling – or history telling – runs subtly throughout Us Among The Stones. It’s a story about a family celebrating what is probably their matriarch’s last birthday. Lingering resentment comes to the surface and secrets unwind. The film is set and filmed in an old Devon farmhouse.
“I am fascinated by family history and the way it crosses over with bigger histories,” says Dictynna. The history in Us Among The Stones stems from a fictitious family photo album, and these family photographs are interspersed throughout the film. They include photos from the first world war, and hint at a deeper, wider history.
Sense of the 60s
Of all those ages there’s a strong sense of the 1960s in the contemporary story – the era of the main character Owen’s parents. Other generations are represented by the different ages in the family, while the stones on Dartmoor take you back into ancient states.
The story itself is loosely tied into Dictynna’s own history.
“When my sister was a student, she was taken to visit Port Elliot as part of her architectural project. And she told me about this old house with layers of history. I became fascinated by that idea,” says Dictynna.
She’s the child of parents who were young in the 60s. And while her folks were not hippies they travelled in a camper van – a feeling of freedom that is captured in the film. Dictynna also spent childhood holidays camping on Dartmoor.
“I fell in love with that landscape. And when I came to write the film, it just came out that it was in Devon.”
Even so, locations in Wales and Yorkshire were considered.
“It really was intended for Devon,” says Dictynna. “And we found a house exactly as it was written in the script.
“Devon has such an interesting landscape,” she says. “There’s a line in the script which says lushness and savagery. In the valleys, you get that incredible lushness of the green leaves due to all the water coming off the moors. And on the moor you get the rocks and bracken, the outcrops and the standing stones. And I love both those elements.
Life and death all at once
“When I was little on the moors you were always bumping into dead and dying sheep, bones, acorns, ponies, carcasses, bilberries – it was a great education about life and death all at once.”
Secrets also run through the film, which could equally come across as a character piece set in a special place.
“Everybody in the film is trying to find out a little bit more who they are, and our main character Owen is different than he expects he is,” says Dictynna.
Us Among The Stones is Dictynna’s second feature, following Wreckers and two longer shorts The Other Man and Journey Man.
“I used to say that in Wreckers, you find out that you are like your parents, and that is a really, really bad thing. And in this one, you find out that you are like your parents, and it’s fine.”
Repeating the childhood patterns in Wreckers tends to be destructive. Not so in Us Among The Stones.
Both Wreckers and Us Among The Stones were made with director of photography Annemarie Lean-Vercoe, who is from Devon.
“Wreckers is quite formal in the way it is shot. This one is freer, partly because our working relationship had developed. And we were trusting of the process, which allowed us to be quite free and quite fast,” says Dictynna.
The house itself is a character in the film.
Devon long house
“We loved the house. It’s a Devon long house. Part of it is pre-medieval and that suited the feeling of a long history for this family that we were trying to get across,” says Dictynna.
“We decided to shoot partly against the light to create mystery and to give the audience a feeling for the magic of the house. And then because it’s a long house you can also shoot all the way through it with a view pretty much from one end to the other.” That confusion of layout and style, enhanced in the filming through corridors, the use of mirrors, and pick-up shots filmed in a different location, reflects the mental situation of the main character Owen.
“The audience never quite understands the geography of the house, which is all to the point because Owen himself is kind of in a maze trying to work his way through,” she says.
Anna Calder-Marshall, who plays Marianne, the mother in the film, loved the house.
“She spent a lot of time in the bedroom as she does in the film, imbibing the atmosphere. People were living in the house as well as acting.”
“I’ve never done a shoot like that before, but I loved it,” says Dictynna.
The sensibility of the film was tied together in the edit, a process enhanced by also including the editor Claire Pringle’s dad’s Super 8 family films.
“It was incorporating those different forms, photographs, Super 8, slide photographs into the core drama of the film and this mosaic created the overall feel,” says Dictynna, who talks about the flexibility and joy of the process.
The film premiered at the London Film Festival and there was a tour planned before the Coronavirus shut down. Now the release, like so many others, has been forced online.
“It really is a lovely film to watch on the big screen. The actors are fantastic and have wonderful faces, the older actors just exude this sense of presence and history. And the sound design is so beautiful. I really want to share it with people on the big screen because it has a very special feeling.”
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