Out of Blue, backed by the BFI Film Fund with National Lottery money, is in cinemas from 29 March 2019
When we speak, Carol Morley is deep into a promotional tour for her fascinating new film Out of Blue, her voice croaky from numerous cross-country Q&As and countless TV and radio appearances. Her enthusiasm for her latest project, and for independent filmmaking in general, is, however, entirely undiminished. “When I talk about it, it’s always like the first time,” she smiles, coffee in hand.
That passion for her craft is writ large in all of Morley’s works, from her autobiographical documentary debut The Alcohol Years (2000) through to tense hotel-set drama Edge (2010), BIFA-nominated docudrama Dreams of a Life (2011) and boarding school thriller The Falling (2014). And it’s knitted firmly into the fabric of Out of Blue, a dreamlike psycho noir adapted from Martin Amis’s 1997 book Night Train, which follows New Orleans police detective Mike Hoolihan (Patricia Clarkson) as her investigation into the suspicious death of leading astrophysicist Jennifer Rockwell (Mamie Gummer) unlocks devastating and long-forgotten secrets from her own past.
Watch the Out of Blue trailer
Described as a comic parody of American detective novels, Night Train may not seem the most obvious source material for Morley, who was introduced to the novel by her recent producer Luc Roeg, son of late director Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth), who had long wanted to bring the story to the screen. Yet, while she’s honest about the fact that she didn’t like “everything in the book”, Morley nevertheless felt an immediate connection.
“I was really interested in the theme of cosmology, and the female detective,” she says. “But I didn’t want to read any [treatments or scripts] that had been written before, and I didn’t want Martin Amis to be involved. I wanted the freedom to do what I feel is right for it. Luckily, Luc said yes!
“I didn’t want it to be a straightforward description of the story,” Morley continues about her approach to the project; the first time she has worked on an adaptation. “I read the book twice, and I was very particular in how I read it the second time. I was underlining, I was researching, I was very assiduous. Then I let it go and did what I always do; I began to get into the film through character. I began to do back stories for all of the characters, and particularly for Mike. I invent the childhood, I invent the nicknames, I did massive amounts of research into their lives and, with this film, also into science and homicide.”
Another area in which Morley had to immerse herself was the film’s American setting; not only because she had never made a film in the States before, but also because Amis never reveals the story’s location.
Credit: Paul Marc Mitchell
“I originally set it in Atlanta,” Morley explains. “I liked the idea of the south, and the idea of the south erasing its history somewhat. Also, I always knew the film wouldn’t be about huge vistas; it would be from Mike’s mind. I was struck by this idea of everyone in their cars, and the sense that the audience would be in this space with Mike’s character. That’s what drew me to Atlanta.”
That all changed, however, with one phone call from the film’s star, Patricia Clarkson. “I got a call from Patricia, and she said, ‘I’m in Atlanta filming some of [HBO series] Sharp Objects, and we are not going to get any crew here. The only person who will be able to do my hair is a dog groomer because everyone is so busy!’ Patricia is from New Orleans, and she suggested that we move it there. About two weeks prior to her call, New Orleans had reintroduced its tax credits and so, within a week, Cairo [Cannon, producer], Luc and I had moved the whole thing there.”
When watching Out of Blue, the city of New Orleans – with its unique cultural identity shaped from years of tradition as well as the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2006 – seems as much a part of the film as any of the characters, its own traumas reflected in Mike’s increasingly fragile state of mind. For Morley, that connection between person and place was absolutely essential. “Even when I was writing this in Atlanta, I felt that Mike was the city. She was burying a secret, unconsciously, and that worked so well for New Orleans. So did the beads, that are significant in the film, that are like Mardi Gras beads. And there’s a strong water motif. It all just chimed.”
In keeping with its enigmatic location, Out of Blue deliberately eschews a traditional genre narrative to become an atmospheric, shape-shifting mystery. “You think it’s about one thing, and then it becomes another,” says Morley of her approach. “I wanted to start the film in familiar territory, like a police procedural; Mike is used to herself, and her job, and she knows where she is. And then, as the film goes on, you are watching her psychological fallout from this world that she has known.
“When I approach writing, I don’t want a scene to be just one thing,” Morley continues. “I always think of it as what’s on the surface – what you’re seeing, what’s being said – and also what’s under the surface. Then, when I come to film it, I know that there’s more than one thing that I’m trying to capture within that scene. I think film is brilliant in dealing with the unconscious, because you can work with music and sound alongside performances. I’ve always been aware that it would be a waste to make a film that’s only about one thing, thats one-dimensional.”
While some filmmakers may balk at the idea of presenting such complex, ambiguous narratives, Morley is convinced that audiences are crying out for more involving and original stories. “Audiences are really intelligent, far more so than they are given credit for,” she states. “There is a huge appetite for stories to be told differently. And when you look at any genre, horror for example, it has to evolve beyond the original because people come to know the tropes so clearly. And, as a filmmaker, I hate locking things down, so you go, ‘This is how you should feel now, this is what you should think when you leave.’ I think audiences are really engaged with whatever’s going on if you give them a chance.”
While Morley is determined not to be pinned down to one particular style of filmmaking, her work does have a common theme: exceptional, three-dimensional female characters. While she asserts that this is not necessarily a conscious choice, she does say that being drawn to such stories is “inevitable” – although she is keen to continue forging her own path when it comes to material.
“Because of the Hollywood model, film can get quite monolithic,” she notes. “And it’s depriving audiences of a real range of films. So why worry about fitting into that model? It’s interesting that British filmmakers like Clio Barnard, Joanna Hogg, Andrea Arnold and Hope Dickson-Leach are all writing as well as directing. Male directors get sent loads of scripts that fit in with their own world view, or their lives. Us women are writing the work that we want to see!”