Penny Woolcock: It's a hard-knock life

She's filmed on violent estates and in a Sheffield swingers' club. Her latest project is about the cult of bare-knuckle fighting. Jonathan Romney meets the uncompromising director
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Whether or not it's a British Fight Club, as some critics have dubbed it, The Principles of Lust is certainly that bit more confrontational than most current UK cinema. A Faustian morality play set in Sheffield, it features extreme sex and even more extreme violence, with scenes of bare-knuckle fighting to make the hardiest viewer wince. You might imagine it was directed by the latest scrappy young chancer with a head full of hard-man fantasies. In fact, it's the work of Penny Woolcock, a 53-year-old woman with a substantial list of TV documentaries and dramas to her name, not to mention a filmed opera. Even the film's star, Marc Warren, had jumped to conclusions before meeting Woolcock: "He came in and said, 'I thought you'd be different - I thought you'd be young and have long black hair and have a demonic look in your eyes.'" In person, Woolcock is amiably languid - you can tell she's put in her hippie years - but the demonic look is definitely present in her lens.

The story of Principles - a blocked writer hero undertakes an apprenticeship in life's wild side - is close to her heart, says Woolcock; she knows about "being pulled between wanting things to be safe, and getting claustrophobic and needing to smash things up and take risks." One way of taking risks is to film in a manner that seems reckless by mainstream standards. Woolcock likes to apply documentary methods to fiction, shooting with hand-held camera in real rather than mocked-up locations. She also refuses to rehearse. "The pleasure of documentary," she says, "is that you're not in control of what happens. Spontaneously something will happen in front of your eyes, or you'll turn up just after it's happened and you've missed it. If you're from a documentary background you welcome those surprises, whereas people who've only worked in fiction probably find it quite frightening. I get bored if everything is too nailed down."

A case in point is the episode of Principles shot in a real swingers' club in Sheffield - the one time, says Woolcock, that she couldn't control what was happening. "By the time we arrived, all the extras had taken their clothes off and were shagging each other everywhere. I tried to tell them that it wasn't a porn film, and they were very disappointed. They didn't pay any attention to me, they all just piled in."

The film's scenes of bare-knuckle fighting have a similarly authentic ring, although based on research rather than first-hand observation. In the real-life fights, Woolcock says, "there are no rules - you can bite, you can gouge eyes, anything." However, she turned down the chance to witness an actual match: "I just didn't want to participate in something where someone would be killed or seriously injured. Not that there wouldn't have been some voyeuristic pleasure in it. It was a step too far in terms of research." Otherwise, Woolcock is not easily put off by daunting environments.

"I've spent 10 years on and off in places where there is no law and order, where people sort out disputes through violence. I did a documentary in South Wales on an estate where, if kids come to your house and nick things, the retribution is rough justice, and it's not pleasant." Apart from straight documentaries, Woolcock is known for her "docu-dramas", not that she would use the word herself ("I don't know what it means."). In practice, it means fictions featuring real people in real habitats, such as the BAFTA-nominated Tina Goes Shopping (1999) and its successor Tina Takes a Break, both shot on the Sheffield estate where the cast lived. Woolcock applied a similar no-rehearsal, hand-held approach to her recent Channel 4 adaptation of The Death of Klinghoffer, John Adams's opera about the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship by Palestinian terrorists. The opera was controversial to begin with, the film even more so, given Woolcock's realistic reconstruction of events and the conflict behind them.

Woolcock's path to directing was long and improbable. Born in Buenos Aires and raised in a conservative British community in Montevideo, at 17 she joined a radical theatre group and was promptly arrested. Her alarmed parents sent her to Europe, but she quickly ran off to Spain and had a baby. She fell into film-making accidentally in her late 30s, when she decided to film a play she was staging as a youth worker in Oxford. "I find that quite encouraging, that you can start something quite late and still be able to do it," Woolcock says. "I'm very glad that I had that life. Now my adventures are slightly vicarious and go into my work, whereas for a long time, my life was for living, not for source material."

Woolcock's career is currently on an interesting spin, with several projects in the works, including another collaboration with John Adams, a film about adolescents in Bradford and a story about magicians planning a casino heist, which has meant spending time at magic conventions. Then there's a plan to reenact the Book of Exodus in Margate over three days. "When everybody cries because the first-born have been slaughtered, I hope we can get the 40,000 inhabitants of Margate to howl at the same time." If they need any encouragement, a couple of reels of The Principles of Lust should get them gasping at the very least.

'The Principles of Lust' (18) is released on 12 March.