It was a phone call with a friend over 10 years ago that gave director Carol Morley the idea for her new film, The Falling. When the pair fell into a hysterical laughing fit, her pal mentioned a medieval village in England that had suffered an outbreak of mass giggling. This inspired Morley to research other instances around the globe and she soon came across the term “mass psychogenic illness”, used by scientists to describe incidents of collective hysteria afflicting close-knit groups.
The Falling imagines such a case in a strict English girls’ school in 1969. Focusing on the friendship between the damaged Lydia (Maisie Williams, best known as Game of Thrones’ Arya Stark) and her beguiling, more sexually experienced best friend Abbie (Florence Pugh), it sees a tragic incident at the school leading to a mysterious bout of fainting among the pupils.
If it sounds fantastical, then it’s worth remembering there have been similar cases as recently as last year in a collection of schools in El Carmen de Bolívar, northern Colombia, and in LeRoy, New York, in 2011. Usually affecting groups of females, such events remain unexplained.
The “twisted coming-of-age story”, as Morley calls The Falling, has received rave reviews and been compared to such haunting classics as Picnic at Hanging Rock and Heavenly Creatures. The latter comparison is particularly interesting, since Peter Jackson’s debut film launched the career of Kate Winslet, the very star newcomer Pugh brought to mind in her first audition.
“After you left the room I said, ‘Oh wow’,” recalls Morley. “All the casting people were really quiet and I just said, ‘Do you not think she’s amazing?’ And they all went, ‘We’ve got goosebumps; that was like a young Kate Winslet walking into the room’.”
When I meet Morley and her new muse at The Independent offices, the director is filled with enthusiasm for the young actress, who was discovered after the casting agents leafleted around Oxford, where Pugh was studying at school. The pair have not seen each other for a while and they have to stop themselves from gossiping incessantly; for two of British film’s rising stars, they are also very gracious about the grey-looking machine cappuccinos they’ve just been handed.
And they really are both considered hot new properties in the industry, despite the age difference: Pugh is 19, while Morley is 49. Although she has released a number of shorts and one acclaimed documentary, 2011’s Dreams of a Life, The Falling is being called Morley’s breakthrough film, one that looks set to assure her funding for any of her future projects. Pugh, meanwhile, has delivered the sort of assured, star-making debut performance that will have every honcho in Hollywood on the blower. Indeed, when we meet she has just returned from a pilot season in Los Angeles, where she filmed a lead role for a comedy drama playing the daughter of formerWill &Grace star Eric McCormack.
While Pugh might be called an overnight sensation, she insists she has always known she would end up in film and she has been singing and acting – albeit non-professionally – since the age of seven. She is bright, engaged and confident: it’s easy to see why she was chosen to play Abbie, the seductive pack leader of in The Falling. But with her dark nails, newly acquired nose piercing and long hair that she constantly plays with, there remains something of the nonchalant teenager about her.
“I always knew I was going to get into the industry but when this opportunity came along I didn’t think anything would come of it because, you know, it can take people years,” she shrugs. “But I really was one of those annoying kids who was in every performance, doing every dance, singing in all the talent shows. I found academics really difficult.”
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A number of the girls at her school auditioned; I’m curious to know how her classmates handled her casting. After all, jealousy among teenage girls is one of the themes of the film. “I dunno, I’ve, er, had some rough times this last year simply because I’ve done well. The response was obviously great from close friends but no one likes people succeeding in the thing that they want to succeed in, do they?”
It’s a mature, measured response to a lesson she has had to learn early. But then Pugh radiates the sort of self-assurance that others decades older have yet to master. When Pugh, a huge Game of Thrones fan, first met Williams in the audition room, she bounded over, sat beside her and engaged her in a chat about the film. She was 17 at the time and it was her first audition.
Morley, meanwhile, claims to be much more “immature”. And despite her penchant for dark, psychological films – Dreams of a Life was about Joyce Carol Vincent, a 38-year-old whose decomposed body was discovered in her flat in north London three years after her death – the director is surprisingly warm and goofy. It’s hard to align this cheery personality with someone who spent a decade obsessively researching mass psychogenic illness for The Falling, and who 15 years ago made a documentary called The Alcohol Years, in which she invited old acquaintances who knew her during the four years she lost to booze in her teens to talk about what she used to be like on camera.
In fact, the hardships of the teenage girls in The Falling don’t come close to Morley’s own adolescence. After her father committed suicide when she was 11, her relationship with her mother floundered and she ended up leaving her Manchester school at 14. Saved, she says, by discovering film in her early twenties, she went on to study fine art film and video at Central Saint Martins. She’s been busy making shorts and documentaries ever since, teaching on the side to support herself.
Morley had few friends as a teenager, and she suggests it might be one reason she wanted to make a film about a group of girls. She also went to a comprehensive and often dreamed of going to a girls’ boarding school. “I think there’s a slight fantasy there,” she laughs. “I was a bit of an outsider at school and on the whole didn’t have any friends. I was so excited when all the girls on set formed this beautiful girl gang and were so supportive of each other.”
Morley has already been given the green light for her next project. And although it won’t be officially announced until Cannes next month, she’ll concede that it is an adaptation of a well-known book. “And it’s going to have a really strong female cast again,” she offers.
At this news, Pugh swishes her head around and stares wide-eyed at Morley. “Did you say female cast?”
Would the pair, who call themselves the odd couple, like to work together again? They squeal positively in unison, before Morley adds, “Yeah, but she’ll probably be too expensive for me soon”.
‘The Falling’ is out on Friday
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