Interview with Alexandra Brodski, director of Joy
Tuesday 15 February 2022, by ,
’Joy’ captures a moment in the lives of the inmates of a children’s prison, revolving around Joy - the 12-year-old self-made charismatic preacher who wields an intoxicating power over her peers, and perhaps even the staff.
What did you want to explore through your two protagonists’ relationship?
I wanted to explore the complex dynamics of power and dependency between two children incarcerated in a children’s secure home. We follow the teenage boy Jacob who – based on his age and gender would be expected to be the more powerful character but begins to follow the leadership of a little girl – Joy. It was important to me that Joy’s power is complex and in some way inexplicable – so that the audience hopefully would be identifying with Jacob wanting to understand her and therefore falling deeper and deeper under her spell.
Are either of them based on someone you know in real life?
No. I got inspired for Joy’s character by a New York Times article about child preachers in Brazil – particularly by a photo where a girl is preaching to adult men who are deeply moved by her speech. The portrayed scene looked very strange to me but it intrigued me to explore how we can decide to follow someone’s leadership who – at first sight – is clearly less powerful than we are.
Why choose to set the story in a juvenile detention centre?
The NY Times article describes child preachers as a phenomenon that is specifically rooted in Brazilian megachurches (and other non-European countries such as the US). When my co-writer Amelia Spencer, my producer Sabina Smitham and I started developing the project we decided that we didn’t want to treat this theme as an exotic occurrence but rather wanted to explore in what circumstances similar dynamics could happen in our society. It made sense to set the story in an enclosed environment because I think that a bit part of developing a dependency on someone is to not be/ or lose touch with other people/ areas of normal life. The more research we did into child detention centres, the more intriguing the setting became. It seems to reflect our theme of complex power dynamics on another level. On one hand there are the adult guards who have all the power over the incarcerated children, on the other hand some of the children are in prison for serious crimes they committed so the guards also have reason to be cautious.
Did you shoot in an operating centre? How did that go?
We didn’t shoot in an operating centre for various reasons. Some of them were just practical (covid-restrictions, difficult access to film in those places) but mostly it was a creative decision. I have never really intended to shoot in an operating centre because for me the film was not about exploring the specific reality of those places. I was more interested in the abstract emotional state of children being trapped in those kind of institutions. Another reason to not shoot in an operating centre was to have the creative freedom to design the world with my production designer Ewa Galak and DOP Dan Atherton. I.e we spent a lot of time designing the world and developing the color concept to compliment the yellow and blue shirts which are a crucial element of the prison’s world where everything is separated into good (yellow) and evil (blue).
How was the casting process like?
The casting process was extensive. I think we auditioned over 600 children in the end. We were about to go into pre-production and had just met our brilliant casting director Gemma Sykes when the world stopped and we all went into the first Corona lock-down. For me the casting is one of the most important parts of a film – especially with children I think 95% of directing is finding the right actors. To be honest I would have never thought that casting could work so well over zoom but it really did! We spent a few months narrowing down the casting choices via zoom and eventually we invited a small group of kids for in-person call-backs in summer 2020. Olivia Booth-Ford and Badger Skelton were outstanding from the beginning on but it was important for me to see their chemistry and also the physical element of their interaction. For the 2nd recall our choreographer Jacob Holmes joined us as well and we did a few physical exercises together (in preparation for following workshops where we developed the ‘language’ of the cult-sessions). Specifically for this film but also in general, I think the physicality of actors is equally if not more important than the dialogue so it was great to see the children in action.
Is there a particular short film that has made a strong impression on you?
I’ve seen the amazing short KULTUREN by Ernst De Geer at Aesthetica Int. film Festival a few years ago which reminded me a lot of Ruben Östlund’s work. The characters were so complex and specific and the film was so honest and hilarious without being laugh-out-loud funny. I think it’s such a great challenge to create naturalistic, poignant performances without losing sight of a precise visual language and the filmmaker has done this so well in this short!
What’s your definition of a good film?
A good film has to move me either emotionally or intellectually, surprise me or make me laugh. A really good film is doing all of those things.