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Interview with Joanna Quinn and Les Mills, director and writer of Affairs of the Art

Saturday 6 February 2021, by Abla Kandalaft

Beryl has featured in a number of your films. Can you tell us a bit more about her? Who was the inspiration for her character? How has Beryl’s character evolved since we first met her?

Beryl started life as a very one-dimensional character in a comic strip that Joanna developed in art college. In Joanna’s first Beryl film, her graduation short, Girls Night Out, she emerged as one of a group of working-class women in a local factory who organized a visit to a male stripper to celebrate Beryl’s birthday. This was the first time her friends (and the audience) became aware that there was more to Beryl than meets the eye. Joanna personally researched the idea for the film by actually watching a male stripper perform! This was the first step in the evolution of Beryl’s character, where Joanna became determined to confound the stereotype of a normal working-class factory employee and think outside the box.

Beryl is really a composite of various women in Joanna’s life, including Joanna’s single mother. Much of Beryl’s character stems from being brought up only by her, seeing her strength, resilience, and ability to laugh in the face of adversity. Another influence was a very gregarious woman who served refreshments in the cafeteria of Joanna’s art college. This woman was a frequent source of observational research. In a sea of young and trendy art students trying to be cool, this woman was a constant reality check—a down-to-earth, “normal” and reassuring maternal presence whom students could confide in.

In Body Beautiful, Beryl and her friends work in a Japanese factory in Wales. She’s overweight and ridiculed remorselessly by the factory bully, a macho supervisor, Vince. Vince’s harassment is ruthless, but Beryl soon secretly takes Vince on at his own game and, to the delight of the other women, ultimately triumphs and totally humiliates him. This film established Beryl as a truly determined and creative anti-heroine—a minor superwoman.

We both actually worked in factories – Les in a bread and cake factory and Joanna in factories that made laxatives and souvenirs, including mini-Eiffel Towers. Body Beautiful was set in a factory that produced televisions, and both of us spent a lot of time in factories doing on-the-spot observational research, i.e., drawing, recording and filming. We were extremely impressed by the camaraderie and bonhomie of the predominantly young and female workforce there, and noticed that all the senior, managerial roles were occupied by men.

In Dreams and Desires: Family Ties, Beryl acquires a video camera and becomes obsessed with filmmaking, using it to articulate her desires, dreams and thoughts in video-diary entries. As a “cineaste par excellence,” she agrees to film her friend’s wedding, seizing the opportunity to “strut her stuff” filmically, with disastrous and hilarious results. Beryl develops a driving obsession to master filmmaking, avidly studying the techniques of avant-garde documentary and seminal filmmakers like Vertov and Eisenstein, trying to reach far beyond the usual limits of the wedding-video genre – a fearless and creative exploration that ends in a disastrous denouement.

How do you cast the voices in your films?

Les writes detailed, descriptive character profiles containing their visual characteristics, idiosyncrasies and distinctive behaviour patterns. Joanna draws detailed versions of the character, often showing a range of facial expressions, moods, physical habits, and eccentricities. Joanna delights in lip sync, so she spends lots of time in front of a mirror using herself as the model. Once we’re both completely satisfied with a character visually, we will audition professionals. For Body Beautiful, somebody had recommended a Welsh actress named Menna Trussler and we knew immediately that she was the ideal voice choice for Beryl, so we’ve used her on the last three Beryl films. We do rehearsals and record them for reference. We’ve never used anybody in the Beryl films who was really famous, as we have in some of the other films and TV commercials we’ve made.

Can you tell us a bit more about your collaboration with Les Mills?

We’ve collaborated closely since 1987, when Les helped me with the concept and completion of Girls Night Out. We started our company, Beryl Productions International, in Wales in 1989. Sometimes we both come up with the initial ideas for films, but usually it’s Les. He then writes the screenplays and character profiles, which are the written equivalent of my drawn visualizations of characters and settings that eventually feed the storyboards. I admit to being very conservative and find it quite hard to experiment. Working with Les is really good, because he’s the opposite: incredibly open-minded and adventurous. His ideas are much broader and much stranger than mine. After he’s written the first draft of the script, I respond visually. Sometimes I say, “God, I can’t draw that,” and he says, “Maybe you’re thinking of it in the wrong way, maybe we could do it this way.” Sometimes it’s quite painful when we work together, because he gets really excited and I get really negative, saying, “Well, that’s not possible!” But as I’m saying it, I’m sort of accepting that it will happen. Les is always very critical about my animation, which keeps me on my toes. He always insists that I maintain dynamic, liquid movement and vigour in my drawing line, because he says that this is one of the major qualities that most people admire about my drawing and animation technique. He tries to make sure that I maintain this fluidity and energy as much as possible throughout the films. This was quite difficult to do in some sections of Affairs of the Art, as there are lots of interior scenes with very limited action or interaction. We sometimes have disputes about viewpoint, backgrounds and space—Les tends to be more aware of the space in a scene, but of course my main obsession is with character. Ultimately, we end up agreeing!

The number of short films from the UK across the festival sector seems to be dwindling. What has been your experience as a short filmmaker? Do you feel there’s been a change in the level of support or acknowledgement shorts get in the country?

The funding regime in the UK has declined greatly since we started making films. In the ’80s and ’90s, funding was available from many sources, especially from enlightened television stations like Channel 4 UK and Channel S4C in Wales; even the BBC were falling over themselves to fund young, new, innovative talent. We were very lucky: we were in the right place at the right time, and we managed to get funding up until the early ’90s with help from S4C. The other area where funding was available, of course, was TV commercials. Prior to the digital revolution, companies used very creative young animators to sell many of their products on TV. Most of the funding for Affairs of the Art has come from money our company made from TV ads, mostly in North America, which we put aside as future production funds.

What do you think the future holds for short films?

The one positive thing now is that you can watch short films online, so your work can easily be seen by a worldwide audience. Monetizing it is the problem. Perhaps efforts could be made to always have short films shown with features in cinemas – this used to be de rigueur in cinemas in Britain in the ’50s and ’60s.

If we were to go back into lockdown, what cultural or artistic delights would you recommend to alleviate our boredom?

We’ve actually been in almost total lockdown since the end of March 2020! We’ve attended quite a few online film festivals and done online presentations and teaching. Joanna’s been keeping her hand in by doing online life drawing. We also have a weekly Zoom jazz session with jazz students performing from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. This keeps us sane! Less culturally challenging is our daily diet of Judge Judy while we’re cooking or eating (the TV in the kitchen only gets two channels). Joanna also draws the show’s fantastic array of colourful miscreants – it’s great for character studies.

Affairs of the Art is part of International Competition I8.

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