If Evelyn Waugh and Bret Easton Ellis collaborated on a contemporary social satire shot by Jean Baptiste Mondino for British Vogue you might wind up with something similar to Alexandra McGuinness’ debut feature The Lotus Eaters. Named after the episode in The Odyssey where Odysseus loses three men to the drugged-out stupors induced by eating lotus blossoms (a cautionary tale about the dangers of overindulgence), the Lotus Eaters is a tragicomic meditation on the delusion that oftentimes accompanies having everything. According to the director, “My original idea for Lotus Eaters was to make a film that showed both the highs and the hangovers and the hopes that people cling to even while everything is twirling out of control.”
Shot in gleaming black and white, the film follows sylphlike ex-model/wannabe actress Alice (Antonia Campbell Hughes) as she searches for connection in a spiritually bereft floating world of designer drugs, designer clothes, hip boites, and beautiful people. Both detached observer and blank canvas, Alice’s only real friendship is with her on/off heroin-addled boyfriend Charlie (Johnny Flynn) whose psychic expansiveness — albeit rooted in a destructive drug habit — provides much-needed rest from the incessant backstabbing and vapidity of her circle of friends. Meanwhile, Charlie’s close friend, man of relative stability Felix (Benn Northover), also has his gaze steadily affixed on Alice who’s not quite sure what to do with this attention.
Fly on the wall style we trail Alice through London as she interacts with, but mostly observes, the aimless creatures she calls friends in their natural habitats: getting wasted and naked in vodka baths; crashing their Jaguars; shoplifting from fancy boutiques; running around the South of France; and talking over one another about nothing whatsoever at brunch, Ray Bans shielding bloodshot eyes. One particularly illustrative scene has Alice administering a shot of B12 to serial-cheating party girl Saskia’s behind in a bid to help get pregnant. Why? Because Saskia’s “sooooo bored.” Although at times it gets depressing, The Lotus Eaters is ultimately a fun, parodic romp through the London known to the trust-fund set. But what ultimately steals the show are the stray details: a shot of Charlie’s dazed, rolling eyes as he strums an acoustic version of “Papa Was a Rodeo”, a wide pan of a horse dashing through an open field, the over-the-top wardrobe featuring pieces from young British designers like Simone Rocha and Shao Yen Chen, the snippits of performances from rising London bands like O Children, and the fantastic indie soundtrack. Instead of just a film, The Lotus Eaters is a sensory experience that culls from all facets of the arts to create a hyperbolic high-gloss visual statement about the young and doomed. The Lotus Eaters recently premiered at Tribeca, and OAKAZINE had the chance to talk to director Alexandra McGuinness and lead actress Antonia Campbell Hughes a bit about their perspectives on the film. Interview after the jump. — Text by Marlo Kronberg. Photo by Mihaal Danziger.
Are the characters in this film based on people you know?
Alexandra: The movie and the script have their basis in some sort of reality, but it’s very much exaggerated and hyper-real; the look of the movie certainly goes with that. There’s little snippits of conversations in the film that have origins in things I’ve heard, but as a whole it’s fiction. I’m sure there are people like that, and I’ve met some of them.
Why was it important to shoot this film in black and white?
Alexandra: Even when I was writing it I imagined it in black and white. I wanted to shoot a monochrome story set in contemporary London that looked modern. I had been taking a lot of black and white photography at the time and watching a lot of black and white movies. We wanted it to look very clean — not at all film noir — so we took inspiration from fashion photography. We looked at a lot of Peter Lindbergh photography and Fellini and Preminger movies. The beginning of Bonjour Tristesse was a big inspiration.
How much of the ultimate film was improvised?
Alexandra: The cast brought an awful lot. The initial script I wrote was done a while ago and then my co-writer came in and we reworked the script quite a bit. During the shoot I was re-writing every night and the actors were getting new pages in the morning. Sometimes we would improvise what happened before or after the written scene, and if something wasn’t working we would do something around the same bit. There were some scenes that were a lot more concrete and weren’t improvised at all, and then some scenes worked better looser. A lot of the party scenes were improvised — even the bathroom scene where Charlie and Alice were sitting on the floor humming with the resonant frequencies wasn’t in the script. I thought that would be a lead-in to the scene but it became one of the key parts of that scene.
I want to talk a bit about the fashion and the music featured in this film because those things are incredibly prominent and well thought-out.
Alexandra: Well, everything I’m interested in like fashion, music, photography, and storytelling can be combined in filmmaking. Then you get wonderful actors and they make it breathe — that’s what’s so fascinating about films. With the fashion, we wanted it to be a mixture of new and exciting designers like Simone Rocha and Shao Yen Chen and established design houses like Chanel and Azzaro. Then, for the music, we wanted to feature live performances so we had Johnny Flynn (Charlie), who’s also a musician, do a cover of a song for the soundtrack. We were talking about doing “Papa Was a Rodeo” or “Ramblin’ Man”, but we both decided on “Papa Was A Rodeo.” He’s written a song for the end credit as well.
So Antonia. I want to talk to you about the character of Alice because she’s quite a hard one to read. What was your initial interpretation of her when you first read the script, and what did you ultimately add to the character?
Antonia: I think the most striking thing about Alice — and what I could relate to — was coming to a point in your life when you’re suddenly starting to question everything. She’s starting to realize that everything around her isn’t as strong and solid as she thought. That’s why I saw Alice as being quite a watcher — she’s moving through this world that she normally inhabits but it’s easy for her to retreat and still be present because everyone else is so consumed with their own voice. It’s quite easy for nobody to really pick up on her insularity. It happened quite organically as well because all the characters are so strong and there’s a lot to watch.
It was interesting watching Alice connect with all the different characters because not all of the relationships were completely superficial — there was a lot of nuance. Her relationship with Charlie is obviously the emotional core of the film, but even with her friends there are glimmers of real caring at times that quickly fade away. What do you think Alice’s connections to the other characters in this movie were?
Antonia: They are all quite varied. Alice is definitely looking for something truthful. She’s quite cautious about who to trust and how much of herself to give. She’s quite selfish in the respect that she doesn’t offer up so much of herself to others. There is a definite barrier up. But her relationship with Charlie is so special because he’s quite mystical. There’s something sparkly and magical about him. We all love a dreamer, and he’s quite otherworldly compared to everything else that’s quite material. Alice can retreat into this childlike dreamlike fantasy with Charlie. Felix is the other side of the coin — practicality. She’s aware that Felix is offering her stability and that’s what’s tempting about that particular fruit.
What do want the audience to take away from this film?
Alexandra: I’ve never seen it with an audience so of course I hope they enjoy it. I hope they laugh at the comedy in it and are moved by the sad moments. I hope they see a movie about London they haven’t seen before. I think it’s an unusual movie — and it’s pretty weird — so I hope they see something they’ve never seen before.
Antonia: I think it’s such a wonderful ensemble of characters and it’s about appreciating your environment. It’s a wonderful little journey.
Alexandra: I think it also introduces a lot of newness. New people, new stuff…
Who are your favorite artists, designers, filmmakers, and musicians coming out of London right now?
Antonia: Do you know the Mighty Boosh? It’s a TV series — quite rock ‘n roll, abstract, and surreal. They’re doing a new series.
Alexandra: A lot of the bands featured in the movie: O Children, Little Death, Villagers. I can’t wait to see Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia. The trailer for that looks amazing.
Antonia: I’m looking forward to Gus Van Sant’s Restless
What was the hardest part about filming this movie and your highlight?
Alexandra: It was really tough making the movie from start to finish. But it was also exhilarating being on set everyday. It’s such a rush being able to do the thing you really love.
Antonia: I was overwhelmed from day one because there were so many people all the time, and it’s unusual to have that many people in a cast everyday. I was constantly amazed by Alexandra commanding so much frenzied energy and being a disciplinarian in that world. I also loved that it took place over a summer in London — I found that appealing as well. I was hoping I would come away with this really strong memory of a summer in London and I did.