Crossroads in North London
We chat with acclaimed British director and BAFTA Award nominee, Sallie Aprahamian, about her new film, Broken Lines.
For hundreds of years the idea of a personal and emotional crossroads has proven to be a literary stalwart. From the torn loyalties of Romeo and Juliet to the crisis of ageing for Dorian Gray, it is a motif that is applied time and again to poetry, literature, theatre and film. Broken Lines, the first feature length film from television director, Sallie Aprahamian, explores this age-old tradition through the eclectic cultures and streets of north London.
Originally made in 2008, Broken Lines represents an extensive collaboration between actors, directors and writers, and highlights the juggling of roles and multiplicity of responsibilities of today’s film industry. The project began as a screenplay from Dan Fredenburgh and Doraly Rosa, actors who were looking to create a project around the fluctuations and commitments of urban thirty-somethings. Aprahamian was originally approached by the pair in 2003, seeking feedback on what was to be their first film script. On her first impression, Aprahamian says: “I was drawn to the world of the piece, its familiarities and contrasts, and I admired the observational quality in their writing.” Symptomatic of the struggling British film industry, the first batch of funding became “the first of several false starts, but I remained with the project until it was shot several years later.”
The film follows Jake and B, both at turning points in their lives. In Kingston-upon-Thames, grieving for his dead father, Jake is simultaneously preparing for marriage to his two-dimensional fiancée, although we only see preparation for the wedding day itself rather than for the long-term roles of the spouses. Meanwhile in Finsbury Park, Jake’s childhood borough, B is struggling with the heightened responsibilities of caring for her recently brain-damaged boyfriend, Chester. A professional boxer, Chester’s recent injury has created a heart-breaking shell of a man, ever paranoid of his own weaknesses and appearance to others. On tying up errands at his father’s shop, Jake’s path crosses B’s, and he quickly becomes absorbed in pursuing an affair. The two flit in and out of each other’s lives over a matter of weeks, succumbing to an obsessive fling, guilt-ridden on B’s part and unhealthily voyeuristic on Jake’s. Increasingly spending his evenings hiding out in his father’s now defunct tailor’s shop, Jake’s artistic and erotic desire is fuelled by his fleeting encounters with B as he feverishly draws her in various stages of undress with her boyfriend. It is the bizarre discovery of these works that initiates a destructive path for B’s relationship that ends with Chester alone, but willing to set her free from what he sees as the shackles of his disability. In many ways the storyline is familiar but the unique situation of each character, and particularly the heart-wrenching depiction of Chester and B’s disintegrating romance, provide more than a note of tragedy in what would otherwise be an observational piece on the isolation of big city life.
In having the lead actors so intrinsically involved in the script and production, the film is both challenging for a director and immediately deeply personal, and this is what initially attracted Aprahamian to the role: “I loved Doraly and Dan’s passion for and commitment to their script. Something about those early drafts resonated with me.” On the ownership of the film Aprahamian admits that “the script remained very much theirs” but argues that they “in turn, did not interfere in how it was to be directed, designed or shot.”
Broken Lines became a deeply collaborative project in which the roles of the actors not only included bringing the individual characters to life, but also gave them direct input into developing them from the very beginning, as well as evolving them alongside the director. As Aprahamian’s first feature film, and first instance of working in such an unusual set-up, the project became a learning curve: “As writers, they were open and brave and rarely precious [but] their interpretation was not always as I imagined. There were revelations and surprises. Some inspired me, some were debated and changed, and others I accepted on trust.”
One such instance is the film’s final scene, which is somewhat incongruous given the desolate tone of the rest of the narrative. In an isolated moment, Jake and B encounter each other on the street in a happier, future time. Both seemingly content, and freed from their respective relationships, their meeting strikes a light-hearted sense of hope and a complete turnaround for the film. This was very much at the writers’ request; Aprahamian states that she “struggled with this notion, perhaps because my worldview leaned towards something darker.” After various versions the saccharine ending was settled and it strikes a discordant note for the viewer. In spite of the writers’ belief in an uplifting conclusion this final scene seems futile, and creates a hopeless sense of a vicious circle of love, destruction and escape. We cannot help but feel that Jake has fallen into another two-dimensional relationship, and while B is seen to be pursuing her dreams, we wonder how empty the notion really is; she seems to be masquerading as a guitar player and using the instrument that Jake gave her as an accessory more than anything else. But, in spite of her initial misgivings, Aprahamian is convinced by this interpretation: “The ending was certainly was not intended to be seen a part of a vicious circle. A happy B is following her dreams and a more content Jake about to become a father. For me, this suggests he must have faced his demons to even contemplate this role.”
In its central relationships Broken Lines explores a particular kind of quarter-life crisis that has become almost a hangover from the Friends generation; a theme that Aprahamian describes as “endemic to our culture.” However, “Doraly and Dan felt that their personal experiences and of those of their contemporaries in love and loss were under represented in film. [The time] you start thinking about what you really want to do with your life [is] moving later. It’s now in your 30s, not early 20s, when pressure to get on with the more permanent decisions in life pervades. [The writers] are part of the generation doing the asking.”
Through this angle, Broken Lines highlights the parallels experienced by two very different people. Jake is a successful surveyor, a lapsed Jew who has turned his back on his roots in pursuit of material gain and the outward trappings of success. Conversely B is drifting in her job as a waitress, dreaming of being a singer, but doing nothing about it, and because of this she becomes defined by her relationship with Chester. But there are some close similarities in their existing relationships. “Both couples are living with bereavement – Jake and Zoe with the loss of Jake’s estranged father and B and Chester with the loss of Chester’s physicality, prowess and identity. For both couples, love and commitment are tangled up with guilt and ‘duty’.” The setting of the film in north London becomes emblematic of Jake’s past and Aprahamian sees his relationship with Zoe as “intertwined” with this rejection: “He truly believes that this new life and his relationship with Zoe is what he wants. The death of his father draws him back to face some of his demons. The affair with B is an escape from commitment, but it also enables him to recognise the non-authentic nature of the choices he has made.”
B’s relationship is very different in that she is struggling to “love a man who no longer loves himself.” As Jake created his relationship with Zoe to cut out his past, “we find B colluding with Chester to keep the world at bay, holding back change and repair.” What’s different about B’s reaction to the affair is the fact that she avoids Jake for so long and suspends her own life in order to support her failing relationship: “She has put her hopes and dreams aside. Her vulnerability is the need to touch and be touched.” The parallel between the two characters lies in their resolution at the hands of their affair and at the potential, if not the realisation, of new love: “Doraly and Dan’s core belief fuelling this script is that ‘love’ has the power to change. It is this quintessential positive that marks B and Jake’s ill-fated affair. It may not bring them together, but it opens the horizon for both characters.”
The redemptive nature of love is an idealistic and at times naïve plotline to pursue, and one of the main struggles of Broken Lines is the fact that the audience feels little empathy for either Jake or B. Both commit acts of betrayal, and for Jake in particular there seems little reason for his infidelity. Conversely, Paul Bettany’s portrayal of Chester is extraordinarily sympathetic; he is simultaneously aggressive and vulnerable and his struggle is under explored in the narrative. Aprahamian disagrees with this interpretation and argues that audiences respond much more emphatically to B’s situation because the “narrative is more overtly dramatic and [both her and Chester] are easier to care about.” Of Jake she will only say: “Jake’s dilemmas are challenging to portray. He’s privileged and materially spoilt, though the audience can understand that the death of his estranged father is the catalyst for his emotional turmoil and resulting havoc wrought by his actions … Perhaps the writers’ intent was not always successfully executed.”
The shortcomings of the script might stem from a lack of unity of purpose. While the script and the lead actors came to Aprahamian as a whole, she was also allowed autonomy of vision for the direction and “wanted to make a contemporary piece that reflected the vibrancy of the streets I walk on and changing cultures I live surrounded by.” In this sense the film is most successful in its depiction of north London and the centuries of tradition intertwined there, rather than in its human relationships. Aprahamian argues that “British filmmakers have a pedigree in making ‘shiny’ contemporary urban films and gritty hyper-realistic ones. Both ends of these palettes felt inappropriate to this project and the colours of the piece, its visual tone, grew out of my collaboration with designer Mike Kane and extraordinary director of photography Jean-Louis Bompoint.”
In choosing Finsbury Park for the film’s location, Aprahamian and Fredenburgh referenced both their upbringings as well as “the broad multiculturalism of London.” As an area steeped in Jewish tradition, Finsbury Park is an important factor in the undercurrent of Broken Lines – Jake and B’s lapsed religion. Judaism is a common ground for the two characters who, professionally and emotionally, live in different worlds. Aprahamian says: “I like that [the imagery] works on different non-inclusive levels – familiarity for some and difference for others. When Jake covers the mirror upstairs in his father’s shop, some will recognise it as a cultural observance of mourning, while others see it as a man repelled by his own image. You don’t have to grasp both meanings. Either works within the psychology of the character and the narrative.” Judaic chants hover over the more contemplative scenes; Jake petulantly orders a bacon sandwich on his first meeting with B and together they mock the conservative ways of older generations. For Aprahamian, there was no intention to make a film about religion, but “as the script evolved, we had many debates about identity, and the role of culture within it. For us, it is one of many parts that make up who you are, and that cultural identity is not just about where you came from but also where and how you live. If you deny your cultural identity, as Jake has his Jewish roots, you can struggle to find yourself.”
Broken Lines sets out to be a number of things: a romance; an exploration of urban existence; a thirty-somethings’ no-man’s-land; and an ode to Finsbury Park, and in a sense it suffers, as its characters do, from the struggle to find itself. The fact that the characters are so misguided makes it difficult to connect to on many levels but it poses an ambitious, bittersweet alternative to the usual “crossroads” dilemmas of contemporary filmmaking.
Broken Lines was showing at cinemas nationwide in 2011. www.axiomfilms.co.uk