Hidden Talents

James Gardner’s directorial feature debut Jellyfishcentres on 15-year-old carer Sarah Taylor (Liv Hill), who with an unstable mother is forced to look after her two younger siblings. Adding to her responsibilities at home, the hostile relationships with her peers at school and her non-empathetic boss at the amusement arcade, Sarah’s drama teacher Mr. Hale takes an interest in her.

 Challenging his student to research comedians and put together a stand-up comedy routine for the graduation showcase, Sarah begins to discover a talent that she can invest herself in and express her volatile feelings. In conversation with ASFF, Gardner discusses going behind closed doors to confront a disingenuous British society, and the hopes for Jellyfish to challenge social perceptions.

ASFF: What was your intent for this film?
My intent was to confront audiences, and I use the word confront quite specifically because Jellyfish is not an easy watch. It’s confrontational in that it presents the audience with some challenging situations – you see the protagonist in very difficult, compromising and harrowing circumstances, and there’s not any getting away from that. 

What I hope the film does is to make the audience laugh and cry in equal measure, and hopefully give them a view through a window that is unseen, because a lot of what we are talking about with Jellyfish is happening behind closed doors. So, my intent was to shine a light on what’s going on with about 800,000 young people in England alone, and obviously tell a moving story. But to ultimately tell one that makes people think afterwards when they reflect on how they felt about what they’ve seen, and hopefully they can maybe think differently about what it means to be a young carer, or a vulnerable young person.

ASFF: Jellyfishtaps into our aspirational society in which young people are sold a future of opportunity, and the attainment of their desires. This is a disingenuous act and your film serves as a counterpoint to look more honestly at our contemporary British society.
I’m glad that you read it that way and I completely agree. I think that young people through the mainstream media, as well as social media are sold this idea that there is this other life they could have. When we were writing the film we’d talk about genre, you mention the word, and the Hollywood version of this story is an aspirational sports movie. In a lot of iterations of this story there would be a talent agent from London in the audience of the showcase and he would collar Sarah as she left stage and say: “I think you’ve got something, why don’t you come to London?” And off she would go, but that would be totally disingenuous in my opinion, and not only disingenuous to the story, but also to the nature of what the society is in which the story is set. Even though the story is a fiction, it is based on 100 per cent real world circumstances and events. We had a responsibility to be authentic and truthful to the nature of what it is to be a young person with a responsibility or obligation to look after one’s family.

From my own research what I found was that it’s not that young people are finding themselves in these situations that they don’t love or want to be with their family. All they want is for things to just be a little bit better, a little easier. I think that’s a really important distinction because it’s not like Sarah wants to leave her family, and ultimately why she stays is because she does love them. What she needs is help, she needs things to be a bit easier for her and that’s kind of the hopeful ending in my opinion of what Mr. Hale represents. By being there at the end, he’s that hopeful up-note. It’s not going to be easy, but things are going to change, and for the better. 

I’m regressing slightly from your original point, but I completely agree. Potentially it’s important in a broader sense that Jellyfish is of its time, and the story is being told at a time when we are being sold all of these lies. They are just too hard to believe and perhaps that’s all in there. 

ASFF: The camera is a powerful tool for the filmmaker, and so how did you employ the camera to take us behind those closed doors, to comment on this world and give a voice to these characters?
The camera is an incredibly important tool on set, and also, I’d argue that sound is equally as important. I’m always very mindful of how I use sound and picture, and the impact of how they will work together in order to say what it is that I want to say with a line or a scene, or an act, and then consequently the whole film. With specific regards to the camera, because Jellyfish was made on an incredibly small amount of money, I had very limited resources. A lot of people thought that I was mad to even try to make a feature film with the resources that I had at my disposal. I knew that with this script and the way in which I wanted to make the film, and the aesthetic value that I wanted it to have, I didn’t think I would be overreaching. 

For example, pretty much every shot in the film is handheld and it was my intention that we always felt like we were with Sarah. She’s in every single scene apart from one, talking about the scene in the arcade, and the way in which I use the camera to take us away from Sarah was entirely deliberate. For the first time we leave her and it’s the time in which she needs us there with her the most. Moving the camera in that scene and settling on the Margate landscape from the arcade doors was to say: “Look, these people are walking past; life goes on. Yet ten feet away behind that closed door something horrific is happening.” So that was the way in which I was able to figure out how I could use the camera to say what it was I wanted to say with that scene. The first question I would always ask was: “What is Sarah feeling in this scene? In what way can I use the camera to best communicate that to the audience?”

ASFF: I always recall hearing it said that for art to endure, it must be discussed. Is a film more alive in the moment it is experienced by an audience, or when the audience retrospectively discuss the film, in which ideas and impressions are exchanged?
JG: Well, if you are asking me as a filmmaker, until I am in the sound mix it doesn’t feel like cinema, and that’s the point as a filmmaker when I feel like the film has come alive. If you ask me as an audience member, for me personally it’s when I am watching the film, experiencing it in real time and experiencing an emotion in that moment. I think there’s a danger when you’re reflecting on the film retrospectively that you may intellectualise what you have felt and seen. 

Paul Risker

Following its theatrical release in February, Signature Entertainment presents Jellyfish on Digital HD 24 June 2019.