After her tender debut feature Only You, Harry Wootliff returns with a clear-eyed psychological drama mapping the dissolution of a destructive relationship. An astute filmmaker, Wootliff avoids victim-blaming and other stereotypes women facing emotional abuse are often given. Alessia Galatini sits down with the director to find out how she did it.
A man and a woman have sex in a parking lot hours after meeting. They take a road trip together, go skinny dipping, the sun shines on them. He calls her his soulmate, but then he borrows her car and disappears for three days. She cooks him breakfast and he’s not there to eat it. It’s a constant game of give and take. One text back from him, 20 missed calls from her.
Harry Wootliff’s second feature True Things is a frantic and erotically-charged free-fall into what the latest catchword might define as a toxic relationship. It’s exhausting, familiar and surprising at the same time. Kate (Ruth Wilson) and Blond (Tom Burke) are not good for each other, but they could also be the greatest love story.
"What I connected with is that it’s a very subjective telling of a destructive relationship,” Wootliff says of the book the film is based on, True Things About Me by Deborah Kay Davies. “It had the potential to be really relatable because it’s the sort of relationship we all go through at some point — almost a rite of passage. And I wanted to reflect on this in a non-judgemental way. I wanted it to be from the female perspective.”
The portrayal of Kate never turns her into a meek victim. Though her insecurity and unfullfilment partially inspire her to seek shelter in this new relationship, they don’t define her entirely. It’s so easy to fall into the stereotype of the woman being too broken to realise the truth but Wootliff skillfully hones in on the nuances of Kate’s point of view, ranging from exhilaration and infatuation to emotional abuse.
“You can be a strong, intelligent woman with agency and meet somebody at a point in your life where you’re searching for something. Your life isn’t sorted,” Wootliff says. “It was important to me and Ruth [Wilson] that she wasn’t just a victim. You can be powerful and vulnerable at the same time. Women, more than men, are thought of as one or the other and I’m trying to avoid that.”
Kate actively pursues a sexual relationship, something that can still be stigmatised with female characters. When she goes on a blind date to try to take her mind off Blond, the man thinks her a lunatic for wanting to have sex on a first date.
“Isn’t it preposterous that we live in a world where a woman is judged for wanting to have sex on a first date?” asks Wootliff. “We question her: why do you want to do this bad thing? I don’t think she’s doing anything bad. She’s having fun. She’s breaking free from the monotony of her life. She has an appetite. These are all good things.”
Wootliff explains how she strived to inspire empathy through the production aspect, “We had to be careful with how we delivered the experience of those scenes. To give you an example, when I was talking to the composer, it was easy to project into the scene that we were fearful for her, that we were sad for her. But the music needs to reflect what’s going on for Kate, and she’s not feeling fearful or sad. She’s feeling like she’s having a great time. She’s excited and she wants this. She’s feeling empowered.”
How did Wootliff handle the potential pitfall of victim-blaming, considering how active Kate is in carrying the relationship forward? “It was about him giving her just enough so she’s not making it up. I didn’t want her to be the crazy woman,” the filmmaker says. “Kate is incredibly determined in what she wants and always justified in the messages that he’s giving to her. I wanted to make sure she was never imagining something had been said or portrayed by him when it hadn’t happened. Every time she goes back to him, she’s not stupid. She’s being manipulated.”
During the blind date, Kate imitates Blond’s mannerisms and tries to channel his charisma. She manipulates her date the same way Blond manipulates her. It’s a harsh but earnest look at a cycle of abuse: if Kate picked up these techniques from Blond, he must have picked them up from somebody else.
“He isn’t a one-dimensional guy who just wants to hurt her. He has his own agenda and his own feelings to confront,” Wootliff says of Blond. “That’s not to justify him but I do think he is encouraging her to fall in love with him, probably cause he’s falling in love with her himself. On some level, we see his weaknesses. He’s nervous and anxious and mean. I wanted him to be nothing by the end. It was always very important to me that he’s not this all-powerful manipulator.”
In the modern dating landscape, there’s no waiting by a landline anymore. Because of Blond’s constant disappearances, many scenes see Kate drafting texts to him, pondering how many exclamations points to use or if she’s coming across as excessively needy.
“Texting can be stressful!” Wootliff laughs. "That feeling of, ‘Now they know that I’m reading and I have to type quickly. Or I don’t have anything funny to say.’” It’s an all too familiar experience to anyone dating today, and a surprisingly effective way to visualise the emotional abandonment provoked by ghosting.
“There’s something very uncinematic about modern phones,” Wootliff says. “So it’s always either don’t have people on the phone or really embrace it. How do we make it exciting? I thought of it the same way as a dialogue between two people. To me, the phone is Blond. When Kate’s reaching for the phone in her pocket, it’s like she’s reaching for the bottle. He’s her addiction and her lifeline.”
These moments feel strikingly ordinary and it’s their simplicity that packs a punch. Wootfliff elaborates how she approached them from a technical perspective: “I wanted to keep the sound on from the phone because it punctuates the emotional beats of the scene. Plus the iPhone has the little dots that show you when someone is typing, which adds pressure. These scenes took a long time to edit, just to work out how to create the most tension.”
Wilson and Burke’s chemistry ebbs and flows with the constant ups and downs in the relationship, but there’s a spark that Wootliff always comes back to. “There is a genuine connection, it’s just really tricky to navigate. It had to feel like a relationship with potential, to Kate and to the audience, so it could be sustained for an hour and a half. Around the midpoint, we start to get a little ahead of Kate and doubt that she’s doing the right thing. But Blond’s playing with our emotions as well as hers.”
Kate longs for a more daring version of her life and, since the viewer’s empathy lies so closely with her, it’s easy to believe Blond is the key to it. It’s only when Kate eventually relinquishes the need for external validation, that the audience too can let go of Blond, finally seeing that the contentment and excitement Kate needed were in herself all along.
“We always want to go back to him. We want to see him,” Wootliff says. “Being there without him is flat and boring and lonely.”
Alessia Galatini (@alessiagalatini) is a writer, script editor and film journalist based in London. She runs the Film & TV section of the feminist magazine The F Word and is particularly keen on queer, bold and outside the box narratives."