‘Dreams Of A Life’, a documentary by Manchester director Carol Morley (Edge, The Alcohol Years), recounts the life of Joyce Carol Vincent, 38, whose body was found in her London bedsit two years after she died, mysteriously no one came looking for her all that time and through interviews with work colleagues, old landlords and lovers the audience is taken on a journey of discovery as Morley tries to uncover who this woman was, what her life was like and how in this connected modern age she managed to slip through the cracks.
The documentary contains reconstructions of Joyce’s life and was partly filmed in Dublin. The film is the first output from Irish producer James Mitchell’s (Croupier, Ordinary Decent Criminal) newly established Soho Moon Pictures. IFTN sat down with Mitchell to talk about working with Morley and the bizarre headline grabbing story behind the documentary. ‘Dreams of A Life’ will be showing in the Irish Film Institute from this Friday.
Dreams of a Life
IFTN - How did you get involved in the documentary?
James Mitchell - Well Carol Morley found me. I suppose because I’ve done a dozen Storyville documentaries in my time, kind of without intending to, and she needed a producer. She came to me about three years ago, you don’t know Carol but she is immensely charming and immensely persuasive and she told me the story, which to begin with I have to say, I thought she had made it up. I didn’t think this could be a real story but it is true enough. It just seemed to me that what she wanted to do with it was interesting. I mean she didn’t want to do a straight up and down crime reporter’s type piece so I agreed to join.
IFTN - What was it like to piece Joyce’s life together? How much research went into it?
James Mitchell - Well a huge amount of research to be fair Carol had done before I had got involved. The main thing that I think I contributed from the outset was to say that I thought the development process of this film would be to film the interviews first and that whatever was going to be reconstructed or dramatised or whatever should flow from that, that first of all we should film those interviews.
So the development cash that I put together actually funded those interviews and she filmed about thirty hours of interviews. Carol is something of a reconstruction maniac, in that she made a film, about ten years ago now, which is the other thing that persuaded me to work with her, called ‘The Alcohol Years’, which is a wonderful film. She comes from Manchester and I didn’t know this but apparently Manchester in the 1980’s was sort of a centre for punk and punk music and everything and she was very much part of that scene. So she spent the entire decade either drunk or drugged out of her mind and literally couldn’t remember the entire decade. So she decided to make a film about it, as one does, and the way she went about it was that she put an ad in all the Manchester newspapers, saying ‘I’m Carol Morley, I was around on the scene in the 80s and if anyone out there who remembers me can you please come forward’ and the film which she then made, she doesn’t appear in and the film is entirely composed of other people talking about her. So it is playing I suppose with memory and finding as one does in ‘Dreams of A Life’ nobody really understands you, there are contradictions all the time. One person in the documentary says Joyce was a great singer and another says she couldn’t sing to save her life you know. It’s very interesting and it makes one realise that everybody sees you differently.
IFTN - How difficult were the interviews? What were your expectations of them?
James Micthell -
I don’t know. I just knew that this was going to work with Carol doing them because she is one of the most disconcertingly honest people I have ever met and it just comes across.
Dreams of a Life
IFTN - How did you go about casting for the reconstructions? Zawe Ashton (Fresh Meat, Weekender) plays the role of Joyce throughout the documentary’s reconstructions.
James Mitchell - Not easy, clearly whoever plays this had to be a black actress. There aren’t really that many black actresses. It is extraordinary when one actually tries to do this you find that you are looking at a very small pool of people. I don’t quite know why that is but that is how it is. Zawe was simply right and we have been incredibly lucky that the film emerges kind of with Zawe Ashton becoming something of a star from ‘Fresh Meat’ the Channel 4 series.
IFTN - ‘Dreams of a Life’ has been nominated for Best Documentary at the London Critics Circle Film Awards. How do you feel about that?
James Mitchell - It’s very exciting. Particularly because it was a film that, when we were trying to put it together, some people were hugely supportive and enthusiastic about it from the outset, like Film 4 and some people were almost violently opposed to it, in terms of saying, you will never make this make sense.
IFTN - Do you think that the subject matter will put audiences off?
James Mitchell - I felt very comfortable with this story, because although the story has nothing whatever to do with Ireland at all on one level, I did find it kind of worked in Ireland. An awful lot of the approach to this film is like an Irish wake in terms of celebrating someone’s life, it’s a very Irish thing to do, not a very English thing to do. Before I ever came to Ireland someone said to me that the only thing the Irish truly celebrate is death and it’s kind of true. I mean death is something Irish people do very well.
IFTN - Parts of the documentary was filmed here. What can you tell us about that?
James Mitchell - Well it sort of worked by process of elimination in a way. It was always clear that the interviews were going to have to be filmed in London because that is where all the people were. There was then one of two other things that had to be shot in London like London street scenes and stuff like that. All the rest of it, all the drama with Zawe and so on, was shot in Dublin in studio. The whole of Joyce’s apartment and everything was built here. So in fact, of the drama that was shot over 21 days, 17 days were filmed in Ireland.
IFTN - Your production company Soho Moon Pictures produced the film but it is a recent venture. How has it been going for you?
James Mitchell - It’s been going well. I mean it started small. It started about two years ago. ‘Dreams of a Life’ is the first film to come out. There are two more to come, both feature documentaries and now over the next year or so we will start making some movies and TV drama. I am planning to return to making larger projects.
IFTN - What do you hope people take away from the documentary?
James Mitchell - Even though I think people in Ireland handle death much better than we English do, I noticed anyway that people live differently than they used to, there is some loss of sense of community. People don’t live around the corner from each other and so on. I wonder do people think they are more connected because of Facebook and Twitter and all the rest of it. I think maybe people might say. I might actually call a few people and wonder how my neighbour is.
‘Dreams of a Life’ will show at the IFI from the 6th - 12th January.