by Mary Jo Watts
Delicious is an extreme rarity. It’s a micro-budget independent film written, directed, and co-produced by a woman, Tammy Riley-Smith, starring a woman, Louise Brealey, about a woman named Stella who suffers from an eating disorder.
In 2013 only 6% of the directors of the top 250 films were women. A paltry 11% of readily identifiable protagonists in those films were women.
The interview that follows is largely about a film that both Tammy (obviously) and I both know well. Before you read further, I strongly encourage you watch Delicious. I’ve included a plot summary of the film below, but fair warning: it’s full of spoilers!
Delicious Plot Summary
Following his mother’s death, aspiring French cook Jacques (Nico Rogner) arrives in London convinced that renowned and irascible British chef Victor (Adrian Scarborough) is the father he never knew. Jacques locates Victor’s restaurant and pleads with him for an opportunity to work in his kitchen. Having proven his culinary skills, Jacques sets up home and soon happens on his eccentric neighbours, the feisty septuagenarian Patti (Sheila Hancock), and the sad, waif-like Stella (Louise Brealey) who shows little interest in Jacques and even less in eating food. Intrigued by and attracted to Stella, Jacques plans to tempt her with his fine cuisine but is caught red handed stealing the necessary costly ingredients from the restaurant. When confronted by a furious Victor, Jacques is forced to confess his true motive for coming to London. But Victor laughs off the assertion that he might be Jacques’ father and shows him the door, cruelly denouncing his mother as a loose woman known for having many lovers. His world shattered, Jacques returns home only to discover Stella unconscious following a binge on junk food, booze and pills. Recognising a fellow lost soul, Jacques refuses to leave Stella’s side until she consumes something. He sets them both a challenge: for him to prepare her a feast so delicate and alluring that she cannot resist. But in the mental struggle that follows, Stella’s eating disorder may prove just too much for love to overcome and for Jacques and Stella’s dysfunctional romance to survive.
Mary Jo Watts: There’s a lot of interest in Delicious among Sherlock fans, among Louise Brealey’s fans, who obviously love her as Molly Hooper.
Tammy Riley-Smith: The Molly character is a really brainy, complicated woman who’s madly in love with a really brainy geek [Sherlock]. Women are identifying with this because guess what— women are really brainy and really complicated but we don’t see that kind of character much on film and television.
MJW: Exactly! And the more fierce Molly gets, the more of a fan following she has. I just think that what Louise Brealey did that first season was brilliant. Molly had such a small part in the script, but Louise made the character special. She is just great in front of the camera. Fantastic. Her fans are obviously interested in Delicious.
TR-S: Delicious is very niche, but it’s just so inspiring to see there are women who are saying, “Yes. Actually we do identify with women who are dysfunctional, who are feisty and smart.”
MJW: So what kind of audience were you imagining for Delicious? Did you aim for a demographic, or were you hoping you’d find an audience once you put it out to the world?
TR-S: I kind of knew this wasn’t ever going to be a multiplex. Of course it wasn’t. It was never going to be that. But I’m a woman who’s had an interesting, fairly dysfunctional life like most women I know, and I made this film for women. Yeah, it’s disappointing being told that women don’t go to the cinema, but I think a lot of people don’t go to the cinema. I think a lot of studios are thinking, “Who goes to the cinema?” They see kids going to the cinema and they see teenagers and so they think, “Oh, the only people we can make films for are teenagers.” What’s wonderful is when you get the break-through films that prove these people wrong. They’re just frightened. But my demographic was always people like me and I’m not ashamed of that. That has been so wonderful, because to be honest with you I wasn’t sure there was anyone out there as nuts as I am. What’s been amazing is that there’s a small, but very strong, vociferous, supportive clan, a tribe of intelligent women going, “We want to see something different. We want content to be a bit more interesting, please.” And the stronger the voice becomes, the more we’ll start getting more interesting content. Maybe it will take filmmakers being a bit subversive and doing it outside the system.
MJW: How did the process go for getting Delicious out there? You went for a distribution deal. How did that take place?
TR-S: We’ve got a small sales agency. They’ve been to Cannes. They’ve been in the markets. We are beginning to make some really good sales. Interestingly— we’ve got theatrical distribution in Asia which is fantastic. We’ve got Taiwan, South Korea, you know Hong Kong is interested. The Asian countries are not frightened about the subject matter, and they like dark. They like dark romances. So we’ve got theatrical distribution there. We just can’t get theatrical in our own goddamned country! But it’s not surprising when you go to the cinema and you see what’s playing. There’s very rarely something I really want to see anymore. You go to a smaller cinema. You have to go to London. I don’t live in London. I live outside London and the multiplexes are just crammed with… you know. But that’s okay. So I don’t know whether we thought we would get distribution. I don’t think we did. I don’t think we ever thought, “This is going to be a breeze. This is going to be really easy.” But what’s really interesting is that the market is changing. People are consuming stories and consuming films in lots of different ways now. You don’t just go to the cinema as a way to consume a film, or wait for something to come on the tv. You seek things out. You download. You want to watch things on your laptop. You’re on your commute going to work and you want to watch something. So this a very interesting time with people consuming video on demand. People are saying what they want to watch, which suits us.
MJW: Absolutely and there is the availability of social media now to be able to reach a specific audience.
TR-S: That is our job. Distributors don’t want to do it. They don’t want to seek out small, niche audiences. They want the biggest audiences, so our job has been to seek out, through social media, and through getting digital distribution, an audience online.
MJW: It seems to be working, hmm?
TR-S: It’s kind of working! It’s been absolutely amazing.
MJW: That’s fantastic. So the next question is from a fan. Is there a specifically female voice in films and, if so, what characterizes it?
TR-S: I think we have to be quite careful, don’t we?
TR-S: Because I think there are lots of female voices that are not being heard. I don’t think there’s necessarily one, but I think that distributors have, traditionally, thought that female stories are somehow… That somehow women don’t make up 50% of an audience, that somehow we are a minority. I think women have been seen as a minority. They fail to see that we’re, in England, slightly more of the population than men. But we’ve been seen as a minority. Now I think there are lots of very interesting voices and I don’t want to say that a women’s film tends to be more character-based… Maybe they are. That’s a good thing. I’m proud of the fact that we are interested in characters, in human beings. The female story isn’t necessarily the quest story. You watch a lot of these action, male films which tend to be just (deepens voice like a dude)— “A hero, a guy wants to get something.” And we women want to explore why does he want to get it? Why go to all that effort? Let’s sit down and really analyze it, which I think is more interesting anyway. The point is that there are a lot of female voices that are not being heard, that we need to hear. And I can’t wait to hear more. I think there should be more. We are being stifled. Of course they’re not doing it on purpose, but it is really difficult to get your voice heard. And it’s really awful being told that your voice is not relevant, and your voice isn’t wanted because that’s not true, either. I think there is an appetite. I think women are getting frustrated that there aren’t more female voices.
MJW: What’s it like being a woman in a man’s world? Are there advantages to having a woman’s perspective as a director, producer, writer?
TR-S: Is it tough being a woman in a man’s world? (yells) It’s hell! It’s dreadful. It’s awful. We’ve been subjugated for millions of years. We’re only coming out of the dark ages. It is a nightmare. I started working in the late 1980’s and when I think about the sexual harassment— oh my god. There were so few roles for women in the film industry then. I remember my boss was talking about the head of a studio who didn’t hire female directors was because they were too unreliable once a month. He was talking about their periods, that they became too emotional and he couldn’t rely on them.
MJW: What the hell?
TR-S: This was being said in the 90’s. They didn’t work with female directors because a women’s film was seen as something for minorities. It was seen as art house, and just for minorities. So it wouldn’t have a broad enough audience. It’s really difficult. Is it tough for women? Okay, I’ve got a story for you. This, I think, sums up how hard it is for women. On the first day, on the Delicious set, I was going around introducing myself to my crew. I hired my DP [Director of Photography], Pete Rowe, and he came with his crew. I hadn’t met his crew before the first day on the set. One of his crew looked at me when I said, “Hi, my name is Tammy. Who are you, really nice to see you. It’s great to meet you. I really look forward to working with you.” He looked at me and says, “Are you the make-up artist?” I looked at him and said, “No. I’m the director.” Now he didn’t mean to be sexist, but he hadn’t worked with a female director before. He just assumed that the director would be a man. And he assumed that I was either the script girl, or the make-up artist. That, my dear, is how bad things are.
MJW: Did he adjust?
TR-S: He went completely red, flustered, thought he was going to get fired. It was brilliant. I reassured him that it was all fine, and I teased him about it. That is how ingrained it is. Have you ever been on a flight, on an airplane and heard a woman say, “This is your captain?”
MJW: I heard one time a woman say she was the co-pilot. One time.
TR-S: I’ve never. It’s a shitty world for all women. It’s a man’s world. Having said that, that’s no reason a woman shouldn’t just go, “You know what? I’m not having this. I’m going to do this anyway.” It’s not a reason to not try. It’s not acceptable, basically. It’s not acceptable. You’ve got to do it anyway. Another thing that happened to me, you see, I’m a lecturer as well and I lecture on screenwriting. I was asked to be on a panel at my university about a year ago and it was a panel of about 14 of us and we were all lecturers or graduates from the course for film and tv production. It was for all the students and it was for them to ask questions about careers. There were only two women on the panel. There was me, and one other girl, who was an assistant. Everybody else was a man and they were all doing jobs like sound, editing, cinematography. It’s a cliché, but you can’t be what you don’t see. If you don’t have panels with women on them… I then found out that they had a panel, they did the same panel this year. They didn’t have one woman on it. The fact that the only other girl on the panel when I did it was a secretary, was a producer’s assistant, that’s why women become producer’s assistants, because they don’t think about, they don’t see women doing those roles. That’s another reason why we need women to really toughen up and stand up and start really questioning, challenging what’s going on. I hadn’t seen many women directing when I was growing up. In the 70’s and 80’s I can’t think of anyone. Jane Campion, to me, was just such a monumental shift— seeing The Piano. And I have to say I loved that movie.
MJW: I did, too! From the moment Delicious became an idea in your head to me watching it on my laptop, what was the process?
TR-S: I made two decisions. I’d been struggling a lot. I’d been writing away. I’d sold a few scripts. They were difficult. They were quite a big budget. And I just got slightly frustrated with the producers I was working with and with the process and just how films didn’t get made. I thought, “I want to get something made”. So how do I do that? Okay, it’s got to be low budget. It’s got to be really low budget.
MJW: Do you mind me asking what kind of budget we’re talking about? What was the budget for Delicious?
TR-S: It was about £150,000. So maybe a bit less, actually because that includes some money we’ve just gotten back from tax credits and stuff like that, VAT. So probably about £120,000. So we knew it had to be really low budget so it had to be a two-hander. I write romances anyway and I’m very interested in that, but I also decided to do what I tell my students to do which is write what you are. Write who you are. Write what you really know about. I did have an eating disorder in my 20’s and the really scary thing about an eating disorder is that it’s a total secret from everybody else, and you don’t share it with anybody else. The more secretive you are, the worse it becomes. I thought, “Really I’ve got to talk about this.” It’s such a horrible thing, but actually… possibly if I just put it down on the page I will also somehow help myself as well as others. Just talk about it, just say, “This happened.” Don’t try to explain why it happened, or how I got over it or anything like that, but just to show it. There were two things. It was about low budget, doing something really low budget, something that could be made and, secondly, doing something that felt brave.
MJW: Delicious is brave. I read that there were many iterations of the script. This question is from fans who were at the premiere. They said, “Tammy mentioned that she crossed a line in writing a particular scene and that the actors pulled her back. We were wondering what was in the script in the first place.” I’m not sure what scene they mean, but I have some ideas.
TR-S: It’s really about what happens when Jacques reveals to Stella that he’s actually a slightly darker character. He’s a little bit unstable himself. It’s not everybody who locks a girl in her flat and says, “Right. I’m going to cook and you’ve got to eat this thing.” And where I went to in the script was more Almodóvar. It was more Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! I loved that film. I didn’t understand everything in that film, but I loved the fact that Almodóvar wrote this rather beautiful love story about two very fucked up people. Now it didn’t totally work. When I wrote the script for Delicious I had Jacques doing a lot more to Stella in terms of, “I’m really going to make you eat.” Feeding her. Literally feeding her. We just tried it and the actors just both said, “This is going too far. This is going too far. You’ve gone from this one extreme to completely…” They just felt very uncomfortable with it, and I had to listen to them. So that’s when I pulled back. You have Jacques sitting on top of Stella, and a lot of people feel very uncomfortable with that. Well, believe me they would have felt unbelievably uncomfortable with a scene in which he gagged her, he actually tied her up, which is what I had in the script.
MJW: One of the questions I have here is about issues of consent. Jacques seems fairly okay with Stella saying no to sex, but he feeds her against her will, restrains her, locks her in her flat. That was uncomfortable for a lot of people.
TR-S: So you want to know what was that control about?
MJW: Going further would have freaked people out, I think. Maybe, because the film is in the romance genre?
TR-S: Well, I’ll tell you where it came from. It’s when I began to seek help for my eating disorder, when I really began to realize I was in a lot of trouble. I was really lucky. I went to see a psychiatrist. I went to an eating disorders unit. They said to me, “You’re going to have to do something really scary. You’re going to have to trust us. We want you to give ALL control to us— we’re going to tell you what you’re going to eat, when you’re going to eat and it’s only going to work if you do what we say.” So the idea for Jacques who comes in and says, “I can help you, but… If you let me control you, I can help you.” The thing is, it doesn’t work. I don’t know how strongly this comes across in the film and whether it works or not, but what I wanted to get across was the fact that the really important moment of the film is when Stella puts the toothbrush down her throat [to help her vomit]. She finally looks at herself and for the first time and thinks, “It’s got to come from me. It can’t come from anybody else wanting to control me or saying, ‘You’ve got to do.’ It’s got to come from me.” And that was the same with me. I was loved by my parents. I was loved by… Love doesn’t sort you out. Love doesn’t fix you. What fixes you is making the decision yourself. So there’s quite a lot in there, but essentially I didn’t want it to be, “He saves her through love.” He is very dysfunctional himself. They’re both really dysfunctional. But she ends up in a place where she is ready to get help, to start seizing control of her life again. You have to be very tough to be seized by an eating disorder. Tough women have eating disorders. I wanted Jacques to be tough as well so you’ve got these two tough people and it’s this struggle and she wins, essentially! She says, “Fuck off! You’re not going to sort me out. You can love me all that you want, but you’re not going to help me.” Goodness. It’s just such a massive thing to deal with, having an eating disorder. I wanted to get her to a point to where she’s ready for love at the end of the film, but it’s come from her. He may have shaken things up a bit, but it’s really until she makes that decision, that enough is enough, there ain’t going to be a love story.
MJW: So why the ambiguous ending?
TR-S: Partly because I didn’t want to have people conclude that love… that this man has saved her.
MJW: I think that was a wise choice.
TR-S: But I also wanted to give a little bit of hope, that this is a story about a woman who needs to seriously look at herself in the mirror and that maybe another story can begin now. I couldn’t end with them together. I just couldn’t. It would have made a lot of people very cross, including myself.
MJW: That’s one of the reasons people are drawn to it. I think the ending was very successful. Do you mind if I ask you some of the more in-depth fan questions I got about bulimia in Delicious?
TR-S: No, I want to talk about it.
MJW: The first is: “What does Riley-Smith hope bulimics take away from her movie?”
TR-S: Let’s talk about it. Let’s start a debate, because I don’t know what it’s about. I don’t know. I’m not a scientist. I’m not a doctor. I just know it’s a fucking awful disease, and I had it. And I know a lot of people who are suffering, and I think we need to talk about it. That’s it. It’s literally presenting bulimia. I wanted to show it. I didn’t want to make any comments about it. I just wanted to say, “Come on guys, let’s talk about it because this is ruining a lot of people’s lives.” I know a lot of people… and every time I’ve said I’ve made a film about bulimia I’ve had a woman come up to me and say she’s either got it, or she’s had it. It’s unbelievable.
MJW: For me, I’ve got a very fucked up background, too. I don’t have an eating disorder, I never have, but I’ve had lots of trauma, and just seeing what Louise does with the bingeing scene… I was in tears. I couldn’t let it go. She was just fantastic in that scene.
TR-S: And again, it’s as if women feel that they don’t have a voice. We’re not being listened to because it seems as though people aren’t really interested, are they? Well actually there’s an awful lot of us. And there’s strength in numbers, when you realise there’s lot of it going on, and then suddenly there’s a kind of bravery. People want to share their experiences. Like with anything, whether it might be, I don’t know, racism, or some of the really big social issues we’ve had in the last hundred years, it’s always started with somebody just saying, “There’s a lot of it going around. What is going on?” Why do we feel so bad about ourselves? Why do we feel so shit? I don’t know the answers. I just know that we do. And I think we need to talk about it. Why do women, particularly women, feel so bad about themselves? Why are they so unhappy with themselves? We could say, “Well it’s because L’Oréal tells us it’s because we’re ‘worth it’ and what it’s really saying is it’s because we’re not worth it. And advertising is all about ‘because we’re not worth it.'” So why do we have a nation of girls who don’t feel worth it, worth very much? Discuss!
MJW: To that end, what do you think about the 15+ rating the DVD got in the UK?
TR-S: I kind of expected it. But I know that there are 12-year-old girls watching it, and that makes me happy. Sorry, but when I was 11 or 12 I was watching 15-rated films. I hope lots of 12-year-old girls watch this. Am I allowed to say that? Am I going to get arrested? I don’t give a shit. It might be more inspiring for a 12-year-old to go and watch it. Because I think they should watch it. And when I think of what dreadful films are being made available to 12-year-olds, gruesome, violent films for 12A. It’s a joke. It’s a joke.
MJW: This question follows up on what you were saying about simply presenting Stella’s bulimia. From a fan: “In this telling no tragic history is offered to justify Stella’s illness, which means it stands on its own as a problem to address rather than a symptom. Did you hide the details of Stella’s past to avoid explaining it away?”
TR-S: Yeah. I really just wanted to present it. I didn’t want to kind of delve into (melodramatic voice), “It’s because she wasn’t loved by her parents.” Because that also then says, well then if she gets fucked by a man who didn’t love her [she becomes bulimic] or maybe if her parents loved her a bit more then [she wouldn’t have become]— no. Eating disorders don’t work like that. They don’t operate like that. I know it’s really difficult. It’s difficult for audiences to wonder— well who is this woman? But I do think that’s part of the eating disorder thing, that I don’t think there is a clear [cause and effect]. I know a girl who died. She took diet pills a couple of years ago. She was beautiful, and her parents loved her. She had lots of friends. She was addicted to diet pills and she died. Explain that. I don’t think we can. I don’t think we can necessarily go, “It’s this one little reason”, and then we can sew it up really neatly in the ending. It’s not like that. Where does the self-loathing, or the will to really hurt yourself come from? Where does it come from? Let’s talk about it. Where does it come from? It’s everywhere. It’s endemic. I live in a very small village. There are two girls currently, two young girls, two 11-year-olds from our village who are currently in eating disorder units. They’re 11 years old. They come from good families. They’re loved. Where is it coming from? We need to talk about it. We need to really start questioning, asking ourselves, “Why do women, women hate themselves so much?
MJW: So there’s this scene where Jacques says, “If you just had a good meal, you’d have a great orgasm,” and later on she’s told that love and a good hot dinner will take care of everything. Do you feel you were on the edge a little bit there with the message?
TR-S: Okay, I went to a wedding and there was a very, very old man giving a speech and he said, “The secret to having a good life is love and keeping your bowels open.” And really I should have done that line, because it’s just so funny. When you’re old, it really is. It’s just about having some hot food inside you. For anyone who hasn’t got an eating disorder, they don’t get it. They don’t get it. You eat food because that’s what you do. You’re a human being, you eat and you sleep and you shit. That’s what you do. But when you have an eating disorder, you don’t do that. I don’t think it was the message of the film. It’s the message of normal people. It’s like, “Get a grip. Eat a bloody meal! What’s wrong with you?” Anybody who’s had an eating disorder will totally confuse, and terrify, and annoy those people around them. Because it seems such a dreadful, kind of vain, terrible… what a waste. What a waste. What a terrible waste. But I also mean it. In some respects when Jacques says, “If you ate a wonderful meal. If you could just enjoy the pleasures of life, you’d have a wonderful orgasm. You’d relax.” He’s right. He’s actually right. What is so wrong with you that you can’t just take some pleasure from life, just be happy. Just. Be. Happy. So yeah, I didn’t mean to necessarily be controversial, but invariably you do find yourself doing that— on the edge (laughing). “Oh my God what did I saaaaayyy?” I love a meal followed by bonking. I love it! It’s great! It’s that simple. It should be that simple.
MJW: So why didn’t Jacques and Stella have sex?
TR-S: I wrote it in an early draft! They had a really good screw and in the middle of the night, after they’ve made love, she then goes to the bathroom [to throw up]. And then he catches her.
MJW: That’s interesting because I kind of thought there was a version with a sex scene in it. The tension is there and I thought, “Why not go there?”
TR-S: Why don’t they just do it? I know. Believe me, I was thinking exactly the same watching it and going, “I wish they’d just rip each other’s clothes off.” We we also working under enormous pressure. We shot the film in 16 days so there wasn’t any space, or time to really make big, turnaround changes or, “Let’s try something else.” We just didn’t have the time and we’re shooting the equivalent of about seven or eight pages a day. That’s what we were doing. So even if I’d had a really good tantrum about it there probably wouldn’t have been time, unfortunately.
MJW: You have to make it through the shot list.
TR-S: It’s one of those interesting things, you know. Yeah, in film, it’s not real life. They could have done anything. If you were a director, you could have got them to do something completely different. And that’s what I love, also, about audience engagement in something. It’s like, “Why didn’t they? Why?” And I’m the same now. I’m in the audience going, “Why? Why didn’t they do it?”
TR-S: Next time.
MJW: Next time.
TR-S: Next time there’ll be a hot, steamy…
MJW: So the next fan question on the list is: “Why did you choose to market Delicious as a foodie romance when Stella’s bulimia is so central?”
TR-S: Did we? Have we? I suppose I could have called it Vomit. (Laughs)
MJW: (Laughing hysterically) I think somebody compared it to Chocolat.
TR-S: Yeah, Throwing Up Stella. I don’t know. I think we did. We did. Okay, we did market it right at the beginning, me and Michael [Price, co-producer], as a foodie movie, because we thought we’d sell it to a distributor. But then the distributors watched the film and they were like, “This is a film about bulimia, isn’t it?” And we were like, “Really? Okay. Yes it is.” It was just tough, you know. It’s tough. Yeah, it’s got food in it. It’s got throwing up. It’s got comedy and it’s quite serious. It is actually a very difficult film to market. I would challenge all of you, all of you to find a way to market this film. Yeah. There are so many different ways it could be marketed.
MJW: It’s trending on the romance chart (in iTunes.)
TR-S: It’s trending on the romance chart! Because it is actually a romantic…something. Dramedy? I don’t know. Comedy. It’s what every distributor asks, “What’s the genre?” Pfft. It’s a romance. That’s what it is. But you know, food is sexy. Food is sexy and people like foodie movies and we do want to get it out there. But yeah, we might be cheating some people, but that’s what you do a little bit. It’s like, “Come and watch this film. It’s got lots of lollipops.” (Laughing.) You know we’ve just done anything we can. We have no one behind us. We’ve got no money for marketing, no P&A [Promotion and Advertising]. No. Money. We have to do whatever we can. We will put a cream bun on the front cover and say, “Free bun! Free donuts for everyone who comes to see this film!” Yes, we’re dreadful. But we’re desperate. What do we do? How does one get somebody to see a film? What’s working is word of mouth. The way that this film is selling— it isn’t to lots of people who are feeling cheated, but it’s selling to exactly the demographic that I wrote it for which is interesting, intelligent, complicated women who are slightly lost in this new world. That’s what we are. So, yeah. And have got eating disorders, or are cutting themselves, or whatever they’re doing. Women are finding this film and I think it’s through word of mouth. It’s not because we’ve put a cream bun on the front.
MJW: So another fan question: “How do you write a film in which an eating disorder is central that isn’t exploitive or over-simplifying?”
TR-S: Very good question. I really struggled with this, because if I had made her the central character, I’d have had to to try and make her the sympathetic character when what she’s doing is utterly unsympathetic. So I decided to make her the antagonist, if that makes any sense, because I thought that would be an easier way into this. So we have him, he wants to feed her and she says, “No.” So in very classic terms she’s Darth Vader. You don’t have to root for her. I’m not asking anybody to empathize with this woman. I’m just showing her, almost as the enemy, because that’s what I was always made to feel. That’s how disgusting I possibly felt about myself. So that was the first approach. That took a lot of time. That took a lot of drafts because I tried to make her the sympathetic protagonist before. It’s very difficult to do that. So that was my way in. My way in was make her the baddie.
MJW: Was it ever written from Stella’s point of view?
TR-S: Yeah. It’s really difficult to do that. Because then you start projecting. You’re trying to project everything onto her. You’re trying to tell the audience, “Oh, please be sympathetic to this person who’s got an eating disorder and they’ve got an eating disorder because blah blah blah. And what they need is blah.” Hey! I’ve just worked out why the next set of Star Wars failed so miserably because that’s exactly what they tried to do. They tried to explain Darth Vader— why he was so awful. Anyway, so that was fundamentally my approach. I knew it was going to be really tough dealing with that issue so I decided to deal with it in a… I thought, “Yeah, make her the baddie. And let’s see what happens. Try not to explain too much. Don’t offer solutions, just show her as somebody who is really tough and doesn’t want to let go of this thing.”
MJW: So you’ve got people coming to the film because they’re Louise Brealey fans so their orientation is that they want to see her as the heroine. They want to identify with her. They want to love the person that they admire, right?
TR-S: Sure, and I cast Louise because I absolutely loved her in Sherlock. And despite Stella being the tough and complicated character she is, I really love her, also because she’s her own worst enemy. She’s not a baddie to anyone else. She’s just horrible to herself. But I love her because she’s really tough, and really strong, and really feisty, and really funny. So I loved her. I love the character and I love what Louise did with her.
MJW: I think your approach was interesting because some people did come at it and say, “We want female representation. Why don’t we see everything from her point of view?” So the question, I guess, is— what is representation? If women are looking for themselves in these films, in terms of telling the story, and the mechanics of telling a story, what is representation? Stella is not always the most genial character. She is difficult. If we’re talking about female representation, in the end what IS she representing?
TR-S: (Long pause.) Hmmm. Very interesting question. If anything, what’s she’s representing, what I think she’s representing, is how lost we are, how lost women are, and how we’ve got to start taking charge of this. We’ve really got to start doing something. That may not be a very popular thing to say, but I think we’re a bit lost. Stella does take charge at the end, and that’s her journey. It’s about going out into the world. It’s about her taking responsibility saying, “There’s a situation happening. It’s not good. I’m doing this really nasty stuff to myself but I’m an intelligent, strong woman and I’m living in this cave. And I’m allowing all this shit to happen to me and look at the way I’m doing this stuff to myself.” And then she takes the reins right at the end and leaves the cave. I want her to represent, unfortunately, that I think we’re in trouble. I think she’s representing modern, troubled women.
MJW: Why did she chase Jacques in the end? Why is that recognition of Stella’s own power led to her chasing a man?
TR-S: I think what it represents — him and food— is life. He represents life. Vibrancy, living, living. Another reason why she doesn’t find him [in St Pancras Station at the end of the film] is because it’s about her finding the outside world, about finding life. Him with his food, that’s representing, “Come on! Live! Live!” Does that make sense to you?
MJW: Yes. I think that there is so much suspicion, from people who haven’t seen the film, of any film with a woman at the center of it, especially a film with a bulimic at the center of it. The topic is so little represented that one work becomes the statement on the topic. So I think that people are looking at the description of Delicious and think, “Well is the man going to save her? Are these things these other characters say to her truly part of the film’s message? Like, ‘Oh if you only had the hot meal…'” I think there are people wanting the film to operate on its own terms and to subvert. One of the reviews that I thought was really interesting on iTunes says, “This film subverts the trope that the man’s going to save everything and I loved that.” I think there’s a lot of weight and expectation on you, and on what the film is saying, and on a message because there’s so little representation. It becomes overdetermined. Everybody wants to see themselves, or see something truly radical, or truly undercutting. I think that’s where some of these questions are coming from— “Is this film going to do it right?”
TR-S: This is a little film that comes from a very small part of the world that I think is raising more of a question than giving an answer. But what I do feel, though, is it’s time for us to re-question some stuff. I think women have been told, “Ah, you’ve got everything. You’ve got it all. Lalala.” But actually we’re all really quite unhappy. Okay. What is going on? What is going on? There is still a huge amount of sexism going on. Capitalism needs us to buy all this shit, so apparently we feel better, but we don’t. Men are very confused about women. They don’t feel too good about themselves. We’re a bit lost at the moment. I really hate seeing women suffer and struggle, particularly young women. I see a lot of parents— they just don’t know where to go. They don’t understand their daughters. They don’t know why they’re so unhappy.
MJW: Whenever I post anything about Delicious in online communities, I have to put a trigger warning on it. That’s part of the culture, that you don’t just throw things at people. They need to know what they’re getting into. That has this weird effect of also drawing people to it. What do you think about this new move, that people need to know in advance? To shelter themselves from a story like this? The posts have to say “trigger warning: ed”; “trigger warning: bulimia.”
TR-S: I think, personally, when I saw that Secretary was about a woman who self-harms, I was very interested to see it because of my own experience. I think it’s good that you put a trigger warning, but I think that probably draws people, doesn’t it? I don’t know. You’re giving people the choice.
MJW: It has a mixed effect. I had someone write me and say, “Could you please, please thank Tammy for me? I can’t watch the film because it’s too close to home, I’m in recovery, but please, please thank her for doing this.”
MJW: So I think there are a lot of people supporting the film without feeling that they can watch it. Just the idea of it being out there has impacted certainly a lot of people who’ve contacted me.
TR-S: Wow. Wow. Gosh. See, I didn’t expect that. I just expected nobody to watch it because that’s what I was told. (Laughing.) “Sell this as a food movie!”
MJW: There’s pretty food in it! There are pastries!
TR-S: That’s exactly what I want. Because if that means she goes and talks to somebody… Somehow you take something massive and you talk about it and it loses its power. It’s amazing how we think certain things are so powerful, and they’re just not, but we need to talk about them.
MJW: Why was Stella’s food binge scene so central? It was so powerful. Did you have any qualms about it?
TR-S: No. Because it was such a revolting thing that I’d done so many times, so it was like me saying, “This is what I did. This is what I was like.” And the fizzy water. “If I have fizzy water, it means I can be sick easier and a toothbrush because I can’t use my hands anymore.” I needed to show it. I needed to show how revolting, and how horrible it is, and how it’s not just a nasty thing, it’s a vain thing. You know there are children in the world dying of starvation and when you’ve got this thing, you stuff yourself. It’s a shameful thing. It’s very shameful. But when you’re ashamed of something, sometimes it’s best to be honest and truthful about it. If you’re sitting on a really big, horrible lie, if you’ve lied to somebody— tell them the truth. Suddenly you feel better. I just want people to talk about it. I want people to be able to say, “I’ve got this really ugly, disgusting disease.” “Oh my god! Did you throw up in plastic bags?” “Yeah, I did!” “Oh my god we…” And then you laugh about it. And then you can go and seek help. You can go into recovery, and then you start asking, “Why are we all doing this? What’s the reason? I thought it was just me. I thought it was just me being disgusting. There was something really wrong with ME, alone in my cave.”
MJW: So you talked earlier about your crew and their expectations. How do you communicate with your crew, with your DP as a director especially because this issue is so close to your heart, and your experience?
TR-S: Number one, I don’t have an eating disorder any more. I’m great. I’m in a really good, strong position. Secondly, I love people. I respect people and what they do. They’re just— everybody who worked on the film, or everybody who’s got a talent, or anybody who comes to something like this with a particular skill— I just totally respect my heads of departments. It’s a very adult relationship and I’m not used to adult relationships. In my love relationships I’ve been in a lot of (melodramatic voice) parent-child relationships. Yeah. I’m an adult. And it’s terrific and you’re creating something. You’re creating. It’s like love-making. You’re creating this incredible thing. The cast and crew need to see that everything is fine, that you’re in control, and that you’re confident, and you’re happy, and that you can deal with anything. There is a bit of a performance going on, because you might be absolutely shattered, you know? And you might be feeling a bit wobbly because someone’s had a bit of a go at you, but you always have to maintain a very, very calm and confident demeanor. Not always easy. If you’ve ever done any public speaking, you have to take that deep breath (breathes) and then you fall (drops shoulders) and you’re fine. You don’t mumble your words. That deep breath is like, “I’m on stage! I’m going to be fine!” And you are, somehow. It’s also really nice. Everybody’s working towards something really fun. It’s a really fabulous place to be. I would recommend it to anybody. I really would, actually. I do, regularly, to my writing students. They look at me with absolute horror. But I like coming out of my cave, my writing cave. And I like talking to people and I like being with people and it’s just been a brilliant experience. Having said that, there’s lots I did wrong, probably. And there’s lots I’ve learnt.
MJW: What did you learn?
TR-S: You have to do a lot of back rubbing. But you also have to be tough. You have to be a tough parent occasionally, and you have to say, “No.” And you have to really know that when your instinct is very, very strongly for something, you should never let it go. Once, or twice I just let it go and I shouldn’t have done. So it’s really— hold on to your instinct. I think I’ve always been someone who’s quite slow to process things and you don’t have time to process things slowly. You have to process things very fast, which means you have to listen to yourself in a different way. You have to really listen, and very quickly. I could get better at that. I need to get better at that.
MJW: How do you keep yourself motivated and passionate between projects? I’m assuming, I’m hoping that you’re going to dive in and do another film.
TR-S: I mean how do you? It’s a really interesting question. I’m working on a few things. I’m working on about three or four things, but I haven’t really written. I’ve been writing a treatment, but I haven’t really written because I’ve been a producer on this film, and it’s been a lot of producing and getting the film out there has been a lot of work. My mum always says something really interesting, which is in order to grow something you need a fallow field sometimes. That’s why farmers let a field go for a year. Just let things run amok. So now I’m beginning to go, “Okay. What do I really, really need to say? What do I really want to say next?” A lot of people are saying to me, “You could do something really commercial next time.” I’m thinking— nah! What really difficult subject shall I do next? Make it really, really tough on myself and go into meetings with people and they go, “We’re not going to give you any money because no one is going to see that film.” I think I’m passionate about women, and I think I could be braver. And next time I might actually do something really brave and instead of just presenting something, really go for it. Because now I’ve given myself a question: Why? Why are there so many unhappy women? I think maybe I need to look into that. Fortunately I’m happier. I’m a happy woman and I’m in a good space to explore all of this stuff.
MJW: How many downloads would Delicious need, to be crass, to be successful in your eyes?
TR-S: Well to be really and truly successful it would be brilliant if we could pay back our investors. In order to do that we would have to get about 100,000 downloads. I think we’ve got about 2,000 or 3,000 so far. That’s a lot. We don’t have a press campaign behind us. The press are only interested in what’s coming out this week. It’s difficult. It’s really difficult. What we do have, which is great, is we have Beat, the UK’s leading eating disorder charity behind us.
TR-S: They’ve just released their newsletter. They’ve got 15,000 members and we’re donating profits to their charity. It’s like 20% of profits are going to them. So that hopefully will help both of us because I want to help raise awareness and also the more downloads you get, the more word of mouth you have and I think this film is about word of mouth. It would be nice to pay back the investors because also what happens is if you pay back an investor, they want to invest in you again, which means you can get another film made. We haven’t got paid. I haven’t got paid for this. It’s very unlikely I will get paid, but if you pay back your investors they have faith in you. The more downloads we get, the more word of mouth, the better chance we have of getting a UK broadcast, or an international broadcast.
MJW: I’d like to shift gears here and talk a little bit about your influences and background. What is the first movie you remember seeing?
TR-S: I saw movies on television, obviously, in the ’70’s, but the first significant movie experience I had, the most profound, was being taken by my father to see a Jacques Tati double bill in Soho, age about six or seven. I just completely fell in love with Jacques Tati, the silent comedian who was also very tragic. He was was a kind of loser character who was always slightly looked down upon, and teased by other people. It was also profound because my father took me, and it was just me and him. My father wanted to be a director, so he always loved films and always took us to the cinema. Tati was my first.
MJW: So what would you say are the three movies that are the most important to you? And why?
TR-S: Well, for some reason, and I don’t know why this is, but I found myself watching Hitchcock’s Rebecca as a teenager. Remember these are the days where if you wanted to watch a film you had it on video and you had to rewind it. I watched it about 27 times. I think I’m beginning to understand why I watched it 27 times, but that was one of my favorites. I mean I adore Alfred Hitchcock, but I wouldn’t say that he’s my favorite director. I’d say Billy Wilder, Pedro Almodóvar, Jane Campion are my favorite directors, but then the most significant films, the films that really stay with me, aren’t necessarily by those directors, which is strange. I loved The English Patient. For some reason it really hit home, and I love Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and I love Cinema Paradiso. What’s interesting, I think, about Rebecca, and Cinema Paradiso, and The English Patient— is that in each of them there is a fire which signifies the break between the past and the future. I don’t know what that has to say about my psyche, but those three films had a serious impact on me. More recently Eternal Sunshine. I think Charlie Kaufman is the most amazing writer, original writer.
MJW: What would you say are the hallmarks of your favorite directors? Do you look at their films as if you’re a director, as if you’re in their position? What is it about your admiration for the director versus your attachment to a story?
TR-S: Billy Wilder— it’s his ability to combine tragedy and humor which is something I’ve been trying to do in my films. And also Almodóvar does that, too, but he does it with color and vibrancy which I think has been sorely lacking in a lot of English films. You watch English films and you wish there was just a bit more insanity! We’re insane, but it’s all this bloody gritty realism. I just want everyone to be nuts.
MJW: (Laughing) A little bit of color!
MJW: It’s interesting that you mention Billy Wilder. His film, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, was one of Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s inspirations for Sherlock, so many of the people who will be reading this are going to be pretty familiar with Wilder’s aesthetic.
TR-S: There’s a scene in Wilder’s film, The Apartment— Shirley MacLaine’s just tried to kill herself and it’s followed instantly by this unbelievably funny scene of Jack Lemmon trying to walk her up and down the room. For anyone who’s seen Delicious, there’s this kind of slightly kind of odd placement of something that happens which is really very, very bad and uncomfortable followed by humor. I think life is like that. I think life is like that. I think we have to laugh when the most dreadful things happen. It’s a kind of survival. It’s a way of dealing with bad stuff. And I love that about Billy Wilder. I love the fact that it’s this melodrama. It is— it’s real.
MJW: Can you talk about your career path and how you came to be a writer-director? Do you see yourself as a writer-director?
TR-S: What do I see myself as? Yes, I suppose I do now because I have done a feature length film, but primarily I see myself as a woman striving to get her voice heard. I’m going to have struggles getting the next one made. I see myself probably as a striver. Where did I start? A lot of filmmakers start with a love of film, but at university [University College London (UCL)] I couldn’t get into drama. I couldn’t get a role on the stage. I’d been in a lot of plays at school, but I couldn’t. I just found all the second and third years basically ran the dramatic society. I discovered there was this kind of fabulous sub-basement full of geeky, wonderful people who loved film, and I just found myself down there. I made a short film. Also I was very lucky because Christopher Nolan— he’s a big Hollywood director now— he was running the film society, so he was a very inspiring person. That’s where it started. It started because I couldn’t get a part. I didn’t pass any of the auditions. Film is a very ambitious thing, isn’t it? You just think, “Oh you can do a play at school, but who makes films?” And then you go to university and there’s a film society and you can make films so it’s just a matter of opportunity. I was just very, very lucky. But when I think about it, I’ve always been passionate about film, a passionate viewer, watcher of it. I don’t think I saw myself when I was a child actually doing films. Particularly now for this new generation, younger generation— it’s so accessible. It’s so cheap now. I was making my first films on 16mm and 35mm.
MJW: What was your next step after university?
TR-S: I basically got in touch with the UK’s biggest film school and volunteered myself as a runner. And I spent the summer after university running on short films.
MJW: What is a runner?
TR-S: A runner is basically a dogsbody. They literally run. You run around the set doing things for people, bringing coffee to people and helping Locations and helping ADs [Assistant Directors]. So I did that and then I really wanted to get a job in a film company. I wasn’t really sure how film companies ran, but I just wanted to learn more so I basically wrote to every single film company in the UK. I got a letter back and I was invited to have an interview for a receptionist at Working Title Films. They were just finished shooting Four Weddings and a Funeral so it couldn’t have been a more incredible time to join the company. And then within six months, maybe a year working as a receptionist— I was getting very interested in scripts, very interested in the writers and I managed to get a job within the development department which is where they develop ideas and work with writers. And I spent five years there, basically falling in love with directors and writers and sort of wishing I could be one of them. I kind of saw that my trajectory was to produce and I just didn’t want to become a producer and I would ask writers, “Well how do you do it? What do you do?” and I met this wonderful writer, Terry Hayes who wrote the Mad Max series. Terry Hayes tells me, “You’ve got to sell socks. You’ve got to write at night and you’ve got to get a day job and you’ve got to leave this film company because it’s just— you’re never going to do it if you stay.” So I did. I left and I did a Master’s in screenwriting and then started making small films which was terrific, but it was quite scary leaving a big film company. I had a salary, went to premieres… It’s all very exciting and glamorous, but it wasn’t what I wanted. It wasn’t what I wanted to do.
MJW: So the five years in development? What was that work like? What was that atmosphere like?
TR-S: Hell! Absolutely awful. You imagine Devil Wears Prada— she makes Meryl Streep[’s character, Miranda Priestly,] look like Mary Poppins.
TR-S: It was hideous. It was a lot of reading. I was in the office very late. I have Crohn’s disease. At the time I wasn’t very well and I was gradually getting psoriasis all over my body. I had it on my nose, on my ears, on my legs and I would basically molt on my black office chair, kind of suffering, running to the loo every five minutes while she’s shouting at me to fax scripts to L.A. It was not a good life. My body basically said to me, “Get out!” I had to go to the hospital at one point. I think it was about 1994, and my boss, the big boss said to me, instead of saying, “How are you? Are you okay?” he said, “Are you a liability to this company?” So it was tough. It was tough. But on the positive side I got to read lots, and lots of scripts. I got to sit in amazing development meetings, and I got to work with incredible filmmakers, so from that point of view it was very, very exciting. But I just wasn’t very well, and essentially I was a very hard working assistant. It was before the days of the internet, so I’d be in the office every night faxing page after page of 130-page scripts so it was just not a great life.
MJW: That’s quite a leap into doing your own work— what’s the trajectory to get to your short film Ain’t Misbehavin’?
TR-S: It was the script that I developed when I was doing my Master’s and then teamed up with a fantastic friend/colleague [Harriet Rees] who produced it. We were very gung-ho and naive. We had a film that had about 40 extras, a dance movie. It was insane, but it was great fun. It was really brilliant, really great. 35mm. Of course we had to raise a shitload of money. We raised about £20,000 to do it.
TR-S: We have something here called The Times, a newspaper, and every year they publish the Times Rich List of the richest people in England. We just wrote to all the richest people in England.
TR-S: And actually it was women. It was business women who gave us money.
MJW: That’s brilliant! How many responses did you get?
TR-S: Not very many, but…
MJW: But enough!
TR-S: But enough.
MJW: So what was the inspiration for Ain’t Misbehavin’?
TR-S: If I’m absolutely honest with you, it’s complete plagiarism. The plot comes from a song, a Kate Bush song.
MJW: “Babooshka.” I thought so! [“Babooshka” is about a woman who tries to catch her husband cheating on her. She seduces him while disguised as another woman.]
TR-S: Isn’t that awful?
MJW: No! I’m a huge Kate Bush fan…
TR-S: Please don’t tell Kate Bush.
MJW: I saw it and I immediately thought, “This story is ‘Babooshka’, but gone well.” Your version turned out better for your characters in the end.
TR-S: The song was always a film. I was thinking, “Why has this not been made into a film?” The thing is I couldn’t get it to work with a young couple. You just can’t because what you have to do is you have to establish a really strong couple, a couple that have got to be together in the end. It’s such a horrible weird thing to do to your lover, to your husband. I got to a point where I think I was about 10 drafts in and I said, “They’ve got to be old! They’ve got to be old! They’ve got to be together for 40 years otherwise we’re just not going to want them to stay together.” So that was a very interesting process but I’m afraid… isn’t that dreadful?
MJW: Not at all!
TR-S: I wish I could say, “It’s inspired by my parents’ relationship.” No, it wasn’t. I stole it. Is that legal? I mean I haven’t made any money from it.
TR-S: Okay— “Wuthering Heights”.
MJW: And “Wuthering Heights”! So she’s done it.
TR-S: She hasn’t got a leg to stand on. (Laughing.)
Delicious the film (starring Louise Brealey as Stella, and Nico Rogner as Jacques)
Tammy Riley-Smith, 42, is the writer, director, and co-producer of Delicious.
Mary Jo Watts (mid0nz) is a 44-year-old, American BBC Sherlock fangirl. A blogger with an academic background in media studies and film theory, MJ writes metaanalyses about Sherlock’s visuals, soundtrack, props and set dressings. Long form interviews are her new hobby.