Alex's Dream

18 February 2019

Photography and Interview Cecilie Harris

Alex Lawther releases a long, comfortable sigh as we sit down on the rocky beach somewhere on the British coast. Seagulls are circling above us. It's been a little while since we last sat down to chat for his issue 13 feature, but it's great to see him again and he's in top form - released from the city into the open horizon. "Are you a dreamer?", he asks me, as we talk about the short film project he just wrapped after a very busy year last year.

We are on the film set of his latest project. Titled Alex's Dream, the short film stars Alex along with Chris New and a talented cast of emerging actors. Written and directed by Jack Cooper Stimpson, this off-beat comedy short tells the story of a young man that shows up to a party uninvited, forced to tell the party attendees of a dream he had. It plays with the idea of dreams; a familiar forum to Boys by Girls readers following our fourteenth issue 'The Dreamers'. Underneath a humorous tone, the film leaves you pondering about the space between reality and dreams, and how these lines can often be blurred.

Water is a key element for this encounter: we are doing this interview by the sea, we've just been out on a boat, and Alex first met Jack in the river. Alex and I pause for a moment to look at each other in awe of this discovery. Laughter bursts and merges with the waves.

We have just spent two days together on the set of Alex's Dream. Each day a completely different experience: one day inside a house, one day on the open sea. Seeing the project take shape was a fantastic experience, and watching a team of talented creatives at work is inspiring. This is a project created from passion - inspired by friendship. To me, this is what creating is all about; bringing together talented people you admire and have a good time with. Through the fast pace of what needed to happen in the small space of two days, there was a warm and comfortable tone on set. It's all about teamwork. Like a delicate puzzle where everyone is part of the foundation, and if one piece isn't there, everything could crumble and fall apart any minute. I leave with an eagerness to watch the final film.

It's lovely to be here with you again. Shall we start talking about the sea?
Yes! Let's start at sea and work our way back to land.

We've just returned from being at sea and our feet are now safely on the non-moving ground.
Indeed, it's lovely, the fact that your body is always in motion. You're always having to find the equilibrium physically. It's quite interesting. Like yesterday, when we were filming in the house, things were quite still and static on set. I often find, when you're shooting quite static in film, that your body slowly goes to sleep. What's been nice today is that my body was always in motion. I quite enjoyed that. It's a good exercise in keeping your body awake and involved in the process - the body responds to the scene differently.

What kind of a relationship do you have to the sea?
Quite a fond one. Quite a nostalgic one. I grew up not far from Portsmouth, which is a sort of port town, so I was always quite near the ocean. It was not unusual for me and my friends to, come rain or shine, spend time walking along the seafront. It didn't really matter what the weather was because the weather seemed to be rainy most of the time throughout our teenage years. That didn't seem to matter too much - it was quite romantic walking along the seafront. Have you got quite a strong attachment to the sea?

I love the ocean, I grew up by a fjord opening up into the ocean. I liked watching it, not so much being in it. There is something so big and majestic about it. We've just been filming on the open sea, thank you for letting me be on set.
Wow, that sounds great! And thanks for coming, it's lovely to have another friendly face on set.

Do you want to talk a bit about this project and how being on the sea ties into it?
Yes! I've known Jack, the director, for a little while. We were in the film Old Boys together, which releases 22 February.

Ah, was he involved in that one too?
Yes, he was an actor in it, so that's where I met Jack. In a river actually - I met Jack in a river. The first week of filming we were doing this strange water sport that takes place in the water, a type of rugby game that is only played at the school. It's a way for the boys to define their physical capability - a test of manhood and masculinity that exists at this school - played in a fast running, cold stream. Really miserable. And now I find myself again here with Jack, by the ocean. Although, this time I was on top of the water rather than in it.

Jack is a man of many trades: he directs, he makes music, he writes, he acts, and he produces films. One of those friends that seem capable of doing all of them and any of them, and he writes poetry too. He has published poetry. Anyway, he wanted to make a short film and had an idea which was called Alex's Dream. I read the script and it was strange and lovely. Luckily we both found time this month to get it shot. It's lovely to work with friends.

Yes, that's really interesting. Let's dwell a bit on what it's like working with friends on a creative project. From a passion perspective and wanting to make something beautiful - this can be incredibly fulfilling.
The process of something is always what's important to me, and therefore I'm sure this will be a lovely short film. What was most interesting from the outset was the idea of working with close friends. Although, I do love joining a company and not knowing anyone; that mystery of what this thing is going to be - all the excitement that it brings.

Which you have done a lot of!
Yes, most of it. I think actors are constantly evolving and moving from project to project, to new faces and new writers. I know Jack, but I haven't seen him in that capacity before. He is so good; he was so calm.

I was going to ask how you felt about him directing you. What was it like for you to see him in that role?
It was cool, he seems to come to it so naturally. He's talking about: "Yeah, we'll get a 50mm on that lens and then we'll swing around and get another shot here", and I thought, 'wow, you are such a grown up'. It's funny, as actors you hear all of that conversation around you and the decisions being made, and I wonder if it's that. Jack seems to take to it as a duck takes to water. Terrible pun. He has obviously been quite observing of what's been happening on set. How did you find it on set yesterday, did you enjoy it, compared to today? It was quite different geographically.

It was two very different experiences because yesterday we were in a house filming inside and we all had to fit into one room at a time. You know when you see something on TV or at the cinema and it looks so clean and simple - you don't think about all the people that are crammed in a corner to achieve that result!
Haha, I know, that used to really freak me out when I started making films: 'why are there so many people in front of me?'. I wished that I could tell the person who was watching whatever it was we were making: 'There are all these other people I'm trying to ignore and pretend are not there'.

What about now?
Yes, now I enjoy it. Now I have the feeling that we're making something together. We're all trying to hold something up in the air together - holding something in the air together between action and cut.

It's like a puzzle. If one piece is missing it all kind of crumbles. I like the idea of that, and it was really interesting to experience set both yesterday and today.
It was lovely yesterday, it was a lovely big house, but the rooms were quite small and the equipment takes up a lot of that space. I do feel a sort of sense of relief to be in a bigger space today.

Right now we can't even see where the ocean ends. Let's talk about the story of Alex's Dream.
A young man turns up to a party he is not invited to and gets asked to tell everyone there one of his dreams. There is a sense that you're not really sure where the dream ends or if it's all a dream. The ambiguity I always found strangely charming. The sense of not being quite sure where the dream takes place - where Alex is awake or where we actually are in time. I quite like that. I think it works well in a short film. A little nugget of strangeness. Suspended time. It fits into that ten-minute timeframe to tell a story. It's hard to put my finger on what that feeling is. Maybe that's part of it as well, that you can't quite work out if there is something strange about the mood of this party, this place, and these people around this character. But the story doesn't offer any concrete explanations. Quite like a dream doesn't. And the frustration in that, 'what does it mean, what does that mean?' - but there is also a bit of an indulgent pleasure in it. That indulgent pleasure of telling someone about your dream. There is this thing, it didn't really happen to me, but whilst I was asleep last night I imagined this thing that felt very real. In fact, sharing of dreams or the subject of dreams is something that we can all talk quite easily about. I think we all find it interesting on some level.

There are heaps of research on dreams and they were saying on this radio 4 program that since Freud's intuitive conclusions about what dreams are and what purpose they serve - no one has come up with any solid answers. Hundreds of years of research and we haven't made any real progress. So dreams remain as you imagine them. Elusive. The film touches on that.

It leaves a lot to the viewer to take away and sit with.
Yes, sort of nice to mull on. It's amusing, really.

Our last print issue was called The Dreamers, which ties nicely into this.
With Jake Bugg on the cover?

Yes! Do you like his music?
Yeah! He's a cool guy. His music seems to be from another time, like a real Bob Dylan. Seems to be the best comparison I can make. His lyrics are smart. There is a spikey-ness about them.

Are you a dreamer?
Yes, I think so. I find it very easy to get lost in dreams, I love that place. And I suppose if there was a tree of personality types - somewhere between dreams, nostalgia and romanticism. I'm quite comfortable swinging off those branches of the personality tree.

I like that it's a tree now.
Do you know what I mean, haha? There are of course the cynics. I met this poet, and she has written a book of poems called Pessimism is for Lightweights. I'm associating with dreaminess, romanticism and nostalgia - they seem like quite light efforts, quite light ways of being. I feel like there is actually something quite resilient in optimism, dreaminess, daydreaming, and hopefulness. We live in a world of commerce, and things have to be solid, sellable, concrete, and physical, and therefore there is somewhat a tendency when people speak about dreaminess or dreamers that it seems to be derogatory in the sense of them floating around somewhere around there in the ether - but I think there is a strength to dreaminess. What do think, are you a dreamer?

I'm a massive dreamer. For me, it's all about dreaming of what I want to do in the future, what I could do, what I might be able to experience, and what else I could achieve. I want to write a book, I would love to set up my own publishing company, I want to be more involved in film - directing seems really interesting. There are so many things I'm drawn to within the sphere of storytelling. I want to see what else I can do to help guide young creatives into managing their inner mind space and mental health. I dream about all these things, wonderful possibilities that make life colourful and would continue to add further purpose.
It makes me think of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, I think it might be the only long piece of fiction she wrote. It's read all around the world and translated into many languages. She one time quoted this bit saying it was her 'potboiler'. Do you know that expression? It's something you write in order to get food on the table, which she wrote in her twenties. I love the genius of the thing she just dashed out, it's so full of heart and precision. There a section in it about a fig tree she is sitting under. One of the figs is her being a mother and a wife, one is her writing a book, and one is her travelling and seeing the world. The figs look so delicious, but she is so anxious about what fig to take. The time is passing and the figs, one by one, is withering and falling from the tree. So there you go.

I like that when I talk about my beautiful dreams, you're talking about dying figs?
Haha, it's a beautiful thing, and I really empathise with wanting to write a book and do all these things. Do you sometimes find that you don't know where to start?

You just do little bits at a time. I've already started on a lot of these dreams, so we'll see what I might be able to do walking slightly parallel paths simultaneously. I love dreaming. But at the same time keeping an open mind, as one dream might lead down an unexpected path you didn't even know existed. A dream might take a different form, and there is something nice about the fluidity of that.
That is just like making a film, as well, which is a great full circle. I was speaking about this with Jack in the car yesterday, that we are making this short film and shooting it over two days, but the amount of preparation for it and knowing what every shot is going to be, where we are going to shoot and how you want the scenes, the time we have to shoot it in, people, catering and so on - it's really all about being prepared. At the same time, you need the ability to be flexible and act on something new, not expecting it to always go according to plan - rather than being blind to that because of your preparation.

Yes, being able to let go.
And say, 'Actually, that will look great'.

What do you see for yourself in the future?
I'm filming in France at the beginning of this year and I'd like to see if I could work more in a foreign language. I like the idea of working in Europe. I also love the idea of, although we’re in a country where 51% of our population has chosen otherwise - I would like to sort of refuse what might suggest the isolation of England and Britain from the rest of Europe through my work in some way. If I can carry on working in France or in Europe generally, I like the idea of that. I've been lucky to work in a play called The Jungle, working with actors from Syria, Afghanistan and Iran, so yeah, it feels sometimes in the UK that the world isn't getting smaller and smaller. I suppose part of my dream with my work is that I can continue to push against this.

That sounds like a great way to add further purpose and meaning to what you do.

We continue watching the view for a while before we leave the seagulls to their own company again and we join the rest of the Alex’s Dream crew.

Alex's Dream is written and directed by Jack Cooper Stimpson, produced by Giannina Rodriguez Rico, and stars Alex Lawther, Sam Haygarth, Emma Corrin, Olivia Popica, Camille Ucan, Lillie Flynn, Simon Manyonda, and Chris New. It will be doing the festival circuit in 2019, and we'll be sure to keep you in the loop of where you can see it.

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