Carol Morley, Dreams of a Life
In 2003, when the badly decomposed body of 38-year-old Joyce Vincent was found on a sofa in her flat above a busy shopping district in Wood Green North London by bailiffs for the Metropolitan Housing Trust seeking back due rent, the news shocked the public. Nobody had reported her missing, even though she had been dead for three years. A pathologist could not determine the cause of her demise because nothing remained except a skeleton. Questioned by the police, neighbors admitted to noticing a foul odor emanating from the apartment but had never reported it. Stranger still, the television was on and she was surrounded by unopened Christmas presents. Joyce had, it seemed, vanished from the world without anyone bothering to notice. Filmmaker Carol Morley (a BAFTA nominee for her autobiographical documentary The Alcohol Years) was instantly intrigued and began a quest to find out everything she could about the deceased woman, but details were scant. After placing an advertisement in local periodicals, online, and elsewhere (including the sideboard of a London taxi), she began to hear from a variety of people who had known Joyce, none of whom was aware she had died, further adding to the poignancy and mystery of how she had managed to slip out of existence, and into oblivion.
In Dreams of a Life, which picked up a Best Documentary nomination from the London Critics’ Circle and for the London Film Festival’s Grierson Award, Morley reconstructs a life that, on the surface, seemed full of promise. Through interviews with former colleagues, boyfriends, classmates, and other acquaintances, we learn that Joyce was a vivacious and by all accounts beautiful young black woman of Caribbean descent who had mesmerized men with her natural charm and playfulness and gotten along easily with female peers. An aspiring singer, she crossed paths with a number of artists, including Betty Wright, Gil-Scott Heron, Isaac Hayes, and Stevie Wonder, and once met Nelson Mandela backstage at Wembley Stadium. But these testimonies, while insightful about Joyce’s rich milieu and aspects of her gnomic personality, are often contradictory. Morley’s elegiac portrait, outfitted with creatively staged reenactments and imagined sequences, begins to take on textures that complexify our understanding of the film’s opaque subject, whose actual image we rarely see. Zawe Ashton, the actor who portrays the adult Joyce in these interludes, unearths a world of longing in her long-take rendition of Carolyn Crawford’s “My Smile Is Just a Frown,” a song whose lyrics encapsulate perfectly the gap between our interior and exterior selves. And it is in that chasm, Dreams suggests, where the heart of the tragedy may lie.
Filmmaker spoke with Morley about loneliness and anonymity, communication in the Internet age, and the use of fictional elements in documentary storytelling. Dreams of a Life opens at IFC Center on Friday.
Filmmaker: What was your initial reaction to the story? Did you have your filmmaker cap on?
Morley: I like to think I always have my storyteller cap on, as a filmmaker—we all do. [Laughs] It was the fact that the news story was so anonymous that I got really drawn into it. It felt so insubstantial. There was no photograph of Joyce, and they got her age wrong. It felt like that was that and it had been written off. As soon as I saw it—and this is rarely the case—I thought, “I have to make a film about this, no matter what I find out about who Joyce was.” It was a real visceral thing. The other [themes] around it, that it was a tale of our modern age, weren’t my first thoughts. My first thoughts were just this feeling that this woman had died without anyone noticing and without leaving anything behind.
Filmmaker: Was the advert that you placed trying to find people who’d known her a shot in the dark? What were you expecting?
Morley: Because I didn’t know the names of her friends, I had to reach out to the unknown, you know? Obviously, I did track some people down, but to find others was a different matter. In the film, you see the advert on a black taxi driving through London – I felt there must be people out there who knew her. Every single person who answered my ad, whether they were in the film or not, didn’t know Joyce had died. People were unaware anything had happened to her, which I found strange. I really did want true testimonies to the fact that she had existed. But you never know, even if you do find people, whether they’ll speak on camera. Many didn’t want to, because they felt their connection to the story would [make them] look bad because of the tale it tells of someone being forgotten.
Filmmaker: The journey you went on was almost a metaphysical exercise in the sense that you were confronted with a stark, puzzling absence and you were attempting to find a way to fill it.
Morley: Yeah, it was like resuscitating Joyce, bringing her back to life and building her up bit by bit. From the beginning I never wanted to concentrate on the squalid detail of the story or “Where were the authorities?” They were closed down and wouldn’t talk to me. And I thought actually, this is about somebody who lived, not somebody who died. That’s what I concentrated on. Creating her presence was very important, which is why I knew early on I wanted to have an actor play her.
Filmmaker: How did you manage to bring in the interviewees — ex boyfriends and classmates and coworkers — as collaborators to help you construct her story, given how sensitive the material was?
Morley: Errol Morris doesn’t like to meet anyone before he interviews them, but I got to know my people beforehand because they needed to trust me. It was such a difficult subject matter and one that could be so full of blame and accusation. Martin, the key boyfriend, thought I’d get an actor to play him. When I asked him, he banged his head on the table and said, “I’ve got to do it for her.” I did meet some of the family, but they wanted to remain private. There was a point where I realized this was a film about friendship. As adults, we don’t belong to our families, so the responsibility isn’t with them. This was about the friendships Joyce had along the way and how much she revealed or didn’t reveal.
Filmmaker: The fact that someone could be at once so vivacious and so isolated — and ultimately invisible—touched off a lot of passionate responses from audiences who’ve seen Dreams.
Morley: There was a statistic recently about how many people in New York City end up living on their own — it was really high. Living alone doesn’t mean you’re lonely, and people can have fulfilling lives on their own. But we are also living modern lives where we are kind of disconnected. With the rise of social media, we’re all communicating so much virtually that we can end up putting on these masks. We are putting up a front, which I think Joyce did, so even though we’re all connected, are we showing our true selves? That fascinates me. In metropolitan areas, it’s quite easy to be anonymous. It’s why I live in London, because you can have an anonymous aspect to your life which can be quite fun! [Laughs] But we don’t necessarily look at what’s going on around us. This happens a lot more than we think, where someone dies on their own, in a flat or house, and is forgotten. In America, you have the former actress who died – she was old – gone for two years. It’s a story that confronts you with what it means to live nowadays and how noticed we really are.
Filmmaker: There are so many haunting details around the edges of Joyce’s story — the fact that she was surrounded with Christmas presents opens up a whole world of questions. And the television was still on.
Morley: When I saw the original article, it mentioned that the television [in her flat] was on, and I was so drawn in because it is like a symbol of the age of communication and all these lives being lived on the outside while she was there being forgotten. That connection was quite profound. Also, the fact she lived above a shopping mall, which every week got a quarter of a million people. This idea of a very busy location and the television flickering with entertainment and news — that’s a very potent image.
Filmmaker: The array of perspectives that coalesce around Joyce are so contradictory. One friend says she has a beautiful voice and Alistair, the music producer who dated her, says she couldn’t really sing. At times her friends are openly questioning their own understanding of who she was. It underscores how complex we are as individuals, even to the people who presumably know us.
Morley: I think we are defined through the people we know. We only really exist because of how the people around us define who we are. Actually, we present ourselves to people differently depending on who they are. I love that’s what film can do so well — it can show those viewpoints.
Filmmaker: Dreams of a Life also touches on many other aspects of social life, like race and sexual politics in Great Britain.
Morley: Yeah, you know the article never mentioned whether Joyce was black or white. It was like she was nothing. As I started to find out more about her and got a sense of her living through the 80s and being very aspirational and working in the finance district — that was quite an important time of race politics coming to the fore. She was both part of that and not part of that, and I found that fascinating.
Filmmaker: Do you think of this, even peripherally, as a feminist film?
Morley: It has to be, because there are very few films in Britain made with a black female lead. What I like about the film is how illuminating it is on the men who surrounded Joyce, like Martin and John. You get this really interesting perspective of how men viewed her and built up her identity. But I don’t think I set out to impose something on Joyce, only in the sense of unpacking what it is to be a woman.
Filmmaker: A beautiful young woman in a big city with big dreams …
Morley: Valued for her looks, yeah. Once you’re valued on your looks, there’s this critical point of being with a man or not, those kinds of things that people obsess over in our culture.
Filmmaker: What did you have in mind when you started constructing the set pieces and reenactments for the film?
Morley: I always felt her bedsit was the central point of departure. When I envisaged a structure for the film, I wanted to use it as a way into her past and the people who knew her. That’s why the interviewees often appear on the TV set. By showing the flat, I felt it would give some insight into Joyce and [allow an audience to] experience that sense of isolation. We won’t ever know if Joyce was feeling lonely — she might have been getting her life together. But I thought it was important to create those last bits of time that she really was with us.
Filmmaker: The boldest creative move you make here is the extended sequence where Zawe Ashton, playing Joyce, sings “My Smile Is Just a Frown” in her bedroom.
Morley: Everyone wanted me to cut that! [Laughs] I fought for it because I thought it was important to have the whole song. A lot of people sing when they’re alone, and she’s imagining an audience, which the actual song lyrics [convey] as well. I find it incredibly poignant. It was the key to who she was because she wore a mask. She was party to that lack of knowledge about her. And the idea that it would be a single take was inspired by a scene in Agnès Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7. After we’d made it, Steve McQueen’s Shame came out, and there was a whole-song sequence in that as well, so now I’m looking for them!
Filmmaker: What directions did you give Zawe Ashton, given how little you knew of the woman she was intended to exhume and embody? What was your way of working together?
Morley: Zawe came to casting, and I got everyone to sing a Kate Bush song, because Joyce loved Kate Bush. I was looking for people who could be dark and light, because Joyce really lit up rooms – she was fun to be with. As soon as Zawe arrived, she was very charismatic, and that was more important than her looking like Joyce, although we did fill a gap in her teeth and fix her hair. She was interested in the interviews we’d done, but I wouldn’t show them to her because I felt they wouldn’t be useful for her to hear because what people say about Joyce is so conflicting. I did give her lots of images of Joyce. We had this rehearsal where she came in and saw them blown up really big. Her first point of entry was a soundtrack to Joyce’s life. We got into the character through music, mostly. The brilliant thing with Zawe – and all actors – is that they’ll do their own work and bring their own internal stuff to it, some vulnerability and inner strength. Once we had the bedsit, I got Zawe to inhabit it to feel that it was an extension of her. She brought a lot of seriousness to the performance because she was playing a woman of such complexity who we were all trying to resurrect. It was profoundly affecting for all of us.
Filmmaker: The definition of documentary is always morphing, and perhaps nowadays the blend between fiction and factual filmmaking techniques has never been richer. What are your thoughts on that?
Morley: I never thought of myself as a documentary filmmaker as such. I studied fine art filmmaking so for me it’s always been about looking at the story and thinking how best to tell it. With Dreams of a Life, it was important that people didn’t think, “Oh that’s a stretch, that’s been made up.” We’re in an age where people are beginning to question what’s true and what’s not — in this country, we have the whole Levenson inquiry about newspapers, for instance. No one trusts anybody! There’s a place now for documentary to explore — I hate to use the word “truth” — but it’s become an important way of creating stories that people feel have more truth in them.
Filmmaker: And there’s no one straight path to achieving authenticity.
Morley: That’s one reason I think more documentaries are using fiction elements. We’re questioning ideas of truth and how it’s been previously put across. For me, it wouldn’t be enough to make a purely observational documentary, because I wouldn’t feel it was questioning the process of making it. It’s about having the best of both worlds. The docs that inspired me are by Agnès Varda and Errol Morris, because they are very much filmmaker led rather than factually led. In cinema documentary, it’s always been a blur about what it means to construct truth, hasn’t it?
Filmmaker: What’s do you see as the correspondence between your previous fiction feature Edge and Dreams of a Life?
Morley: The correlation is thematic. I’m obsessed about outsiders, really — people who live on the fringes of society, deliberately or otherwise. I’m fascinated with ideas of loneliness and mental health. My own father killed himself when I was 11, so I think I’ve spent my whole life trying to work it out! [Laughs] Edge came about because we were trying to finance Dreams, so in the middle of that we went and shot Edge on a microbudget. Joyce hangs all over it. It’s a frozen filmmaker making a film about frozen people, definitely. [Laughs]
Filmmaker: At one point in the film, Alistair says Joyce probably bears some responsibility for her isolation. Do you agree?
Morley: We all have to look at our own responsibility to live a life. We can’t necessarily expect to be rescued, though everyone at some point might want to be. I thought it was a brave thing for him to say even though some might resent him for it. Our lives are nothing without real, substantial connections. I’ve heard stories of people falling out of visibility, and I guess it made me quite conscious of how many people live invisible lives without choice. Since making this film, I can’t pass anybody on the street who’s in trouble and just walk by. Joyce was a beautiful presence in so many lives, and that was a beautiful thing to discover.