Interview: Director Deborah Haywood Puts Herself Out There In The Dark And Whimsical PIN CUSHION

Deborah Haywood talks about the therapeutic process of making her beautiful and brutal debut feature.

Deborah Haywood’s remarkable debut feature, Pin Cushion, was my favorite film out of Fantastic Fest last year. To celebrate its US release, I recently chatted with Haywood about what it was like to bring the deeply moving and personal story about bullying to the screen.

A dark fairy tale, the plot centers around single mother Lyn (Joanna Scanlan) and her teenage daughter Iona (Lily Newmark) as they arrive in a new town hoping for a fresh start. Instead, the eccentric duo finds their relationship strained after a series of cruel encounters with neighborhood bullies. The British indie was shot in Haywood’s hometown of Swadlincote, where the writer-director quite literally confronted her own experiences with bullying by using her former high school as one of the film’s primary locations. As a result, the process of making Pin Cushion became a healing journey for Haywood, changing her perspective on a place that previously held only bad memories.

“I was a bit scared to go back there,” she says. “When I’ve thought about school since then, and that school particularly, I couldn't even say the word. But I faced my fears and now I've got a totally different relationship with [it]. Now, I think, ‘That's where we did something great,’ rather than, ‘That's where my life was hell.’”

As it turns out, making the film was therapeutic not just for the director, but also for her young star. “Lily, was particularly brave,” Haywood states, “because her experiences of bullying were a lot more recent than mine. So, I'm so grateful that she plucked the courage up to do it. In fact, she wanted to do it for that reason. She wanted it to be a healing experience and also to get the word out there about bullying and open a discussion.”

Personal experiences with bullying have dominated the discussion throughout Haywood’s tour of the festival circuit over the last year. She has numerous stories about audience members approaching her after the screening in tears, openly sharing their encounters with bullying. She recalls, “I had a granddad come up to me and say, ‘My granddaughter's going through something like this, I'd love her to see the film.’ It’s been quite moving, actually. I feel very lucky and privileged to have the opportunity to tell the story, to make a connection with other people. I felt so lonely when I was being bullied and it's so humiliating and full of shame. If somebody else is going through this, or they've been through this and feel like I do, then [it’s] like I'm giving them a little secret hug.”

The warmth of Haywood’s cinematic embrace comes from her empathy as a writer, which is evident in her inclusion of characters representing both sides of the topic. “What I found most healing,” she shares, “was when I was doing research, I realized that if you're a bully you're not in a good place yourself. Somebody sorted and happy doesn't need to behave like that. So, it did give me empathy toward [bullies] because I think they’re acting out of their own unhappiness. One of the things I like to do in my writing is ask, ‘Who's the person behind the label?’ And the film gave us an opportunity to really explore who those people are.”

Of course, the mother and daughter are the most important people in Pin Cushion. Lyn and Iona were in good hands with stirring performances from exquisite newcomer Lily Newmark and the brilliant Joanna Scanlan. Both women contribute to the lovability of these oddball characters, although their vulnerability can sometimes be difficult to watch. Scanlan’s timid and fragile portrayal of Lyn is both humorous and heartbreaking as she desperately tries not to be a burden on her daughter. “When I was writing Lyn's character,” Haywood says, “Susan Boyle was the inspiration and then when we were doing costumes I said, ‘You know, I want her to be like a mix between Susan Boyle and Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, which I think she is.” Newmark, on the other hand, brings such raw authenticity and pure innocence to Iona that your heart aches for her. On casting Lily, Haywood continues, “I wanted somebody who felt like they were untouched by modern life, like a proper fairy tale character and I think she's definitely got that essence and aura around her.”

However, the film’s fairy tale aesthetic goes beyond the presence of its leading lady, intercutting dreamlike fantasy sequences that mitigate the gloom of the more traumatic moments. Haywood, who lists Todd Solondz as one of her influences, has quite a gift for combining darkness and light in a way that will surprise and even shock some viewers – check out her short film Sis for a glimpse of just how dark her sense of humor goes. “I was influenced,” she says, “by a writer called Ágota Kristóf, who's a Hungarian writer and she writes in a fairy tale kind of language, which is very direct and very blunt. She has a character in one of her books called ‘Harelip’ and that just really excited me how you could write about all this dark really brutal stuff, but in this kind of very simplistic direct way and that translated to the film perfectly. I think [the fairy tale aspect] makes it more palatable, definitely. And I wouldn't have wanted to do it like a social realism film. I think that would’ve been depressing and not interesting for me to do as a filmmaker.”

Haywood’s voice as a filmmaker is a powerful one and there’s a fearless femininity that makes it stand out from the crowd. Her experience as a first-time feature director was pleasant and, looking ahead, she has at least two more projects she hopes to get funded. On the topic of what it’s like to be a woman in the industry right now, she muses, “People have been really excited, and nobody said, ‘Oh you're a woman,’ or anything like that. I think the white heterosexual male narrative is getting a bit tired. We all know what's going to happen, we’ve seen it all before. I think women are being included in the conversation and that means we can get our stories out there and, because they haven't been told before, weirdly, they feel fresh. I think it's a really exciting time. So, we may as well take risks and put ourselves out there, because we're here once and we have to make the most of it.”

Pin Cushion is out now in the UK and hits US theaters today. You don’t want to miss it!