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Film interview: Better Things

February 2009

One of the lead actors is now dead, some of the cast are former drug users and many had no acting experience. SIMON WILSON spoke to Duane Hopkins, writer and director of Nottingham-produced feature film Better Things...

LIAM McIlfatrick had been clean of heroin for two years when filmmaker Duane Hopkins came knocking.
Hopkins had written a script about life in a rural community, where drug use was prevalent. And he wanted real people, not actors, to star in it. People who knew about drug use.
For McIlfatrick , who played Rob in Better Things, the experience was life-changing. But tragically, after starting to get his life back on track, he died last year from pneumonia.
"When I first met him he was homeless," says Hopkins, who started work on the script for his feature-length debut in 2002.
"He was 22 when we made the film and it was the first time since he was 14 that he'd really had a proper stable environment. He got himself a flat and started going out with a girl who is also in the film. He was truly getting his life back on track.
"And he was interested in going on and doing acting as a career. But he contracted pneumonia and died.
"He never went back on heroin," he insists.
"He remained totally clean but you can be susceptible to pneumonia if you've had a heroin career, so to speak. Also he'd not had proper shelter since he was 14 and had never really had a regular diet."
Better Things was part-funding by EM Media and produced by Nottingham's Wellington Films, their first feature since the award-winning London To Brighton.
Despite the tragedy there have been positives since the film was completed two years ago, with some cast members going on to study drama and continue acting.
"There is something nice about giving someone an experience which they might not have normally had," he says.
Better Things isn't Trainspotting in the country. Don't expect a gratuitous display of drug use and violence. It's more about relationships -- and the role of drugs in those relationships.
The rural setting appealed to him from a personal perspective.
"I got tired of seeing drugs represented in urban settings. It didn't match with what I'd seen growing up."
That was in Chipping Campden , a village in the Cotswolds where Better Things is set.
"When I was 16 through to 20, the big drugs were pills, MDMA, speed, acid, that kind of thing. Then when I came back from university I'd see my friends in the pub and say 'where's so and so?' And they'd say 'we don't see him anymore because he's on heroin now.'
"Then kids started to die.
"I saw the heaviness of it. The atmosphere of it and this is something I wanted to put on film. I was interested in seeing it in a rural context, which is something I hadn't seen in film before."
Rather than audition in drama schools for his leads, Hopkins went in search of real characters with the sort of life experience he was trying to portray.
"I went to one school that was known for taking in problem kids. And there were these three boys who knew of each other but didn't hang around together. But there was a dynamic between them. One was a natural manipulator, another was trying to impress the other two and the third was trying to impress just one of the kids. And I thought, if I can film this, then I've got something very interesting."
Not that he taught them to act.
"One of them would become nervous if I had the camera close to him but would look more relaxed if it was further back. So I knew how to get him to react the way I wanted.
"And there was another shot where I wanted him to looked guilty. So I put a small cross of tape on the floor and told him to stare at it, knowing he wouldn't be able to do this. So his head starts to move, he becomes uncomfortable and on camera looks guilty."
One would expect troubled youths who had never been on a film set before would be a problem, not turning up on time and having difficulty taking instruction.
"They responded very well," he says. "I think it was the first time they'd been given a high level of responsibility and given feedback."

Better Things opened at Broadway today. On Wednesday, Duane Hopkins will introduce it and take part in a Q&A session with the producers. For details call 0115 952 6611

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