British writer-director Janis Pugh’s remarkable sophomore narrative feature Chuck Chuck Baby, which received its North American premiere at last month’s 48th Toronto International Film Festival—and plays both New York’s 35th NewFest and Cardif’s Iris Prize Festival this weekend—is a celebration of love between working class women in all its forms with a infectious carpe diem spirit. In industrial North Wales, we meet thirty-something Helen (Louise Brealey) who spends her days surrounded by her close-knit group of co-workers among the flying feathers at the chicken factory, while her nights at home are devoted to tenderly taking care of her dying ex-mother-in-law Gwen (Sorcha Cusack). A touching queer love story emerges when Helen’s childhood school friend Joanne (Annabel Scholey) returns to town after a twenty-year absence, reigniting their passion for one another, while Joanne is forced to confront deep trauma from her past. Visually striking, Chuck Chuck Baby is a vibrant, moving film with touches of magic realism, that boldly and unapologetically wears its heart of its sleeve, using well-known songs in an unconventional way to express the inner lives of its characters.
Immediately following the premiere at TIFF, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with Janis Pugh and Louise Brealey about their collaboration on the film, its inventive use of music, the importance of centring working class women in the narrative, and how a memorable scene of factory workers flinging chickens at each other was choreographed.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: What’s your TIFF experience been like so far?
Louise Brealey: “It’s been wild. The whole thing feels hallucinatory—and that isn’t because you can get mushrooms here—we’re actually just tripping with sheer joy, and we’re all jet-lagged! It isn’t my first time in Toronto, I was here with my boyfriend who was filming back in January in the frozen winter when it was hitting minus 20 degrees Celsius. So it obviously feels like a completely different city right now, it’s like the upside down. I’d heard all about the Toronto audiences being great and we’ve just come out of the premiere and true to form our audience was really incredible.”
TIFF audeinces are really enthusiastic and such film lovers. I like how accessible this festival is to the public.
Louise: “Out of all of the festivals, I think TIFF really nails that aspect. It feels like a town that loves film.”
Is this your first TIFF as well Janis?
Janis Pugh: “Yes, it’s my first TIFF and it’s been absolutely extraordinary. We love it here, especially those massive public audiences, which is what film is all about. It’s been really wonderful.”
I’ve never seen a film quite like Chuck Chuck Baby.
Louise: “I’m not sure I have either and I’ve seen a lot of films. It has facets of other films, but as a whole I do think that it has a singular vision and that really comes from Janis. It’s quite like her really. It’s larger than life, it’s also got a huge heart, it’s sensitive, and there’s a delicateness to it. She’s a very feeling person.”
Janis, what were some of the things that sparked your imagination as you wrote this film? I know it was shot in and around your hometown, was that location part of what inspired it?
Janis: “Yes, it’s all shot around Flintshire where I was born. A lot of the exteriors were actually childhood places that I played in, like mushroom mountain. So that was quite a strange experience revisiting those places for the film. I always wanted to shoot in Flintshire, it had to be there because the landscape is such a vital part of it. It’s definitely character in the film.”
Louise: “Talking about how unusual and singular Chuck Chuck Baby is as a film, one of the reasons for that is you and your vision Janis, as I was saying, but the second reason is the area itself. There’s a proximity to the wilderness, those beautiful moors, the industrial landscape, and all of those very classically working class, tiny environments. We had a set for the upstairs of the house, but for the downstairs scenes we were actually shooting in a real house. You could only fit the cameraperson and the actors in the room and that was it, they were really tight spaces. In Flintshire, you have those three worlds and the combination of those, along with the colour palette and the music that permeates the film, is what holds it all together.”
What’s the significance of these being working class women at the centre of this story, which is still all too rare to see?
Janis: “It’s definitely rare. These are voices that we don’t often hear.”
Louise: “Especially the women.”
Janis: “That’s right, and we need to start hearing them. I was shaped by these women, completely shaped by them. I was brought up purely by women and the women were the strength of the community. They worked, they had kids, they looked after each other’s kids, and life went on like that. Including that element of these strong women that we don’t hear enough of has always been very important to me in my work, even from my first short film, Blue Collars and Buttercups.”
Louise: “Right from the start, Janis and I talked about women who leave and women who stay in these communities. Janis and I are both women who left, but we come from those worlds. Mine is the Midlands, Northamptonshire, where it was all shoe factories, which my dad’s mum worked in and that goes back generations. My brother and sister both stayed there, and Janis and I talked about wanting to honour both of those choices.”
Janis: “There are social limitations on these women. They are brilliant, but the social aspect of where we all come from means that we know how hard it is to get up and out of it. But there’s always so much humour and love there to go back to.”
Louise: “This film is about celebrating the power of those connections, those friendships.”
Louise: “I struggle to think of another film that has that front and centre in the way that ours does and that was really important to me. It felt like it was for my mum and for my mum’s mum. I’m a code-switcher because at nine I got a scholarship to posh school. Still, when I go home now, I sound like they do, but somehow I don’t. Making that relationship beautiful—between someone who leaves and someone who stays—was really important to me.”
For Joanne, coming back also means having to confront a painful past doesn’t it?
Janis: “That’s right. This was also about looking at women who have gone through brutal and abusive backgrounds from birth, who find beauty in their present lives. It’s about celebrating the strength of those women. It’s about the beauty and brutality of life, that’s what Chuck Chuck Baby is. It’ll make you cry, it’ll make you smile, it’ll make you laugh, and it’ll make you dance.”
Louise: “I absolutely don’t see it like this, but there is a reading of my character Helen as purely downtrodden, because she is sensitive and shy and she doesn’t fight for herself, certainly at the start of the film, then of course she wakes up and becomes her true self. She’s broken really at the beginning of the film and it’s so important to me to go, ‘No, we’re not going to think that that’s not worth looking at’. There are so many women like that and I think the idea that because she is sensitive and stuck and afraid of being alive and afraid of taking a risk that that is not something worthy of attention.”
“When I did Sherlock, there was a big old stink at one point about my character Molly being seen as a doormat or not fighting, but the fact is there are people like that. Why can’t that be? Because she had unrequited love, they wanted her to be some sort powerful woman trope, but I think there’s power and courage in resilience. Staying alive in some of these environments can be really hard, keeping your spirit, keeping that little flicker that needs to light up again. That’s courage. It’s not just gun toting. It was so exciting for me to see a character like Helen that has a real journey, that’s not just a film journey.”
Mother-in-laws are so often the butt of jokes and villainized.
Louise: “It’s just another older woman hag trope, that’s all it is.”
To see a mother-in-law character like Gwen—played beautifully by Sorcha Cusack—treated with such dignity in the film was really striking. The fact that she’s dying brings the fragility and brevity of life into sharp focus. I love the way she keeps saying “tick tock” to Helen. It’s a really touching relationship between them, and it’s another kind of love story alongside the romantic one and the love between the women at the factory.
Louise: “All female love is present here, it really is, and that relationship with Gwen was central to the film. There’s no varnish on us when we’re doing those scenes. It needs to be that pure a love between them because otherwise Helen wouldn’t stay there for her no matter what. The idea that Helen’s staying there purely because she’s downtrodden is wrong. She’s staying there because she loves that woman and needs to take care of her because no one else is going to. So that holds her stuck and she holds herself stuck a little too. Sorcha is amazing. She is very easy to love, especially when you’re really close to her. I found it really easy to inhabit that relationship and right after we finished shooting the film I lost my mum, so watching those scenes now really moves me. That amazing older woman figure is a really important thing for Janis and in some ways this film is for your mum isn’t it?”
Janis: “Yeah it is, and I took three months off to look after my father before he died. I know that relationship. I’ve done it with my mother and with my aunt. When you know somebody going through the last moments of their life, you’re very aware of what the world is about. It’s about that moment, because all that matters is making their journey as beautiful as it can be when they leave this world. That’s the beauty of Gwen who conducts this love story and advocates for that fight for life. It’s about love, that beautiful love.”
We have to talk about your use of songs in the film, with the characters singing over well-known tracks in some really emotional and moving, as well as some very fun, uplifting sequences. Again, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film quite like this.
Janis: “My editor, Rebecca Lloyd, now calls it the Janis Pugh genre. I’ve been using music like that for a long time. Some films I write will get made, some films won’t. This one got made. The music is there from the beginning of the writing process, it has to be, from the moment I start as if I was writing a musical. The songs are picked as part of the narrative and the storytelling, part of the characters’ emotions, informing you of their backgrounds and everything else about them. From the scriptwriting stage, you have to know where the emotion of the song will take you.”
Louise: “Janis was very clear that she never wanted us to stop and sing the song. The songs take us somewhere else. Each one of them is a scene. It’s not decorative, it really moves the character and the action on. I worked with a singing teacher and learnt those songs inside out in order to be able to not sing them properly! I had to have them in my bones, but it wasn’t ever about hitting the notes, as you could tell! It was deliberate because Janis wanted it to feel like we were doing it on our own. There are some belty moments, but there are also moments of being slightly behind or slightly ahead of the song.”
We’ve all had times in our lives when a particular song or an album has got us through which expresses something in a way that we can’t necessarily articulate for ourselves. Is that where your use of music comes from?
Janis: “Exactly. We all use music as a private, personal way of feeling our emotions. I used to sing John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” with my dad and we used to have a scream singing it together. I had to play it at his funeral and so I don’t sing that song the same anymore because it has a totally different effect on me now. That’s what it’s all about, a personal, private connection to the song, so I didn’t want you to belt anything out until you needed to belt out.”
Louise: “One of the things that’s beautiful about the film is that there is an unashamed emotion to it. It gives us permission to feel and you’re either going to go with that or you’re not. I remember being at a screening of Dancer In the Dark years ago at Cannes when I was a journalist. Half of us in the row were balling, really ugly crying and screaming with cheers and applauding. But a few of my fellow journalists were booing and I remember feeling a little sorry for the people who were booing or who were so untouched by it. That doesn’t matter, a film doesn’t have to reach everybody. The fact is, if you want to open your heart to this film, it will it will hold your heart. I love that it’s emotionally bold and brave, but if you’re not going to go with that then that’s okay, it’s fine, go and watch the new Fast and Furious instead. It’s up to you.”
We have to talk about the raw chicken choreography! When those chickens started being flung around during the musical sequence in the factory, I thought that was amazing.
Janis: “It all starts off with the fact that I actually worked in a chicken factory myself, and that happens.”
People would throw them around?
Janis: “Yes, and much grosser things than that too! I didn’t even go as far as what they would do in a real chicken factory. It was guts and blood and it was a lot of fun, and flinging chickens at each other was quite normal. In the film, that sequence is absolutely a beautiful dance. In a real chicken factory, it’s musical too, they have music blaring all shift, and the choreography came out of throwing stuff about.”
Louise: “It was quite a challenge to shoot because I hadn’t ever practiced with the feathers flying around me. We’ve got great blooper of me jumping up and then falling straight down onto my arse, haven’t we?! It was an intense part of the shoot, but it was a real testament to preparation. Janis knew exactly what she wanted. I’d been working on every facet of my performance for two years, which is mad because it seems so low-key, but when it came to shooting scenes like that one, I knew exactly what to do and I helped to hold my little magic space.”
By James Kleinmann
Chuck Chuck Baby received its International Premiere at the 48th annual Toronto International Film Festival. Next it will play the 2023 Iris Prize Festival in Cardiff, Wales on Friday, October 13th at 8pm (with an introduction and Q&A by Janis Pugh) and Sunday, October 15th at 5:30pm; and NewFest’s 35th Annual New York LGBTQ+ Film Festival on Saturday, Oct 14th at 6:45pm.