Heart-warming, emotionally captivating and equal parts darkness and light, Joe Stephenson’s feature debut film Chicken is, conversely to the title, not solely about farm animals.
Originally a play by Freddie Machin, it follows Richard (Scott Chambers), an optimistic and sunny teenage boy living in a caravan with his volatile brother Polly (Morgan Watkins), dealing with both Polly’s changeable moods and his own undiagnosed learning difficulties. Richard finds friendship in Annabel (Yasmin Paige), the local girl whose land him and his brother live on.
For Stephenson, adapting Machin’s play for the screen was all about “finding Richard’s voice again”. “There was a lot that I wanted to change and I wanted to delve a little deeper into certain subjects, but there was a lot about it that struck me, particularly the character of Richard.” Stephenson saw an opportunity “to present the character honestly” and wanted to ensure that “his disabilities are not driving the plot”.
In terms of difficulties in developing the story for the screen, they wanted to be “faithful to themes and characters, but not be tied to the plot”. “There are a lot of restrictions you have when you do a play. On stage, you can’t have a live chicken so obviously, you didn’t have any connection to the character and you didn’t have any connection to their relationship.”
The doting relationship between Richard and Fiona (the chicken) emphasises both Richard’s caring nature and his struggle to communicate and be understood by the outside world. Re-discovering Richard was “very much coming from the work that Scott and I had done, in working on Richard as a person and all his history and developing all the reasons for why he behaves how he does. We felt a huge responsibility, we were very very very aware whilst we were doing it.” With only a weeklong rehearsal and a 19-day filming period both Stephenson and Scott went to great lengths to create a well-researched and respectful portrayal of a young person with learning difficulties. “There was certainly a pressure and a responsibility. We analysed the performances that were successful and less successful and when you look at those, things become quite clear; they’re very technical performances. You go through a checklist of things you start trying to do but in doing that it’s very easy to lose the humanity, the fact that every individual is different and that there is no one way of being, which of course goes for people with learning difficulties, and people without. We decided we weren’t going to go ‘he has this’, what we’re going to focus on is his experience and how he feels. Richard doesn’t know what he has, he doesn’t even really know if he’s different, he just knows that people treat him differently.” When watching it’s clear that “it’s coming from the heart and that was the most crucial thing that Scott and I were focused on.”
The natural beauty of the film is staggering. It’s exquisitely shot and Stephenson emphasises that in film you can use the environment in ways that you can’t on stage. “We made the weather a character and the environment a character. Richard finds the joy in his life through nature, the point with that was to the use the environment and nature to enhance the understanding of these people and characters. He sees the world almost like the Wizard of Oz, it’s all feeding his imagination. It was a way into his psychology, I wanted people to fall in love not only with how he behaves but how he sees the world. The whole film is designed around Richard’s life and his mentality and where his safe places are, so [the environment] is definitely a mirror in all the different elements of the film. It’s worth noting we shot at the end of August into September, and we deliberately left the Polly scenes to the last weeks so that we would get all the sun with Annabel, and when the weather started to turn and become grey we would shoot for Polly.” Even the filming process was clearly very much designed so that it fed into every element, “emotional and physical”.
Whilst this is certainly a coming-of-age story, it’s not restricted by the confines of that description. You see the intricacies of relationships play out and every character seems to develop and come to a realisation. You see “the complexities of both of the brothers, both of who have mental health issues. One of them their mental health is destroying their life and he’s not able to function or form friendships and relationships, but on the other side you have Richard whose mental health and naivety is almost saving him from fully understanding the situation they are in enabling him to be optimistic and find joy in what he has. He has a way of seeing the world, it’s a protection mechanism, seeing what he needs to see but also seeing what he wants to see so that he can keep on going, and we all do that to a degree. The pain of the story is that he’s being forced to see what he doesn’t have and that the real world and the adult world are being forced on him. It’s Richard’s coming of age but also Polly’s as he has to realise he’s possibly no good for Richard, and has to take responsibility, whilst Annabel is realising she shouldn’t treat her friends the way she does and that she has it good. We all come of age in different ways, different people have different experiences, and really it’s an awakening of some kind.”
CHICKEN is available now on DVD & Blu-ray http://amzn.to/2wTdqX8