Undying Love

The Blaine brothers talk love, sex, death and Nina Forever.

by Jennie Kermode

Modern romance in Nina Forever
Modern romance in Nina Forever

True love never dies, so they say, and this is something that has charmed romantics and worried horror writers for hundreds of years. It doesn’t deter Holly (Abigail Hardingham), who really fancies Rob (Cian Barry) and figures she can handle the fact that he’s recently bereaved. But dead girlfriend Nina (Fiona O’Shaughnessy) still wants him for herself and isn’t about to give up easily.

An incisive look at some of the less talked-about aspects of human sexuality, Nina Forever is the first full length feature made for a cinema audience by brothers Chris and Ben Blaine, and it has won them well deserved attention. Fresh off the festival circuit, they agreed to talk to us about the film, enthusiastic about a review they said have given them a real boost early on. They were just glad, Chris tells me, that “somebody got it.” Thankfully, so did the general audience at Frightfest. “It was great. We were quite nervous about how the fans would actually respond,” Chris says. From there, the film has gone on to open internationally.

Although it does something very different with its subject matter, Nina Forever has the advantage of having had some ground prepared for it by the rise of the zom rom com, especially films like Life After Beth which deal directly with the issue of living with a dead ex-girlfriend. Ben says they weren’t really aware of these when making their film, however.

Embracing life
Embracing life

“We actually started on this about ten years ago,” Chris explains. “The idea was slow to develop... then we wrote it in 2012 and I suppose it was one of those magical coincidences where ideas from different parts of the globe come together at once. Nina is quite a different take on it though. We wanted to write something that would not just talk about death but talk about relationships, and not follow the usual rule with either a zombie or a ghost. Rob has got all of this fucked up emotion going on inside his head. It’s like with the scene in the laundrette, there’s this feeling like something monstrous is going to leak out.”

This understanding of the way bereavement can affect people came from a mixture of observation and personal experience, says Ben. “We were both lucky and unlucky enough to experience grief first hand.” This helped them to think about the emotional processes involved, which was important because they weren’t interested in fulfilling familiar genre expectations. “We wanted to turn them inside out slightly. I was always drawn to magical, impossible ideas and films that go right into the subconscious, that are bigger than reality.”

The film is also unusual because of its willingness to take on challenging issues around sexuality, I note, and Ben says that was an area he was really interested in exploring. “For Holly, it’s about the desire for a kind of relationship where you’re not seeing a nice person. Everything could be quite simple and ordinary and you could spend the weekends going to Ikea but really you’re seeking something darker and more interesting. I think I was a bit like that when I was younger so I have a sense of what it’s like. I don’t know the female side of it – in literature you’ve always got the femme fatale, the woman you know is going to mess you up in the head...”

“An homme fatale?” suggests Chris.

“Yeah.”

“There’s definitely that sense of having been there. Ben has as well. It’s about being drawn to people who are not necessarily the people the outside world say will do good things for you. It’s about how much Holly’s learning about herself and what she can accept and is willing to go through. The thing I’m also interested in is so often in films sex is an end, it’s about what the characters are wanting do or not being able to do, and it’s interesting to look at it as something that’s part of how the characters are developing.”

This let them experiment with moving the story forward through physicality and looking at the way bodies convey emotion. It meant having to find actors who were comfortable with a lot of nudity. “It’s a film that’s all about the most intimate moments and feelings so it doesn’t make sense people being covered up,” Chris notes. They worked with casting expert Emily Tilelli, who had Cian in mind from the start but was not initially successful in getting Fiona on board.

A scandalous situation
A scandalous situation

“She was scared that it was going to be another monster, another character she’d already played,” ads Ben. “But Nina wouldn’t let her go. She told us that she was having dinner with a friend and the friend said ‘For God’s sake shut up about that character! Either ring them back or get over it!’ So she rang us. She basically needed to hear from us that we cared about Nina and thought of her as human.

“Then Abby was just someone Emily had seen in character books and liked the look of. She came into casting and blew us all away. She was great – like Holly in some respects but very different in others – and again really connected to the character and knew why Holly was putting herself in that situation. She was a surprising performer to work with. Sometimes she would throw in a reason or response that I don’t think even she knew was coming out of her. It was really helpful actually because sometimes you can get stuck in a loop and see things in one particular way and it’s good to have a new perspective.”

“It was a very difficult film for all of us to work together on,” says Chris. “On top of the complexity of the performances there was the compressed timescale for shooting, not much money and hours of prosthetics and make-up. We hadn’t quite accounted for what a toll that can take on top of everything else. At the time it was one of the most painful filmmaking experiences I’ve had and then of course as soon as it finished we were saying ‘Let’s do that again!’ and instantly forgetting how painful it was.”

So will they be doing it again?

“The next thing we’re writing is a thriller,” he says. “Well, it’s a thriller in the same way that Nina’s a horror film. It’s sort of a spy thriller with a main character who you wouldn’t expect to be part of that world at all, and it’s told in way that’s quite relentless”

“We’ve also signed up to direct a new script by Irving Welsh and his writing partner Dean Cavanagh, which is very exciting,” adds Ben. “With Nina drew us to it was the mundanity of that small town suburban world, which is very like the place where we grew up. I liked the idea of impossible events taking place in that setting.”

Nina Forever opens in the US today (Valentine’s Day) and is released on DVD in the UK next week. Ben has just one more thing he wants to add: “Go in with an open mind, let Nina in and see what she does for you.”

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