“It felt a tiny bit like revenge” – TDF interview with Deborah Haywood

Pin Cushion, British writer/director Deborah Haywood’s startling feature debut, is a dark fairy-tale about a mother and daughter (impeccably played by Joanna Scanlan and Lily Newmark), who share an intensely personal bond, but become victims of cruelty and bullying when they move to a new town. The film arrived in UK cinemas last summer, going on to appear at festivals all over the world, and garnering much critical acclaim and several prestigious awards along the way.

Haywood, who herself suffered at the hands of bullies at school, pours every bit of her hurt, confusion and anger into the film but, although bleak, Pin Cushion isn’t social realism; it is a far more eccentric piece of work, channelling Beatrix Potter, Brian De Palma’s Carrie, and Ágota Kristóf’s bleakly humorous novel The Notebook, as it builds to a jaw-dropping conclusion. If you ask me, it was one of 2018’s best British films, right up there with the likes of Beast and Apostasy.

The Derbyshire-born writer/director has been making short films since 2007 and Screen International named her one of its ‘stars of tomorrow’ in the same year. But, more than a decade later, Pin Cushion in no way feels like a culmination; Haywood is brimming with ideas for future projects – including a discomfiting gothic horror film – and, if her debut is anything to go by, she is all set to become a unique and essential voice in British cinema and beyond. With Pin Cushion finally getting a DVD release in the UK, I spoke to her about the hugely positive reaction to the film and what’s happening next…

Pin Cushion was very well reviewed, particularly in the US. Did that take you by surprise?

Yes, we were thrilled that people even saw it there, let alone how well it went down. Although, thinking about it, it played really well at Fantastic Fest, in Austin, so maybe it made sense that it would be received well elsewhere.

You’ve spent a fair bit of time in the States since Pin Cushion came out – is that a direct result of the film’s positive reception there? 

I’ve actually spent less time in the US since making Pin Cushion. I write a lot better when I’m on a different time zone to my usual distractions. And I love the blue sky.

Has writing in the US changed the way in which you write or what you write about?

Possibly, it’s hard to tell. I wrote Pin Cushion when I was living in Palo Alto, California, for six months of the year, and I often wonder if it gave me a different perspective.

How has the film been received in non-English speaking countries? Bullying is a universal thing, so I’m guessing a lot of different audiences would get it… 

I’m not sure. I know when I was at festivals in Europe it was really well received. It won a prize at the Seville film festival, the Jury Award at Ithaca Fantastik, and the Audience Award at the International Films de Femmes, in Paris. And Joanna (Scanlan) was doing some filming in somewhere like Prague and someone there was obsessed with it.

You’ve spoken very movingly about how the bullying you suffered as a child inspired the film. Did making it help you come to terms with what you went through? Has being visible and successful in the film industry been like taking revenge on those who bullied you?

It definitely helped me come to terms with it, but I guess I wouldn’t know to what extent without finding myself in that position (again) and seeing how I reacted. But I’m hoping that won’t happen! It felt a tiny bit like revenge but, to be honest, I didn’t really focus on it because I was too swept up with everything that was happening. I hadn’t realised how much is involved after making a feature and it was a huge learning experience. In a good way, of course.

You’re an ambassador for RISE (an awards scheme which honours kids who have achieved against the odds). How did that relationship come about and is it a reflection of the fact teenagers feature prominently in your work?

I’m not sure. I think that probably had something to do with it. I’m from Swadlincote, Derbyshire, and it was identified as having the lowest youth aspiration in the country, and the lowest social mobility. So, when the local council heard about me making a film in Swad, and with me being from there and having a career you wouldn’t expect me to have (not even I expected or ever imagined that could happen), I think it must have made sense for them to ask me.

In the last few years – quite rightly – there have been serious attempts at tackling the film industry’s diversity issues, in terms of women and ethnic minorities. But do you think it’s time the industry also made more of an effort to improve its diversity in terms of class?  

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, absolutely. It makes me shudder to think how much talent isn’t getting the opportunities to shine. In all industries, actually.

Have you stayed in touch with Joanna Scanlan and Lily Newmark? I’ve seen Lily in loads of things since Pin Cushion, including Solo: A Star Wars Story and Juliet, Naked.

Yes, Lily’s been really busy. I text with Lily, and check in with her. I’m super fond of her. And I’ve become big friends with Joanna, who I adore.

What are you working on next? You’ve previously mentioned a musical, based on one of your short films, and a nightmarish horror, inspired by a recurring dream about an owl… 

Yes, still those two! A surreal gothic horror and a family musical, that will hopefully be funny!

Pin Cushion is available on DVD in the UK now


Updated: Aug 23, 2019

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