Inspiration for Helen Walsh鈥檚 debut film came when she was cycling through the old dockland of Birkenhead.
Surrounded by areas largely abandoned and bereft, the writer instead saw something she describes as 鈥渧isually and cinematically really beautiful.?/p>
鈥淚 live over the water and I was interested in the stories which come out of somewhere like Birkenhead; somewhere which, although it鈥檚 only spitting distance from Liverpool, is emotionally, socially and economically marginalised and disconnected.
鈥淏ut it has a poetic beauty to it so when I had a story that I thought had to be told visually, partly because it was born out of the landscape, that鈥檚 where I wanted to film it as opposed to its glamorous big sister Liverpool.?/p>
The film, The Violators, is Helen鈥檚 first as screenwriter and director. Her previous successes have come as a novelist, of award-winning international best-sellers Brass, Once Upon A Time In England and The Lemon Grove.
But the prospect of seeing her characters brought to physical life off the page was enough of a lure and Birkenhead itself proved an enticing, if sometimes brutal, backdrop.
A small crew shot for five weeks, entirely within a five-mile radius. What it presents isn鈥檛 a romanticised view, more realism with heart, although Birkenhead remains nameless.
鈥淏ecause I鈥檓 from the area I have a respect and a loyalty and a sensitivity to it,?explains Helen, who was born in Warrington but now lives in Wirral. 鈥淔or instance in the edit we came across some stills that were amazing but tragic. On the wasteland there was this makeshift crack den and there was all this junkie paraphernalia and in the middle were babies鈥?nappies. We didn鈥檛 stage that, it was there, but when it came to the edit I looked at it and felt it was exploitative. It was a bit like poverty porn and I didn鈥檛 want that so it got cut.
鈥淲e did have a few hairy moments, though, shooting on location. We were chased off by drug dealers with their dogs, propositioned nearly every day by sex workers on Corporation Road and one evening when we were filming the armed response unit descended on us and said 鈥榯his is a no-go area, we need to remove you immediately鈥??/p>
The Violators tells the story of a 15-year-old girl, Shelly, who is excluded from education and in the absence of a stable mother figure instead fills her days looking after her two brothers.
鈥淪he indulges in a bit of petty crime and goes down to the penny arcade and she comes under the watchful gaze of the local loan shark, the cash for gold owner,?says Helen.
鈥淔rom growing up, that鈥檚 a familiar story for me: vulnerable young girls on those kind of estates and one guy, the predatory male.?/p>
The 39-year-old cast the film herself, delaying shooting the scenes until she felt her lead actress, Lauren McQueen, was old enough to perfectly fit the role.
鈥淚鈥檇 seen her on TV in Sky鈥檚 Little Crackers and I knew I wanted her, but I felt she was too young at the time so we waited,?says Helen.
It was the Fazakerley teenager鈥檚 first big screen part, just as it was a movie debut for Brogan Ellis who Helen had spotted on BBC鈥檚 Waterloo Road.
鈥淭hey both have very different methods in the way they prepare for scenes but they both delivered superbly intelligent performances for their first roles on a film set,?she adds.
鈥淭here鈥檚 a lot of talk at the moment about a lack of female directors and female writers in film, so it was great that we were able to use two female leads and really young, relatively unknown actors. That was important because when you first see Lauren at the penny arcade on New Brighton front in the opening shot, as an audience member you want to believe that you鈥檙e seeing Shelly Hudson, a 15-year-old waif from this area, not a superstar playing her. I think that breaks the illusion, which is fine for a big blockbuster but not for this kind of film.?/p>
Although, as the title suggests, The Violators has its central character neglected and abused by the men and women in her life, Helen stresses that neither of the two leads are victims. 鈥淪helly鈥檚 feisty, she鈥檚 a hardened cynical little kid and she鈥檚 running her own little show.
鈥淚 like to write flawed women, though. I think we can write really flawed men in cinema and they become idolised but with women it can be seen as a weakness. I like to write anti-heroines because we are all flawed and complex and I think there needs to be that range.?/p>
When she saw the finished version for the first time at the Edinburgh Film Festival Helen says she was moved by the performances. 鈥淟auren鈥檚 is such an emotional journey,?she reflects, referring to 鈥渁 glimmer of hope鈥?at its conclusion.
It made her want more, hence a second screenplay has just been completed and the casting process is beginning again.
鈥淚 think there鈥檚 a revolution going on at the moment in film,?she predicts. 鈥淚 think we鈥檙e going to be exposed to so much more vibrant cinema than your typical big studio Hollywood-dominated star cast films, it鈥檚 going to get really exciting.?/p>
- The Violators will be released in cinemas nationwide, including FACT Liverpool, on Friday June 17.