Director Rachel Tunnard on making a film with funny, flawed and realistic female characters

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Moya Crockett
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Rachel Tunnard with Jodie Whittaker on the set of Adult Life Skills

Every so often, a female character appears on our cinema screens who is so human – with all the flaws that that entails – that it comes as quite a shock. It shouldn’t, of course, but it does. Because how often, actually, do you watch a film where the heroine is sometimes rude or sloppy, awkward or drunk, lonely or selfish? How often do you see anyone remotely like yourself on-screen?

Recent years have seen a steady drip-feed of American movies with more nuanced, believable female protagonists, from Trainwreck and Frances Ha to Bridesmaids and Obvious Child. But it’s taken a long time for the British equivalent to arrive – which makes Adult Life Skills all the more delicious.

The debut feature film by writer-director-editor Rachel Tunnard, Adult Life Skills tells the story of 29-year-old Anna (Broadchurch’s Jodie Whittaker), who lives in the shed at the bottom of her mum’s garden. She spends her days working in a dead-end job, making videos using her thumbs as actors, and resisting her mum’s increasingly forceful attempts to get her a flat, a boyfriend and a haircut. When her best girlfriend from school reappears after a stint living in Thailand, Anna’s stagnating world is shaken up.

If it sounds a bit twee, it isn’t. The film is as heartbreaking as it is hilarious, and won the Nora Ephron Prize at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Stylist caught up with Rachel Tunnard to talk filmmaking, “adulting”, and Anne Hathaway’s Yorkshire accent.

Adult Life Skills has been winning prizes and getting glowing reviews all over the place. Did you expect it to make such an impression?

No! At first, everybody said that it was really niche, so my expectations were super low. But you know, actually, it’s not that niche. It’s just catering to an audience that’s really under-served. When I look at the responses we’re getting on Twitter and Facebook, it’s all women in their 20s and 30s tagging their mates, going, “It’s us!” I think that’s a real sign that there’s a dearth of this kind of [film].

Where did the title Adult Life Skills come from?

It’s a line from the film. Anna is wearing her old Brownie uniform because she hasn’t got any clean clothes, and someone looks at her badges and says we should get badges for adult life skills – sending stuff back in a restaurant or changing a car tyre, that kind of thing.

How easy was it to get people on-board with the concept of the film?

There were points during development where I was getting notes on the script going, “Do women actually talk to each other like this?” People just weren’t getting the banter between the women. But Jodie’s one of my best friends – I went to university with Rachael [Deering, who plays Anna’s friend Fiona], and I met Jodie at her fancy dress 21st birthday party – and our friendship is very much based on humorously slagging each other off. Within the context of a loving friendship, it’s fine for Jodie to take the mickey out of my spots, do you know what I mean? That’s what you do with your best friends. But when I was writing it, people didn’t necessarily understand that.

There was also a strong sense during development that this should be a rom-com, and that the female friendship was a storyline that could be cut. But that friendship is so important, and I was adamant that the answer to Anna’s problems would not be a man.

Did you have Jodie in mind while writing the character of Anna?

Definitely – the character in the film is very much a mishmash of me, Jodie and Rachael. But I’d go into these meetings, and people would go, “If you cast an American actress in the role of Anna, we’ll give you $25 million to do it instead of 25 quid.” You do go, oh, that’s tempting; I could like, buy a house or something. But actually, the role was written for Jodie and Jodie needed to play it.

You could have ended up in a One Day situation, with Anne Hathaway trying to do a Yorkshire accent.

[Laughs] Can you imagine? Exactly. I mean, God bless her, I really like Anne Hathaway, but she doesn’t know what it’s like to grow up in Yorkshire, with your brothers being rude about you. It’s just not the same.

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Why do you think it’s taken such a long time for characters like Anna to start to appear in British films?

When I was making the film, people would ask me, “Are you making Bridesmaids or are you making Me You and Everyone We Know?” And I was like, well, I’m from Sheffield. I’m not making any of those.

It’s so complicated. I think it lies partly in the weird kinds of things that would be said to me during development – things like, “Anna’s not very sympathetic”, or “Could you make her sexier?” And I’m there going, um, no… That’s kind of the whole point.

You have to look at who’s writing the projects and who’s making them. About five years ago, there was a big push in the industry for more films with female protagonists. Great – except these female characters were still written by men, so they were still, like, really sweet and sexy and non-threatening, and definitely wouldn’t have been wearing yesterday’s knickers. [Laughs.]

I remember having a massive discussion with Jodie and the make-up artist about how Anna needed to have painted her nails, but like three weeks ago, so they were all bitten and messy. Certainly when I was working as an editor, I never got scripts that I felt had authentically written women in them, with that level of realistic detail.

Is there an assumption that female characters have to be more likeable than male characters?

Oh God, it’s much harder to be an unlikeable female character. You get all of those Seth Rogen, Adam Sandler-type films where the male characters are really unlikeable in some ways, but you don’t care. Having said that, I actually worked really hard to make Anna sympathetic – to keep her authentic, but to put moments of softness in there as well.

Anna lives with her mum and her grandma. Why did you decide on that set-up?

I liked the idea that although they can really row and be hard on each other, the love is never in question. But I also just found it amusing. With the grandma, I basically took a load of things that my dad says and put them in the mouth of an old woman. Everyone’s like, “Oh my god, that character is genius”, but it’s just my dad with boobs.

Jodie Whittaker as Anna in Adult Life Skills
Jodie Whittaker as Anna in Adult Life Skills

A lot of the film’s tension stems from the relationship between Anna and her mum, who wants her to get her own place before she turns 30. Do you think it’s more difficult to “be an adult” now than it was for previous generations?

Universal things, like the desire for money and a relationship and stability, are probably the same as they’ve always been. What perhaps makes it feels like there’s more pressure is the increase in social media, and that culture of oversharing and showing off. I think that can – if you buy into it – make you look at your life and judge yourself based on where you think you should be, compared to your peers.

It’s a funny one, because when we were in America somebody said to me, “Oh my god, you’ve made the most 2016 film of 2016 – it’s all about adulting.” And I was like… What is “adulting”?!

That actually started as an Instagram hashtag – it’s where people post photos of themselves doing “grown-up” things…

[Laughs] What, like doing their accounts? Well, there you go.

You won the Nora Ephron Prize at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Were you an Ephron fan already?

Her films were everywhere when I was a kid. I really enjoyed them on a rom-com level, but there was probably a 15-year gap where I didn’t really feel like they spoke to me in any way. Then I watched some of them more recently, and they’re a lot edgier than I realised. A few of them are really sharp, and the dialogue is brilliant.

Like, I remember being 10 or something and watching When Harry Met Sally with my mum and her roaring her head off at the orgasm scene in the restaurant. Obviously I didn’t understand it, but later I was like, ohhh – that’s actually a really sharp comment about women and society and relationships.

Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction winner Lisa McInerney recently spoke to Stylist about the assumption that female writers will only write “women’s stories”. Is that something you’ve encountered?

There wasn’t any pressure for me to write a female character when I first started writing, but I feel it now in the sense that people expect me now to just write quirky women’s comedies. That expectation is quite limiting, but only if you take it on board.

For example, my agent’s getting sent a lot of scripts now for me to produce or direct, and a lot of them are women’s stories. But the one I’m most interested in is a Hell’s Angels Scarface story. My favourite film is The Beat That My Heart Skipped by Jacques Audiard, and I really want to make something like that – that’s my ultimate dream. But nobody’s interested in me directing a Hell’s Angels script.

They’re like, you just stick to your comedy, love.

So that’s the next challenge!

Adult Life Skills is out in cinemas from Friday 24 June. Watch the trailer below.

Images: courtesy of Rachel Tunnard and Creative England