'I had a lot of false starts': director Fyzal Boulifa on finally making 'Lynn + Lucy' as his debut feature

The drama follows the story of two school friends who, after a tragic incident, turn against each other

SAN SEBASTIAN, SPAIN -September 23:Fyzal Boulifa director on September 23, 2019 in San Sebastian, Spain. (Photo by Claude Medale/Corbis via Getty Images)
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Making your first feature film can be a process fraught with self-doubt. Just ask Fyzal Boulifa, a rising British director with Moroccan roots.

“I had a lot of false starts,” he remembers, when we meet in London’s plush Mayfair Hotel. “I was developing things that didn’t turn out. And I was asking myself a lot: 'What should be my first feature? How do I want to present myself to the world?' At some point I just got tired of these questions.”

That Boulifa wrestled so consciously with what he wanted say hints at what an interesting filmmaker he is shaping up to be. “The easiest thing for me would be to do something with my ethnic identity,” he says. "There’s a really direct relationship. I think that’s what people are expecting these days – a personal reflection of who I am. And I didn’t want to do that.”

Flush with five-star reviews since it premiered at the San Sebastian Film Festival last year, his debut feature, Lynn + Lucy, is far removed from those expectations. Set in an anonymous British suburb, the story follows two friends who grew up together: young mum Lynn (newcomer Roxanne Scrimshaw) and life and soul of the party Lucy (Nichola Burley). But when Lucy gives birth, a tragic accident (or maybe not) befalls her newborn baby, setting the gossips in their small community ablaze.

Boulifa was inspired, in part, by a newspaper story about a woman accused of murdering her child, who was acquitted but shunned by her community, and later committed suicide. Lynn + Lucy is never quite so dramatic; instead it subtly deals with a power shift as the relationship splinters between these two old pals. "Lynn's looking for identity and she's looking for self-esteem," Boulifa explains. "And that opportunity comes in the tragedy of her best friend."

Boulifa draws natural performances from his young cast – he recruits non-professionals where possible. He scoured schools and community centres to find someone to play Lynn. “It was a very intense process,” he says. “We were on the streets meeting people.”

The inexperienced Scrimshaw was discovered after she answered an advertisement in a local paper. “At first I thought she was too striking and too fun to be Lynn,” Boulifa says. Gradually, though, he changed his mind.

Nichola Burley, left, as Lucy, and Roxanne Scrimshaw at Lynn. Director Fyzal Boulifa worked with non-professional actors where possible

For Lucy, Boulifa chose Leeds-born actress Burley, best known for her work in Andrea Arnold's version of Wuthering Heights. "What convinced me about Nichola was that she isn't mannered in her acting style, she's not self-regarding. She's very simple and direct."

That Burley was "street cast" for her 2005 debut, Dominic Savage's Love + Hate, added to the attraction. "Dominic came to her high school and she was picked – that's how she fell into acting. It's interesting that both Nichola and Roxanne kind of had this similar starting point."

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As a filmmaker, I want to be able to look at different aspects of the world. I'm not always making a film about me

While there has been a recent call for more female-driven stories in the film industry, that was never Boulifa's motivation in crafting Lynn + Lucy. "It's a regressive idea masquerading as a progressive one," he says. "It's great that we are getting many more female voices. That's really important. It needs to happen. But there are also many men in the history of cinema who have written well for women and told women's stories."

Born in 1985 in the English town of Leicester, Boulifa has in the past found inspiration from Morocco, where his parents are from. In 2012, he made The Curse, an allegorical short filmed across nine days in a rural part of Chichaoua, a small town about an hour and a half from Marrakesh. It was inspired by his own mother's youth – long before she left Morocco for the UK – when she would escape her conservative environs and walk for hours to meet her lover in the desert.

Showered with praise, the short was nominated for a Bafta and won the Premier Prix Illy for Short Filmmaking at Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival.

"Since then, I wanted to go back to make a feature there," says Boulifa, who is now working on "something set in Morocco" that is a full-length story about a mother-son relationship. He calls it more sensual than Lynn + Lucy. "Morocco inspires very different feelings and has very different social problems," he says, "so it is more passionate."

Whether this follow-up takes inspiration from his own relationship with his mother, he doesn’t reveal. “As a filmmaker, I want to be able to look at different aspects of the world. I’m not always making a film about me,” he says.

"I want to be a good filmmaker, to look at the world and make films about that. With Lynn + Lucy, I was aware that I was looking a bit further away from my life ... but I think that's a good thing to do."

Lynn + Lucy is available to stream at player.bfi.org.uk

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