The second collaboration between Amsterdam-born writer-director Sacha Polak and UK actress Vicky Knight (after 2019’s Dirty God), Silver Haze quickly became one of the hottest tickets in the superqueer Panorama section at this year’s Berlinale and ended up taking home the jury prize at the Teddy Awards. Knight plays Franky, a working-class nurse and burn survivor with a thirst for revenge stemming from a traumatic childhood event. At work, she meets the alluring but self-destructive Florence (Esme Creed-Miles), and the two embark on a relationship that pushes her down an unexpected path of healing and forgiveness. We chatted with Polak at the premiere of her acclaimed new film.
I just watched your previous film Dirty God and was moved by Vicky Knight’s performance there as well. Did you write Silver Haze with her in mind?
The idea came from working with her on Dirty God and then traveling around the world together so much, and being so amazed by her and her acting ability…but also sort of her life story. She was also so amazing with the audiences in the Q&A’s…just telling them about what had happened to her that I felt like…”Let’s do something again,” but “Let’s make something more about her life.” It’s loosely based upon her story.
Do you start to develop your own special language with an actor when you work with them more than once?
Definitely. It gets easier and in the case with Vicky, she had grown also so much from Dirty God to this time. It was a big difference when we were shooting Dirty God and Silver Haze – sometimes she would get emotional when I filmed her hand, or if there was something that she felt insecure about, but this time she was so much stronger. And I’ve worked with Esme before on another show, so then I asked her, “Do you want to be in this crazy film of mine?” She said yes. Esme has this sort of star quality – she’s so magical on screen as well. I was curious about putting these two women from totally different backgrounds together and what they would bring to each other. I really felt like the character of Franky – she is sort of fighting constantly, but like, fighting to survive. Florence, I think has more of a chance, but in the beginning you see that she’s tried to commit suicide.
I was curious – I don’t think it’s named in the film, but which mental illness does she have?
It’s not being named it’s sort of only hinted at when they’re both in the park talking about which medications they’re on. I didn’t want to name it specifically but it touches on a lot of her problems – depression tendencies and body dysmorphia, for example.
You mentioned the scene in the park – I found it so real and intimate, like we were there hanging out with them. Tell me about getting actors to that level of comfort with each other.
In the beginning, I only had like 20 pages of script, and like two weeks before we started shooting, I was like, “Okay, I actually need to write a script. because nobody knows what we’re gonna do.” I wrote a script very fast, but what was important to me was that we would have as many shooting days as possible…but we didn’t have a lot of money – we were like very bare in our crew. We had like, almost a documentary crew. Um, so I said like, “I don’t want any makeup. I don’t want any costume. I don’t want this and this and that, but I do want to feel free and I want to experiment with the actors, and I want to explore, and I want to improvise around the scipt.” The script that I had was sort of a blueprint, and within that, we would explore which directions it would go.
I liked the scene in which Florence talks about being a bad person. Tell me about writing a character that doesn’t think they’re deserving of love, and exploring that darkness.
I think that is why their relationship doesn’t work, because Franky sees sort of the light at the end of the tunnel and sees a way out of the darkness and Florence doesn’t They’re both traumatized in a way and this is exactly the reason why will never work…because she doesn’t believe that she’s a good person. I wanted to make a film that touches upon old darkness and traumas, but has light and has humor in it as well. I hope that that translates.
There’s definitely some funny moments, and I think queer audiences will really respond to the chosen family theme in the film. What does this concept mean to you?
It means a lot to me personally because my mother died when I was a baby and my father died six years ago now, so the idea of family has always been very difficult to understand. There were other women after my mother died or other families that you want to belong to. Now I don’t have any parents anymore, but I do have my stepmother who’s not even my stepmother anymore, and I have a very big Turkish family that is not my blood, but this is my family.
Angela Bruce lends a lot of warmth to the movie Alice. Did you learn anything from working with a her? She’s been on UK TV for decades, right? I imagine seasoned can actors also teach younger directors things?
I think you learn a lot from all sorts of actors, but who I learned maybe even more from was Archie Birgden, Florence’s autistic brother in the film. Because he has autism, I had to be so precise with my words, and I am usually not so precise. I’m sloppy with my words, and English is not my mother tongue. I found out that when I direct, I also leave a lot of things to the other person to fill in and with Archie, I really had to be so precise in what I would say because he would follow exactly what I would say. Angela – she was just really loving and loving for the other younger actors and, as you said, brings a lot of warmth to the film.
One last question: is Silver Haze the best weed strain in the world?
I smoked a little Amnesia Haze earlier…no Silver Haze, unfortunately.
You have to write the article totally stoned.
I was actually going to propose that we smoke a joint together for the interview, but I wasn’t sure if that was unprofessional.
Oh, we could have! I had this thing with an editor that he always says that when you edit your film…like when it’s almost done…you have to smoke joint and then watch the film. That’s when you can totally read through all the bullshit.
Silver Haze premiered February 19 at the Berlinale