Arts

Freak Show director Trudie Styler: There's a growing acceptance of bullying culturally

Trudie Styler makes her directorial debut with Freak Show, a film about a teenage boy dealing with homophobia and bullying a school. She tells Laura Harding why the subject is so personal to her and why bullying is still so pervasive in our society

Alex Lawther as Billy Bloom in English film-maker Trudie Styler's Freak Show

TRUDIE Styler has been a quiet but powerful presence in the film industry for a quarter of a century. Box office hits like Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch and award-winning films such as Moon and Still Alice are all scattered among her extensive credits as a producer.

But now she is finally taking a seat in the director's chair and making her feature debut with Freak Show, a film about a teenage boy navigating his way through a hostile and homophobic school where he is singled out for being different.

"As a story about bullying it resonated with me on a deeply personal level," Styler reveals. "It's an issue close to my heart because as a child I was bullied myself at school – my face was quite badly scarred after I was run down by a truck when I was only two years old, so I looked a bit damaged, and kids can be very cruel.

"I was picked on and called Scarface and then later, when I went to grammar school, I was diagnosed with dyslexia and that wasn't acceptable either. It's amazing what you can be picked on for in those early years of school life."

The topic of bullying has also affected the 64-year-old deeply as a mother to the four children she shares with her husband, pop star Sting.

"My own kids also suffered from being bullied – with a dad as famous as Sting was when they were growing up, their relationships were always going to be affected, at least at first, by that awareness. And most kids don't like having a reason to be singled out, or different."

"My daughter Eliot [who has a song in the film] has only recently talked about what a hard time she had at school. The fact is that bullying happens all the time – in families, at school, at work and on the internet, and I think we have seen a growing acceptance and legitimisation of bullying culturally.

"During the Trump campaign we saw public name-calling, mockery and aggression perpetrated by someone who has become the ultimate figure of authority in the US.

"It's so important that we all do whatever we can to negate that terrible message to our young people."

The film, based on a novel by James St James, features The End Of The F***ing World star Alex Lawther as Billy Bloom, who is shocked by the intolerance he faces when he leaves his fabulous life with his mother, played by Bette Midler, to live with his father in the bible belt of the American South.

"Alex [who is English] plays an American but he has that wit and wisdom that feels a little 19th century, like his hero would be Oscar Wilde," Styler says. "When I cast him, we decided to play up his love of these extraordinary 18th and 19th century characters who were persecuted perhaps but who transcended through not giving up.

"I think Billy sends a very clear and strong message to our teens who are in crisis with being bullied or being abused or have gender issues, that they can be the people they want to be and we all have to step up and accommodate that."

Meanwhile casting Midler, a passionate activist for the LGBTQ community was a "no-brainer".

"I think she's a wonderful actor," Styler says. "And I knew that the themes of the movie would mean a lot to her. She has an amazing relationship with the LGBQT world, she is so adored, and she has immense respect for that audience."

Styler is particularly conscious that the film is arriving at a time when bullying in her own industry is making headlines.

"There is a whole movement that has been created from the abuse of power, from the male sector of our entertainment industry. I haven't personally encountered it – my age may have something to do with it, but I don't mean to be facetious at all. I think the Me Too movement is certainly right to redress where the power base is.

"What it really boils down to is that within our industry there is a paucity of women in every section of film-making or making television content. The stories being written are being told by men, largely. We do have women scriptwriters but the majority of narrative we put out in the world is being created by men so you normally see more male leading roles than female leading roles.

"There are 26 per cent of producers that are women, there are only six per cent of us who are directors."

But she is optimistic that the Time's Up movement for gender equality will finally redress this imbalance.

"We are not a world that is made up of largely men, it is made up of men and women, and when we go watch a movie we want to see a story that really reflects the human life that we all live in.

"It is certainly true that women have suffered within the entertainment industry, and on an economical scale have been vastly underpaid compared to guys."

Styler founded her production company Maven Pictures in 2011 with producer Celine Rattray and has made a point of empowering female directors – two thirds of the 20 films they have made have had women at the helm.

"When we set out our store at Maven, one of us asked the question, 'What is missing in our entertainment industry today?'

"The answer became very obvious, what is missing is us. Women are missing. It's going to take some time and we just have to be consistent and we really have to look at all aspects of where we can redress the balance."

:: Freak Show is in cinemas now and is also available on demand.

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