Interview with Kai Fiáin Writer & Director of ‘Dippers & Oysters’

Kai Fiáin’s spirited queer folktale ‘Dippers & Oysters’ is an imaginative and fresh film which embodies so many of the mantras we hold dear at Brighton Rocks. The Irish screenwriter, director and producer cut their teeth as a filmmaker exploring LGBTQ asylum seekers, globalisation and working class subcultures through documentary. ‘Dippers & Oysters’ marks their recent foray into narrative drama. Kai follows a strong pull to tell stories which reflect on their rich and vibrant Irish heritage, combined with a deep comprehension of working class life and queer stories and how they should be told. ‘Dipper & Oysters’ is a captivating tale of love and connection playing in June aspart of Brighton Rocks 2023, an entrancing watch with an incredible original score and subtle touches of magic realism.

The message in the film is really about trying to find freedom, and escaping the tyranny of labour of the 9-5, Monday to Friday. It’s about finding freedom under capitalism.

Having started your filmmaking in documentaries, what inspired you to write this particular narrative?

The original momentum behind ‘Dippers & Oysters’ was to create a calling card. I was trying to get a feature film made that I had written and I had some interest from a production company who had seen my previous short ‘The Brother’ at LSFF and they wanted to see another example of my work before they agreed to get on board. So, I wrote ‘Dippers & Oysters’ in response to that challenge. They were originally going to produce it with me but then lockdown happened and the production company ended up bailing out of the project.

The film fits well into the subjects that I always find myself drawn to, mainly the landscape of London, multiculturalism, class, women and mythology. There are similarities with this project, my previous short and with the feature that I am working on, so it seemed like the right film to make at the time. It is based on a folktale, it was one of my standards that I would tell if I ever found myself at a storytelling cheli. It’s a story that I’ve told many times as a performance so the bones of the story were very familiar to me. In honesty I never thought I would attempt to make it into a film because magical realism is not an easy thing to pull off and if I had really thought about it, I may have tried to find an easier story, one that didn’t involve trying to get a 4-month-old baby to act as a thief.

The social and cultural strata and ambience of London is so beautifully grasped. Why are you drawn to tell heartfelt and honest tales of real life?

Film seemed like an art form where all these different aspects of who I was could meet.

I would say I am drawn to tell working class stories, which is my real life. I believe working class people should be the ones telling their story. To some extent it’s the desire to see different working class characters on screen that drives me. I was drawn to film after studying for a fine art degree; I found the elitism of the visual arts world violently classist and back then, very difficult to navigate. Having come from an Irish heritage and having been around a lot of storytelling, I ended up going towards film instead. Film seemed like an art form where all these different aspects of who I was could meet. Furthermore, the film industry is unionised, unlike the visual arts industry, and therefore ripe for exploitation and unacknowledged and unpaid labour. London features in all my work in one way or another. It’s my home, I grew up in a multicultural community in West London which was a fantastic and brilliant experience in lots of ways.

Magic realism is one of my favourite narrative strategies in film. Who have you drawn inspiration from and what films do you hold in high regard when making your own projects?

I like my magical realism to be subtle, rather than the appearance of monsters from another realm. I also love a lot of classic British films. So take a British classic like ‘Kes’ for example, although considered a realist drama, it has elements of magical realism in it by the presence of the kestrel, a mythical animal, which clearly represents Billie’s emotional landscape and his desire to escape the limitations of working class life. The fact that the bird is tethered says it all. Another British director who used this genre beautifully was Lynne Ramsay in her genius debut feature ‘The Rat Catcher’ where magical realism was found in the urban slums of Scotland. These classic British movies landed somewhere deep in me and somehow keep inspiring me to make a movie as good as them. Other magical realist movies that I enjoyed over the years were classics like ‘Edward Scissorhands’ and ‘Borders’ but although these are great, they don’t touch me in the way that British movies do.

When I was writing ‘Dippers & Oysters’ I was looking at movies like ‘The Pickpocket’ by Robert Bresson. What I love about that movie is how the thief is set apart from the world: he has an unworldly vibe about him. The thieving was kind of magical and I really tried to bring that into ‘Dippers and Oysters’. It didn’t seem necessary that we see how the thefts take place, you could see a bracelet on a stranger’s wrist in the market, and then later Lorcan gives the same bracelet to Rose. We don’t need to know how she did it. This ties into the magical notions around pickpocketing. It’s like a magic trick – if you know how it’s done the magic is lost.

The music draws all your themes together. How did you come to decide and amalgamate the final score and weave everything together?

The music is essential in the film. I did consider making the film with no dialogue at all, almost like a music video or a musical without the singing and dance routines. I wanted the film to have the kind of rhythm that you feel when you’re walking round the city with headphones on, that feeling of a soundtrack to your day. It sets you apart from the street at the same time as making you more present. I wanted the music to reflect London and in particular the East End where the story was set. I had this idea about doing a kind of grime/ klezmer mash up. Of course, like a lot of my ideas they were far too complicated at first and need to be simplified by the editing process. That seems to be how I work; I must make the mark first so that I can then rub it out. We recorded around seven different bits of music and a lot was cut when it came to the final edit. Dotan Cohen, who composed all the music for the film, bought a lot of ideas and put a band together to record the music. The same band that is busking on the street in the opening scene. That’s one thing I love about film making, it’s doing all those cheeky things like, creating a dream band for the score and then having them appear in the film.

Your cast are all brilliant. What were you looking for when casting and what methods did you employ, given this was your first time directing actors?

I was really looking for a kind of fantasy butch / femme couple. Lorcán was a particularly difficult character to cast and it took me ages to find Suki Willis who plays her. To begin with, I was really determined to try to find a working class actor. However finding a queer working class actor who was comfortable playing a butch lesbian, having her hair cut short and dressing like a boy for this small production was amazingly hard to find. Suki Willis is a great physical actor and got the physical butch swagger down really well.

I first heard this story when I was living on an Irish traveller site years ago and I wanted to honour that experience through the character of Rose. She is based on a chain-smoking traveller who used to look after my kids when they were little. I tried to show that cultural reference of where this story had come from in the interior set design of Lorcán and Rose’s home. Sarah Robinson who plays Rebecca was an absolute gem, she originally auditioned for the role of Lorcán but I asked her if she would consider the role of Rebecca who is a better thief than Lorcán and her equal in every way. I thought Sarah really brought substance to the character; she also added a lot to the dialogue as I really encourage improvisation with the script.

What have you learnt in the making of ‘Dippers & Oysters’ and how are you using that knowledge to move into future productions?

In terms of the shoot, I’m going to be honest. It was chaos. I was a complete novice when it came to directing actors and on top of that, I was producing it all and running around making sure everyone was alright and being fed etc.I was keen for the dialogue scenes to be as natural as possible and so I got the actors improvising and adapting the written dialogue to language that they would naturally use which felt like the right way to go. I think if I had had more time, confidence and support, I would have really liked to have played with this more. I would have liked to focus my attention more on directing than producing. There are some scenes that I am proud of and there are others that just didn’t work and had to be cut completely from the final edit. All in all, we were shooting for 7 days. The most challenging scene was the market scene, as I really had no idea how to direct a crowd. Plus it was still covid time and every one was up tight and anxious. We had no licence to be filming in the market so it was all a bit intense. But I do love the scene where they are practising pick pocketing and flirting and circling around Rose (the older woman).

I’m still processing what I have learnt from making ‘Dippers’. I’m not gonna lie, this was an ambitious film to make. Magical realism on a tiny budget with a relatively inexperienced crew was never gonna be an easy thing to pull off. One thing that I have really learnt is that I want and need to work with people who are more experienced than me. So that I can learn from them, and If I’m going to direct another film, I only want to be the director, not the producer, the gaffer, the camera assistant and all the other roles I had to do in addition to directing whilst making ‘Dippers’. So, my goal now is to gain more experience directing. It’s the role in film making in which I am most interested and I have a lot to say. I want to really understand the director/actor relationship and how to bring out the best in actors. There is something quite magical about the ability to act well. I think the relationship between actor and director is key to that, I’m fascinated by it; it’s a mystery to me and I want to understand it.

I’ve recently ‘gone home’ to Ireland and I’m working on a feature film, a trans story set half in London and half in Ireland. I’m still at the writing stage but soon I will be on the hunt for a producer who understands and is as excited about the project as I am.

What do you hope for your film?

I’m hoping that it will do a couple of years on the festival circuit, of course I’m hoping its accepted into as many festivals as possible. I hope people enjoy it. A lot of queer films really focus on dealing with self-hate, of trying to be accepted as queer people and the trauma associated with that. I understand why, but I always want to make queer films that have zero self-hate and zero trauma. ‘Dippers’ is just storytelling at the end of the day. It’s an attempt to get back to the true nature of film making which is visual storytelling. Other than that, I will be using it as a calling card as I’m still trying to get that feature made.

The message in the film is really about trying to find freedom, and escaping the tyranny of labour of the 9-5, Monday to Friday. It’s about finding freedom under capitalism. I like that there is zero moralising about the fact they are stealing. I think some folks have an issue with that but in truth you can’t watch ‘Dippers & Oysters’ and think that it has any bearing on reality. It’s about escaping reality.

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