Ella Smith on Ray & Liz: 'Without it meaning to be a didactic political piece, it really smacks people in the forehead'
- Katherine McLaughlin
- 21 February 2019
Richard Billingham's debut feature film explores poverty, boredom and addiction truthfully and unflinchingly
'There's a lovely quote that the mandate of art is to shock people not with what they don't know but with what they already know deep down. The truth of the film shines through and without it meaning to be a didactic political piece, it really smacks people in the forehead when they watch it,' explains Ella Smith who plays Liz in Richard Billingham's exquisitely crafted debut feature film set in Thatcher's Britain.
Billingham has been exploring his family dynamics growing up in a tower block in Birmingham through his photography work for decades, and his film blurs the lines between reality and fiction in its detailed recreation of his home life. Billingham shot in the flat opposite where he actually grew up, a place they moved to after his father, Ray, was made redundant. He cites the photographs of Jeff Wall and Cindy Sherman as influential and says films such as the Terence Davis Trilogy and Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped played a part in how the final piece was shaped – a film he saw at around the age of eight years old on the TV.
Smith and Justin Salinger were hand-picked to play Billingham's parents and took their lead from watching the Adam Curtis commissioned documentary Fishtank (a fly on the wall look at Ray and Liz's daily life) and familiarising themselves with the photobook Ray's a Laugh. Billingham explains why they were the right actors for the job, saying, 'We chose Ella because she seemed to have a bit of vulnerability about her, you sensed there was a bit of the little girl still in her. It was very hard to find a Ray as not many people look like him. Then the casting agent found Justin and I realised by layering and layering he could become Ray.'
On the way Billingham directed him, Salinger says, 'He's refreshingly honest … He was very keen on fact, but he wasn't keen on talking about the emotions of the characters.' Smith adds, 'Richard is curious and I think it's a curious film. He's open and he's not jaded about life. I think that's infectious.' And on how the actors achieved their impressive impersonations of his parents Smith says, 'We wanted to try and recreate their body language in the photos. You can't avoid how looming Liz looks and you can't avoid how mischievous and otherworldly Ray looks. We both identified that from the start.'
One of the most striking aspects of the film is the way in which poverty, boredom and addiction is depicted not only truthfully and unflinchingly but with no cynicism. Billingham has a great sense of humour and the comedy in the film works beautifully alongside the tragedy and neglect. Salinger shares his thoughts on this saying, 'I think there's neglect there but I also think there's a huge amount of love and warmth in the film.'
Ray & Liz is an empathetic, deeply personal family portrait that is also interested in the impact of being confined by poverty and alcoholism. It's an uncompromised independent film and a natural progression for Billingham who says, 'I don't think I could have written the story down for the film some years back because you need the reflection to see the whole context of how we lived. I needed that time to pass to see it clearly with hindsight.'
Ray & Liz screens at the Glasgow Film Festival, CCA, Sat 23 and Thu 28 Feb. Selected release from Fri 8 Mar.