The Letterboxd Show 2.09: Billie Piper Special

Episode notes

[clip of Notting Hill plays]

ANNA Good decision. The fame thing isn’t really real. You know? And don’t forget—I’m also just a girl—standing in front of a boy—asking him to love her.

[clip of Notting Hill ends]

[The Letterboxd Show theme music Vampiros Dancoteque by Moniker fades in, plays alone, fades down]

SLIM Welcome to The Letterboxd Show, a podcast about movies from Letterboxd: the social network for film lovers. In this special episode Editor-in-Chief of Letterboxd, Gemma Gracewood hops on the phone with actor, writer and director Billie Piper to talk about the filmic influences behind her anti-romcom directorial debut, Rare Beasts. Plus, the movies that got her family through lockdown, the chaotic splendor of Paul Thomas Anderson, and of course, Richard Curtis romcoms. In Rare Beasts, which Piper also wrote and stars in, she plays Mandy, a nihilistic solo mom juggling her mother’s illness and a new male traditionalist boyfriend. After screening in Venice in 2019, Rare Beast is finally in select US theaters, and On Demand, August twentieth. And now—on with the show.

GEMMA I’ve got one review I want to share with you from Timothy Evans, who writes ‘What if Mike Leigh at his angriest and most squalid did a few lines and partied all night with Todd Solondz?

BILLIE Ohhhhh! [Gemma laughs] That’s really cool! I love that! That’s really great! Yeah, well, I love both those filmmakers. And it’s funny because there is a version of Rare Beasts that is way more Mike Leigh, and Loach-y, and just sort of very brick, domestic, you know, tricky piece of work. But obviously, they’ve done it, so. [Billie chuckles] And they’ve done it so well. And one of the things that I’m always really interested in is when people, filmmakers or artists, discuss very heavy themes and give it this sort of very entertaining sort of flair. When I talk about sort of films that I love is that they’re always films that have been very, very moving but have always leaned into something more abstract. So I think they have, you know, work their way into my bones and that’s become quite obvious in the work that I’m now making. But I absolutely love that combo! [Gemma laughs]

GEMMA I thought you might. I’m gonna give you one more. Which is, I’m not comparing you to any other filmmakers, but I think sums up my feelings exactly. And this is a review from h, as she writes “this film is absurd! i felt held by it. like billie was saying to me that everything is going to be fine.

BILLIE That’s really interesting. Because I do wonder about you know, people’s takeaway. And I suppose depending on what cloth you’re cut from, it’s actually quite varying that sort of like, that moment where you leave the movie and, you know, people’s responses are “Oh, I feel there is no option but the bleak one.” [Gemma & Billie laugh] And then some people feel, you know, like, oh, okay. We’re gonna get through! I think totally depends on, you know, obviously as always what’s happening in the viewers life.

GEMMA It’s so interesting, isn’t it? Because, you know, I’m sure you like me grew up with with romcoms and with the sort of changing tenor of romcom where, you know, more recently you have heroines who are who have more agency over their own lives. And yet still want love and want to end up with a man. And we love them, you know, they’re like warm blankets. They’re our comfort movies. But we know deep down, you know, every every feminist, no matter what cloth feminism is cut from, we know deep down that this isn’t the realistic stuff, you know? That the end of the movie is only just the big of discovering, for example, that, you know, someone like Pete is a sort of Jordan Peterson, religious conservative with patriarchal, you know, values who wants to quash Mandy. And so I love what you’ve done with this. And I guess I’d love to hear a little bit about the nugget that that started Rare Beasts. Because the script is, you know, we’re getting on what, seven, eight years now since you put pen to paper on this.

BILLIE I know! I found my late twenties into my early 30s quite seminal. I found the time I felt like the messaging, the cultural sort of messaging, was that as women, you can be everything, you can do everything, you can balance everything, you do everything really well. And this—you know, not to name names, but some of this messaging that was coming from, you know, very successful and influential artists. And I really grappled with that because I feel like there’s goodwill in that messaging, but it’s the cost of trying to do all of those things is huge. And all I could see around me was like, a sort of common female crisis. I also felt like there seemed to be, and that is arguably worse now, the shared anxiety that no one was really talking about just just living day to day how unbelievably anxious we’ve all become. And how we’re trying to navigate modern relationships. It just feels like my generation was like, you know, the guinea pig generation of not doing what your mother did. But struggling to try and make it work with the issues that we face today. And how put-out men are by certain things that women are now allowed to do. [Gemma laughs] Or just say. And so I just, I thought all of it made for something quite exposing, but necessary and necessary conversation. At the risk of people being, you know, not liking all of it, or any of it. Because it’s very sort of aggressive the film in many ways. It’s very—if you’re not someone who likes to share, it’s not your film, I guess.

GEMMA I like that. You say there’s a sort of shared anxiety. And you visualize that in the film when we hear the thoughts of the women rushing past on the streets of London. Which is amazing. And there is the sort of high anxiety to the soundtrack and to the kind of the zingers of the script. What references were you looking at? What movies, what books, what, what novels, what music, what TV shows were you leaning into, when you were creating that rhythm, that noise?

BILLIE To be honest, I was dipping into my own head. Because when I—like my early 30s really until, like five years ago was some of—no—not even five years age. Like five years at its worst, were the most anxious years of my life, I feel. And I remember that everything sounded so loud to me. And I seem to lose the ability to filter out every sense coming at me. It felt like a sensory sort of meltdown for me. So every sound felt really loud and really aggressive and really threatening. Every phone ringing felt like danger. Because I was really, really happy in a very hyper hyper vigilant state. And constantly in flight or fight. So I wanted to represent that in the film. And I wanted to represent the speed at which we seem to be living our lives in the pace of the edit of the movie and the music and the soundscape. So I guess a lot of it was just, I just wanted to reflect what it felt what I think it all feels like. Movies that I watched around the film—I mean, it’s weird, when I was like pulling images and stuff. I would reach to things like Busby Berkeley or Pina Bausch or loads of Paul Thomas Anderson, but I’m so obsessed with that guy.

[clip of Punch-Drunk Love plays]

LENA Can I ask you, can I trust to leave my keys with you and give them to you so that when they get here you could give them to them?

BARRY Ok.

LENA You think it’s ok where I left it, right there?

BARRY I think that’ll be fine.

LENA There’s a piano in the street.

BARRY Yeah.

LENA Ok. Maybe I’ll see you later. Thank you for your help.

BARRY Thank you.

LENA Maybe I’ll see you later, when I pick up my car?

BARRY Ok.

[clip of Punch-Drunk Love ends]

BILLIE Well Punch-Drunk Love was one of the references for my film because it’s just—I don’t know, it balances the sort of abstract with the realism so well. And the lead character is so, you know, he’s incredibly vulnerable, but he’s also very violent and aggressive. And I don’t know, there was just something about that film that when it first came out, I remember just feeling so transformed by it, because I don’t think I’d ever seen people sort of talk about love in this really aggressive, sort of violent way. That felt very familiar to me, but also he’s so bloodthirsty for character. And I really, really appreciate that.

GEMMA Bloodthirsty for character, and also for not easy characters, right? And so—

BILLIE They’re all hard.

GEMMA They’re all hard. And you’ve nailed that with Rare Beasts, where it’s so refreshing to see proper anti-heroines on screen in a contemporary context.

BILLIE Well, thanks. So, I’ll tell you the other thing that I love about him is just how dynamic he is with the camera. And again, it all feels like it’s rushing through your blood, like adrenaline. Not There Will Be Blood so much, even though that’s an incredibly powerful film. But certainly things like Boogie Nights, but definitely Magnolia and definitely Punch-Drunk Love, there is a sort of like [Billie gasps] panic attack feeling about them.

GEMMA It’s amazing, isn’t it? Because mental health seems like—I mean, it’s obviously and especially now, so present and vitally important to acknowledge and talk about—but trying to get it across in an audio visual context, like a movie. You know, we end up with a Girl, Interrupted, we end up with a very sort of acute end of mental health when, you know, people have been committed.

BILLIE Yeah!

GEMMA Right? And so I love that you—and PTA and filmmakers like you—managed to capture the chaos of the mind. And that there are quiet moments. But it is such a tricky thing to capture, isn’t it? Like it’s really hard to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced anxiety, what it’s like to be driving along with your kid to go somewhere very familiar, and then to suddenly be pulled over at the side of the road, unable to go further. You know, unable to turn back. Just literally unable to move anymore. Because everything got too loud.

BILLIE Yeah, I know. It is hard to bring to life. Because also, you know, you sort of feel why would anyone want to experience that? But—[Billie sighs] I just think especially now, the more stuff gets talked about the better.

GEMMA And then you do quiet things. I’d love to talk through the scene that’s at the two thirds point of the film. After the wedding back at Mandy’s house, after the frenzy of what’s come before, there’s no music. Just an incredibly lyrical script. Mandy and her mum, the brilliant Kerry Fox up in the bedroom.

[clip of Rare Beasts plays]

MARION How’s Pete?

MANDY Fuck Pete.

MARION Oy’.

MANDY He’s sunshine—and showers. I don’t know I can’t really speak cleverly about it.

MARION Start with his eyes. [Mandy laughs]

MANDY Uh—they’re um—blue and grey with pin prick pupils.

MARION So someone who waters them.

MANDY Is it?

MARION That and walking on your toes, doe she do that?

MANDY No.

MARION Well, you love him anyway.

MANDY Yeah, but with a heavy heart.

[clip of Rare Beasts ends]

GEMMA And you’re doing a split diopter in the bedroom and you’ve got a beautiful moving camera in the kitchen. And again, no audio other than the dialogue. I wanted to know what was going on there and that sort of quiet?

BILLIE I think when you’re in a house with your parents, there’s just some things that can be something so atmospherically dead. [Billie and Gemma laugh] Like it just be—certainly when I was growing up, often it would feel sort of quiet in those rooms, unless it was a fight. And then it would feel really, really, really loud and like you’d want to run. So I just think maybe that’s where that instinct comes from. You’re almost like, again, you’re sort of anxiously listening for every sound they make as some sort of indication to how they feel. That’s if you’ve sort of studied your parents as much as I have. In a very, very codependent way. [Gemma laughs] And so I found that sort of instinct quite useful in those more domestic moments.

GEMMA And especially in that scene, I think so many letterbox reviews remark that they, after watching Rare Beasts, they want to go back and read the dialogue like it’s a play afterwards.

BILLIE Ohhh that’s nice to hear!

GEMMA Isn’t that incredible? It’s so full of zingers. Now you have three children, when and how do you write?

BILLIE So I started writing Rare Beasts when my second son was born. And I didn’t finish it until he was in reception at school. Because I was filming as an actor, and then I’d be with kids and having a baby and I just didn’t, I didn’t sort of lock in on it. And then when Eugene started school, I would write after I dropped him off at school until I went to pick them both up. So I would write in school hours. I am useless in the evening as a creative person, whereas I recognize it to be a more fruitful time for certainly my partner. He’s a musician and loads of people I know, are really creative in the evening. But I am a moron in the evening. [Gemma laughs]

GEMMA Hallelujah.

BILLIE Yeah, I think it’s, you know, no offense to my kids, but they’ve done it to me for sure. I’m done by the end of the day—cooked. So in the morning, I’m pretty good. I’m not good immediately, but once I’ve dropped them all off and had coffee, I’m fine.

GEMMA The listeners recognize the—just keep doing it, keep chipping away at it and recognize the time of day that works for you. For anyone who’s listening. I love it.

BILLIE Yeah, exactly! Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.

GEMMA You’ve been in the industry on the other side of the camera for a really long time. Moving to directing—thinking about that split diopter in the bedroom again—who have you loved watching for the directorial tricks and bits and pieces?

BILLIE Oh, god. Cassavetes I absolutely love. I think the thing I love about his work the most is that it’s so immersive. It literally feels like you’re like hugging that person or watching that person incredibly closely. Because he dares to do these obscene close ups, where you feel like the characters are sort of somehow coming through the screen. So I really love parts of his style. Busby Berkeley again. [Gemma & Billie laugh] Even though it’s such a far fetched reference! But it’s like, I guess it’s so unbelievably—because I was a dancer when I was a kid. I am obsessed with dance. So when it comes to sort of visual symmetries, again with Pina Bausch, like visual symmetry and ridiculous levels of flair and color, and just technique, I guess. I guess it speaks to the dancer in me. So that sits in me somewhere that I’m not fully conscious of, I think.

GEMMA Well, I mean, for anyone who hasn’t seen Rare Beasts yet, I want to say if you think he has a feminist buzzkill exercise and you know, hating men, you’re missing out on the tap dancing.

BILLIE I know.

GEMMA Make that a reason to watch. So then what would be your favorite musical or favorite dance sequence on film?

BILLIE Oh my god, that’s so hard. [Gemma laughs]

GEMMA You can list ten. It’s fine. You don’t have to pick just one.

BILLIE I think the thing that I was mostly obsessed with as a kid was Michael Jackson Thriller.

GEMMA Oh wow.

BILLIE I was obsessed with that video and the making of it. I used to watch that over and over and over again. And so that was something that really sort of sits in my mind. All That Jazz.

GEMMA Ohhhh, wow. Yeah, Bob Fosse, right?

BILLIE Right. Yeah. Yeah, I tell you what the other thing that I was—one of the things that I’m so moved by, or have been in the last two and a half years for its dance sequences, and just overall like incredibly inspiring, motivational, and artistic pieces of work was the Beyonce Homecoming documentary.

GEMMA Ah, wow.

BILLIE Like, I’m starting to write something else again now. And it’s playing a big part in that marinating of ideas.

GEMMA That’s exciting!

BILLIE Mmm, really exciting. [Gemma laughs]

GEMMA So a couple of quick fires. What is the film or films that got your family through multiple lockdowns?

BILLIE Okay. Oh god, this is—this is exposing these questions. Okay, so the films that got us through. We went back and rewatched lots of Judd Apatow movies during lockdown. Because there was an absolute death of comedy on streamers, which was—we also would too anxious to watch new things because it felt like it might ask too many questions or make too many demands on us. So we would watch things like Knocked Up over and over and over again, or The End of the World—or The End of the Fucking World. Sorry. What was the other one? We watched Superbad. Pineapple Express. Just films that felt really familiar, silly, silly fun.

[clip of Pineapple Express plays]

SAUL Come on. Let’s get the fuck out of here.

DALE Okay, let’s go. No, it’s not working the battery’s dead.

SAUL Wait. What do you mean it’s dead?

DALE What do I mean the battery’s dead? The battery’s dead!

SAUL What do you mean the battery’s dead?

DALE How can I explain this to you differently? The battery is dead!

[clip of Pineapple Express ends]

BILLIE We watched them sort of over and over again. Which I think was the sort of sign of our own mental health. [Gemma laughs] It was the least—you know how some people have come out locked down and just been like oh, it was such a cultural experience.

GEMMA Oh, I made so much sourdough! Yeah.

BILLIE I made sourdough, I made banana bread ,I watched like, you know, films from Japan It was like the absolute opposite for me. [Gemma & Billie laugh] I was watching films I’ve seen so many times and then just terrible sort of Netflix fodder like the Tiger King and then Overboard or whatever it’s called.

GEMMA This sounds incredibly healthy to me. We dove into our data to see what people were rewatching over lockdown the most and honestly it’s all the comfort films.

BILLIE Yeah, loads of Richard Curtis.

GEMMA Yes!

BILLIE Loooads of Richard Curtis. Like and sobbing to it as well. So upset. And then, oh no, I know what else we were doing. I mean we were watching lots of Pixar because we always do and it’s always brilliant with the kids. But our sort of adult time was more like, we got really into true crime but then got really messed up from watching too much of it. Like became very paranoid of our friends. [Gemma & Billie laugh] So messed up! But it was satisfying for a while, so. I’m sorry it’s not more pretentious. [Gemma laughs]

GEMMA No judgment here. Absolutely no judgment. What then is—speaking of Richard Curtis and you and Ken Loach and all of them—what is the British film that’s most important to you, that has sort of set with you or your life?

BILLIE It would be something like oh, Four Weddings, yeah, and Notting Hill. You know, Trainspotting as well I guess.

GEMMA Yeah!

BILLIE But that’s not really a comfort blanket at all.

GEMMA Oh, no, it doesn’t need to be a comfort film. It can be kitchen sink. Maybe have a think about that, what is your actual favorite rom com?

BILLIE It’s so hard! My favorite rom com—Look, I think it’s funny because I am the least sentimental person which you will attest you from seeing Rare Beasts. Like I am not remotely sentimental. I hate and want to kill sentimentality unless I’m with my kids and then I’m like an absolute, gutting for it. [Gemma laughs] But also, I am someone who will sit down and watch Notting Hill over and over and over again and feels very moved by it. Or About Time, I watched loads of times during lockdown. Oh, it’s not a rom com but I think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a pretty amazing film. Not necessarily, it’s not a romantic comedy. It’s weird an and it’s painful. But it talks about relationship in a very sort of fresh way. Like it was very impressive when it came out. Maybe that’s up there. But like, yeah, traditional rom coms. It’s got to be Richard Curtis one, I think.

GEMMA Well, he’s the master at it. He and Emma, they know what they’re doing right?

BILLIE They do! And Hugh Grant knows what he’s doing. [Gemma laughs] He’s the only person I’ve ever been starstruck around actually. I’ve met so many people and I just—I was a mess when I met him. [Gemma laughs]

GEMMA We have to wrap up but I do have one last question in terms of people who are excellent at creating anti-heroines Can you give us in the snippets, you know, previews of your current work with Lena Dunham?

BILLIE Oh! She is good at that! So what can I say? So it’s a sort of medieval coming of age story.

GEMMA Whaaaat?

BILLIE So it’s very funny. Very moving. And for young girls, it will be like—a seminal film in their life I think. It’s operating on so many levels. It feels very Lena Dunham, but again, in a very sort of fresh and new way. But it’s her voice. You know, it’s full of trixie characters who you just love. And it’s working on many levels for families that will inevitably have to watch it 100 times over.

GEMMA Ohhh, I like that. Billie, it’s been an absolute pleasure. I’m going to leave you with one last Letterboxd review. This is from LeoniRare Beasts is an unfiltered, messy, hilarious and utterly fucking perfect anti-love story. Billie Piper make it 10 more films challenge.

BILLIE Ohhhh, sweet! Oh, that’s so nice!

GEMMA Only nine to go! [Gemma laughs]

BILLIE Only nine to go. I’m so exhausted already. I can already foresee like me checking in to some facility to cope with the stress of making another independent film.

[The Letterboxd Show theme music Vampiros Dancoteque by Moniker plays alone, fades out]

SLIM Thank you for listening to The Letterboxd Show and thanks to our guest this episode, Billie Piper, for sharing her own love of the rewatch. Don’t forget you can check out Rare Beasts in select us theaters and on demand August 20th. You can follow Gemma, Slim—that’s me—and our HQ page on Letterboxd using the links in our episode notes. Thanks to our crew! Composing dynamos, Moniker for the theme music Vampiros Dancoteque. Thanks to Jack for the facts, our booker Linda Moulton, for looking after our guests. And Sophie Shin for the all-new episode transcripts. The Letterboxd Show is a TAPEDECK production. If you are enjoying the show and have guest ideas, be sure to leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. Quick And Gemma usually has the witty outros so I’m not going to have one because it wouldn’t feel right. Okay? I’m just a boy standing in front of a podcast, asking it to love him.

[clip of The End of the F***ing World plays]

ALYSSA Go get Marvin! See if Marvin can make a banana split for me, ya fuckin’ cunt. [walks] Bye Marvin!

[clip of The End of the F***ing World ends]

[TAPEDECK bumper plays] This is a TAPEDECK podcast.