Interview: Liam ThomasIn conversation with the filmmaker behind The Tide
Liam Thomas talks to us about The Tide - his tribute to the fishing communities of the Yorkshire Coast, and a portrait of a trawler crew in crisis.
Stories of the UK’s fishing communities, their plight and politics have re-entered the public consciousness in the past few years - a result of Brexit wrangling and a corresponding increase in news coverage. The same level of attention has perhaps not been reflected on the big screen, but a recent run of films has gone some way towards redressing the relatively low cinematic profile of our coastal communities.
There was, of course, Bait: Mark Jenkin’s monochrome bolt from the blue that skewered local tensions and gentrification on the Cornish coast. Not far away, Fisherman’s Friends offered an altogether more salty-sweet picture postcard of Cornwall’s fishing villages. And, in Scotland, Run showed us the frustrations of a Fraserburgh fish factory worker, while Iorram painted a lyrical portrait of Hebridean fishing both past and present.
The Tide is the latest entry to this contemporary canon. Supported by Film Hub North through the BFI NETWORK Short Film Fund, the film charts the fate of a rusting trawler and its beleaguered crew as they struggle to eke out a living from the waters of the North Sea beyond Scarborough.
For Liam Thomas, who serves on the project as an Actor, Producer and Writer - a multi-tasking challenge, he assures us, he would not rush to repeat - it’s a deeply personal film, intimately informed by autobiography. But The Tide is also an opportunity for Thomas to represent the wider fishing community, to put on screen the stories that cinema has missed and to highlight their particular and political resonances for audiences today.
When we caught up with Thomas, The Tide had just embarked on its festival voyage with a local berth at Manchester International Film Festival as well as trips further afield to the US and Europe. He talked to us about the rich history and long decline of fishing in the UK, as well as the practicalities of shooting a short on a reclaimed trawler in typically hospitable North Sea weather.
The first thing we experience in the film is the trawler breaking down. What does The Tide have to say about the future of fishing communities?
That’s a tough one to answer because the sad reality is it’s already over for most of the fishing communities that once thrived around the UK. Few are left, but within those that do survive there is a resilience and grit that echoes past glories. Spend time in such communities and you quickly discover that whatever the future holds, the connection to the sea is bound tightly to a determination to survive.
The film taps into a tradition of superstition often associated with seafarers – we hear about the Skipper’s old trawl board and meet a mysterious Night Angler. What was the inspiration behind these mythic elements of the story?
The trawl board - also known as an Otter Board - is a story that comes from my brother who I lost to suicide.
Shortly before his death, we met in a pub that was once the heart of the fishing community we grew up in. I knew he was not well. He was a man of few words; it was always difficult to get him to open up - something we had in common as siblings. I asked him when was the last time he felt truly happy, and he didn’t answer directly but changed tack - something else we were apt to do. Instead, he told me about a trawl board coming loose in a raging storm and how it skimmed the surface as free as a bird (they’re extremely heavy). When the board was snagged and hauled up by accident later in the trip it was seen by some of the crew as a bad omen.
It was the most poetic thing he uttered. I found it deeply moving and realised later that story was about so much more. It was an insight into his deep love for the sea and also his state of mind at the time.
In the film, Skipper's habit of tapping twice on a lamp post was something my brother did before a trip as well. It’s part of an endless and fascinating list of rituals passed on through the generations all with the aim of coming home safe.
With regards to the Night Angler, I think she is a link to Skipper's past but also represents myriad superstitions I encountered growing up in a trawler town. She also points towards the reality that it was often the strength of the women within such communities that held everything together.
Another tradition evident in the film is stoicism. Did you want to address a stigma around masculinity and mental health within this community?
Absolutely. I was driven by personal experience, my relationship with my brothers and research from speaking to other fishermen and their families, as well as clinicians and mental health organisations.
This stigma is such an important point. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45; on average, 84 men take their own life each week. And there is a marked reluctance amongst working class men to talk about depression and suicidal thoughts. My brother, immensely strong physically, was felled by mental health. And whilst it is true a lack of adequate resources and long waiting times for treatment did not help his situation, a sense of shame in admitting illness also contributed.
Because of all this, it was so important to show Dan and Jimmy’s honesty with each other in the aftermath of Skipper’s death.
Shooting at sea must have been a challenge - can you tell us about the practicalities of making the film?
I live not too far away from our location in Scarborough, as do many of the crew. Adam Lyons (Director of Photography), Sonny Boogard (Production Designer), Keeley Lane (Producer) and I made several trips to Scarborough to scout locations and plan logistics for what we suspected would be an intense week of shooting. A lot of 'cap in hand’ meetings with the local community and council also proved hugely beneficial.
The Annie, our fishing boat, is actually a decommissioned trawler that sank and was salvaged and restored by a retired Skipper. It’s a beautiful boat that refused to die - though I may not have shared its full story with our actors and crew until we wrapped…!
The weather and sea conditions were atrocious. Francis Magee, who plays the Skipper, and I both worked at sea before becoming actors - but even we were a little green in complexion several hours into our first day at sea! Dan Hartley, our Director, and the crew did an amazing job in reacting each day to the adverse weather conditions we faced, and that enabled the shoot to continue.
On dry land, the Scarborough locations really serve the story – can you tell us about your connection with the Yorkshire coast?
I first visited Scarborough as a child with the brother we lost. We’d go running through the snickets and alleyways of the old town and watch the working trawlers put out to sea against a backdrop of a flourishing tourist hot spot.
It was something we had not seen before; a town rich with character and characters. It’s a place I now visit regularly, and I have made lasting friendships there. I hope to return in a professional capacity in the future.
For the film, shooting in Scarborough old town underpinned the notion that the fishing community’s profitable past is increasingly distant, and the crew perhaps are yet to fully accept this. There’s a strong sense that the locations are a gateway to who these characters truly are.
What are you working on next?
I’m writing a memoir that will be published by Penguin Random House in 2022, and I’ve recently been lucky enough to be commissioned to write a TV pilot - a crime drama.
I wrote The Tide as a proof of concept and I am also working on a feature length story, Wild Light, about an incident that threatens to destroy a proud, multi-generational fishing family who are held together by a matriarch of indomitable spirit. It's set (for now) in the 1970s as the industry faces up to reality and decline. Working on that bigger canvas lets me explore the fine detail of the fishing community, its past and present as it relates to one family.
The Tide was funded by Film Hub North in association with BFI NETWORK. It is currently playing festivals across the UK and beyond.