Interview: Kate Graham
We talk to the director of Scrum

Filmmaker Kate Graham talks us through the ideas and influences behind Scrum - her story of a mother and daughter locked in conflict.

Whether or not you follow rugby, the idea of a scrum will be familiar. It’s a sort of pitched battle for possession where the immovable object of one team butts heads with the unstoppable force of another. It’s brutal, but strangely balletic too - a form of controlled chaos.

It’s a striking image, and one that Leeds-based filmmaker Kate Graham grapples with in her new short of the same name. Scrum, supported by Film Hub North through the BFI NETWORK Short Film Fund, sees a mother and daughter face off over competing ideas of femininity and the future of their relationship. Mum Michelle strives to live in a world of order and propriety; silk dresses, a pristine home, maybe a crafty cig when putting out the laundry. Daughter Jodie - bedraggled, independent and obsessed with rugby league - is the cause of her sleepless nights.

Graham’s film explores both sides of their tussle, finding empathy with Michelle’s struggles and beauty in the bruising game Jodie loves. When we caught up with the Writer/Director, we talked about Scrum’s dual sympathies for mother and daughter, its balancing of naturalistic and heightened aesthetics, and its current festival run, which includes a home game at Leeds International Film Festival 2020.

How did the idea for the film come about - are you a rugby league fan?

It was more the idea for the characters that came first. I’d been working on a short film in Middlesbrough with some teenage girls who were so confident in who they were and what they wanted to do, without any of the hang ups me and my mates had at their age. I wanted to explore the clash that might happen when a version of these girls went home to a mum that came from a generation with different priorities and expectations.

I did some rugby training when I was younger but was always way more into playing football. But I think rugby can be more cinematic, and I love Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life. Plus by making the daughter a rugby league player and the mother very well-groomed, the difference and tension between them is set from the opening shots of these characters. The rugby scenes also gave me a chance to show faces and bodies that we never really see on screen.

For the research of Scrum, I went to a lot of girls rugby league games in Leeds and Bradford, and am definitely a big fan now - especially of West Leeds Women & Girls ARLFC (the team that stars in the film)!

What was the motivation behind shooting in 4:3? That approach seems to give the film a mixture of distance and intimacy when framing the central characters.

I remember reading that Andrea Arnold thinks of the 4:3 ratio as a “very respectful” frame, as it makes the people in it seem very important.

I think Kyle Heslop, the Director of Photography, and I opted for 4:3 due to a few factors. When I found the main house location, it had so much going for it but my slight reservation was that the kitchen was quite narrow, which only shooting 4:3 would really suit.

Then I noticed the treatment doc I’d made to pitch Scrum featured lots of 4:3 images. There were stills from This Sporting Life and other films of the 1960s British New Wave like mother-daughter tale A Taste of Honey, as well as images by Hannah Starkey, who takes amazing photographs of women, mothers and daughters.

When we started to storyboard, it just seemed to fit - creating more of a separation between Michelle and Jodie when they’re in separate frames, but making them closer (or more claustrophobic) when they share a frame. And, on a practical level, it meant we didn’t need to fill so much of the rugby ground with supporting artists.

There’s a blending of stylisation and naturalism throughout the film - what did those different styles bring to Scrum?

I’ve always loved films that can anchor you with a human story, in a way that pushes the boundaries of cinema. Scrum is essentially a character portrait of mum Michelle coming to terms with her fears for her daughter, Jodie, so I wanted their relationship to form the centre of the film, and for the dialogue and performances around that to be as natural and authentic as possible. But seeing that situation through Michelle’s eyes, in her reality, seemed to give a bit of license to experiment with convention, and show her deepest fears in a cinematic way.

   That’s where the dream/nightmare sequence comes in. It’s poetic and there’s something scary about it, but then Michelle wakes up and she’s back to the reality of looking after a daughter she’s spent the day arguing with, and scrubbing the mud from her clothes in a sink. For me, the mundane and the poetic have always been quite close.

The early scenes of the film seem to be driven by Jodie’s frustrations, while the later scenes focus more on Michelle’s experiences. How important was it to explore both sides of that mother-daughter relationship?

I guess, with a story like this, it might have been easy to make the mum character more of an “antagonist” to the daughter’s badass “hero,” like you often see in films. But mother-daughter relationships are never that binary, and neither are women. It’s part of the reason I wanted to tell the story from Michelle’s point of view; I never wanted to poke fun at her or say that Jodie’s way of being “female” is better than hers. In her solitary moments of preparation and domesticity, we see how hard Michelle works - cooking, cleaning, washing, working, always doing her absolute level best for Jodie. It’s more about how these different versions of femininity, with their very different priorities, can live under the same roof as mother and daughter.

In earlier drafts of the script, the ending was more clear-cut and showed Michelle standing in a crowd, cheering on Jodie as she plays rugby. But that seemed too big a leap for Michelle to make - I can’t imagine she would go and watch her daughter play rugby on a wet Saturday in Leeds. But, I thought, Michelle could at least reach a stage where she accepts that’s what her daughter wants to do with her weekend.

   The final scene was a bit of a risk in a short film - the tone changes and we’re in a whole different location. And Michelle is giving a long speech to a new character about what she’s learnt about motherhood. But I think seeing Michelle in her place of work, passing on her advice to someone who’s about to have a daughter, gives a whole new depth and conclusion for her character - especially with that stunning performance from Kelli Hollis.

The film is screening at various festivals at the moment - including in Leeds, where it’s set. How does that feel?

I’m so proud for everyone that worked so hard on it. I’m a bit gutted that we can’t actually go to any to watch it on the big screen - Kelli and I were joking about how nice it would have been to jet over to Spain to watch Scrum when it screened at the Barcelona International Film Festival. But it’s been great being part of the festivals online. I had a baby a few months ago, so I have spent many night feeds watching amazing short films from all over the world, all from the comfort of my sofa.

To be screening at Leeds International Film Festival, where the film is set and I live, is the cherry on top. I was there last year with my previous short, Alice 404. We’d just shot Scrum and I remember hoping I’d be back with it. Although I couldn’t have quite predicted the circumstances, it’s a wonderful festival to be part of, so thanks for having us LIFF.

Are you working on any other projects at the moment?

With things as they are in the world, I’m working on a couple of no-budget, barely-any-cast & crew shorts at the moment. I’m currently editing an experimental short about giving birth in a pandemic, which I shot back in May. Then I’m prepping for another short, which I’m hoping to shoot in January, about a new mum struggling to look after her new baby in lockdown. Are you spotting a theme? After these, I’ll have to do something completely different!

Scrum was funded by Film Hub North in association with BFI NETWORK. It is currently playing festivals across the UK.