Samantha Morton: how Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 provided an escape from a traumatic childhood

Published in The Independent on July 7, 2016

Actress Samantha Morton has written a short film for a new exhibition, Daydreaming with Stanley Kubrick, at Somerset House this summer. Organised by artist, DJ and record label boss James Lavelle, the show asks artists, musicians and filmmakers to respond to Kubrick’s films, and features Anish Kapoor, Sarah Lucas, Jarvis Cocker, and Gavin Turk.

Morton, who has starred in films such as Minority Report, Morven Callar and Sweet and Lowdown as well as writing and directing The Unloved, collaborated with filmmaker and former Jesus and Mary Chain bassist, Douglas Hart, on her contribution to the exhibition.


How did you get involved in the exhibition?

I know James Lavelle; he phoned me to ask if I had a feeling about doing something [on Kubrick], just to see how I responded. And I did respond. The dialogue between James Lavelle and myself was about Kubrick and how had he influenced me, either as a performer or in making film. [But] the first thing I said was that it was really about healing.

Film was for me, at a very young age, a cathartic, healing experience – because I could be in another place and time. My reality wasn’t very pleasant.

My childhood was incredibly traumatic: neglect, abuse, violence, poverty, homelessness. But I lived that, and came out the other side. And it was thanks to film; it was escapism.

And the first film I remember ever seeing was 2001: A Space Odyssey, at the cinema in Nottingham. Me and my brother and sister used to run away all the time. We used to sneak in the fire escape and just sit in there all day watching films, and hiding from the usherettes.

I must have only been about three [years old]. And the sounds and the visuals in 2001 did something to me – something to how my brain developed – in quite a profound way. It’s like when people say ‘I had a trip once, and I‘ve never been right since,’ but in a positive way. I will never forget that experience, and, bar being on my dad’s shoulders, that’s my earliest memory.

Did you re-watch 2001 when you were older, and find it was all still in there?

It was only years and years later that I realised that was [Kubrick’s] film and I’d seen it as a kid. I was like wow: that’s what I saw! Lucky me. But also: fate. I was meant to see it.

I’ve watched it many times, and the memories do come back. But it’s also just in my brain. It’s branded into my brain cells.

You’re collaborating with Douglas Hart on a short film about that experience – can you tell us a bit about it?

It’s completely autobiographical. It’s truth, but dramatized. There’s a little girl called Casey in it and she’s absolutely remarkable. It’s also very, very hard to watch. It’s tough. But it’s not just tough for the sake of it – it’s also very rewarding I hope.

I was going to make [the film] myself, and then I wasn’t in a position, timeframe-wise, to do that. Then I had a conversation with my agent who said ‘have you ever thought about letting anyone else direct your writing?’

The first person that came to my mind – or my heart really – was Dougie. I met Dougie quite a long time ago through a friend, and I thought I’d love to work with him. And he really responded to the material. We spoke, late into the night, about the script: what it brought up, why I’d written it, and the cinematic feel of it.

At a certain point you say: it’s yours. I write very minimally – I’m a bit brutal – and then it’s open to the actor or cinematographer to interpret it. And he’s not a director for hire, he’s a visionary filmmaker in his own right. I burst into tears when I saw the film, because I was so proud of what he’d done – he just got it.

What effect has that formative experience of watching 2001 had on the sort of films you want to make?

The Kubrick thing is about not compromising: composition, light, sound, everything [has to come] together in a symphony.

What else are you working on at the moment?

I’m filming a TV show called Harlots. It’s set in the 18th century, it’s about Covent Garden and prostitutes and madams and bawds – it’s all fantastic. The series is written by a woman, directed by a woman, produced by a woman… it’s a very female show. It really needs an understanding of this world – and of being a woman.

You’re also in the Harry Potter spin-off movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which is out later this year – are you able to say anything about it?

It was amazing. I’m a huge Harry Potter fan. But I never got to audition [for the previous films]. I was at a funny age: too young to play any of the teachers, too old for any of the kids.

So when [director] David Yates thought about casting me, I said, ‘I’d do anything, please!’ I’m such a huge JK Rowling fan, I’d have eaten my hat just to be in that world for a bit.

Daydreaming with Stanley Kubrick is at Somerset House, 6 July to 24 August

Where next?