Jade, a single mother in the projects of London, is in the prime of her life when her ex-boyfriend horrifically assaults her. The acid attack leaves the striking young woman disfigured. We meet her as she is discharged from the hospital, where her facial scars are revealed to us in the reflection of a window. When Jade returns home, her toddler screams when she sees her mother's face.
Dutch director Sacha Polak's Dirty God, which premiered at Sundance last week, follows Jade as she navigates her new reality as a burn survivor. Jade is played by real-life burn survivor Vicky Knight, a first-time actor who brings nuance to her complex character, who is based, in part, on Knight's own experience. (Knight suffered burns as a child as a result of a fire.) Belgian cinematographer Ruben Impens (Beautiful Boy) lenses Jade with a potent realism that emphasizes her physicality and inner tensions at once.
No Film School sat down with Polak and Knight to discuss how they brought Knight's real-life emotions to a fictional character, how they handled a complex co-production between three countries, and more.
No Film School: How did you two find each other, especially since Vicky is not a traditionally trained actor?
Sacha Polak: I found Vicky through Lucy Pardee, my casting director, who had found her because Vicki posted a video of what happened to her online. There was also some footage of her in this sleazy dating show that she did not know the title of when she participated in it: Too Ugly for Love. They told her only one week before [airing it]. Because of that, she was not really keen on being in a film, so Lucy stalked her.
Vicky Knight: I got this message from Lucy, saying they wanted a real burn survivor to [act] in the film. In the beginning, I was like, "No. I don't wanna do it." I was on this dating program that wasn't meant to be a dating program, but the production of this stupid program lied to me, and basically and pulled it all together as a dating program for people with disabilities. [Originally] they came to me and said that they wanted to film someone with burns to see how they live their life day in day out.
"I've got a lot of my own feelings and emotions in the film. I think that's what made it a lot more realistic."
I'm gay. They put me on dates with these boys, but as we were filming, it didn't seem to me to be a dating program, because it was just me doing my own thing. I don't know. We'd go to a bar and then, a boy would go in and they'll go, "What happened to you," sort of thing. To me, it wasn't filmed as a dating program.
Then, when I got this message from Lucy, I was like, "No." The whole year, she kept on and on and on and on. I finally answered her emails and called her. Then, she told me a bit about what the film was gonna be about. I did a video audition. She sent it to Sasha and Marlene and the next thing I know, Sacha was flying over to meet me, and here we are.
NFS: Sacha, did you already have the script completely written at that point?
Polak: No. The film was not financed at all. I was still working on the script, but for me, it was really important to find a girl like Vicky. I didn't know if she was out there! I needed a girl with her appearance and her amazing eyes and also, her scars. I feel extremely lucky that we found her. Susie [Farrell, co-writer] and I were still working on the script. Once Vicky was there, we joked a lot about things from her own life, and we put them in the script.
NFS: You collaborated a little bit on the script, then?
Polak: Yes, and when we were shooting, there was a lot of improvisation also.
Knight: Yeah. As we were filming, [I noticed] in the script there were some lines that I would want to re-write in my own context. I have been through a lot of what Jade has been through in the film.
For example, when Jade finds a doctor online and that they can reconstruct her face, I've done that personally when I was younger. I emailed doctors all over the world to see if they could fix my hand, or take away my scars, and they'd come back with, "Yeah. Of course we can. We can do this. We can do that." Obviously, I was getting excited and telling my mom, "Oh, they're gonna get rid of my scars." When you're in that position, you sort of believe anything that comes at you. I can highly relate to what Jade went through, because she believed this clinic was gonna change her life and she got disappointed when she turned up and it wasn't true.
I've got a lot of my own feelings and emotions in the film. I think that's what made it a lot more realistic.
'Dirty God'Credit: Sundance 2019
NFS: If Jade is an amalgamation of a fictional character and Vicky's own experiences, how did you approach directing, Sacha?
Polak: Well, I think without Vicky, there no Jade. It was a collaboration. I had the idea and I know the story, and Vicky comes in and she brings so much extra stuff to it and it totally forms the character. I don't think there's anybody that could have played Jade the way she does. There's no one in the world. It melts together.
NFS: Why did this story speak to you in the first place? This idea of Jade, a burn survivor, and her journey?
Polak: Well, I first saw a burn survivor at a music festival. She was burned on her face. I looked at her and I sort of flinched, and I looked again, and I saw people around her doing exactly the same thing. I thought, "This is really, really terrible for her, that every day, she walks out of her house, she has to deal with people staring at her." I thought it was a dramatic idea for a film and it stayed with me.
Then, when I was in London, I heard about these acid attacks. I heard that mainly men were attacking women: "If you're not beautiful for me, then you cannot be beautiful for anyone." That felt really strong for a film, too.
NFS: You talked about wanting to protect your original vision. Was that difficult at all because the film was a co-production between various countries?
Polak: I think co-productions are really nice, in a way, because you have these restrictions. If it's a co-production with Belgium, you have to get some department heads from Belgium, for instance. On this film, I could have one of the best DPs from Belgium. It's nice to work with different crews from different countries. I think that can be really inspiring.
But in this film, in an ideal world, with Vicky, who had never acted before, maybe it would have been best to shoot it chronologically. We couldn't do that whatsoever. We shot all the exteriors in the UK. We shot all the interiors in the Netherlands. Then we had Marrakesh. Some days of shooting were just Vicky changing everything, walking from one door to the next door. It's not an inspiring way to work; it doesn't help you get into a scene.
"We wanted the cinematography to be eclectic; we have a mixture of Steadicam and static shots and then handheld shots."
NFS: Even so, the film is very steeped in realism, especially the cinematography. How did you work with your DP to create this style?
Polak: Working with Ruben [Impens, the DP], we didn't want to have it be kitchen-sink style. We didn't want to make it mega-heavy and dark. We wanted it to be colorful and to be light. That was very important to us. We wanted it to be eclectic; we have a mixture of Steadicam and static shots and then handheld shots. Also, we wanted the music to give it energy—to make it feel like a film that says "2019," that would be fresh and young and from her point of view.
The main thing Ruben and I discussed was getting into Jade's visions and into her feelings. We had mostly blue and red colors in the film. As for our the directing of Vicky, that was sort of a long process. For me, it was super important that she would feel comfortable with the other actors. She auditioned with every single other person.
Knight: Yeah. We had like six months of auditions. It was a very, very long-winded process and because I've never acted before, it helped me so much.
NFS: What were some of the challenges that you came across with the co-production?
Polak: Well, we had three different films, in a way. We had a crew in London that we left behind. We had a crew in the Netherlands. Then, we had a crew in Marrakesh. We kept the head of departments, but all the other people were different.
Knight: Each time, we had to get to know each other.
Polak: Yeah. We had to say goodbye to people.
Knight: That was quite hard.
'Dirty God'Credit: Sundance 2019
NFS: Do you think it brought something to the film—different energies or different dynamics?
Polak: Well, you go through this process together. The start of a film is always like a new factory. You have to build these relationships.
I remember at the wrap party in the UK, we got a little bit drunk together. You have these conversations, these honest conversations with each other like, "This is working," or, "I hated that," and things like that. Then, you have to say goodbye to these people. If you could continue, you would bring that with you and you would build on that. There were so many great people and then, you have to build a new relationship again, and people have to find their way again into a process. It's also difficult for the new crew to get into an existing machine and find their spots.
Knight: When we had the wrap party in Marrakesh, I was presented with a big photo album. It had pictures from when we started filming in London to the end and every one of the crew members wrote a note how amazing I was, and how I made them smile. I look through it when I have a bad day because it brings so much happiness.
Sacha, you can say you were walking on eggshells a bit with me at first because you've never dealt with someone with burns before.
When I was filming, I didn't expect all the emotions to come back from what happened when I was a child. To experience the full emotions from when I was a kid and bring them to Jade, it was very, very difficult, and there were some times where I didn't think I would cope with it. But with having Sacha and Marlene by my side, I could do it. Without them, I think I would have just crumbled and not been able to do it, but they reassured me every single day. I had so much support from every single crew member and it helped so much.
We did some shots of my left hand, for example. I'm very self-conscious of it. I've hidden it for 15 years because of the scars. When Sacha said, "Well, we need to do a close up on it," I cried. I was like, "I've hid it for 15 years, now the whole world's gonna see it." I remember Sacha saying, "I think there's nothing wrong with it. It's beautiful." I got into my head and I was thinking, "You know what? I'm gonna do it." We did it. Now, when I watch the film, I'm like, "Yeah!"
It was difficult also with some of the intimate scenes, the masturbating and things like that. Again, I've hidden my body for so long, and for it to be shown to the world.... We spoke a lot about those scenes. It was quite odd to do it, but in the end, towards the ends [of the production], I was like, "Let's take these clothes off! Let's do it." I just felt so comfortable doing the whole thing. It was just amazing.
NFS: Does it feel like you were able to overcome anything through shooting this film?
Knight: Yeah. I used to hate myself. I used to describe myself as ugly and I was in such a bad, bad place before I started filming. Since doing this film, it has brought so much strength to me, and I can now finally say, "I love myself." I wanna show people that whatever you look like, you can still do it. It's not an excuse to be lazy and push it under the carpet. Without Sacha and Marlene, I don't know where I would be now, without doing the whole film. As I've said to Sacha so many times, she saved my life. She really has, because I was in such a dark place.
NFS: By making this film, you're giving other people strength, too.
Knight: Yeah. I've come across so many burn survivors, as well. I don't like to call them burn victims. I get called that a lot. I'm not a victim. I'm a survivor.
My accident wasn't acid. Mine was fire. But when you get a burn, it's treated the same. I want people to watch the film and then, feel like, "I'm gonna have the courage to feel beautiful, with my scars." Hopefully, that's what we can bring to this.
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by Blackmagic Design.