Words Kirk Truman
Portraits Joseph Lynn
“You’re feeling stuff which is enormous – it’s like being hit with a double-edged sword…”
If you knew where it would end, would you ever begin? Breakups. They’re a pain in the ass, and have a habit of being weird, powerful and at times life-changing – sometimes all three. For Mercedes Grower, how we slam the brakes on in a relationship became the inspiration behind her first independent film project. The fiercely inventive North London-based actress and filmmaker tells me about her new London-based film Brakes (2016) and the dark twist it gives to the traditional romantic comedy.
Mercedes grew up in London – Soho was her stomping ground for many years – although these days you’re just as likely to find her in Ireland or New York. She has worked as an actor in film and television for more than a decade, appearing in everything from Guy Ritchie’s Revolver (2005) to Rob Brown’s Sixteen (2013). She’s a writer, too, and has been working on ideas for comedy shows for some time. On the back of an ongoing production, she began to develop the concept for what eventually became Brakes.
“I always thought Brakes would be a good idea for a film. When you’re breaking up with somebody, you always feel like that’s so unique to you and so universal,” she says. “You’re feeling stuff which is enormous – it’s like being hit with a double-edged sword; it’s so much at the same time. It can mean so much to one person, and so little to the other.”
Her idea was that the film would be both an experiment and an opportunity to explore the variety of different ways in which people fall in and out of love, lust and companionship. Filmed over a period of four years and premiering at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2016, where it won the special mention for the Michael Powell award, Brakes is a raw, dark comedy about endings and beginnings, brilliantly evoking the joys and regrets that relationships can bring. It does so by tracking the relationships of nine couples, but exploring their stories in reverse order. As we’re plunged directly into the break-ups of ‘Part 2’, we first witness the raw and brutal face of rejection, and all the pain, black humour and disappointment that goes with it; then, in the ‘Part 1’ that follows, we see a series of parallel episodes showing how these now dysfunctional couples first came together.
Produced on a micro-budget and limited permission (often none) to film throughout the capital, shooting had to proceed guerrilla-style. What Mercedes could rely on, though, was a fantastic ensemble cast of acting and comedy talent to portray her collection of dissolving couples, including Paul McGann, Julia Davis, Steve Oram, Kate Hardie and many more, all giving their time when and where they could. The results are often memorable, from Julian Barrett serenading a married man portrayed by Oliver Maltman, to Noel Fielding kicking a football around in a snowy Soho opposite Mercedes herself.
“If you’re lucky, we all fall in and out of love. The situations I created for the couples are comic and desperately sad at times,” says Mercedes. “They’re meant to resonate with real relationships, scenarios and our own experiences, and to warp reality in some ways.” With its punkish aesthetic and impressive improv chops, Brakes manages to be entertaining, funny, charming and dark-edged. The film’s mix of sometimes surreal comedy and raw emotion overcomes its financial limitations, and despite its low-budget origins, Brakes is now set for a well-deserved general release later this year, appearing on selected screens from November 24th in the UK. This may be Mercedes’ first film production, but I must stress that this is just the beginning of her transition into filmmaking – and she already has a new project in the pipeline.