Not one to shy from a challenge, Joe A. Stephenson’s feature debut Chicken is a harrowing and heartfelt account of a teenage boy suffering from learning difficulties in the care of his abusive brother. With the film premiering at this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival after, we caught up with the director to talk about the turbulent journey to the film’s distribution and what’s next on a promising agenda.

What drew you to the story of Chicken, and what made you feel that it would work as a film?

Sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint why a story speaks to you on another level, but there were a couple of things in this case. Firstly, Chicken tells the story of two brothers living below the poverty line, and theirs is a voice that often isn’t heard.

It’s not an easy voice for a lot of people to hear, but it’s important that we understand their experience and the reason our society might be leaving people in such dire situations, so we might have a chance at changing things for the better.

Secondly, I’d say I was drawn to Richard’s optimism. Whether it is a result of his learning difficulties or simply a personality trait he would always use to cope with life. It’s endearing and saves the story from becoming a depressing journey. He also brings humour to the table, and I never wanted to make a wholly depressing art house film as my first film. There are enough of those. I wanted there to be hope, and the story gives us Richard who, for me, represents that sliver of hope in a very dire situation.

Freddie Machin’s play balanced these elements and complex relationships so beautifully, but left things for the audience to fill in for themselves, which worked brilliantly for theatre but also meant that it felt ripe for adaptation. There were areas I thought a film version could expand on where the play had limitations due to the natural restrictions of theatre. Also, importantly and rather rare, I felt it could translate cinematically and not feel like a play on film.

How did you meet Scott, and what made you think that he was capable of playing such a challenging role?

I’ve known Scott for a few years; I knew before the play how brilliant he was because he filmed a monologue and put it on YouTube which showcased a beautifully raw ability to tap into the emotions of a text. It’s a unique and special skill that actors can work their whole life to try and achieve, but he just has it. When he got the part as Richard in the play he crashed at mine as he didn’t live in London at the time, so every evening he would come back from rehearsal and we’d do lines and talk about the character.

I became very attached to the character, and the creation of the character, due to this. Then I saw the play and I knew only he could play Richard in a film version, and knew he would be able to take him in the direction I wanted to on screen.

How did your relatively new and young actors take to playing out such an intense series of events?

Like they’d being doing it years! It’s interesting because each of my leading three come from a different background in terms of acting: Morgan (Watkins) trained at RADA, Yasmin (Paige) trained on the job from a young age, and Scott taught himself. You have a mix of different methods and different needs, so obviously I had to find a way to manage all three without being detrimental to the other’s performance; one actor might need time to get into character while their scene partner might need the energy of jumping straight in.  You hope to find a balance that works for everyone, and it requires give and take from everyone. The intensity of the scenes in the third act are exhausting for the actors, but they were all so passionate about their characters that they never complained.

As this was your first cinematic feature what elements of filming did you find the hardest?

I think probably the conflicts of acting methods; I want everyone to feel like they have been able to give their very best on my set so those complications took some getting used to. If I did a good job, the actors shouldn’t know that was even going on in my head, so you’ll have to ask them if I succeeded!

The other major challenge was the schedule being so tight and so exterior, leaving us at the mercy of British weather with no budget to have extra days. We only had 19 shooting days, so it was going to be challenging if the weather did exactly what we wanted it to, and of course it didn’t. Creativity can thrive under pressure with last minute thinking though, and some of the changes I made on the spot have ended up being some of my favourite moments in the film.

Were there any scenes that you found particularly challenging to film and how did you get through making them?

There’s a scene towards the end of the film in which there’s a confrontation, it’s high energy and a lot of the issues hinted at throughout the film are coming to a head. The most challenging thing with this scene was the tight space of the caravan versus the blocking of the action and space for the camera to actually fit in and capture the brilliant work the actors were doing. I also really wanted the actors to feel free enough to do what felt right and not feel restricted by heavy blocking from me.  It was a lot to get right. But you get through scenes like that like you do every other problem that crops up on set, by careful and considered compromise, and having open and clear dialogue with everyone in the team.

How easy has it been getting Chicken not only made but distributed?

It’s been terrible! I’d love to tell you we’ve had wonderful support from this place and this place, and UK film industry is an incredible place for new talent, but we haven’t and it hasn’t been for me thus far. The truth is that we wouldn’t have been able to make this film if it wasn’t for the generosity of a few amazing individuals. Unfortunately this is not an experience exclusive to me, I’m meeting people all over the industry that are telling me it is their experience too. Every funding body turned Chicken down at every stage, so we really are as independent as you get! I’m very proud we have got to this point, and I’ll forever be grateful to those that did put their trust in me and enabled me to get it this far. Playing at EIFF, as well as having some exciting conversations about the International Premiere, is enormously encouraging but it’s been quite a painful journey to this point. As for distribution, it’s a long journey to that and we’re only just commencing it!

The reviews coming in from Edinburgh have been hugely positive, are you allowing yourself to celebrate?

Not at all really, but it gives you a little confidence boost whenever you see that someone has enjoyed your work. You make your film for the audience, well at least I do. So if an audience member, critic or member of the public, connects the way you hoped they would, you do a little celebration inside and then have to quickly move on to the next challenge the industry throws at you in your effort to get it out there!

What are you able to say at this stage about your new project ‘Noel’?

We haven’t started filming yet, but we’ve commenced pre-production to give ourselves as much lead time as possible. It’s a completely different beast to Chicken, a different level of filmmaking with its own set of complications. Whether it be talent diaries or complex finance plans, you juggle everything until it all settles in the right place. It’s frustrating because you set a date, then something out of your control sets it back a few months, but those frustrations come with their own upsides: those few months mean you can do more extensive prep work, or suddenly the actor who wasn’t available now is! It’s a very exciting project, and I think a surprising one in terms of what people might expect from a Noel Coward biopic, so I can’t wait to start filming!

What are you hoping to do after you’ve wrapped?

Not take as long to get the next one going! I know what that is going to be, I know the basic story structure and I have my writer waiting to getting going. It’s nothing like Chicken or the Noel Coward biopic either so it will be a completely different adventure all over again. Also, I may take a holiday for a few weeks, but I’ll just spend it thinking about the next one, though it would be nice to do that in some sun for a bit!

Chicken premieres at the Edinburgh Film Festival 2016.