The Movie Waffler Interview - TO NOWHERE Director Sian Astor-Lewis | The Movie Waffler

Interview - TO NOWHERE Director Sian Astor-Lewis

Interview - TO NOWHERE Director Sian Astor-Lewis
The British filmmaker discusses her feature debut.

Interview by Benjamin Poole

Writer/director Sian Astor-Lewis's feature debut To Nowhere is a dark story of two young friends on an alcohol-fuelled journey of self-destruction through a lonely corner of London. We spoke to Sian about her film and the challenges of indie filmmaking.

The representation of adolescents in cinema is an evergreen staple. Perhaps it is because that age is such a threshold state: anything could happen in the approaching years, good or bad. But whatever happens, it is still yet to come and seems so far away (I always look back on my teenage years as a bit like being stuck in a drab waiting room, with all the freedoms of adulthood out of reach, a state I was reminded of watching To Nowhere). I was hoping you could elaborate upon how To Nowhere depicts youth?
I definitely wanted to capture that tender life-stage in this story. It's a strange time for everyone, and I very much drew from my own experiences. It's just a phase of life which is so present and so raw. The past feels like another life, and the future seems inconceivable, even though you vaguely know it's coming. I wanted to portray the dreamy, disorientated timelessness of being caught between childhood and adulthood, of dealing with adult issues but with an adolescent's deeply flawed logic. At that stage of life, every moment has so much meaning, which in hindsight is quite beautiful, even if it's unbearable at the time. I didn't think I had a "future" when I was that age, and neither do the characters—particularly Finn. Yet somehow the eye of that storm offers a perverse kind of freedom. If everything's doomed anyway, you can do what you want.


What motivates Finn and Tulip?

They are both in extremely different places in their lives, and this is something that comes out increasingly over the course of the film. Tulip is consumed with this complex infatuation with her best friend. There's the question of sexuality, but also acceptance. She'll do anything, put up with anything, to get what she wants. Her desire is overwhelming. Finn's pursuit is a sense of power and control. She wants to feel indestructible, to dominate those around her. But yet she's on a self-destructive path. At a more subconscious level Finn is grappling with her gender identity. Her fragile understanding of this important personal journey is in its early stages and is often eclipsed, sadly, by other, traumatic parts of her life.


I was intrigued by the character of Stanley, Tulip's uncle played with great humanity by Orlando Seale, who seems to be undergoing a crisis of solitude himself. How do you see this character? What's his game?

Orlando brought such nuance and fragility to Stanley. He's a profoundly lonely character, and yearns for an intimate connection. He lives with an overwhelming feeling of worthlessness, which grows into—or stems from—something very toxic. Stanley is part of a relational triangle with Tulip and Finn. He has a much greater impact on and control over their dynamic than either of them fully realise, until, perhaps, it's too late. Ultimately, he's probably the most complicated character of them all.


Throughout To Nowhere, music seems really important to characters and the film. Could you talk a bit about how music is used throughout the film?

All music in the film is diegetic (i.e. it occurs naturally in the environment of the film). I didn't want a score or soundtrack. Stylistically, I wanted to embrace a kind of Realism. I wanted to draw the audience into a more immersive, organic experience, to step into the shoes of the characters. Music has an incredible capacity to take you instantly back to a specific time and place, and I felt that would be even more powerful to experience through their perspective. The gig with Charlie, where musician Sam Larner performs one of his own songs, felt like the right kind of bridge between the thematic light of day and the dark of night. It's dreamy, dissociated, and cuts to the heart of all three characters' identities: they'd rather be "someone else, anybody else."


I'm always interested in how films get made and distributed. It seems to me that each one that gets out there has succeeded against some extremely stacked odds. Would you mind giving us an insight into the process of making To Nowhere and the challenges/opportunities that face indie filmmakers?

To Nowhere is a tiny film, made for a budget of £27,000 (a fraction of the budget of The Blair Witch Project). For well over a decade, I knew making a feature was something I had to do. In simple terms, I just didn't stop until I'd done that. It was thrilling and gruelling in equal measure. Inevitably, funding was the biggest challenge, and time was possibly the biggest sacrifice. If you're making a film like that, finding the right people to collaborate with is essential. There are a lot of people to choose from, but it can take time to realise whether you have the same filmmaking philosophy. When you find the right people, it's wonderful, you've made collaborators for life.

The actual shoot was two weeks, then post-production took two years. To Nowhere's my baby more than it is anyone else's, so over the many years I've worked on it I've had many very late, or indeed sleepless nights. You sacrifice many things as an indie filmmaker, so you've got to ask yourself if you really want it. I didn't make this film to tick any boxes, which is probably a pro and a con. It certainly gave me a really liberating sense of artistic freedom, amidst the chaos. I think that is one of the most precious things I've experienced in my life.

Finally, if you were to programme To Nowhere on a triple bill, what would the other two films be and why?

Naked and La Notte. Like To Nowhere, these two films are set in a single day/two continuous days, and I wanted to emulate the episodic, spontaneous, microcosmic feel of such narrative structures. La Notte—for all the wonderful things you could say about that film—has so much meaning in every shot. Though I was working in a much lower-budget and grittier context, I took on that intention of creating as much emotion as I could through the camera, of capturing a way of seeing.

Naked, for me, is an incredible character portrait – someone profoundly flawed and three-dimensional—and superbly performed. There's also another reason I'm very attached to that film. When I was doing post-production on To Nowhere, it was during Covid lockdowns. Everything was remote of course, and it was an extremely intense time. I would go for a ritualistic and compulsive daily walk, as many of us did. I always passed a house which looked so much like the house in Naked that I referred to it as "The Naked House." My first cinema trip of that era post-lockdowns was to see Naked, which I hadn't seen in a while. Watching it on the big screen, I realised that the house I had been walking past during that bleak time was actually the house, and that during my daily outings I was literally tracing the footsteps of Johnny's final journey. In such a tough period, the magic of this discovery felt like some kind of sign to keep going.

To Nowhere is in UK cinemas from June 30th.