Treacle: the story behind a British road movie

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Treacle follows the story of two friends, and it’s a film that in turn aims to give a voice – in its own words – to the ‘B’ in LGBTQ+.

Treacle’s director Rosie Westhoff once said in an interview that “there’s a tendency for bisexuals to feel disposable.” Now that might seem a statement out of left-field, but it’s a key one in the journey not only for the film but also in the life of its writer, co-producer and co-star April Kelley. I sat down to chat to April and her Mini Productions business partner and best mate, Sara Huxley. I began with that quote and asked April how important it was to her. “The word ‘disposable’ came up a lot when we started working with Rosie, and I had never really thought about it in that way before. But it really does hit the nail on the head. Because although what you see in Treacle is a magnified situation, it has happened to me on more than one occasion, if I’m honest, to a greater or lesser extent”. She added that, “I’ve been dating guys and girls since I was 18 but it wasn’t until two years ago that I realised I was bi. I had broached the subject of my dating preferences to Sara and she was like ‘Oh, cool. OK…’”

Here Sara jumps in (something that happened a lot in the conversation, by both of them, and it’s an indication of the special relationship these two have and an important factor in why they make the films they do). She added that “the thing is that I’m not really fazed about anything, so I really was cool with what April said.” There’s laughter (again, no shortage of that), and then April is back to serious. “I found no solace in TV or film when it comes to being bisexual. It took me another year to realise that the voice around bisexualism within the greater community was so limited and so misrepresented that I came to the decision that a combination of a romantic story which has happened to me, mixed with the friendship that me and Sara have, could actually be a recipe for something that could do good.”

How, then, did they come to choose Rosie Westhoff as their collaborator and director? “We contacted Rosie because we had seen her short film Crush at BFI Flare and it’s such a simple piece of work that hits so many levels when you experience your first crush. I leaned over to Sara and said ‘I’m going to email her. I want to work with her’.” And email her she did. They met up, they told her the idea they had, and asked her to write and direct. Westhoff said yes to directing, no to writing, arguing it was their story to pen, not hers.

That came as something of a shock to April as she’d never written a screenplay. But she accepted the challenge and then, as reality hit, realised the enormous task she had taken on. “When you’re running a company, you can’t just say ‘I’ll take three days off to write this.’ It’s a case of having to spend evenings and weekends doing it. I word-vomited it the way I wanted to. I do not profess to being a writer, and so a lot of the conversation you see prior to them hooking up is stuff that me and Sara have gone through. I’ve never had the chance to merge it all together and say to her exactly what I wanted to say. So it was an opportunity to bring it all together.” Rewrites continued as the cast came together, until they had a screenplay the team was happy with.

Yet when it comes to working with someone you’ve never worked with, and who has no experience of shooting outside the UK, there’s a lot resting on trust. As April noted, “It’s one thing for me to turn round to Sara and say ‘look I’ve written this thing and I really want to shoot it in LA.’ There’s this element of our ‘marriage’ where she can manage my expectations and ultimately she’s going to go, ‘Well, we’re gonna do it!’ Whereas Rosie told me to write it whilst, at the same time, putting her trust in two young producers who have never shot in LA, with me going ‘Fine, I’m going to write it and be in it.’”

The trust between April and Sara played an enormous part, too. “It was a big thing for April to trust me and to pass over the film and let me line produce it,” Sara admits. “I basically turned around to her in LA and said ‘you need to give up everything that you’ve done and you need to give me the budget and you need to tell me everything you know and you just need to be an actor.’ That’s what it’s about when we have a passion project. It’s so much about trust.” And there’s a lot to be said about trusting that things that do not yet exist will do so. That was the situation when April and Sara flew to Los Angeles back in April. They landed there with no locations booked, no cast and crew, and a fortnight to sort things out. Which they did.

The penultimate person to join the production was Ari Anderson, who sent in an audition tape a day too late, but April and Sara watched it. “We had some named actors, for want of a better phrase, for the role of Jessie, but Rosie pushed for us to have chemistry with actors who sent through self tapes,” April told me that “after watching Ari’s I said that I wanted to meet them and work with them. They are so wonderful.” April and Ari had one acting audition session. The chemistry was there. Ari had the role. The two were then put through their paces by Westhoff, who had them doing a number of bonding activities. A day at a theme park, anyone? What about 30 questions to find out if you’re compatible? It was typical of the way that Westhoff works and made the on-screen performances much more natural. “Ari doesn’t get the praise that they deserve. They made the film what it is. They are incredible and I can’t wait to see what they do next,” April says.

The film is doing well in festivals around the world. It was one of the top entries at this year’s BFI Flare. How do the creatives thus feel about Treacle’s impact so far? “When I was younger, I had nothing to go ‘Oh, my God, that’s just like me’,” April says. “And that’s what we wanted to change. I have had people email me and message me with comments like ‘this line really resonates with me…’ and ‘I’ve also been in that situation.’ Just recently someone simply said ‘It’s films like that that made me realise why I got into the industry in the first place.’ For someone to think all that on the strength of an 18-minute film, which was done through pure love, is astonishing, and it never gets old.”

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