Eva Riley is a Scottish writer and director based in Brighton. With numerous short films under her belt – including Patriot, which was in competition in Cannes, and Diagnosis, a surreal thriller about a woman who works in role-play for trainee doctors – Riley has moved into the world of feature filmmaking with her debut, Perfect 10.

A brilliant British coming-of-age character study, Perfect 10 follows Leigh, a working-class gymnast whose life is thrown into chaos when her previously unknown half-brother turns up, drawing her into a world of petty crime and stealing motorbikes.

I spoke to Riley ahead of its release both in theatres and digitally, and talked about her improvisational directing style, working with first-time actors, and capturing the ups and downs of teenage life.

The past few months have been a bit strange for everyone. I was wondering how it’s been preparing for the release during lockdown?

I feel like everyone’s still got to be really careful, you know. I think a lot of people are really keen to go and see films, and I’ve missed it a lot during lockdown. The film is a pretty hopeful, summery film, even though it’s got lots of darkness in it. I really hope that if people realise that about it, they might go see it as a bit of a release from things, and a bit of escapism.

Gymnastics is a big part of Perfect 10. Did you always intend to focus on that, or did you build that element up around Frankie [Box, who plays protagonist Leigh] after meeting her, and seeing what she could do?

Right at the beginning, I wanted to make a film about a brother and sister. And way before I met Frankie, I decided that I wanted the characters to have a passion in life.

For some reason, I was watching a lot of gymnastic videos. I’m not from a gymnastics background, I just got really obsessed with floor routines, and I thought they were really beautiful. I’d be sitting at my desk in tears at some of them because they’re so lovely! I love glitz and glamour, I like sparkly things, I love musicals and stuff like that, so it really tapped into this side of me I think.

It’s hers and Alfie’s (Deegan, who plays Joe] first feature. Working with amateur actors goes hand in hand with your directing style, which is very improvisational. You like to create spontaneity on set. How do you actually set up that kind of environment? What conversations do you have with the actors to get that out of them?

It’s conversations with actors, but it’s also conversations with the crew. It’s important to let people know in advance how I want to film, and that it might look a bit crazy – because it can look a bit mad sometimes when you’re doing lots of improvisation, and lots of takes. 

And with the actors, it’s 100% about making them feel completely confident in themselves, and like they are the best actors in the world – which to me, they are! It’s about making them feel really trusted, and also just kind of making it an extension of the audition process. 

We’re not making up a whole scene on the spot; they know what’s happening. But I tell them really not to worry about learning lines. In general, I’m just like, get a sense of the lines, get a sense of the shape of the scene, and don’t worry about a thing.

I think it’s so much better for them to understand the scene in their head, than to understand the scene on the paper. They do takes again and again, and at some point, there’s a sweet spot. The final scene usually has like 70% of the dialogue in the script, and then 30% of dialogue they said themselves. It just gives this real sense of power to them – because they [Frankie and Alfie] are also very astute judges of what’s good acting.

It’s nice to hear that you have such trust and confidence – even with them coming to it as first-time actors. 

Yeah for me, for some reason, I have blind faith in this process. Because I’ve done it before, and in my head, I’m just like – it’ll be fine, it’ll work. And I think if someone else can feel that you’re totally calm, and you’re totally cool with it, then it helps everything.

It sounds like a very collaborative way to work.

Yes, but it is very stressful as well! I do have blind faith in it, but also – you have to get there! Sometimes it can take a little while, and underneath that calm, you’re like okay, we gotta get it. 

And I guess the work is in making it look like there is no work, in making it look effortless.

So much, and me and the editor worked so hard. That’s the price you have to pay for it, you have to be prepared to do a lot of editing.

You’ve said that you prefer to make films set over a small time period, so as to get the full impact of that moment in someone’s life. With Perfect 10, Leigh’s only known Joe for about a week – but by the end, there’s this real sense of history between them. What draws you to make that choice? 

It’s tricky because obviously you want it to be realistic that they’ve got to that point. But at the same time, I remember being a teenager very clearly! And you know, shit happens really quickly. It’s intense! 

In this story, Leigh is really lonely, cut off, she’s a person who’s grieving. By the nature of it, someone turning up who’s your brother…it kind of turns everything upside down. So I just think it all would happen quite quickly.

I just love films where you feel like you’re watching almost every moment, even if you’re not, you know? You feel like, wow, I’m really just observing these people. Basically, what I like in films are very small moments that are very big emotionally. And I think it’s much easier to hone in on those when it’s a small time period. 

Something that comes across so well despite the short time period is Leigh’s complicated relationship with Joe. He’s like a dad figure at times, he’s like a brother, she feels desire for him, there’s a kiss. How did you develop the dynamics there? Was there ever a point where you questioned pushing it to her actually kissing him? How did you tread that line between it all?

Leigh’s an incredibly lonely girl, and I think…sometimes, if you’re very lonely and don’t have much love, someone giving you a bit of love and care, even if it’s in a weird way, it doesn’t really matter. He’s there for her, as a brother, and I guess she just sort of falls in love with him because of that. But I think what she’s actually feeling is cared for, and it’s basically her confusing it for feeling attracted to him. 

You know, she’s not really thinking about consequences. She has a little kiss, but it’s really not a good idea. They don’t have sex, it’s not too weird – I just wanted to go there, and see the impact it has, and try and make it relatable even though it’s obviously a strange thing to do. And also not judge it; that’s really important, not to judge it, and just see what it’s like to be confused and young.

When I think about Perfect 10, I think about two things. The first is how Leigh looks – her blue leotard and Frankie’s big mop of curly hair, which make for a strong visual presence. The second is the song for Leigh’s routine, which is Kano’s ‘My Sound’. Could you talk about what went into choosing those, and how you create that strong identity; those really memorable motifs?

Colour is a really important thing to me. Originally I was really into photography – I love visuals, I’m a bit of a magpie with colours, and I especially like things when they’re maybe a serious story, or just not necessarily a comedy, but it’s not all in depressing colours. I just want something that’s really poppy, and that really springs out of the screen. 

It’s something I talked about with my cinematographer [Steven Cameron Ferguson] a lot, so we used a lot of light in the film, and also with my amazing costume designer Suzie Coulthard. Suzie naturally goes very colourful with her ideas, so we looked a lot at leotards and chose stuff that would complement Frankie. I do think it’s really important to have a visual identity with your main character’s costume, and how it relates to their environment. 

And the Kano track – I was so, so happy about that. I worked on this film for many years, and when I was writing, I would put a playlist on all the time. It would be a combination of music that I liked, but also I did a huge amount of research and talking to young people, and asked what kind of music they were listening to. The Kano song always gave me a lot of energy when I was writing. We had to get it licensed, and I was really nervous because I didn’t know whether we’d get it, but we did in the end, which was amazing. And now I just cannot imagine it without it, because it’s so integral to the film.

One thing I wanted to say on costumes as well – I don’t know if you saw Normal People that was out recently? And all the hype about Connell’s chain? And when I was watching Perfect 10, I realised Joe had that chain first!! 

Me and Steven, my cinematographer, have talked about this so much! I was like listen, we have done ‘chain porn’ already with Alfie! But you know, it’s quite common. I love chains like that. It looks beautiful, and we have a nice shot of it in the film.

You’ve got another feature you’re working on, The Circle. What can you tell us about it?

It’s about this girl who is a young conservative. She gets moved by her dad…and has to go to a new school, and feels very lost. She makes friends with this group of real outcasts and has a series of sleepovers at her house. From there, she becomes a kind of cult leader for these girls. It sounds really dark but it’s more like a black comedy, kind of absurdly funny. 

I wanted to make a film about young girls and teenage sleepovers because I think it’s a very interesting, ritualistic time. But it’s also kind of about society through the lens of teenage girls. I’ve just submitted a new draft of that. I actually started developing it at a similar time as Perfect 10, that just happened first, so I’m really excited to get back into this one. 

You say its dark, but school troubles, sleepovers and cult leaders just sounds like the everyday life of being a teenage girl to me! Can’t wait to hear more, and best of luck with Perfect 10!

Perfect 10 is released in cinemas and on digital from August 7th.