Carol Morley vs Kevin Macdonald: video interview exclusive

Watch a video of 'Dreams of a Life' director Carol Morley chatting to filmmaker Kevin Macdonald

Carol Morley discusses her haunting documentary, ‘Dreams of a Life’, about a woman who lay dead in her London flat for over two years, with the Oscar-winning filmmaker Kevin Macdonald. Read Dave Calhoun’s interview below. ‘Dreams of a Life’ is out on DVD now

Carol Morley first came to cinema in search of herself. For her debut documentary, ‘The Alcohol Years’ (2000), the Stockport-born Central Saint Martins graduate sought the help of old friends and acquaintances to discover who she was and what the hell she had been up to during her lost years as a teenager on the fringes of the Manchester music scene. Now 45, Morley has gone in search of another stranger for her third film, ‘Dreams of a Life’, a documentary she has been working on since she first read of the death of Joyce Carol Vincent, a 38-year-old woman whose body lay in her Wood Green bedsit for over two years before being discovered in 2006.

‘Someone recently asked me how long it had taken me to find another absent person to make a film about,’ says Morley, smiling, over a coffee on Leather Lane Market in Clerkenwell.

Carol Morley Carol Morley

Morley, bright-eyed and pink-haired, is full of laughter and curiosity, which is probably why her film ends up more intriguing than maudlin and celebrates Vincent’s life as well as mourning it. ‘I wasn’t so aware of that connection [between my first film and this], but really it’s obvious. When it comes to making films, I suppose I’m fascinated with how you work with real things and real people and the idea of truth. I think you can only really have perspectives and points of view.’

Police believed Vincent died of natural causes and an inquest recorded an open verdict. But Morley started to wonder: how could a youngish woman lie dead in a flat above a shopping centre for so long without being found? Was she missed? And if so, by whom? There were other details that piqued her interest, such as how Vincent’s television was still on when she was found by bailiffs and how newly wrapped Christmas presents were sitting next to her. But Morley kept coming back to bigger questions. What does Vincent’s story say about life in the modern city? And was her life as exceptional as her death?

Morley’s film broadens and deepens the mystery of Joyce Carol Vincent – but doesn’t solve it. Perhaps that’s why her film is so haunting and memorable. It provokes questions. It subverts expectations. It surprises. Morley identifies three strands: ‘the reconstructions, the testimonies and my research’. There are interviews, extended dramatisations of events in Vincent’s life (in which she’s played by Zawe Ashton) and hints of Morley’s own journey in making the film, such as the ads she placed in magazines (including Time Out) or the scribbled notes and timelines she made as part of her research.

But the investigative element only goes so far. ‘I wanted to situate my quest in it, but not in a way that I’d be there with a fluffy microphone saying, “Hi, here I am!” ’ explains Morley. ‘I don’t like to be in things, I think it’s too imposing, I don’t do voiceover or commentary. It allows more gaps for the audience to work their way in.’

Zawe Ashton, who plays Joyce Vincent in Dreams of a Life Zawe Ashton, who plays Joyce Vincent in Dreams of a Life

She interviews friends, colleagues and lovers of Vincent but only features in depth those who wish to be involved. ‘I wanted  collaboration,’ she makes clear. ‘I didn’t want to be knocking on doors, blaming people. There were certain people, like an ex-fiancé – I knew who he was and where he lived and I could have done a “Panorama”-type thing, but that wasn’t the film I wanted to make.’

None of Vincent’s family appear, but Morley says that she spoke to one of her four sisters. ‘They didn’t want me to make the film, as they wanted to grieve alone,’ she says. ‘But I promised I would screen the film for them before any public saw it, so I screened it at Channel Four for about 17 members of the extended family.’

It’s not apparent in ‘Dreams of a Life’ what, if any, relationship Vincent had with her sisters before she died. We know her parents were dead. But Morley reveals that Vincent’s siblings were actively looking for her. ‘They did hire a private detective to try to find her, but they said I did a better job,’ she explains. ‘They thought that Joyce had cut herself off from them.’

One of the many captivating elements of ‘Dreams of a Life’ is the way  that the more you discover about Vincent, the less she conforms to a stereotype of the sort of person you imagine would end up alone in the world. ‘It could happen to all of us,’ Morley offers. ‘When people first hear the story, they think – yes, bedsit, yes, Wood Green, yes, the Sky City estate, yes. Certainly there is a transitory element there of drug addicts dying in the lift and people throwing themselves off balconies.’

But we learn that Vincent was far from this caricature: she worked in the City, had friends in the music business and even met Nelson Mandela backstage at Wembley Stadium in 1990. ‘You make fast assumptions about people, I think, yet she’d experienced things that were exciting, like going out with Stevie Wonder for a night. I think she was aspirational, I think she came out of Thatcher’s Britain. But she compartmentalised her life. She had a set of friends here, a set of friends there. And it was different towards the end. She began to fabricate friendships that didn’t exist and to pretend that she still worked in the City. Prior to that, she was absolutely involved in life.’