‘Morning Echo’ dir. Hope Dickson Leach
The Moffatts’ sick young daughter Franny almost died in October, and so the family held a fake Christmas for her. Today is December 25th and Franny is still alive but the rest of the family have fallen apart.
Writer-Director: Hope Dickson Leach
Producer: Geraldine Patten
DOP: Ole Bratt Birkeland
Key Cast: Kerry FrostPeter Sullivan, Amelia Foster
C8: Where did the idea for ‘Morning Echo’ come from and how long did it take you to write?
HDL: I think I wrote the first draft of the script in a day or two, but I lived with the idea for ages. I like writing about dysfunctional groups of people, particularly families, and I LOVE Christmas. The idea that I wouldn’t be allowed to celebrate Christmas is a particular fear of mine. I think part of it was inspired by thinking about what our family would have looked like had my parents not got divorced. Sad truths, however hard to enact, are normally better than living in denial.
C8: Do you ever find the screenwriting process frustrating or is it quite easy for you?
HDL: I love writing. At no other point in the filmmaking process is anything possible and totally in your control. But it is immensely hard. The best way I’ve found to do it is to do it every day, but not for too long so you don’t hate it. Make sure you have lots of time to daydream and fall asleep and discover the strange choices in your story that make it feel more true. Obviously I rarely do that – more often I leave it for ages and then spend a panicked period of time writing all hours of the day.
C8: How did you approach working with high profile cast members such as Kerry Fox and Peter Sullivan?
HDL: Working with talented and experienced actors is a gift for a director. It’s your job to make sure they understand what the story is, what choices their characters are facing, and what has happened between them before the screen story starts – and then leave the rest up to them to inhabit the characters. Kerry and Peter were both incredibly generous with their time and their talent, and totally committed to the family atmosphere that we worked hard to create on the set. We had an amazing cast on this film: Kerry, Peter, Bhasker Patel, Graham Seed, Jacqueline Tong and James Grant as well as the children and their incredibly supportive families. The high level of the cast was largely down to our brilliant casting director Karen Lindsay-Stewart.
C8: What did you shoot on and what was the reasoning behind this choice?
HDL: We shot digitally and were lucky enough to get a great camera. I confess I can’t remember what it was. I’m the kind of director that likes to work with talented DPs and trust them to own that part of the process. I would have preferred to shoot on film, but the project was part of the Film London PULSE PLUS scheme, which meant we had to shoot digitally. Because of how I trained, I always plan my shoots pretty tightly, which keeps the post-production tight too, so I enjoy the constraints of film. One of the hard things about being a director who doesn’t shoot a lot is that the technology is racing ahead all the time, so I have to rely on the talents and knowledge of my collaborators who are always shooting and when each project approaches, bring myself up to scratch pretty damn quick.
C8: You won the Underwire Film Festival award for Best Screenplay. How has the rest of the festival circuit responded to the film?
HDL: We’ve won a couple of other awards for it, but the most rewarding thing is how audiences have responded. It’s a sad story, and rooted in emotional truths that some people will recognise. But if you watch it with an audience the surprising (and satisfying) thing is that it gets a lot of laughs. That’s what I wanted to achieve and it’s why I always try and watch my films with audiences when possible.
C8: You recently had your feature film ‘The Levelling’ listed as part of the new iFeatures development slate. Can you tell us a bit about the project?
HDL: It’s a film based on something that happened in my family, but I’ve taken the story beyond that to create a drama that asks questions of the cycles of family behaviour and how we transcend our upbringings – a little like ‘Morning Echo’ perhaps. I’m very lucky to be working with the fantastic Rachel Robey of Wellington Films, and together we want to make a film set in the English farming community and tells their stories. ‘The Levelling’ is set in the Somerset Levels which I’m sure you will remember was in the news earlier in 2014 due to the catastrophic floods. The promised compensation by the government is only just trickling in and this is a community that are working hard, and together, to survive the environmental challenges they face. One of the things I’m finding is that the land can heal itself but that people aren’t quite so resilient. It’s a tough time to be a farmer, and yet we all rely on them in our daily lives. It’s time we, as a society, supported them better.
Also there are lots of cows in it. No one can resist cows, right?
C8: You completed your MFA in filmmaking at Columbia University. How did this course help you find your voice as a filmmaker?
HDL: When I attended Columbia the focus was on learning filmmaking crafts (writing, directing, producing, acting, editing, film history and theory) and leaving you to find your own voice through this. It’s not an art college so we weren’t pushed and prodded in examining our worldview, or our influences but we were made to create work all the time. I believe that is essential in being able to see what kinds of films you want to make, and what your personal point of view on the world is. Having immensely talented peers, as well as tutors, was instrumental in finding the courage to start speaking out as filmmakers, and I was lucky to be part of a class that supported each other all the way (and still do).
C8: Why did you decide to study filmmaking at an American University?
HDL: Honestly, the first reason was that I wanted to go to New York. I love New York. I grew up in Hong Kong and watched US cinema all the time. I also knew that I needed to find somewhere that would embrace my lack of experience as a writer/director, and Columbia has a history of accepting filmmakers who have more life experience than film training. From the other end I can see that having five years of film school was one of the best things about my film education – most post-graduate film courses in this country are one or two years only, which I consider not long enough to make all the mistakes you need to make. And it’s worth saying that although Columbia is in America, our class was enormously international, and that was something that we all treasured.
C8: What advice would you give to emerging filmmakers trying to find their narrative voice?
HDL: Make work. Find collaborators you enjoy working with who understand what you are trying to do and push you to do it better. There are lots of different ways to do these things (courses, schemes, film school, credit cards). Find the one that works for you.
C8: What are the challenges that female directors face in the film industry that people are not currently talking about?
HDL: Having children. It’s the elephant in the room. I understand it’s not just a female issue, as there are lots of parents who are filmmakers of whatever gender, but I would like it to be discussed more. It’s something that complicates your career enormously. Partly because the freelance nature of the work means childcare becomes too expensive and an organisational nightmare, and partly because the extraordinary commitments filmmaking asks of us means we are having to choose where to put our emotional energy: our films or our families? Not a fair decision. I want to be a good parent and a good filmmaker. I’ve recently started a group called Family Friendly Filmmaking and the support and interest in it has been fantastic. We’re trying to make childcare on set a more standard practice, and open up discussions into awareness of parenting at every level of the film industry from development through to festivals. It’s all about inclusive thinking. I was encouraged recently by finding the development workshops iFeatures ran provided childcare costs for parents who were attending. This sort of thinking is so simple and yet makes a huge difference. There was one director in attendance who was breastfeeding her baby, and had brought her mother with her to look after the child while she was working. Brilliant.
C8: What makes for a good collaboration?
HDL: Respect. It’s everything. Yes you want your collaborator to push you, to say no sometimes, to be on the same page as you, to bring something new to the table, but if this thinking isn’t communicated with respect then it’s worthless. Likewise you need to respect the people you are asking to deliver your idea. I know that in a bad collaboration I get defensive and closed and want just to finish the film and those are the least successful films I have worked on and it’s all my fault. I should have been up front about what I needed and strong enough to ignore the bad behaviour, but I wasn’t. One of my teachers at film school, Kelly Reichardt, always said that the few months of making the film is just a small window of your life, but the film will live forever. Kelly has found ways to make films that works for her – keeping the crew small, working with friends, non-professional actors etc. So now I approach each new collaboration in the spirit I would like to see it reflected, and set the tone. I need the environment of my filmmaking to allow me to be the best person I can be, otherwise I get sucked into the mess and the film suffers. That’s no good for anyone.
C8: What’s next for Hope Dickson Leach?
HDL: I hope that it’ll be a feature. ‘The Levelling’, as mentioned above, is with iFeatures at the moment. I’ve also been developing a feature called ‘English Rose’ with Rachel and US producer Jenn Westin, and have just finished a phase of development with the BFI. I’ve got a very exciting cross-media project called ‘OVEREXPOSED’ which I’m making with producer Jessica Levick about the effects of celebrity culture and the paparazzi on how we see ourselves. And I’m writing two other features: a political thriller set in a dystopic future Scotland about the rise and assassination of a female dictator, and finally, along with my co-writer in the USA Lisa Tarchak, a comedy about a female scientist who has to teach adult gymnastics to stay on campus in her bid to get tenure. I’m also planning two birthday parties for my children right now, so I’m all about Spiderman cake toppers.