Behind the Curtain

For as long as I can remember, I have had a very morbid curiosity with dead things. No sick wonder is derived from this fascination of mine, instead, an overwhelming view of all the answers we are not afforded in life. I remember the first time I saw a dead body and how I simply couldn’t fathom that no living thing existed inside of it anymore. I recall my first brush with death – both contemplating it and losing someone I loved. I understood, long before I understood most things, that before we are living, we are dead.That was and always has been my understanding of what death is – life is simply a holiday and we must, at some point, return to our natural state.

So, when ghosts became a part of my understanding, I was fascinated. They escaped the inescapable and were afforded a second life. In real life, nobody on God’s green earth is given the opportunity of comfort or a goodbye. Only in the stories are we that lucky.

I don’t think it’s any surprise, with all that history I’ve just shared with you, that I am drawn to horror, but it wasn’t until She Lives Alone that I attempted to create one of my own.

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It was a lazy summer afternoon in late May when I first met Maud (our main character). She ventured, seemingly from out of nowhere, into my thoughts and I recall her, quite vividly, looking around and saying “this will do nicely” – though there was a potent air of judgement in her tone. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so lucky to be intruded upon by such an interesting character. She was far too honest for her own good, contrary and quite the modern woman for someone wearing a petticoat beneath her skirts, but I felt an instant bond with her. I had to tell her story.

I wrote it all down and while I penned a first draft, I could feel her judgemental set of eyes on the script as I scrawled through from scene to scene and at the end, I felt her give me a stiff nod. It was an “I suppose it will do” accompanied by a heavy sigh.

Though Maud had a mean streak, I felt protective of her and was quite anxious to share her with people incase they didn’t understand her, but that changed  when I met the wonderful Maria Caruana Galizia at Candle and Bell. I knew in an instant that I could trust her with Maud. As we developed the script, Maria got to know her and her story and though Maud said nothing, she strongly approved of Maria – she may have even formed a smile at the corners of her mouth.

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We went to the BFI Network (Film Hub North) to attain funding and I feel so grateful that they saw something in Maud and her story and also in us as filmmakers. We received £10,000 in funds to help support the project and we also developed the script further with the organisation to truly make sure the script was the best version of itself. Roxy (our exec) in particular, really challenged and encouraged us to be curious and critical when it came to some of the finer character details, ultimately, making it the film that it is now.

£10,000, though an enormous help which we were very thankful to have, was still quite a challenging budget to work with given our ambitions. We decided, though the script was set in Cumbria (then Cumberland), to film in County Durham to keep costs down. There are very few stone circles, especially ones close to the shooting location we’d found for our interiors and so we decided we’d have to make the stones instead of finding real ones. We then teamed up with the incredible Northern School of Art and worked closely with John Noble and Poppy Hall, who really brought the world that Maud lived in to life. John and his team of amazing students were able to source our props and floorboards and make our stones for the stone circle. Poppy, our production designer, sourced all the furniture and smaller details to really give the set life. I firmly believe that one of the films biggest strengths is down to the attention to the finer details brought forth by this wonderful team of individuals. It really gave something very meaty for the cast to use as an anchor to fall into character when they needed to. It truly was like stepping into another world.

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I have a complex relationship with casting. The director in me is eager to find someone to trust with the characters and to work hard to ensure whoever I hand them over to will love them and understand them, but the writer in me is always anxious to relinquish them. It’s something I have always had a hard time with. The casting (for both the writer and director in me) however, was an absolute breeze. We saw a slew of incredibly talented actors, who each brought something unique and interesting to the roles, but there were stand out actors whose performances were really speaking to me. Particularly Rachel Teate (Maud) who offered me something I didn’t know that I needed. Her curiosity when it came to exploring Maud and her ability to question certain strokes of the character set just the right tone. Maud needed somebody like that. Someone who would do her utmost to understand her, listen to her and accept her just as she was. Lauryn Elise, who brought a softer side to Eleanor (one I didn’t know she had) and Karen Littlejohn, who petrified me from the moment she fell into character, were also an absolute dream to work with. They were all so ready to dive into the complexities of the characters and collaborate with me to bring them to life. I feel so lucky to have worked with this particular cast because they are the type of actors who just bring their everything to the role and question things unrelentingly.

Though I have worked with Lizzie before on other projects, this is one we felt we could really, really, sink our teeth into. We spent months preparing a shot list and storyboard with very precise compositions and movements to strike exactly the right tone. Needless to say, though there were possibly hundreds of hours of conversations, debates and challenging each other on our ideas, it was quite straightforward. No one has a mind like Lizzie when it comes to cinematography. I’ve never seen Director of Photography explore the themes of a script so deeply and viscerally. She was able to bring to the table a part of herself and a vulnerability in the way she crafted the visual storytelling. I marvel at her ability and craftsmanship.

(Photography by Sel Maclean)

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We were all ready to go. Maria had worked tirelessly through prep and put up with my incessant chatting on the copious recces we had to find our locations and our team was assembled. All that was left to do, was to shoot the film. As with every film I have ever made, I did not sleep at all the night before. It’s a very strange annoying quirk I have picked up over the years. So, the morning I arrived to set I was running solely on adrenaline. Our wonderful AD, Josie, whilst putting together the schedule had already combatted this in advance. She had started us off with some less challenging scenes while we found our groove. Day 2 was a high point for me, because we filmed all the really spooky scenes. There was an amazing vibe shared amongst the team while Karen got to really work her haunting mojo. You would not believe that the beginning of that day we had to rearrange the entire schedule due to unexpected 60mph gales, snow storms and bullet-like hail, but we still finished on time and got everything we needed (thank you Josie). Though the shoot (in its entirety) had a very demanding schedule, we managed to get everything done and wrap on time.

I truly can’t speak highly enough of every single person that was on that set. Each of them had an immense talent, perfectionism and tenacity and I owe a great deal of thanks to all of them for helping to bring Maud to life.

It was the year of our lord, 2020 when Covid struck the United Kingdom, but we were quite lucky to have shot before any lockdown measures were put in place. Though, our post-production was affected by the disease, we worked with an incredible editor called Chris Cronin (who also happens to be an amazing director). He was so wonderful in offering his advice and putting up with (borderline ridiculous) perfectionism when it came to putting the film together, in particular the scene where Maud and Eleanor sit in the kitchen. We also worked very closely with our executive, Roxy Mckenna during the edit to really fine tune the film and push it towards being something especially haunting and cinematic. We picture-locked and then moved onto working with our VFX extraordinaire, Mark Lediard, Colourist, Lucie Barbier (SIM International) and our sound mixer, Phil Quinton. I felt especially lucky to work with the remarkable Die Hexen. She was our composer and sound designer. I instantly clicked with Die and because of that, she was able to perfectly articulate the emotions and themes of the script. The soundtrack is both haunting and beautiful.

Ultimately the reason this film is what it is is because of the incredible team who worked on it. They were resourceful, ambitious, creative, skilled and moreover, hugely dedicated and passionate about the story we were telling. I feel especially strongly about that last point. Without their dedication to the script, this film would not be half the film it is. Finally, the hugest and most sincere thank you to the BFI Network, Film Hub North and Roxy Mckenna for your unmatched support on this project.

Now here we are, exhibitions and festivals. I am delighted to give you this little insight into how this film was made and what a joy it was to work with everyone involved. I wanted to write this in honour of Frightfest because it feels like a milestone moment for me to go to this festival with this film. I have been in past years and really enjoyed my time there, whilst also looking up to the filmmakers in attendance with their films.

Maud, though she has been quiet since Rachel took the reins, feels that what she wanted to say has been said. I know that if she was still here, she would be overwhelmed by the experience of making this film from start to finish.

She might have even smiled. I am certain of that.

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