Raised in Tehran, Dubai and Saudi Arabia, Leyla Pope moved to London at the age of ten. She has lived in France, Switzerland and the US and is currently settled in Wales. Leyla holds a BA from Cambridge University in French/Persian literature, a Scriptwriting MA from the University of Glamorgan and a Film MA from the University of Wales.
Selected from 400 applicants, Leyla joined 16 screenwriters at “SOS”, run by The Bureau. Her first film “To Shine” was screened at the IFSW festival last year and she recently directed a 9min drama ‘Love Struck’ for broadcast on BBC in November.
Bubbles is a film about a family on the brink of change. It is set the day after a funeral when a forgotten photograph unearths deep buried feelings, past loves become present and emotions refuse to be suppressed any longer. The central character is a woman in her forties whose journey is placed within the context of the three generations in her family. We shot a pilot for the feature film, which introduces the characters but also gives you a sense of the lyrical mood of the film. It’s a film about relationships and suppressed emotions, where silences speak far louder than any dialogue.
From the outset, I knew that the film was going to be a difficult one to sell in the UK because its protagonist is a middle class woman, over thirty, living in a large house. British cinema has had a long love affair with gritty working class dramas or gangster films, and there are hardly any films set in large country houses, which are not period dramas. I was warned by many in the industry from undertaking such a departure form the norm. But I always replied that we would first shoot the pilot and determine our next steps on how the audience reacts. Thankfully having now begun screening the film, the feedback has been wonderful. We had a screening in Soho last month to press and industry, and the very elements that make Bubbles different, having a complex central character and interweaving storylines between the family members, is what draws people to it. I think the comment from the screening that I value most, was a journalist coming up to me and saying, “at last I see a real woman on screen – I wish I could see that more often”.
I wrote the pilot for Bubbles on a writers’ retreat in North Wales over two years ago. We were a handful of writers staying in a house overlooking the sea, and our only aim was to produce a piece of writing by the end of the retreat.
Having a young toddler at the time, the retreat was a complete luxury for me. I could allow thoughts to unravel without any interruption, I did not need to feed a baby or juggle work and home. I walked around the grounds and just observed life around me, noticing a magnolia flower gently beginning to rot, a discarded bicycle in a field. I was almost giddy with lightness, realising that over the past few months I had barely stopped for a second to live “in the moment”. The previous year had been a particularly difficult one for me as my parents had recently split up after thirty seven years together.
I reflected on how stressed I had become, how I was becoming an obsessive tidier just like my mother and grandmother were. I had always despaired at their attempt to control everything around them by giving it a sense of order and had sworn I would never behave like that. And as I began to realise how the stress of the past year had changed me, I began to think how different my mother must have been before she had four children. I wondered who she had been then, what had her dreams been? I started to think about writing a character who has been so overwhelmed by her everyday life that she has lost herself. But I then wanted there to be a moment that brought her back to who she had once been, before being a wife and mother.
Out of these musings came the storyline of a woman in her forties who returns to the village she grew up in, to arrange her own mother’s funeral. Exhausted and preoccupied with needing to find her father a care home and clearing her mother’s belongings, she is completely emotionally detached form her grief. In the midst of this, a carpenter arrives at the door about an engraving for a bench but the sight of the carpenter is profoundly upsetting as he is her childhood love who she has not seen in over twenty years. This moment brings our protagonist sharply back to herself, she becomes acutely aware of her feelings again.
As I toyed with these story threads, questions about love and duty were at the forefront of my mind. I was thinking particularly about my parents’ marriage, which had finally broken down after my father had fallen in love with someone else. I found myself very torn by what had happened and was unsure what to think. Should my father have suppressed his desire and stayed in his marriage for my mother’s sake? But my father was clearly happier now with his new wife than he had been with my mother. Which is more important, our emotional integrity or our moral one? But if you sacrifice your emotional integrity, what are you left with? And yet here was my mother left alone after thirty seven years of marriage…
Determined to explore these ambiguities, I thought it would be far more insightful to set these across several generations in a family. I am fascinated by how we are influenced by our families and how there can be subconscious patterns in our behaviour. With this in mind I thought about having a grandfather figure that had been in love with two women. He had married one but held feelings for the other throughout his life. I wondered how he would feel the day after his wife’s funeral when by chance he discovers a photo of both women from his teens. Did he feel guilt or desire?
I also wanted to explore the very sensitive subject of sexual awakening. There is a teenage daughter in the film who catches her stepbrother looking up her skirt. It is the first time that she realises she is seen in a sexual light. She feels both revulsion and anger, but also has a moment where she tentatively explores her newfound awareness.
To bring these storylines together I needed to have a focal point, which is why I centered everything around a large family house. I felt that a house of this size defines a family’s identity and influences their decisions. By raising the issue of selling the house it also raises questions about the family and their future. It was important for me that the house had a sense of stasis and claustrophobia about it which would then contrast with the movement and escape that characterises the end of the film.
I read the first draft of the pilot to the other writers on the retreat and even in its rough form I could sense that I had written a story that people were moved by. I was urged to not let it fester in a drawer but to pursue getting it made but I was aware that I had written it from a deeply personal space and was wary of directing anything that I was so close to. I showed the script to two directors who I thought could direct it. They both loved the film but urged me to direct it myself as I had such a clear vision for it. I was terrified by the prospect, I knew what I wanted to achieve but was not sure if, as a director, I could get there. It is a film that is so subtle and requires such understatement, I did not want to put a foot wrong.
I had a few boosts to my confidence though, the script gained me entry to a prestigious EU funded writers lab, Save Our Scripts, then a script editor also worked closely with me on the script. Through a Meisner directing actors course, run by Stephen Bayly, I met a wonderful producer Geoffrey Morgan who offered to come on board. Having really explored my characters and seen how positively people were responding to the story, I finally decided that I would direct the pilot.
We accessed a small grant in Wales for the four-day shoot but soon realised that we would need to work on a shoestring budget. The challenge, as ever, would be not to compromise the production values of the film so I needed the cast, locations and cinematography to be superb and yet we had to secure this for pennies. I wanted to work with an award winning Welsh cinematographer Huw Walters. He has trained as a photographer, has a wonderful eye and is in great demand. Huw read the script and came on board even despite the lack of budget. We really wanted to shoot the film on 16mm as Bubbles is so much about visual storytelling and Huw has his own 16mm kit. Luckily Kodak was very supportive and as my last film shot on 16mm had done well, they offered us an incredible 70% discount on stock. A major lighting company again waived almost all charges because they wanted to support the film. We managed to secure our dream location, a beautiful manor house, which had never been used as a film set and slowly pieces fell into place.
Casting the film was a journey in itself. The idea was to make the film as Welsh as possible so we could access Welsh Film funds for the feature. We aimed very high and were again amazed at how the pilot script opened doors for us. Howell Evans, who plays the grandfather, is an immensely experienced and in demand actor, but he cleared his diary for the shoot. I really struggled to find the right person to play the protagonist Lily and her son, so for these roles we ran auditions in London. I had an immediate connection with Vanessa Bailey who plays Lily, the mother, as we improvised around the character together in the audition. I had instinctively selected Laurence Patrick, a responsive, experienced actor, but due to time constraints we didn’t get a chance to do a read-through with Vanessa. Reassuringly, they both had a real spark and the chemistry on-screen was exactly what I was looking for.
One of the most difficult people to cast was the young teenage girl. I did the round of drama schools and casting workshops in Wales but I could not see any girls that had the integrity I was looking for. I finally approached a friend of mine’s daughter who I had in fact had in mind when I wrote the part. She had never acted before and was very shy. I knew the film was going to take her completely out of her comfort zone but amazingly she agreed to it. We spent a good month rehearsing the character and the back-story so that when it came to the shoot she would have lots to draw from.
A key element of pre-production, which was unusual, was working with the composer Jack Westmore. I had collaborated with Jack on my previous film and was immediately struck by his talent. As one of the central characters in Bubbles is a composer and cellist, we needed to write the music he was going to play before the shoot. I also wanted this music to tie into the film’s score and reflect the mood shift from a sense of suppression to one of release, so all this needed to be worked through in pre-production. We also managed to secure one of the UK’s most talented cellists, Rosie Biss, lead cello in the Welsh National Opera, which really helped to bring Jack’s music alive.
The shoot itself in Llandinam, Mid Wales, was incredibly intense but enjoyable. All the cast and crew ate their meals in the beautiful dining hall in the manor we filmed in. The very first day of filming was fraught because we were shooting on a train, something that had taken literally two months to organise as it is very difficult to obtain permission for that in the UK. As we were half way through filming the scene, the driver announced that the train was going to have to stop and we would all need to change to a different train all together. I thought that there was no way we could recreate the same interior and get the same seats in the new train and we were still mid scene. Luckily the next train was identical and we managed to get exactly the same seats!
The post-production journey was a complex one but I was eternally grateful to have the guidance of our executive producer, John Richards who comes from an accomplished background as an international film editor. With films to his name such as “Band of Brothers,” Girls’ Night and Little Black Book, John was able to open doors for us and help supervise the post-production work flow. An up and coming editor, Sara Parry Jones, did the off-line edit and brought a very light touch to the piece, adding much further meaning by her choice of edits. She was working on a BBC drama during the daytime and we were often editing late at night to get the film done. The sound mix was long and we ended up doing it twice but at last the film was ready to go out to the world. I was exhausted by this stage but also terrified of how people would react to a film that came from such a personal space for me.
I took it to show a producer in London who was impressed and agreed to help screen it in one of the top preview cinemas in London, the Soho Screening Rooms. Very soon a PR and marketing team came on board and we are now in the process of promoting Bubbles to potential audiences, film festivals, executive producers, brands, press and investors to help take the film to the next level and begin production of the feature. We have been very fortunate so far to have interest from some well-known brands and industry connections, who are offering support, mentoring and advice. I never thought that we could attract so many industry professionals nor that they would be so genuinely moved by the film. I was taken aback by how many people urged me to keep going with the plans for making a feature length film. I have of course doubted myself many times over but feedback has been very encouraging and shown me that the story I care so much about has also moved its viewers and that is the greatest incentive to move forward with the feature.
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