BUBBLES: Guest post by director Leyla Pope

BIOGRAPHY

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.

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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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To connect with the filmmaker or to learn more about Bubbles, please check out the following:

Website: www.shortfilmbubbles.com

Facebook:www.facebook.com/pages/Bubbles-Short-Film/173451646048497

Twitter: @bubblesfilm


Tumblr: http://bubblesshortfilm.tumblr.com/

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Toronto International Film Festival – pt. I

From September 12-18, the beautiful town of Toronto graced the soles of my vegan shoes as I attended the Toronto International Film Festival for the first time ever.  It’s something I’ve spent more than 15 years thinking about doing and wanting to do, but for some reason, have never done.  Suffice it to say that Toronto was replete with filmmakers, film lovers, film distributors, film journalists, well, you get the picture.

I went to Toronto with intent, not only for a long-awaited stint as a ticket-wielding Jane Q. Public, but also in my role as author of this blog.  With that intent came the welcomed responsibility to watch as many female-centric and female directed films as possible.  I think I got what I paid for: a unique experience that, as stated in the festival’s mission, changes how people view the world through film.

Here are the films that I had the opportunity to see:

THE LADY (2011)

Directed by Luc Besson

Screenplay by Rebecca Frayn

Country: France / UK

Language: English, Burmese (“Myanmar language”)

This film tells the story and recounts the struggle of the Burmese leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent the last 20 years fighting to establish a democratic society in Myanmar.  Michelle Yeoh portrays Suu Kyi with a grace, dignity and — according to audience members during the Q&A after the screening who personally know Suu Kyi — an admirable authenticity.  While it has been written off in some reviews as a “kitchen sink drama,” the true story it tells is anything but melodramatic.  If anything, it is a sincere look into the personal struggle and very public circumstances that prevented Suu Kyi from remaining in Oxford, England as the wife of an Oxford professor and mother to two young boys, and instead forced her into taking up the mantle her father once held before his brutal murder in the late 1940’s.  Suu Kyi is Myanmar’s greatest hope — a leader duly elected who has been routinely prohibited by the State from enacting or embracing any social or political mandate established by the Burmese people.

A bit formulaic on one hand (evoking tears and shocked looks from the audience), Besson nevertheless insists that you witness some of the terror and horror that existed (if not still exists) in Myanmar today.  This is what Aung San Suu Kyi witnessed and you understand why she did what she did, and what she is still doing even today, as her country struggles to reach a democratic resolution to its tyrannical history.

Ultimately, while the subject  and true protagonist of the film is Aung San Suu Kyi, the main character is her husband, Michael Aris (played by David Thewlis).  He is the main driver of the action in the story, and is the main player in this film as the person who tries to publicize not only his wife’s story, but the story of the Burmese democratic protesters.  He helps to ensure that Aung San Suu Kyi is considered for (and ultimately is awarded) the Nobel Peace Prize, and deals with family life back in England while she lives under house arrest and frequent threat for many, many years.  Understandably, there needs to be a character who drives the action, and living under house arrest doesn’t lend itself to action, so focusing on Suu Kyi’s husband, Michael, accomplishes that need; however, it also limits the exploration of Suu Kyi’s experiences and ultimate impact.

THE LADY was introduced by screenwriter Rebecca Frayn who passed on words from Aung San Suu Kyi herself, for audiences to exercise their liberties and freedoms as a way to remember the continuing struggle for human rights and democracy in Burma and around the world.  Inspiring…

SWIRL (2011)

(“Girimunho”)

Directed by Clarissa Campolina & Helvecio Marins, Jr.

Screenplay by Felipe Bragança

Country: Brazil / Spain / Germany

Language: Brazilian Portuguese

SWIRL takes a fascinating, meditative look into the lives of several people in small-town Brazil, drawing on the real lives of the non-professional actors who, essentially, play themselves in the film.  The filmmakers revealed in a Q&A following the screening that they spent six years researching the town and the people and about four months filming.  Using a very loose script and simple direction, the film captures the subjects (residents of the town) as they go about their lives, creating an almost docu-narrative hybrid style of film with a camera that is more observant than it is decisive.

The story focuses on an old woman (Bastu) who lives with her granddaughter (Branca) in the small town of São Romão.  Following the characters through their daily lives, we see the woman’s husband die, his spirit come to haunt the workshop, the granddaughter decide to leave town for nursing school, and many bits of wisdom shared mostly with the audience.  Music is keenly interspersed throughout the long, quiet shots — the film has little dialogue — sung by various characters, including the woman’s neighbor, a feisty older lady who also sings during an extensive opening scene at a community dance.

The contemplative style of the filmmakers lends itself to ambitious introspection!  Bastu, at the end of the film, stands in shallow water in the river looking out into the distance.  She shares her philosophy of life, almost as if speaking directly to the audience.  She loves life, despite what might be seen as very difficult circumstances (poverty, widowhood), and looks upon it as a blessing not to be ignored.

HYSTERIA (2011)

Directed by Tanya Wexler

Screenplay by Jonah Lisa Dyer & Stephen Dyer

Country: USA / UK

Language: English

Director Tanya Wexler introduced her film, visibly excited at the prospect of seeing it with another audience.  Having premiered it at the festival the night before along with the film’s lead, Hugh Dancy, and main female character, Maggie Gyllenhaal, she obviously adored her film and audiences’ reactions to it.  Often difficult to do, Wexler executed this period piece (set in Victorian England) with downright audacity.   Colors were brilliant; costumes were, well, Victorian (think whale-bone corsets, three-piece suits and furs); body language was cagey.  Informed by a well structured script and clever writing, Wexler most definitely loved this story and had a hell of a good time making the film!  She pulled off some very awkward scenes with hilarity and had the audience in stitches from the very beginning straight through to the end.

The film tells the story of the invention of the first vibrator, and the main character of Dr. Mortimer Granville (played by Hugh Dancy) serves as a composite of various historical figures simultaneously working on such a device.  The Victorian medical explanation for women’s “hysteria” was basically thus:  a woman experiencing stress would often suffer from a “wandering uterus,” (yes, that’s right), which would literally (according to Victorian medicine) wander throughout the body unless it could somehow become grounded back in its rightful place.  To ground the uterus in women’s bodies, these stressed out gals needed a good ol’ “paroxysm” (read: orgasm, but shhhh, because that’s not what it really was, it was simply a scientific inevitability of stimulation, nothing sexual involved here!)  Once they experienced a paroxysm, they felt less stressed, were able to concentrate better, felt happier, etc.  Well, suffice it to say that the young Dr. Granville’s hand became pretty tired, and, along with a budding romance (the I love you, I couldn’t love you, I don’t know, but I think I love you sort), with Charlotte Dalrymple (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) — Granville’s boss’s determined, class averse, ambitious activist daughter — he stumbled upon an idea for a vibrator.  The world would never be the same again.  Oh, that, and he realized (after being told by Charlotte) that women’s problems which he diagnosed as “hysteria” were due to them working too hard for too many hours and having a husband who would not make love to them (or not make love to them often enough).

Wexler waited for the credits to roll as various historical and current photos of vibrators appeared along with their often very funny names.  It was inspiring to see how in love with her film she was, and she gladly rattled off some of the best taglines she’s heard: “You’ll come again and again.” “The feel-good movie of the year.” “It has a happy ending.”  A Q&A followed with the screenwriters, Jonah Lisa Dyer and Stephen Dyer, who spoke a bit about the atrocious misogynistic mores and “scientific” understanding of gynecology, a history that hugely helped to inform the film.  It touched upon issues of forced sterilization (the punishment for a woman found guilty of stepping outside of the tightly proscribed behavior of the Victorian era), class consciousness, and female empowerment.  Somewhat predictable in how it turns out, in fact, predictable across many of the beats throughout the film, it nevertheless is a people-pleaser.  All in all, a very good film with a great message and even greater laughs.

According to the director, the film does not yet have a U.S. distributor nor a public relations budget.  In fact, she also stated that it has only one publicist (one who was specifically for the Toronto International Film Festival).  To see this film die on a shelf or be relegated to a special late night showing on Oxygen in three years would be a crime against women.  HYSTERIA helps to lay waste to misogynistic characters and gives voice to an important time during women’s history.

THE RED VIRGIN (2011)

Written & Directed by Sheila Pye

Country: Canada / Spain

Language: Spanish

Distributor: Freak (independent film agency)

– NO TRAILER OR CLIP FOUND – (to submit a link to a trailer or clip, please click here)

This fascinating short was included in the Short Cuts Canada Programme 6, and was inspired by a true story from the early 20th century of a woman in Spain who attempted to mold her daughter into a utopian ideal, a free woman.  Ultimately, her daughter refused to live under her mother’s rule and began to express her own thoughts and desires.  As a result, her mother felt that her creation failed to achieve perfection, and she murdered her own daughter.  Shocking as that is, the film shows the delicate balance between creation and destruction, love and obliteration.

Brilliantly portrayed by famed Spanish actress Maribel Verdú, “Aurora Rodriguez” explains herself directly to the camera, in deliberate fashion and stark terms.  She has an ideal that she wants to achieve.  When she realizes she can’t, then she must destroy what she created.  The film is introduced by “Hildegart,” the daughter (played by Ivana Baquero), who explains how she came to be — an experiment more than anything else.  The visual aesthetic is dreamy, almost like a water-color painting, with muted tones and highly controlled performances.  Certainly a film that is  not easily forgotten, the film’s writer-director, Sheila Pye, is currently developing the story into a feature-length picture that is meant to star Maribel Verdú (according to a Q&A which followed the shorts programme).

LITTLE THEATRES: Homage to the Mineral of Cabbage (2011)

(“Teatrinos: Homenaxe ao mineral do repolo”)

Directed by Stephanie Dudley

Screenplay based on a poem by Erin Mouré

Country: Canada

Language: Galician

This charming film is done completely in stop-motion animation, a medium that the director, Stephanie Dudley, wanted to use to explore something that is normally understood as mundane.  In this case, it’s the cabbage.  And the screenplay is a poem.  Erin Moure’s (a Canadian poet) homage to cabbage is the basis of the screenplay which comes to life as a narration in the Galician language.

It is a fast-paced story with brilliant detail in the animation, with lines of the poem showing up as scrolls which unscroll on the screen.  The tricks of stop-motion animation I do not understand, but the beauty of it (along with the painstaking work and long, long hours of slight movements) is impressive.   Dudley was not only the director but also editor, and played still many other roles in the production of the film.