Sunderland Shorts: Female Directors - Drama

In the lead up to the Sunderland Short Film Festival where our film Foxhole will be screened, we're highlighting the other female film directors whose work will be at the event. In this article we speak to four of the directors who will be showing their drama films. 

Natalie Kennedy, director of Down and Out, who was born in Macclesfield but now resides in Manchester has been directing since 2007 and is now in pre-production for her first funded feature film. Carys Watford, director of Space Girls, is from London and has been making films for the past 5 years. Lucy Rose, director of The Sycamore Gap, is from Newcastle Upon Tyne and has made films ever since she can remember. Emily Grew, director of Wombat, lives in Durham and has been making film projects since she was 12 years old.

Here they speak to us about their films, the upcoming festival and their favourite female directors.

WHAT MADE YOU WANT TO TELL THIS STORY?

Natalie: I think what appealed to me most was the story of Billy (Played by Tommy Jessop) and how it juxtaposed with his brother Danny (Christopher Faith).  Billy was so innocent with his view of the world, but always wanted to be like his bigger brother, not knowing what a dark path this could lead him down.  I work a lot with charities that support individuals with downs syndrome and their families, so I think this in part drew me in.  I wanted to tell a story where there was a downs syndrome actor in that wasn’t really focusing on the disability aspect, it was about equal opportunities and Tommy had quite a dark role. 

Carys: I wanted to make an adventure film about the wonders of space & the importance of space travel. And I also wanted to make a film to inspire young girls to see careers in STEM, science & space as fun & achievable. So I was very conscious of wanting the protagonists of the film to be a band of girls. The girls are smart, confident & determined – they are obsessed with science & space & want to study hard to achieve their dreams. Geena Davis’ research has compellingly shown that female characters in kids’ media are often underdeveloped, side-lined or solely there as a plot device. It is important that we promote female agency & science positive goals for the next generation & that is what I set out to achieve with ‘Space Girls’.

Emily: This script came to me from a friend and fellow filmmaker, Jay Moussa-Mann, who asked if I would be interested in directing it. I thought that the story she told in the script was not only a powerful and important recognition of a topic that is almost taboo in today's society, but that it was told in such a human and relate-able way, with a pinch of comedy. Scripts like that don't come along very often, and I was excited and honoured to be asked to bring it to life.

Lucy: The Sycamore Gap is a study of relationships. I have a real fascination with toxic relationships and how they manifest. Ultimately that’s what the film is about, the human connection and what happens when that connection is unhealthy.

 Still from Down and Out

Still from Down and Out

WHAT WAS YOUR BIGGEST OBSTACLE DURING THE MAKING OF THE FILM?

Natalie: We were on a tight time frame for this project, and it was quite a big script to get done.  Always we were very restricted in the amount of time we could have Tommy on set as we had to follow the rules surrounding this and we strictly adhered to them.  We shot a 22 page script in 2/12 days, in Blackpool when the lights were on, in various locations.  The traffic was horrendous so we had to plan very carefully, and luckily we had a great team including producer Rebecca-Clare Evans and Production assistant and art director Rhiannon Clifford, keeping things on track. I do sometimes see some of the restrictions we had when i look back over the film, but i am so proud of all of the team on this, with what we managed to achieve in such a short time.  Tommy was simply brilliant, him and Chris made a quick bond, and Tommy knew everybody’s lines on set.  

Carys: Anyone who’s ever tried to make a film will know that you run into obstacles on a daily, if not hourly, basis! But I’d say the biggest constraint making ‘Space Girls’ was time. Due to working with a limited budget, we shot the entire film over the course of a weekend – looking back we should have had at least one extra day. It meant that we had to shoot very quickly, often with only two takes for each shot – which when you’re working with children became a little stressful at times!  Having said that, many of the crew I’d worked with before, including the brilliant DP Heath McWaters, which meant I could trust that we would make it work. I am really happy with the final film & I’m proud of the incredible work put in by the cast & crew.

Emily: Surprisingly enough, it was putting together the set. You would think that finding a bedroom to shoot in would be simple, but when you think about the lighting, equipment and people that need to fit in around the scene, it becomes very tricky! We actually ended up creating a bedroom set in our living room, which included the cinematographer (and my partner), Robert McDougal, creating a fake window inside the room in order to light the set. The lighting he created in this short film is really beautiful, so it was all worth it.

Lucy: Definitely budget. The film was made of essentially nothing, we had to be multi skilled. With it been a period drama costume and location are a huge part of the over all look of the film and so we had to make our own costumes and be thrifty with props.

 Still from Space Girls

Still from Space Girls

WILL YOU BE ATTENDING THE FESTIVAL IN SUNDERLAND?

Natalie: I would love to attend this festival as everyone involved seems to be just lovely, and it looks very well organised with a great looking programme that I would love to see.  I am keeping my fingers and toes crossed that i can get there, childcare arrangements allowing. 

Carys: Sadly, I won’t be able to attend the festival this year. I’m gutted as I went last year with my previous short film, ‘Theatreland’, and had an amazing time. Anne & the festival staff are incredibly welcoming & I met some great filmmakers who I’ve stayed in contact with. I know it will be a wonderful 4 days of films, workshops & parties at some really unique venues across Sunderland. ‘Space Girls’ screens on Friday evening at the Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens, which is such a magical place for a film screening. I truly wish I could be there!

Emily: I'll be attending the festival on Thursday and Friday evening. Another film I was involved in as a Producer, "Backstage", is screening in the Comedy section, so I'm also looking forward to seeing that screened. I'm always excited to see other short films, simply because there are so few opportunities to watch them on a big screen. I'm also hoping to meet some of the other filmmakers, especially those who are local, as I'm all for collaboration, and always looking for new people to work with.

Lucy: Yes absolutely, I’m most looking forward to seeing the movies and meeting the Filmmakers, having discussions about their work and how it came to be.

 Still from The Sycamore Gap

Still from The Sycamore Gap

HOW HAVE YOU FOUND THE PROCESS OF SENDING YOUR FILM TO FESTIVALS?

Natalie: With Down and Out I did my first crowd fund, and the plan was always to release it to numerous festivals.  It was a daunting experience to start with, and i honestly wasn’t sure where to start.  I had a lot of work on at the time so i contacted a company called Festival Formula who review your film and draft up a list of suitable festivals for a fee.  This took a lot of the pressure off to start, and i adhered to this, but then gained confidence and submitted to various film festivals i found on film freeway and withoutabox.  I had no idea of % of acceptance when i started, what was good or bad, so every rejection was hard.  Then you realise that in a way it really is a numbers game, some people will love it, others will find something they like more.  It depends on a vast number of factors and rejection doesn’t always mean your film isn’t good. I have learnt so much from the festival submission process that i will certainly have many more tools to use for the next film.

Carys: It can definitely be a daunting process submitting to festivals. I’ve been really fortunate that ‘Space Girls’ found a home at some great festivals relatively quickly. But I’ve certainly had more difficult experiences with previous films. It took ‘Theatreland’ a whole year of rejection emails before we got into our first festival! But once it got into one, a stream of other festivals followed. You have to keep the faith as sometimes you need just that one programmer to take a chance on your film.

Emily: Sunderland Shorts is one of a very small number of festivals I have submitted my films to; as all of my productions have so far been self-funded, there is very little or no budget at all for festival submissions. I think at this level of production, it can be very difficult to get your work seen, so the opportunity to do this at a festival is fantastic, but often it is hard to find the funds to put yourself in that position.

Lucy: I love this part of making a movie, it’s basically like giving birth in a way. It’s hard to receive rejections but it’s really special when someone sees something in your film.

 Still from Wombat

Still from Wombat

WHO IS YOUR FAVOURITE FEMALE FILM DIRECTOR AT THE MOMENT?

Natalie: I actually have a few female directors that I love. Kathryn Bigelow is no doubt an obvious choice, but I just loved her early work, especially Near Dark and and Strange Days. Mary Harron is another great female director, my favourite film of hers has to be American Psycho.  Patty Jenkins is also awesome, best film for me is quite possibly Monster. Andrea Arnold, Fish Tank. Sofia Coppola for Lost In Translation. 

Carys: I’ve enjoyed & been influenced by so many female directors from Agnes Varda to Jane Campion. I thought Dee Rees’ ‘Mudbound’ was lyrical & disquieting & beautiful – I wish it had been nominated more during awards season last year. But if you really made me choose, I don’t know how I’d pick between Sophia Coppola & Lynne Ramsey – their films have really stayed with me & I find myself going back to them time & again.

Emily: I love the work of Sofia Coppola; she does such an amazing job at creating a world for her characters, particularly in Lost in Translation. I also love the way she demonstrates the mental state of her characters in the way she frames them, or where she places them in a shot.

Lucy: Without a doubt, Valarie Faris, Little Miss Sunshine is a masterpiece.

Natalie, Carys, Emily and Lucy will be showing their films on Thursday 3rd and Saturday 5th May, for tickets and more information go to the Sunderland Shorts Film Festival website.

You can follow the directors on social media using the below links:

Natalie: Instagram

Carys: Personal Instagram / Film Instagram

Emily: Website / Instagram

Lucy: Film Instagram