Underwire 2019: Troubled Waters by Gemma Norton

Kickstarting our feature on the Underwire Film Festival’s 10 year event is Gemma Norton. Her impressive drama sat on her computer for two years, luckily for us it’s showing this coming weekend at the Underwire 2019 film festival. Here, Gemma tells us about the challenging journey of making the film, the importance of sharing post natal depression storylines and who she looks up to in the industry.


I was always a very independent, imaginative child. I loved to just sit by myself and draw or write short stories... always in my own world! I got into photography in my mid teens because my sister was into it and moving image came soon after. I'd shoot random footage on my mums old video camera and then put together these little films on windows movie maker. They weren't really about anything, just images and video clips set to music. This was before Instagram and social media and all of that, so they just died when the computer did! Even then I still thought I'd be a photographer or an artist, maybe a writer. I was very whimsical and never thought too practically about anything.

I eventually decided I'd study Film Production at degree level, and even then I thought I'd be a Cinematographer or something. It wasn't until I got a taste of directing fiction that I knew I'd found the dream job. I made a few shorts, graduated and started doing unpaid running on low budget stuff to get experience. I got a full time job as a post production runner after that, which was a lot better (there's a bit of a glass ceiling in the film industry, and only recently have people been calling companies out for the unethical treatment of those starting out and how inaccessible it is for those from lower income families.) I finally decided I needed to make my own work again, and with the help of the contacts I'd made running, I made Troubled Waters.

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Troubled Waters is a short drama about a woman experiencing post natal depression after the birth of her second child. It really is verging on psychosis, but the film is concerned with showing you very intimately her struggles as she experiences them, not analysing her. You see her going about her daily life, exhausted, struggling to connect with her child and struggling to articulate herself to her husband who is fairly un-involved. It's a pretty harrowing story, you see her anxieties progressively become worse until the film reaches a boiling point. I'd had friends of the family have post natal depression. I'd had family members have it. I'd read all these stories, yet it was still something no one seemed to talk about. I'm always interested in what people don't want to talk about, what people don't want to put to film. I've always been interested in stories about outsiders. People who didn't fit into their roles, or were afraid they didn't fit. I wanted to make a story about that. It's about motherhood. It's about fear. The more I talk to women about the film, the more I realise motherhood is such a unifying experience, not just for those who have experienced it.  Something I tried to do with this film is not provide easy answers and I think that sparks so much discussion. 

Still from Troubled Waters

Still from Troubled Waters


It was a massive shock. This was a film that sat unedited on a hard drive for a couple of years.  When the idea for the film first came to me, Underwire was the one place I really wanted to send it to. It was a much smaller festival back then, but I just loved everything they stood for. I always hoped the film would find its audience there. We'd gotten into other festivals with it and had some lovely programmers and filmmakers really champion the film, but to take it to Underwire, amongst all that incredible female talent, is a dream.  What I'm most proud of is that Vivienne Bell's lead performance has been nominated for an Acting award. Her performance is something I'm so enamoured with, and I'm looking forward to being able to share it with everyone.

Still from Troubled Waters

Still from Troubled Waters

Funding in this industry can always be a challenge, how did you achieve yours?

'Achieve' might be a bit strong. In short, we didn't. I was really new to the industry and didn't really have a clue how to finance a film. I'd written a script that required a few actors, children, and several locations that would all cost money so we decided to give crowd funding a go. This project actually started back in 2014, and I feel like crowd funding was still fairly new, and I really didn't know much about it or how to do it properly or know anyone who'd successfully done it. I think we got about £200 in the end and the rest was self financed. Our budget was a lot smaller than what we'd hoped for. Naively we shot what we could and left out the scenes we couldn't afford to make, hoping we could have a second wind of crowd funding - which ultimately didn't happen! We only had a crew of four, two actors and the children were relatives.  We borrowed the kit from friends and barely lit anything.  We shot on location at my parents and grandparents houses.  It was proper indie film making.

What was the most challenging aspect of making the film?

The lack of finance was one, which in the end was a bit of a blessing. I had to craft the film with what I had, and I really think the film is better for it as I had to pick the most important scenes to shoot and I think I made a more concise film. The second was working with children. That was definitely a challenge! We had a four year old and a baby. The four year old was pretty sassy too, if I said 'now just one more take, Alfie' and it turned out we had to do another he'd say 'No, you said only one more. One more means one more, not two, three or four!' In the end we kept him entertained by letting him clapper load for us! I loved how having the kids kept everyone really real though. It made everything so present because it really felt like there were stakes.

Gemma on set

Gemma on set

Underwire celebrates female film making talent in the industry, what female film makers do you look up to?

I'm always really inspired by newer filmmakers. Those at the start of their careers, whose voices seem super fresh. I adored Chloe Zhao's The Rider. I cried. It was the kind of film that makes me want to make films - just magic. Those moments that were improvised on the day, they're the ones I'm always chasing for in my own work. Recently I discovered Jane Campion too (I'm so late to the game I know) but her work blew me away. I'd never seen female desire shown like that. I also think Reed Morano is just it. She shoots, she directs, she produces. She started in grip and electric, which is such a male dominated field. I love that she's a mother (there's photos of her camera operating whilst heavily pregnant.) She was probably the first woman I saw doing what I wanted to do who had worked from the bottom up. She inspires me to work hard and do what I love.

What’s the next project for you?

I'm currently in post production on a short called 'Ping Pong' which is totally different. It's this simple little Dramedy about two estranged friends who catch up over a game of ping pong and it all unravels to reveal something much more serious. After Troubled Waters I wanted to try my hand at something different, but it's still very intimate and human, and super low budget. I'm also writing a short romantic drama to hopefully *fingers crossed* submit for BFI funding.

Troubled Waters is screening in the Family Matters category on Saturday 14th September at BFI Southbank. For tickets and more information on Underwire 2019 visit their website here.

You can follow Gemma on social media via @gleahn and @pingpongshort and you can watch the film here