• Amy-Jean Burns

Karen Newman on tackling gender inequality and stereotypes with Lady M


Karen Newman, producer of Lady M which won the Audience Choice award at this year's Exit 6 Film Festival, talks to us about assembling a female-led team to create a female-centric story starring Samantha Bond, challenging stereotypes and advice for other up and coming producers.

Hello Karen, thanks for taking the time to talk us and congratulations on Lady M winning the Audience Choice award at Exit 6 this year. How was your time at the festival?

Hello and thank you, we are very honoured! I love an audience award as its proof that an audience really appreciates what you have tried to do and at the end of the day, we make films for audiences! We had a great time at Exit 6, we managed to get quite a group together to represent the film, so it really did feel like a huge party. There were a lot of great films being shown and you had put together a very interesting program. Of course, seeing your own film on a huge cinema screen and watching the audience is always exciting and I still get goose bumps when I see it as I know how hard everyone worked and I am incredibly proud of them all.

We did enjoy seeing you all celebrating with a well-deserved drink at the after party! Can you tell us what the film is about from both a story point of view, and the message you’d like audiences to take from it?

Lady M is about an actress, Margot Collins, who played Lady Macbeth to great acclaim in her youth. Now in her fifties, she is largely forgotten, struggling for auditions, let alone parts. A local theatre company announces its intention to stage the Scottish play and Margot persuades the director to let her read on the basis that he remembers her performance from when he was a young boy. She is however deemed too old for the lead and is offered the part of one of the witches instead… But one should never underestimate the spirit of the play to conjure black magic, to summon mishaps and mischief, nor the power of a formidable older woman to get what she wants!

Numerous studies in recent years have revealed the depressing extent of gender inequality in the film, television and theatre industries, and the woeful prospects for actresses over 40. The few actresses who do find work after middle age tend to play mothers, wives, spinsters or decrepit hags. Meryl Streep, one of those few older actresses still permitted to access interesting roles, recently revealed that she was offered the part of a witch three times in the space of a year.

Lady M, a film about the trials of an ageing actress to secure a relevant role, isn't just a great story, but a metaphor for an underrepresented demographic and reaches beyond the film, television and theatre industries. Margot’s experience of the world is unpredictable, unresponsive and not always benevolent, one that many older women might identify with. The ability to control one’s environment or the ravages of time seem impossible. In other narratives Margot may have been portrayed as a victim to be pitied, a self-deluded tragic character or a nuisance to be ignored. Here, however, Margot refuses to be beaten. She is a force of nature with a burning ambition to succeed and, like Shakespeare’s iconic heroine, Lady Macbeth, she summons the strength and will to control and shape her own future.

Traditionally in stories, strong, ambitious women have got their comeuppance or fallen apart, but Margot is here literally to steal the show – and in doing so challenges society’s view of older women and what they can be. The experiences of women in or even passed middle age, which are so complex, so multi-faceted and relevant must no longer be erased from the art form. The stories of these generations of women are a crucial part of the fabric of our Society, of our cultural legacy - and must be told.

Margot may conjure the spirits in order to help her fight back but in reality, it is the magic within her, her own strength, courage and humour that power her through. I hope the message is an empowering one for an audience, do not let anyone extinguish your flame, we all have the power to burn brightly.

The film has a lot to say about how women, and women of a certain age group, can be treated by the film/theatre industry. How important was it for you to address that in your own production?

It was hugely important. The film has a female writer, female director and female producer, I am quite sure we were likened to the three witches at some point! Joking aside, it was a very strong ensemble of fantastically talented individuals. I am a strong believer of the best person for the job, I would never advertise for an all-female crew for example. In an attempt to readdress the balance, you can end up sending out the wrong message. It works at both ends of the age spectrum too, we gave opportunities for young people to gain experience amongst our more experienced crew as I believe that is also incredibly important.

I do like to challenge people’s perceptions of the norm though. Ian Massa-Harris, our Make Up Designer, was male, incredibly experienced and very talented. He came up against some opposition from older members of the production as they struggled to comprehend that a man was doing what is ‘stereotypically’ a woman’s role and questioned his ability. He handled it with grace and humour, but it does show that we need to move on from outdated perceptions of gender roles within certain industries. As we were focusing on how women are treated within the story of Lady M, I think this is an interesting anecdote!

Lady M has a wonderful cast lead superbly by Samantha Bond. How did you go about attaching such a great cast and crew?

Superbly is the understatement, she is phenomenal! We felt it was important to have a respected name for the title role. The film is about an actress in her fifties, so we set ourselves the task of finding one! To be honest as soon as Sam’s name was on the table that was it, we had found our leading lady we just had to persuade her to do it. I owe all the casting genius to the incredible Ben Cogan. I remember sending him the script and quite literally sitting there with my fingers crossed until the phone rang and he said he couldn’t resist casting it. That incredibly iconic cast you see on screen, Samantha Bond, Eleanor Bron, Ann Mitchell - that was all Ben - and what a cast!

We took Sam to lunch to schmooze her into taking the role and looking back I think we were all as nervous as each other. Myself, Ben and director Tammy Riley-Smith arrived early to compose ourselves and work out the best seating configuration (as you do) only for Sam to arrive early and catch us out of our self-designated seats and in a muddle. I also remember discussing dead pets for an extremely long time, Sam is a cat lover and Tammy and I had both sadly just lost our cats, thankfully Ben moved us on or we might still be there talking about Tiddle’s amputation - oh and I was so relieved when Sam suggested wine!

We were lucky, she loved the script and the concept and wanted to do it because of the important message. I remember at the end of the shoot thanking her for coming on board, she looked at me and said “thank you for asking me Karen”.

Landing Sam was a huge help in attracting cast and crew, being able to say we had attached her made subsequent conversations easier. It still wasn’t simple though; the humour of the film comes from having these iconic actresses talking about roles that they had lost, so the cast had to be iconic to really get that message home. Again, I salute Ben for totally understanding what we were trying to do and consequently delivering!

How did you fund the film and what was your experience pulling all that together?

Haha! Next question?

It was a bit of a roller coaster to be honest but then when isn’t it? We had approached some potential partners for sponsorship and we were very close to doing a deal with one in particular, but the timing wasn’t quite right for them, so we were back to square one. We ended up crowdfunding, something I personally hate but the project picked up a bit of traction. I am eternally grateful to my tribe of supporters who jumped on board. The writer had some very generous connections and we got donations from people who we didn’t know as they just liked what we were trying to say.

The script had been developed over time by a group known as the Actors Screen Collective and the head of the group, Camilla Laxton, came on board as an associate producer and we both personally did what they say never to do and put some of our own money into the film. We believed in the film and the people involved and were determined to make it happen.

I managed to get great deals on camera and lighting equipment and am incredibly indebted to the support of Panavision. We shot the film on the Alexa which consequently put the insurance up, but it was worth it.

I had taken the budget to the bare minimum, but we were still short. I had recently discovered that short films are eligible for tax-credits, so I sat down with Camilla and we found a way to loan the production the tax credit amount and a few packets of hair dye later we found ourselves fully financed and ready to go. I still line produced it to the penny though and moved things about constantly as we were shooting to keep the plates spinning!

How did Lady M compare to other projects you’ve worked on?

The project I had completed previously to Lady M was a feature film, Just Charlie, which won the audience award at Edinburgh last year and has travelled the world picking up prizes and selling internationally. Shameless plug, you can catch it on SKY Cinema!

Lady M felt very much like a mini feature film actually, we ended up with quite an extensive crew in comparison to my previous short films, but I think this was appropriate for the scale of the film we were trying to make. Lady M was shot in St. Albans where I grew up and we used the The Abbey Theatre, where I spent my childhood, as our main location. That was quite special actually, it felt like coming home and I had a real personal connection to the theatre which is also another character within the film. At one point I had to ask my old drama teacher if she could move her class to another room because we were running late. So, I had these constant bouts of beautiful nostalgia throughout the entire shoot. The costume department at The Abbey Theatre were fabulous and really helped us out with the authentic Shakespearean style costumes, I think Tammy the director got lost wandering through the rails of beautiful clothes, they really do have a treasure trove of delights there.

This was the first time I have employed my Dad, I say employed … it was more a case of, “Dad please can you be Samantha Bond’s personal driver?” He had the best time and we managed to keep it a secret from Sam until the second day when I called him in the car whilst he was driving her and the nick-name he has for me flashed up on the hands-free display. A nickname that I am not sharing on this blog before you ask! She thought it was hilarious!

What are your personal highlights of the entire experience working on the film?

Gosh how long have I got!? Right up there is working with Samantha Bond. Not only is she incredibly talented she is also the kindest most generous person and an absolute joy to work with. I think she realised that she had to set the tone of the set and she did just that with enormous grace and humour. She ate her meals with the crew and chatted to everyone from runner to caterer and treated everyone with respect. I do remember a scene in the theatre auditorium where we had a lot of extras as “audience” Something went wrong with the camera and we had to fix the issue. The extras got a little restless and then Sam appeared on the stage and proceeded to entertain them all with stories and anecdotes from her life and career. It became “An Audience with Samantha Bond”.

Working with Tammy was a great highlight, she is a fabulous director and I am very excited that we have two features in the pipeline together. One is an Australian Co-Production being cast by Ben Cogan and we have just started to attach incredible actors and the other is a feature also written by Tammy. She pitched it to me when we were both a bit tiddly at a party and I optioned it the next day!

A lot of the people that made up my brilliant team on Lady M have come with me to work on my subsequent projects, finding my tribe is a great highlight! It was also great to work with Camilla, we have been friends for ages so it was fun have a work connection.

Another highlight is when the film started to get accepted into festivals. Nothing appeared to be happening for a while but to be honest we were submitting to all the wrong types of festivals. I called in the cavalry in the form of the brilliant Katie at Festival Formula and she put together a very interesting strategy and then the journey really began. Lady M has travelled to quite a few festivals now and we are only about half way through the journey. We had the best September/October though. Winning the audience award at Exit 6 and then picking up the Best Film for Change at The Bolton International Film Festival the week after. Bolton is a festival to look out for, they are in their second year, not that it shows, and they seem to have a knack of selecting the films that go on to totally smash it. For example, The Silent Child won Best Film for Change the year before us and we all know what that film went on to achieve.

What was the biggest lesson you learned on this project?

I think you learn something new on every single project which is one of the things I love about this industry. There are ways to go about making a film of course but every single one takes a different path and there are always different fires to fight. There is that expression isn’t there “failing to plan is planning to fail” I don’t think you can ever plan for every contingency when it comes to a film project. For example, I couldn’t have planned for our camera van to break down going up Holywell Hill - for those of you who are not familiar with the area we are talking the steepest of hills going through a very busy part of St. Albans town centre! But you learn to soldier on … You have to put each little fire out quietly and efficiently, there is no point letting the costume department know about a fire in the camera department, you end up with a wild fire spreading. I am talking metaphorically of course, we didn’t really set fire to the camera!

You don’t make a film in isolation; it’s a true team effort. As a producer you have to have the entire project in your sights at all time and you need to learn to put your ego aside. There are many egos on set already and you cannot under any circumstances add to that. I learned very early on that whilst something may not be my fault it was always going to be my responsibility and once you establish that you allow people to relax and get on with it. Filmmaking is collaboration and teamwork, people need to feel safe and appreciated and you cannot micro manage everyone.

All of the responsibility is yours but sadly not much of the accolade. So, you need to learn to love the business for what it is and not for the glory. That said, I still get a flutter when I see my name on the screen, on my film because I am proud of what everyone did to get us there and because I used to be an actor, so forgive me!

What advice would you give other short film producers out there looking for funding on their projects?

I think always start with what you have. There is no point having this script set in a castle in 1812 surrounded by soldiers on horses when all you have is a flat in Hackney. Start with the flat in Hackney and build from there. Look for people at your level who want to come with you and who will get a lot from collaborating and really feeling part of something you are creating. If you really need to make something you will find a way to get it off the ground.

Crowd-Funding, although hard work can be a good way of building an audience for your film at the same times as getting some money especially if you can find a way to break beyond the generosity of your friends and family. Look for short film schemes, they pop up all the time, Twitter and Facebook can be quite helpful tools to search. There are charities that might have an affiliation with the subject matter of your film and there are competitions with cash prizes. I think you have to be a bit inventive, unless you get in with the BFI or have a rich benefactor it often feels like an uphill struggle. I have always produced pitch packs for all of my shorts and have treated them in the same way as a feature, with the expansion of online platforms looking for content there are more possibilities for selling a short film now, is there a product or service that fits with what you are trying to say? Spread the net as wide as possible, strap yourself in and get on that roller coaster … its addictive!

You can follow Karen on Twitter: @KNewmanProducer

Follow Karen's production company: @HiddenDoorProds

Photo credits Simon Bennett, Ollie Richards and Joseph Madden