I am delighted to be able to bring you an interview with BIFA nominee writer/director Deborah Haywood. Known for her award-winning first feature Pin Cushion developed with BFI Network and Creative England, Deborah takes time out to discuss her road from shorts to feature and why making Pin Cushion was so important to her.
Deborah, so excited to have you here. You've made some incredibly powerful short films Lady Margaret, Sis and Twinkle, Twinkle often dealing with very dark subjects told from the perspective of young children and teenagers. Tell us about yourself and your influences
I think my influences come from my life, the stories I've heard, the characters I've met.
Lady Margaret came from the idea that locally there's an area that the ghost of Lady Margaret used to supposedly appear. And I put that together with teenager’s cos it's a teen kind of activity.
Sis came from hearing about a story I heard of a man being terrorised on a local estate. And Twinkle, Twinkle came from hearing Jade Goody talking about how she told her sons that when she dies, she'd be a star twinkling down on them. Which got me thinking that if my mummy died and I was little, and missing her, I might try and figure out how she got to be a star, so I could be one too, and be with her.
What inspired you to bring these stories to screen?
They had an effect on me emotionally, and I think that's a good place to start with a story. Because if something affects you emotionally, then it's probably going to affect someone else, too. Which is what we tell stories for. To feel something.
As a filmmaker how important are short films when first starting out as a Writer/Director?
Really important. To me, anyway. It's where I learnt about telling stories for screen, how they work, how to work with actors etc. They are so good for experience, and it doesn't matter so much if they fail. It's a place for us to experiment and learn. If I hadn't made shorts I don't think I'd have had the guts to make a feature. It would have seemed too big, and overwhelming.
You first feature film Pin Cushion really resonated with me. The film explores the co-dependent relationship between a mother and daughter as they move into a new town and are both bullied by their peers, played beautifully by actresses Joanna Scanlan and Lily Newmark. I distinctively watched this and thought 'God, I remember why I hated school now' as I'm sure many others felt the same.
Thank you! I hated school, too. But I'm thankful for it, too. Our experiences shape us, and it gave me an opportunity to write about my experiences and connect with others who have been through similar things.
It was hard to remember but also important, because when I hid my true feelings or experience, it showed. I had to be brave and face the truth. Audiences know when you're faking something.
The chemistry between Lily and Joanna really shined through in the film. How did you go about casting these two roles?
Good to hear! Casting is everything, and when you get it right, it's like a euphoric dream watching these characters bond and come together on screen. It was a thrill to watch and to work with both Lily and Joanna, and all of the cast, actually. And the crew. We all really did feel like a team. Both during the prep, and the shoot, and the post-production.
I worked with Kharmel Cochrane and her team. I pretty much knew I wanted to work with Joanna, and saw about 400 self-tapes, and then started to work out who felt like Iona. Handily we found all of the girls that way, and then did workshops, and then chemistry reads. As soon as I saw Lily's tape, I knew within about four seconds that she was our Iona.
How do you work with actors on set? Do you hold rehearsals? Table reads?
Not really. I hang out with them before and rehearse bigger or technical scenes in pre-production if there's time. Like the birdseed scene we rehearsed for a day. But a lot of that day was hanging out eating snacks, chatting and having a laugh.
Noted that you have worked with child actresses many times and you gain such beautiful nuanced performances from them. How do your processes differ with child actresses as opposed to adult ones?
They don't, really. It's just a case of getting to know each other and putting them at ease so they can relax and do what they're good at. I really love working with young people and children cos they're such fun. And they like sweets, same as me.
I hear your next project will be The Killing Jar, can you tell us a bit about that?
I don't actually think my next project will be The Killing Jar, although I'm still hoping to make that book because I totally love it. I think I'm likely to make Beak, which is a surreal gothic horror I'm developing with the BFI. Or Fancy Nancy, which is a musical with kids for BBC Films. I'm really excited about both of them and I'm loving writing them.
Any advice for new writer/directors coming up in the industry
Listen to your belly, don't let fear stop you. Or other people. Find a way. Everyone's journey is different and there's no right or wrong. Read and watch as much stuff as you can.
If you want to write, there is nothing stopping you because it's free. All you need is a pen and paper. Same for making films now. You just need your phone, and a few friends. Make an animation if you don't have friends! But most important is to have something to write about, something to say. You need to be burning to tell stories, because it's a tough industry to crack. But with talent, creativity and stories, it's possible!
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Vimeo: Deborah Haywood