Filmmaker Q&A Serena Chloe Gardner
by Phillip Wilcox "Our Movie Demon"
The story of Lady In The Park is such an emotionally impactful one - Where did that story stem from, what drew you to making it and how did you become involved in writing and directing the film?
I wrote the film while I was still at acting school and the story came from a true life event that I've always known about since childhood. There was this really normal family which to the outside world look perfect but there was obviously something very wrong behind closed doors.
I was always fascinated when you'd see news reports of a man coming home, killing his entire family and himself, and the neighbors saying to reporters "but they'd just come back from vacation! We're shocked, they were the happiest family we know!" - so I thought 'how does this happen?' And the answer is because normal every day people cover up stresses and strains of real life without every talking or dealing with it most of the time and its literally killing us! We can't keep doing this.
I chose to set the film in the 1960's to highlight a time where even more pressure was put onto people to behave a certain way, be in the perfect family, where men had to be men and everyone had a role to play. If you didn't, if it was too hard, you were deemed weak in society. The isolation that our main character felt was played out perfectly in this era and to show that not everyone is a monster, each person has the end of their road but had people's ideals been different perhaps it could have all gone another way.
I grew up in a family with mental health issues and depression is a huge part of every day society now so I'm a big advocate of people getting the help, support and advice they need; but first a change must happen in society where we each learn to understand, care and take the time to hear out our loved ones, friends, neighbors' concerns with a little more love and a little less judgement. A lot more love and care in this world will go a long way.
Making films, whether they're short or full length, is never an easy task. Can you talk about what it took to get the film made?
To be honest this one took a really long time in prep - Over a year!
Mainly because it was a period film I wanted to make sure I got the era just right so we spent a year looking for authentic 1960's costumes, visited tons of period locations, prop houses, talked to endless set designers about what interiors would have looked like during that time but for me it was all worth it. To create a world for an actor, especially on a limited budget (we had a Kickstarter for £5k) is worth it! When they walk out onto that set, in those clothes and with genuine props they are in that world, living that world after that everything else you capture performance wise is just picture perfect. It helps them and ultimately it helps me to tell the story.
You had a spectacular cast attached to Lady In The Park, and they all gave such strong genuine performances - Can you give us a bit of insight as to that process of pulling together that magnificent cast?
First off I had an amazing casting director Leah Lawry-Johns who I was actually lucky enough to attend acting school with. She has such a good eye for finding talent and went through literally hundreds of actors and actresses (500 applied for Alex and 400 for Gail) for the two main parts but she really narrowed it down to what I believe were the best two we saw. Peter Warnock who played our lead actor Alex Wilson won 'Best Performance in a Short Film' award at Coventry Film Festival in the UK this year so that's really a testament to not only Peter's phenomenal work but her keen eye on casting him.
Annie, (played by Abigail Parmenter), the young girl who works in Alex's cafe I had actually seen in a marvelous British Comedy short film called 'Tea for Two' and I really loved her performance and thought if I could get her working with our accent coach to perfect the Birmingham accent, she'd make a brilliant Annie and she did! Casting the whole film took about 6 weeks in total as we wanted to make sure that we got the perfect family together and also that people gelled well because they had to look like they would know each other in real life. It was also an eye opening experience being on the other side of the desk from being an actor to being a Director and seeing what it is you're looking for when casting the right person for a role.
For you, what were some of the most enjoyable and/or challenging parts about making the film?
Two things I really loved the most were 1.) Getting to rehearse with the actors for two weeks prior to filming, getting to play all the actory games I loved so much as an actor, fleshing out the characters and more importantly creating the connections between the groups of actors as their characters would have all known each other so it was really important to make sure everyone had an opinion on everyone around them. You can't get that chemistry when actors meet each other for the first time on set, very rarely, its mainly acting but what's acting when you can 'be'?
My second favorite thing was getting to work with our two youngest actresses Maggie, aged 7 playing Mary's daughter, (the young lady in the park having a picnic and earlier at the church) and also Lois, aged 5 playing the younger sister in the main Wilson family. I know they say you should never work with children or animals but...these young actresses were brilliant! They completely 100% inhabited their characters, worked long hours and just kept up this amazing energy and spirit on set. It really made everyone feel like the Wilson's were a real family and this was mainly due to these girls. They did tell everyone after they were in 'Lord of the Rings' though which I laughed my socks off about.
I found all of our locations challenging. You have to know that I decided it would be a good idea for my debut short film to move an entire team of 30 actors and crew from one city (London) to another (Birmingham) in a very cold April only to have a permit for one location (which took 6 months to organize) not to have it written down in their books that we were filming that day! When you're working on a short film, every moment of time spent on set doing anything is hugely expensive so any time wasted could bring down the entire film so you really don't want anything going wrong!! So after many pleas and waving of the permits the poor girl behind the desk gladly offered to stay late while we filmed our scene, which thankfully we did the entire lot in one hour!! This is where all the rehearsing we did came in handy because it meant every actor knew exactly what they were doing so when I explained the issue to them they were on it and we got everything done in one or two takes! Fantastic but definitely not something I want to repeat!
Where did your love for acting and filmmaking come from, how did that begin for you?
Well for me I come from an acting background. I studied acting for over 6 years in various acting schools between London and Birmingham and love, love, love the study of humans! We're fascinating creatures and I want to know more all the time but after leaving acting school I kept arriving on set with all my character backgrounds, research, mood boards in tow only for the Director to not care, not have any rehearsals before the shoots (too expensive so first thing to go!) and to be yelled at "No one cares love! Stand over there, say your line and move to Billy." - I was so disappointed! This wasn't what acting was about for me! I wanted more, I wanted them to care more but i felt alone in it so, I had always written scripts all the way through acting school and just decided one day "Well I can either mope about my non-perfect acting career or I can get up and make these films I've written and give every actor in them the opportunity I never had to create them!" so that's what I'm doing now really. I have loved films ever since I saw Sigourney Weaver in Aliens so I've always known I needed to be in the industry somehow.
Who and what are some of your favorite actors/actresses, filmmakers, artists, movies, etc that have influenced you the most in what you do?
As mentioned above, seeing Sigourney Weaver in Aliens as a child was mesmerizing for me, and especially important for a young girl because with all the Die Hard's and Robocop's around in the 80's, here was a tough-ass woman holding her own as a lead in a multi-million dollar film and absolutely kicking alien ass!! I was like "Right....I need to be her!" I grew up on a heavy diet of 80's cult classics like Lost Boys, Near Dark (Katherine Bigalow I am a huge fan of!), The Crow, The Craft, etc...
As I grew up and began studying acting I learned to appreciate all forms of the art and in particular really love Joaquin Phoenix's work. His acting in "Return to Paradise" might be some of the best I have ever seen. There's something in him, in his soul that peaks out from time to time and it's so genuine and so raw, its the perfect embodiment of being human that I've ever seen acted on screen.
What Inspires you the most, not just as an artist, but as a person?
Hard work, caring about one another, being honest and genuine, understanding each other with out judgement. This world needs a lot to heal but we could all go a long way being a lot more self less and more outward reaching.
There's an actor called Misha Collins (Supernatural) who started this brilliant company called "Random Acts" (http://www.randomacts.org/) when he was in the TV show and he would start projects like rebuilding a school in Haiti and invite viewers of the show to either donate or go out and volunteer to help build and that's a fantastic example of how each and everyone, no matter how big or small can use their influence to do good things in this world. We all have Facebook and Twitter and we all have legs and personalities, we can each do more. Interaction is key and we're losing this element of communication too. Misha's pretty inspiring to me, we need more of this.
Can you tell us about any upcoming projects you may be working on for the near future?
Yes of course! As you may have guessed most of my films have a mental health or childhood theme and my next project is no different. I want to raise awareness for young carers all over the world who might be looking after an ill parent or sibling but need more support.
Blackout is the story of a talented 15 year old carer called Grace Ryan who lives on a council estate (like the projects in the USA) in London while she looks after her abusive and mentally ill mother. Grace dreams of being normal just like her friends and is a talented artist which she uses as her escape from the life she lives in. One day her mother is sectioned and taken to the hospital with Grace put into care. Equally abusive, Grace runs away, hiding out at her home before her mother's release where the cycle begins again.
I wrote this as a message back to my younger self as I was carer to let other carers around the world know that one day it will end and it will be ok. It isn't Grace's mum's fault that she's sick but it also isn't Grace's and she deserves the best chance at life. Statistically young carers without adequate care and support end up receiving a bad education, leading to bad job prospects and sadly a lower level of life in their adult years with issues with friendships and relationships. With more and more cuts into our health system too, we are relying heavily on children to carry the burden of looking after their ill parents without any help so really I'm holding up a mirror to society hoping that someone will listen and look at it and that more can be done to help our future children.
I'm currently running an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for the short film (ends 1st Jan 2017!) here: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/blackout-film-london/x/14964389#/