A week today I am due to fly to Cape Town, South Africa to start prepping the second block of a BBC drama, The Last Post, a Peter Moffat scripted story set in Aden in the 60s about the end of the British empire as played out between the husbands of the royal military police and their wives against a backdrop of violent political insurgency. It is a direct flight, which matters a lot suddenly as I am taking my two sons, Otis who recently turned 5, and his younger brother Genie, 3, with me and the idea of a transfer in Dubai, Johannesburg or Paris is paralysingly unthinkable. I am taking their incredibly loyal, life-affirming and brilliant nanny, Kelly with me too, which will thankfully ease the anxiety that travelling long distances with children of a certain age incurs.
So in my small self-imposed tornado that the preparation process for this trip entails, on my list of things to do, in addition to pulling reference for DoP David Luther to devise a look and tone cinematographically, watching Jonny Campbell, the block one director’s rushes, feeding back to Peter on the delivered drafts and hopscotching around London to finalise passport and visa applications, I have instructions to self to make sure I have sufficient lego for the flight, nappies, kiddy snacks – Astrobites are a favourite – the buggy, a spare set of clothes for the children and myself (Gene puked all over me on the last long haul flight we did and whilst I had been very conscientious about including an extra couple of sets of clothes for him I had neglected to include any for myself and had to spend the remainder of the 11 hour flight wearing just my husband’s – thankfully zip-up – jacket and a pair of footless tights, dignity definitely compromised.)
Back in January when I first started discussing the job it had been five years since I had shot any long form drama and I was feeling strongly that I would need to do something soon before my window of opportunity expired. Having children is no excuse for absence in this industry. Out of sight, out of mind. The pressure to get back in the saddle was intensifying. It helped that the script was funny, irreverent, poetic and acutely well observed. As much a Mad Man-esque comedy of manners as a searing political drama about the consequences of colonialism. I really wanted to do it. But uppermost in my mind was – what will happen to Otis and Gene? The thought of being absent from them for any prolonged period was sickening, unthinkable. It felt like a terrible act of betrayal to suddenly take off to the other side of the world for 3 months. And what about me? I would be an emotional wreck without them, sickened with the grief of absence. I wouldn’t have been able to do the job unless they came with me.
It felt like a terrible act of betrayal to suddenly take off to the other side of the world for 3 months. And what about me? I would be an emotional wreck without them,
Otis started primary school in September and Gene’s nursery also had a zero tolerance policy. My husband had recently retrained and qualified as a doctor but would be on a measly junior doctor’s salary and working very long hours – he wouldn’t be able to provide sufficient parental support in my absence. I have to work to financially support the family. But so far I had been able to make do with directing commercials and scraping together bits of development money for scripts that were so far largely un-produced. But commercials were becoming scarcer and I had found myself hungering for the emotional intensity, the collaborations and creative stimulation that directing drama invokes. I pondered withdrawing Otis from his much coveted place at the local primary school and home schooling him for the year. Gene could start nursery next year instead. But I was told that he would likely not be accepted the following year due to high demand and all the other schools in the area re-iterated the same thing.
The school were, ultimately, amazingly sympathetic. Thanks in no small part to the producers having the foresight and sensitivity to recognise that this may be an issue, I had the time to properly talk to the school and work it out. It was a relief to have everyone’s support.
Throughout this process I have been pondering what makes me as the mother liable for the children. Should producers make allowances for female directors to bring their children? Will the added cost and responsibility count against female directors when producers are weighing up the decision as to who to employ?
For the time being I am the one who carries the road map of our children’s emotional and practical lives.Whilst I have an unimpeachable husband with whom I divide the household chores and practicalities of childcare, ultimately Otis and Gene’s emotional wellbeing and logistics of their lives; when their library books need returning, which day they need to take their sports kit into school, making food to take into school on their birthdays, money for school trips, parent-teacher meetings, midnight night terror consolations, assurances that the bogies in the dark aren’t coming for them, passport updates, decisions about schools, playdates, health check ups and food preferences all fall, as if by some pre-ordained judgement, to me. Their sense of security in the world comes down to me.
Will the added cost and responsibility count against female directors when producers are weighing up the decision as to who to employ?
I don’t begrudge this in the slightest. On the contrary I want to know what my child had for lunch and make the decision as to what he eats for supper to try and give him a balanced diet. I want to know all I can about the micros of their lives so I can better calibrate the macros. I would feel disconnected and unfulfilled without knowing these seemingly trivial things that in fact are the backbone, the very fibre of our relationship. The conduit for my love and care. And I don’t personally know any mothers, working mums or otherwise, who don’t feel the same way. And this is not to indict mothers who don’t feel that they want to know every in and out of their child’s life; if I have learnt anything from being a mother in my five year tenure, it is to never judge. But I do want to know these things and I want to be the steer and support in my children’s lives that they both need from me and that I want to give them.
Indeed, this is what contributes to the fabric of the director I am and can’t be suppressed or ignored. Thankfully in this case all my terms have been met, and generously met at that, but this, I understand is still a rarity in an industry where we are largely expected to deny family ties for the sake of bringing a piece of TV or film to realisation.
Does the headspace and emotional enormity of this complex and ever challenging role then take away from being able to have sufficient energy and headspace to work? Yes is the answer, certainly in my case. For the first two years of Otis’ life I was a sleepless, neurotic jelly of a mess. I couldn’t hold conversations about the weather let alone a script or casting suggestions. But then Gene came along and this time it was easier and once I had gotten over the shock of suddenly having two little ones to care for I found myself relaxing into my changed self and was able to rebuild and find sources of inspiration and a more direct and honest, more mature, if not more confident mode of being which inevitably has translated into my work. Once I learned how to speak again that is.
I am feeling apprehensive about this trip and ironically it has nothing to do with the fact that I haven’t directed drama in five years or that I still don’t have a full complement of scripts to prep from. It is seeking reassurance that Otis, Gene and Kelly will be safe in the house we have hired in Camps Bay. It will be that we make the flight without anyone running off in the airport during the laborious bureaucracy that international flights entail. It will be resting assured that Kelly and the children have sufficient things to do, that they are happy and stimulated whilst they are in Cape Town, and that they won’t mind too much that I won’t be around for very much of the time. Otis periodically says to me when I drop him off at school “I never want to not be with you, Mummy,” which pretty much detonates my heart every time he says it. I am also nervous about the fact that I haven’t yet told them that when we come home to the UK for Christmas I will be returning to South Africa alone for the duration of the shoot and that I will be away for 7 weeks. That can wait.
I really do feel that my enthusiasm and energy derived from being artistically engaged in an exciting project translates to my relationship with my children.
But what I feel most nervous about is the idea of trying to do the alleged impossible – to be a mother and a movie maker. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to be back behind a camera and to be discussing complex character arcs and dramatic twists in their collective fates. I am loving discussing how the pattern of a wallpaper contributes to the emotional value of a scene or how to create a sandstorm in an alleyway. How many goats? What colour blouse? Type of lenses? I really do feel that my enthusiasm and energy derived from being artistically engaged in an exciting project translates to my relationship with my children. And they in turn feed me creatively, challenging me, pushing me to be my best, most patient, most present self. That’s how I see it now. Of course there are hiccups and days when I am not listening or responding but on the whole we’re doing OK.
We’ll see how it goes and if we manage to find some way of making it all work. I suspect it will be hard, emotionally gruelling and upsetting at times for all of us, but for the time being, the promise of all-night cartoons on the plane and penguins on the beach are doing the trick. For the moment we are all looking forward to the adventure. Watch this space!