Cape Town, December 2016
I have just completed my fourth week of prep for BBC commissioned, Peter Moffat scripted The Last Post. It is half six in the evening and as the incendiary South African sun subsides behind a mountain I ask Jeth, my Congolese unit driver, counsellor and spiritual healer(!) to step on the gas. The location recce overran by a good half hour and we are 80k outside Cape Town, roughly an hour away from the Camp’s Bay Air B and B I have rented to accommodate myself, my nanny, Kelly and the two boys I’ve barely seen all week and now I am desperate to make it home before they fall asleep.
Sticky with sand from a special effects test for a sandstorm that will open the second block of the series, I run ragged breath around the supermarket like some demented Crystal Maze contestant, trying to do a week’s shop in five minutes so that I can make the 8pm bedtime deadline. Residual thoughts of how to create an entire Adeni suburb out of two and a half streets of set, (nevermind a sandstorm of biblical proportions) tangle and fuse with contemplations of nappy sizes and varieties of local milk.
I just about make it and am greeted by two scantily clad, bronzed boys, high on trampoline adrenaline (a sizable factor in the decision to hire this particular property). Despite feeling exhaustion seeping into every bone of my body I force myself to capitulate to their cries to bounce them on the trampoline then usher them into a rushed bath during which they so thoroughly soak me that I loose what little rag I have left and end up bellowing at them. The youngest bursts into tears. I weep with frustration myself. I have corrupted these few precious moments I have with them over what was essentially boisterous spirits and possibly excitement at seeing me. I assuage my guilt by reading extra bedtime stories.
Afterwards I sit down with Kelly for a brief supper before addressing the overflow of casting tapes, location photographs, script revisions and prop proposals that haven’t fitted into the assigned hours of the day. Am I coping? I ask myself . Would I have shouted at them if I hadn’t just done an 11 hour day? Is this all worth it?
But not every day ends like this. I am slowly learning how to emotionally calibrate being responsible for two little ones and their nanny in a foreign country and simultaneously commit myself 100% to the job. And strangely, the two are not entirely incompatible. Not least thanks to Kelly’s dependability and Jeth’s enthusiasm to take them to weird and wonderful places once he has delivered me to work. I watch the boys flourish, greeted in the evenings by hyperbolic descriptions of the aquarium, the bird sanctuary or the butterfly enclosure. The funny looking creatures at the top of Table Mountain. Not things that they would experience off the bat in Hackney.
And this has a hugely positive effect on me too. My eternal presence isn’t necessary, I realise, for them to feel secure and engaged with their new surroundings. They can function independently of me. And I of them. I can’t help feeling envious of Kelly and her intensifying bonds with the boys but at the same time I am so grateful to her for making possible my ability to concentrate on the job. For now I will settle with being a ‘good enough’ mother, the best I am able to be for the time being, in the knowledge that they are happy being stimulated by things they never would have experienced had they stayed at home. I am spurred on, reassured by their enthusiasm and excited by the door that has just been opened.
Still, the biggest challenge is yet to come. We all fly home at Christmas for a two week hiatus. I have yet to tell them that only I am coming back in the New Year. That they will stay at home in London with Kelly and their father, and return to school, while I fly back to do the seven-week shoot. I don’t know how they will react. I may be the one that suffers the most, I’m not sure. I don’t want to think about it just yet.
Cape Town, February 2017
We have just sat down to lunch after shooting the first few scenes of the pivotal court room scene that dominates the final episode of the series. It is our fifth week of filming. We have been having trouble trying to find extras to flank Jeremy Newmark Jones, the actor playing Joe Martin, who are able to achieve the requisite synchronised military frogmarch into the courtroom. Jeremy spent a stint in the army and has it down pat, but the extras have never done it before and I worry it looks unconvincing whatever the angle we are shooting from and we are now running over schedule. It’s these details that can really undermine a scene and I want to get it right. Whilst thoughts of what can be done to resolve the situation squall around my head I absent-mindedly scroll through my phone messages. I immediately see that there is a voicemail from my children’s school. My heart starts to race. It is never good news when the school calls. This might be the call I have dreaded ever since I knew I was going to be spending 7 weeks and 6,000 kilometres away from them.
“Otis has bumped his head, he fell off a bench in the playground. Nothing to worry about, the nurse has had a look and she doesn’t think it is serious, but he has got a bruise on his forehead and we recommend he see a doctor to be on the safe side”. My heart racing, I ring Kelly and she drops everything to go and take my son to the doctor. And yes, nothing to worry about in theory, but I sit there not only half-heartbroken that it wouldn’t be me taking my son to the doctor and reassuring him, comforting him, but realising too that I was powerless to help him if it had been, god forbid, a lot worse.
I ring him later and my voice falters. I haven’t spoken to them for over a week. Not through negligence or indifference or even bad time management, but because our location for the past week or so has had limited phone reception and the time difference between the UK and South Africa although only a couple of hours means that they are fast asleep by the time I get back to my apartment. It is not my imagined scenario. I assumed I would be Facetiming bedtime stories if not every evening, then at least every other evening. But the rigours of the shoot haven’t allowed for it.
It is hard to engage them over a flickering Facetime screen. They are not of an age where they want to converse or tell me about their day, so sometimes my husband simply leaves the phone on in the corner of the room so that I can watch them and they can interact if they feel like it. The shoot has been so tight and peppered with so many challenges that I have barely had time to reflect on how I am coping with not only not seeing but barely even hearing from the children. I only know that I really wouldn’t have managed if I had had them with me. Even with Kelly to do the bulk of the child care I barely have enough energy and time to do the job at hand let alone cope with the emotional and physical demands of two small children.
My husband tells me that they are fine, doing well, seemingly happy. No one wakes up crying in the middle of the night, anguished at my absence. I don’t know how to interpret this. Part of me wants to hear that they are desperately unhappy without me but my logical head says that of course they are fine. They are in the home they have both been born in with people they have known since birth who love them and meet their every need. But I feel usurped and obsolete momentarily. Severed. But then I remind myself that it is all temporary and that I will be back soon and how much of a gift it is to be able to work at all. Isn’t this what I have been waiting for? Of course it is emotionally compromising. That’s just something you have to suck up and get on with the job at hand. It was me who wanted to go back to work, wasn’t it?
They are due to come out for the penultimate week of filming with their father and I am now nervous that I won’t have the time to spend with them or the energy to give them my full attention. I then realise that the week of their half term coincides with the cast and crew packing up and moving to the desert . The location is 4 hours outside of Cape Town, deep in the Karoo desert, where we will be filming during the hottest months of the year with a child actor, vintage vehicle car chase sequences on dust tracks, stunt snakes and no comms.
Laingsburg, Karoo, Late February 2017
It is 45 degrees and rising and we are in the middle of the Karoo desert shooting a scene for Episode 5 where George, the Major’s abducted son is filmed by the insurgents as they threaten to behead him. Otis and Gene are here for the week of their half term and together with their father have made the journey from Cape Town to spend what little time there is with me. They made friends with Toby, the 8 year old actor playing George, at the guesthouse 40k down the road where they had shared pool time the previous day and chatted up the resident parrot. Toby too has a love of Lego.
I realise both Otis and Gene think that Tahmir who is playing the insurgent swinging the machete around is a real life ‘baddie’. They cower behind me when I try to introduce them and look dolefully in the other direction. They have only seen machetes like this in episodes of Ninjago Lego TV and it’s never in the hands of the good guys. It probably couldn’t have been a worse scene to witness shooting for hot and bothered three and five year olds. Still once they had been convinced that they weren’t next for the chop they seemed naturally at ease on the set, helped enormously by the water pistol-style hand fans that were on hand for refreshing cast and crew.
I am ecstatic to see them and want nothing more than to lounge by the pool splashing and pretending to be a crocodile, but of course I have a job to do. And by this point in the shoot I can see the end in sight and it is enough to just clap eyes on them, be reassured that they are well and happy, give them a big hug and wave them off once again. It was a big expense to fly the three of them out, especially so close to the end of the shoot, but it felt important that they knew that I would make sure we could all be together whenever we possibly could be. And of course I was desperate to see them – and as a certain credit card ad eulogises, there are certain things that money can’t buy.
As the week comes to an end they fly back to the UK and I secrete the Lego spinjitsu master mini-figure that has been accidentally left behind into my pocket as a talisman for the remainder of the shoot.
London, February 2018
Two months after the airing of the last episode of the Last Post I am sitting on my sofa, the kids in the school across the road and the phone rings. “Just a courtesy call to let you know that Gene has bumped his head.” I am comforted that he is a mere two minute walk away if anything happens, but also know that I am now equipped to be able to handle that call if I was 6,000 miles away.
During the course of prep, production and post production I have been keenly aware – partly due to raised awareness from writing this article – of constantly evaluating my experience of mother and moviemaker in tandem. It is ongoing. As the film and TV industry wakes up to the deafening bells that are now calling for scrutiny into how women are treated within industry, I feel immense hope for the future and the thought that the abyss that separated the experience of being a parent and the role of a director are narrowing. It is a long way from being harmonious but at least there is a rising awareness that if we want to support parents, mothers particularly, if we value their voices and understand the immense need for those voices to be heard, then more must to be done to not make parenting and working in the film industry so incompatible.
Pretty much every production I have worked on has scheduled an eleven day fortnight, which I feel is not something I would ever want to undergo again. I would go as far to say that I would never again accept a job that schedules a six day week or an eleven day fortnight. It is a false economy on every level. The nature of filmmaking and the need to meet budgets means that tight schedules are mostly a necessity, but the impact this has on family and relationships with loved ones outside of the industry is hugely detrimental both to the people involved and consequently to society at large. For us to contribute positively to society, for us to raise children in an enlightened and inclusive way and still hold down jobs in the film industry, the six day week must become a thing of the past. I struggled to maintain a grip on my own sanity on a six day week schedule. The idea of making contact with family, nevermind two small children, was a bonus that couldn’t always happen in such a narrow window of downtime and the emotional effect that had on me was really destructive.
The time away was not entirely without its emotional fallout. Gene wouldn’t really look me in the eye for the first couple of weeks when I returned. And just when I thought he had thawed he pulled a stunt that utterly winded me. When he got upset he would shrug me off and when I tried to comfort him, looking me in the eye he would say, “I want my Mummy.” The chill of realising he doesn’t mean me. Who is in his head when he is saying this? The nanny ? My mother? Another previous version of me? The one who didn’t betray him by disappearing for 7 weeks just when he was getting to grips with the world? But time is a good healer and when I quiz him on the experience of me going back to work he says that the nice weather in South Africa made him happy and he liked all the animals. We can look for signs of psychological damage and we’ll probably always be able to find something that we can blame ourselves for, but ultimately the kids are alright, if not all the better for having had a different and unique experience even if it was at the cost of my absence.
When I first started to contemplate going back to work as a director I found very little precedent of female directors going away on jobs when they had small children. I wanted to know how they coped logistically, psychologically and emotionally. Raising Films introduced me to a couple of other mothers in the industry and I gradually was able to paint a picture for myself as to how it could be; a road map as to how it could work. And it will work differently for everyone but in hindsight it all seems relatively simple. But that initial reassurance was crucial. I needed to know that I wasn’t going to fuck them up.
And I want other mothers of young children to feel galvanised and reassured that it is possible and that your children won’t grow up resenting you, or if they do for a bit, that it won’t last and that the benefits for all involved far outweigh the negatives. That the creative fulfillment you derive from working has a positive influence on your family and your own confidence. And most importantly of all, that if you aren’t telling your story, if you aren’t contributing to the thin albeit ever growing chorus of voices of women telling stories through the prism of motherhood, then those stories won’t be told, that perspective will be absent, lost, and that would be the greatest travesty of all. Too much has already been lost to the annals of patriarchy.
And yes, I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Because I see the confidence the children gained by spending that time in another country, how it enriched them, how it triggered their curiosity and gave them insights into another culture and lifestyle, made them see that world is huge and multifaceted. They have a better understanding of what I do and we have a bond that we now know can survive separation.
Recently on holiday in the Alps with my father and his girlfriend, someone mentioned something about filming a Bond film nearby. Otis went up to my father’s girlfriend and said “Do you know mummy is a filmmaker? And do you know that mummy’s a director too?” And my heart sang because what words on a page can’t express was the undiluted pride that resonated from him as he said it.