Laura Rees (who participated in Making It Possible 2020) on her decision to do a difficult, stressful and complicated thing at a difficult, stressful and complicated time AKA making a feature film during lockdown…
In this piece Laura talks about the power of a community, the balance between parenting and retaining a professional sense of self and how becoming a parent can fine-tune existing skills. Thanks to Laura for sharing this account with us, grab a cuppa and dive in.
Why did I do something as crazy as choose to make a feature film in lockdown? Because it was the only way I knew how to get through the turmoil of 2020 without losing my mind.
I tried to use my producing skills to schedule our way through it [lockdown], but there’s only so much bike riding, walking, tree climbing and attempted positive learning that the kids and I could take.
In late March 2020 when the professional and personal life I’d been used to was taken away in less than three days, I didn’t imagine my near future would involve producing a feature film. With everything closed down overnight, all my work cancelled, family finances under strain and being suddenly thrown into home schooling two primary-aged kids while occupying their energetic three-year-old brother, life became overwhelming and tough. I tried to use my producing skills to schedule our way through it, but there’s only so much bike riding, walking, tree climbing and attempted positive learning that the kids and I could take.
I knew we were lucky to live in rural Kent with space for the children to run free and have Famous Five-style adventures. I packed at least 128 picnics and developed the ability to construct a den out of pretty much anything, anywhere. But the beautiful memories we were creating in between the domestic sh*t that melted my brain was not enough to stop the kids from just becoming, well, bored of me. When I found myself once again eating cake mixture out of the bowl and staring into my twelfth cup of tea I realised I was bored and frustrated too and had to find something to inspire me outside of the kids.
I realised I was bored and frustrated too and had to find something to inspire me outside of the kids.
I was sat on our kitchen worktop, clutching a cup of tea and staring out of the window trying to motivate myself for an afternoon of learning when the call came from a director friend which led to talk of making a film together. The lockdown parenting experience had made me so desperate to do something, anything and I said ‘yes’ with excitement.
Family picnic with mum Laura Rees (producer) and DoP dad!
I might have underestimated the task a little though: three children, no available childcare, COVID precautions, a DoP (Kieran Coyle, my husband) who was busy with a full-time job, no finance, and a 12-day shoot – I think most of my industry friends thought I’d lost the plot. Yes, I could have made some things easier for myself but making things easy wasn’t the point. With a beautiful vineyard location on offer, a great script that Mark A C Brown (writer/director father of two) knocked out in two weeks – and an experienced crew actually wanting to work for free with us – we had to go for it. At the end of June, four weeks after Mark first sent me the script, we started pre-production with a goal to start shooting mid July. It was good to be back.
I wanted to do something positive at a time when there didn’t seem much to look forward to with work and I needed to keep the work part of my brain active because I don’t function well when it isn’t.
Since having children nine years ago I’ve sometimes felt ostracized from the producing I love. Although I’ve always been busy – doing development work and producing content for industry clients, that has always been fun and inspiring for me – I missed working to create longer projects. I missed making films, and the people that I used to work with to make them. So this was a kick up the arse to get back to filmmaking. I wanted to do something positive at a time when there didn’t seem much to look forward to with work and I needed to keep the work part of my brain active because I don’t function well when it isn’t. My grandpa, a former farmer, used to describe me as an ill-sitting hen, so I think I might have always been this way.
Toddlers have nothing useful to add to the scheduling of a feature film.
I hadn’t produced a film since before I had children and I never imagined I would find myself in the position of trying to juggle home schooling, parenting and production without any help. I like to do the first schedule with colour coded cards left out on my lounge floor for a few days so I can move scenes around when things change, or ideas come to me, but it doesn’t work with kids in the house. Toddlers have nothing useful to add to the scheduling of a feature film. Looking back at the long list of things I never thought I’d do during production I feel a mixture of pride, horror and a touch of PTSD. Script editing alongside my kids’ home schooling; wiping my three-year-old’s bottom while on the phone to an agent; doing the bedtime routine and then straight into Zoom script/production meetings; trying to sound professional on the phone while crewing up with small children complaining they were starving in the background – and that was just pre-production.
I kept the crew very small – which meant more work for everyone, and compromises.
The shoot was something else though. For a start COVID was an added layer to consider. Along with the constant hand sanitising and trying not to hug anyone, I kept the crew very small – which meant more work for everyone, and compromises. The kids, Kieran and I lived out of jumbled suitcases in between houses (and tents) for 12 days while the actors used our house. I ran between the family I was in charge of and my cast and crew on set – who I was also in charge of. I’d wake the kids up at six am to put them in the car in pajamas with something that could pass for breakfast, drive them to set and leave them in the car to get themselves dressed while I had morning catch up with everyone.
Family on set on last day of the shoot
Soon I’d return to take them to a friend’s while I went back to set and hours later would dash back for them, catching up on their adventures before dropping them with another friend or babysitter. Every evening I’d then go back to set to help with dinner and post shoot catch up / call sheet for next day and then finally drive back to wherever we were staying, relieve the babysitter, go through the next day’s risk assessment and any issues, and then pass out. My kids had gone feral by the end of it while I felt exhausted but exhilarated.
The film gave me a much-needed focus at this difficult time but, more than that, it has shown me what I can achieve as a mum and a producer.
It was more than worth it. The film gave me a much-needed focus at this difficult time but, more than that, it has shown me what I can achieve as a mum and a producer. Parenting and producing a film in lockdown has been very hard yet incredibly fulfilling. I’ve remembered that I’m good at my job and that’s made me want to get back to the career I stepped away from nine years ago. This film has shown me what is possible and that the industry friends and contacts I made years ago didn’t desert me when I had kids.
So now, when I look back on the negative things some industry people said to me when I was first pregnant, I want to shout loudly that, for me, being a parent has made me an even more capable producer.
So now, when I look back on the negative things some industry people said to me when I was first pregnant, I want to shout loudly that, for me, being a parent has made me an even more capable producer. I can juggle, organise, make quick, strong decisions and take on the seemingly impossible without flinching – plus I always carry snacks. These are skills that I have always had but they have been sharpened by becoming a mum.
I would never have managed it without the help and support of the community that I’ve built up because of being a mother.
Looking back on the madness and the success I realise that I would never have managed it without the help and support of the community that I’ve built up because of being a mother. Friends practically catered the whole film, provided costumes, urns, flasks, chairs, tents for crew and cast to sleep in, childcare, location, a stunt car, generator, lifts for the actors. The community of parents is a powerful resource.
In the past I was made to feel like I should hide my parenting away from work.
In the past I was made to feel like I should hide my parenting away from work, but between our amazing cast, dedicated crew and location family of 21, we made this film with 13 children between us and took on seven trainees. I am proud of the quality of the work and the footage looks beautiful. Five months down the line we are now well into post-production and I’ve joined up with Julie Baines and Jonathan Taylor at Dan Films to produce the film through to completion. If there’s one thing I know it’s that surrounding yourself with talented people can only enhance a project, and I love nothing more than learning from working alongside other producers. I’m excited by our post-production team we’ve put together, and I can’t wait to finish this project so I can shout about what we achieved.
Choosing to make a feature film in lockdown with three kids is making a choice to do a difficult, stressful and complicated thing at a difficult, stressful and complicated time. But everyone who works in this industry knows that we have already made a choice to work in a difficult, stressful and complicated world. Being a mother has made it more complicated but has also made me embrace that difficulty and understand that it’s only by diving fully into the juggle and the struggle that I can really find the creativity, the buzz and the professional and personal joy.
DEAD ON THE VINE is a thriller set on a vineyard in East Sussex. It’s currently in post-production.
Writer / Director Mark A C Brown
Produced by Laura Rees and Julie Baines
Follow the film on Twitter
All imagery courtesy Laura Rees