Desperate Optimists are Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor. Born in Dublin, Ireland, they studied theatre in the UK in the late 80s. From 1992 to 1999 they toured six internationally acclaimed devised theatre shows. Between 2000 and 2003 they directed a number of episodic, interactive works for the internet, and large-scale community video projects for galleries. Between 2003 and 2010 they produced, wrote and directed 10 acclaimed short films, under the title CIVIC LIFE. HELEN, their debut feature film, premiered at the 2008 Edinburgh International Film Festival. Their second feature film, MISTER JOHN, features Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones, The Wire) and Zoe Tay and was released in the UK and Ireland by Artificial Eye. In 2015 they received a Reel Art Commission to make their debut documentary feature film, FURTHER BEYOND, which screens at the London Film Festival 2016.
How have caring responsibilities shaped or changed your creative practices and relationship with the industry over time?
We were together for twenty years before we had our daughter, and for most of that time we have also worked together. Molly’s arrival in 2003 didn’t change that. In many ways, having our child has led to the most productive and challenging thirteen years of our working together. The year Molly was born co-incided with the first film for cinema that we made, having spent twenty years working in theatre, then online, then in gallery spaces, always moving towards film. When Molly was six months old we got a commission from Enfield Council to make a video work. The commission came out of the gallery-based and online work we’d been doing with communities. However, instead of making a piece for gallery or online we decided to make a piece for cinema. The resulting film was ‘Who Killed Brown Owl.’
‘Who Killed Brown Owl’ led to the Civic Life series of short films we made over the next seven years. When Molly was small, whenever we were working on a new short we brought her along with us and, where possible, had her appear in the film. If you watch ‘Who Killed Brown Owl’ for example you can see her in her first acting role. She plays the abandoned baby by the edge of the river!
Somehow it worked out but that is also what makes it difficult: the logistics of looking after a child are complicated, and there are repercussions if you don’t get it right. Because there’s a lack of support, it’s hard to get it right all the time. It was easier when we were making short films and Molly was younger and outside of the school system, it’s much more complicated now. Secondary schools in particular are very inflexible on this issue.
Some of the funding models we worked with meant it was easier and more in our control. The funding for these early films came from a range of arts funding sources other than the more conventional film financing ones. And so we could make things work on our terms and how we needed them to work. This way of making continued right through to the completion of our first feature film, Helen, a film that came out of the Civic Life project.
Molly was four when we shot Helen and had just started primary school. But we had lots of flexibility and we were able to organise the preproduction to work with our family needs. Also, it was a fourteen day shoot and we were able to take her along with us for some of it (when we were in Dublin and we had family there to help), and we had great care in place for the rest of the shoot when we couldn’t have her with us. Yes, we were both away from her for over ten days, and we’d be lying if we said it didn’t take its toll, both on us as parents and our daughter, however, for those ten days we were able to focus 100% on filmmaking and be in the headspace we needed to be to get the film made. Seven years down the road we realise that those were our salad days!
Having our child has led to the most productive and challenging thirteen years of our working together.
Has parenting or caring work affected any specific project you’ve worked on, and if so in what way – creatively, practically, energetically?
There’s nothing we’d change about our working practices, but we would certainly change things about what we did in Singapore. It’s like our Chinatown: don’t mention Singapore…
Filming our second feature, Mister John in Singapore was tough. Mister John, in contrast to Helen, was a ‘proper’ film, by which we mean financed in the ‘proper’ ‘conventional’ way and that came with a whole load of responsibilities and expectations and demands that we didn’t always have much control over. This is where the reality of us as filmmakers collaborating together, as well as being parents with a child we’re responsible for, came a bit unstuck.
As a family we decamped to Singapore and lived in a hotel for two months, which sounds great – but isn’t. A very nice hotel, but not the right kind of setting. You’re living in a small room together for over two months, with no space and no privacy. And we had to finance it ourselves. A big chunk of our earnings went on bringing Molly over to Singapore, having her there for two months, setting her up in a school, paying for the school fees, having a full-time childminder we flew over and looked after (in more ways than one as it happens, as she was only 21). And despite spending all this money and working very hard to put all of this in place for our daughter, it still fell way short of what she really needed.
So, for example, once the preproduction period really took off and cast and crew started arriving in Singapore, we were seeing Molly for just half an hour each day over a six-seven week period. For an eight or nine year old, that’s going to be a perfect storm. What we needed was proper, professional childcare for our daughter and for that you need money. More money than we were able to afford. We ended up having to make adjustments on set which included one of us coming off the set a couple of hours earlier each day. That way, when we saw Molly in the morning over breakfast, she knew there was also going to be a couple of hours at the back end of the day when she at least saw one of us.
There needs to be more recognition of the stress and the responsibility that being a parent and making films puts on filmmakers. And there needs to be support so that we don’t end up also having to pay at least 10% of our earnings to look after our children when we’re making a film, which we’re not able to put in the budget in any way shape or form, even as an expense we could claim back.
On Mister John, we argued that childcare needed to be paid for, but we lost that battle because it’s not recognised: why? It’s not a luxury for us to have our daughter properly looked after while we’re making a film. It’s totally necessary. The film won’t get made unless we’re able to have her looked after really well, because you can’t free up the space and headspace you need otherwise; you’re so much still a parent not a filmmaker, and actually you need to be a filmmaker for those really precious few weeks when you’re actually making the film. You need to switch off and make the film. Instead, we’re having to battle tooth and nail for every little thing, because somehow film production doesn’t recognise that as part of the filmmaking process for some people. We think a very special case can be made for directors in this regard.
There needs to be more recognition of the stress and the responsibility that being a parent and making films puts on filmmakers.
What advice would you offer someone thinking about becoming an independent filmmaker and wanting to have a family life as well? And particularly for co-parents thinking of co-directing or co-producing?
We are aware that our case is very particular because we work together and we have a child together. We’re tempted to say that if you’re thinking of collaborating with your partner, just stop right now. That’s the best advice we can give: don’t do it! But of course, we don’t really mean that. It’s challenging but not impossible.
From our experience it’s mainly during the pre-production and production period that it gets difficult; for the rest of the process, it’s a real plus because we’re together, we’re involved in this whole mad exercise together at the same time, and we can help each other. It’s not like one partner has got their head up their arse for months on end, and the other person is trying to soak up all the fallout from that – we do it together, we help and support each other. The real advice we can give, and it has been our mantra for years, is “Divide and Conquer.” There are trade offs. It’s inevitable. There has to be. We’re not young, free and single. We have responsibilities and so it is beholden on us to try and make it work for the three of us. And so we try to always work as a team and divide the work up as much as possible.
We’re hoping to start filming our next fiction feature next year, shooting in Ireland and the UK, and our now teenage daughter will probably be glad to see the back of us for five weeks. Longer if at all possible, she would say! But, having said that, we spent all last night trying to console her because she hates school, she hates homework, she hates her life. We’re constantly amazed at the new minefield that we’re in with her! Trying to get it right for her will be a top priority for us. Again, we’ll be filming away. In Ireland this time, so not as bad as Singapore. But it will be a challenge to get it right. And Molly is in secondary school and so, as we mentioned, there will be no flexibility whatsoever on that front. But hopefully our experience on Mister John means that we’re more aware of the pitfalls and we’ll do a better job this time round.
We have responsibilities and so it is beholden on us to try and make it work for the three of us. And so we try to always work as a team and divide the work up as much as possible.
Can you tell us about your new film FURTHER BEYOND? How did that differ from previous projects?
Making Further Beyond, our new film, allowed us to go back to our earlier ways of working, where we’re in control and it’s our creative and artistic project, and we set the terms.
We didn’t start with a script, it was about stalking the ideas, feeling our way towards a structure in the first place, and finding the content and writing later on, or as we went along deeper into the process – a way of working that aligns more closely with how we made our theatre work.
Practically speaking, Joe could go off and film, and we could work on writing and editing together at home. So there was little or no disruption to family life. We did both go off to film together on occasions, even bringing Molly along with us a couple of times. Which was great. In theory, there’s nothing to stop the two of us from splitting the workload in a more dramatic way, and having one person direct and the other not, but at this stage, because we’re known to the various film boards and financiers as a couple who have directed everything together, it would be very hard to unpick ourselves from that; even if it was desirable for us which it isn’t, it wouldn’t be tenable.
Even one of us coming away from set for the last hour or two each day on Mister John was a bit of an issue, but we had to do it as there was too much at stake for us as parents and for our child. But it was difficult for us and our producers. If the deal is that both of us are making the film together, and one of us clocks off early every day, it changes the perception of the whole project – but you’re only entertaining these desperate measures because you realise that you’re a family in crisis.
How might things change in the industry to make the industry more supportive towards parents and carers?
For years, parents have made films – that is, men have made films, and they’re parents, they’re fathers, they’ve got kids. Why is it only being talked about as more female filmmakers are entering into the industry? Is it because men just don’t talk about it, or because it hasn’t been a problem? It would be true to say that even in the 21st century, most primary caregivers are still mothers, not fathers. Most of the couples that we know, including the filmmakers, fall into that pattern – it’s women who do most of the childminding. You could say this is practical decision-making. Obviously, there’s maternity leave in the UK, and women can take it – but not in the film industry for anyone self-employed. We, for example, didn’t have any pot of money hidden away to pay for maternity leave, so we both just kept working after Molly was born. If there is a genuine desire to have greater equality, parental leave and childcare for freelancers needs to be looked at properly and formally.
If you can formalise some kind of parental leave or support within film budgets, with the Inland Revenue, with taxation, you will redress certain inequality issues, and you will encourage people by making that pathway a lot simpler and clearer. There’s other pathways you’ve got to get down to do with aesthetics or the work itself, but at least if childcare is not an impediment and it’s formally recognised and addressed by the institutions and funders, at least then you will have helped enormously. If there’s a sincere belief that culture is better off and is richer when there’s greater equality, then we need to address that. And funding bodies and financiers have an important role to play if they’re not to get in the way of greater diversity.
If there is a genuine desire to have greater equality, parental leave and childcare for freelancers needs to be looked at properly and formally.
What would you most like to see change about the industry? What changes would help you most in pursuing your practice sustainably?
We believe that important changes are happening and we applaud the industry for that. Pressure needs to be applied to make sure the momentum behind this desire for change continues and leads to greater diversity within the industry. For years we ourselves just kept our heads down and tried to get on with things as best we could. Our feeling was that no-one was putting a gun to our heads, so if making films as a parent is hard then that’s just the way it is.
Which is why we are so grateful to Raising Films who went beyond the grumbling-behind-closed-doors and actually took on the task of raising awareness and challenging the industry and giving a voice to parents. It’s very interesting for us to read about other people’s experiences and how they, as parent-filmmakers, have coped. For us, the most important change would be to level the playing field more by recognising the extra challenges and costs involved when juggling parenting with filmmaking, and formalising arrangements to that the costs can be accounted for in the budget.
What does Molly think about your job, and how does she see it?
Molly looks at us and despairs. She thinks we’re nuts. Maybe she has a point. Having said that, she loves films.