//Interview: Esther May Campbell

Interview: Esther May Campbell

Esther May Campbell’s debut feature LIGHT YEARS premieres at the London Film Festival on 14 October 2015. A self-taught writer and director, her short ‘September’ won the Best Short Film BAFTA 2009, and she has worked on the TV shows SKINS and WALLANDER, as well as making music videos and sex education videos. Working with the Cube Cinema collective in Bristol, she mobilizes a community cinema for children affected by the aftermath of the Haiti and Nepal earthquakes.

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I remember Kaya Scodelario exhaling once on set, saying she’d love for me to ‘mum’ her and I was struck by how we play out caring and cared-for roles in production.

 

Your first feature LIGHT YEARS is an unconventional family story: unconventional in that a) it’s about a family where caring responsibilities have shifted from mother to oldest daughter (something that isn’t represented as often as it’s experienced); and b) we get to know each member of the family and their concerns and point of view, rather than there being a lead. How and why did you develop the story and style of the film?

Conventional narrative may rely on a lead character, conflicted, searching for what they want and discovering what they need. But our story examines human connections through time – so the form and structure had to do this job too.

In Light Years our family have limited time. The film questions what qualities of the human spirit must evolve if we acknowledge that our time here is short (as individuals and as a species). There is a great sense of wonder and joy once all our characters sit with this.

I’m curious about what binds us to one another, the earth and a greater force. How we experience the world at a psycho/spiritual level. To do this, I detoured from the single, linear narrative to manifest sounds, cuts, performance, movement interrelating to dramatise an interconnected group of souls looking for answers through time, yet only able to find a form of peace when they accept they are a fragment of something bigger – a star in a greater constellation.

 

Do you feel that your experience as a parent informs both the aesthetics/narrative of your filmmaking, and your on-set practice – for example, in working with younger actors? Did working on SKINS, where there were younger people involved in the writing, help with that?

I’ve always liked working with young people. In part I’m unpicking some childhood visions. Making sense of them. Sometimes I feel like I’m stuck in a fifteen year old girl’s head!

Now as a parent? I don’t know. I remember Kaya Scodelario exhaling once on set, saying she’d love for me to ‘mum’ her and I was struck by how we play out caring and cared-for roles in production.

While making Light Years we remained very open to the experiences of the young cast. They each brought their life, in this moment, to the story. Moments I couldn’t know. We would wonder down fields and lanes and imagine futures for ourselves and our characters and record these.

And yes, my own child opens up a world of ever changing points of views. And she knows she’s in the film in ways, as am I, at different ages. We meet here.

 

We found ways of breaking down the mechanics of conventional production… I foraged and found, played and fooled about, around the schedule.

 

Hope Dickson Leach writes “I have a new family now, my film family. We are learning how to talk to each other, how to feed each other, and how to make each other laugh. It’s fantastic.” Is that something you’ve experienced or would like to experience?

The intimacy one feels when the whole is engaged in the project’s emotions and form is wonderful. Much of what I do is steered by a notion of integration. Integrating the whole self – body, soul, mind and integrating work and family, play and friends, integrating practices that enable the community of people around me to contribute to their best. This doesn’t always happen – but its the underlying intention.

 

It seems like there is an increasingly robust British counter-cinema that is not interested in bending its approach to industry standards: how is that counter-cinema a better place for a parent (and/or a woman) to be working? What does it make possible or bring into being?

We found ways of breaking down the mechanics of conventional production. I was shooting 16mm additional photography way before we started making the film proper. I recorded sounds with artist, Chris Watson, months before production. We made the sound track by taking the composer to locations where he reacted to the spaces having not seen any footage of the film. In many ways I foraged and found, played and fooled about, around the schedule.

Every artist finds their own, singular practice. Whatever their gender.

If they can create a work environment that suits them, they will produce good work. If they have to ‘bend’, as you say, to conventions of practice it will be their best work within these constraints. Some of these constraints aren’t healthy and don’t enable diverse voices to thrive. They subscribe to an imposed idea of what is ‘normal’. Who wants to be normal?!

 

From the outset I asked for 5 day weeks. Parents or not, everyone has the right to go away and re-calibrate.

 

Your producer Samm Haillay is a parent-filmmaker as well: does it help to have other people involved in the project who appreciate the challenges? What are the challenges (and pleasures)?

From the outset I asked for 5 day weeks. Parents or not, everyone has the right to go away and re-calibrate. Watch Strictly Bake Off, take the dog for a walk or be with their kids. Samm protected this. There is more I would like in place next time.

And the pleasures of being a parent film maker? Well, they are endless. It’s like asking what’s the pleasure in breathing and making films… it’s the source. Everything is. Our losses, our joys.

 

What are the challenges after the shoot, when the film makes its way into the world: for example, the demands of festivals and press? And the constant demand to network within the industry – how do you manage it?

Press and awards are needed to get the film noticed – especially something intimate and singular like this. there is no obvious sell. Its a beautiful film, but sometimes a ‘hook’ does better to get a film seen.

It’s worth remembering that some directors don’t direct to be seen. We are behind the camera for a good reasons! If we fill our time networking, a) we won’t get our work done, and b) we might start believing there is one way to do something, and c) we won’t have the time to live, rest and daydream. All of which are very important.

We each have different rhythms to function, be happy and create. Not one fits all. For some folk networking isn’t part of the creative process. However, I do actually welcome discussion. Maybe being based outside of London means I don’t feel the pressure to network?

 

We must work towards a cultural shift in which being human is rewarded rather than being superhuman/inhuman.

 

Is there one particular social, political or legislative change that you think could enable more parents (particularly mothers) to undertake work in film, at all levels and in all areas?

Working hours made be human across the industry.

What’s considered ‘female roles’, such as hair and make up design, costume, continuity must be paid the same rate as the ‘male roles’ such as grip, cop, sparks, etc. Giant pay cheques need reducing and small ones need expanding.

We must work towards a cultural shift in which being human is rewarded rather than being superhuman/inhuman.

We’re all broken. Its what makes great collaborations, engages compassion and produces truly unique and heartfelt stories. In many ways Light Years is about simply being with our broken bits. Rejoicing in the wreckage. Form reflects content which reflects practice….

 

Where are you thinking your process will take you next?

Well. I am working on a photo exhibition alongside a love story set in the future. Very much focusing on love after humanity has been struck down. What kind of people will inhabit this new earth. I’m loving working on it. I am also developing a documentary set in a community in the North that focuses on the relationship between time, nature and the soul. Both ideas manifest alongside process. I guess I have a mini-manifesto brewing. It involves a van, a lot of wells and some stock. The rest is to come…

 

2015-10-12T09:00:13+00:00October, 2015|Interview|