I am standing alone on a street in Paris. The pavement is steaming, sticky – finally burning off the soupy heat of the day. I don’t speak French. I haven’t eaten in eight hours and my boobs hurt because I haven’t had time to pump yet. It’s one in the morning, I’m not wearing any shoes and I am locked out of our top-floor apartment.
But I’m utterly ecstatic.
This might be tough to explain, especially given my lack of shoes, but here goes – I’ve just wrapped directing my first job after having a baby. Only a one-day shoot, (a music video for wonderful Irish songstress Imelda May) this would have been an exciting-but-normal work day for me prior to 2016. But in August last year, five months since my son was born, I could count the number of times I’d been away from him on two fingers – and even then for no more than three hours at a time. Suddenly a fourteen-hour day on set seemed utterly impossible.
When I found out I was pregnant, I was terrified that my career was over. As women in the film industry we are, at best, looked over and, at worst, on the receiving end of active discrimination. But fear is an excellent motivator. I was determined to buck the trend. I was fierce. When people suggested I might want to take six months off I would glare them into silence. I was still on set at 38 weeks pregnant. I was going to be a working-mama-director and it would all be fine.
Then, at my last birth centre appointment, we found out Arlo was breech. I had to have a C-section. Major surgery. For a long list of reasons Arlo didn’t feed well – he was losing weight. It took a month before we were discharged from midwife outpatient care. And the sleep deprivation. THE SLEEP DEPRIVATION. I don’t think anyone can prepare you for that moment where you are so utterly lacking sleep you sit bolt upright in bed, run into the living-room convinced you’ve left the baby there, only to eventually realise he’s snuggled up fast asleep in the co-sleeper – and you ran straight past him.
Somehow, despite my exhaustion – or maybe because of it – when Arlo was four months, I told my commercial and music video producers, KODE, that I was ready to work. They were thrilled, and completely committed to making it work with baby along for the ride. Then I won a job. GREAT! And then I thought: WHO AM I KIDDING?! I’M STILL BREASTFEEDING EVERY FEW HOURS. HOW IS THIS GOING TO WORK? ARGHHH!
Pre-production was manageable. We hired a fabulous nanny. My producer Jamie Whymark got used to having phone meetings with Arlo contributing (okay, screaming). Our fixer in Paris got pretty used to that too. I started pumping every spare moment, gathering milk for the big day. Logistics took on a whole new meaning (hang on guys we need a car seat in the Uber to get from the Eurostar. Is there a travel cot at the location?) Jamie and the team at KODE took it all in their stride. My partner-in-crime Rowan took time off from his job to play primary carer, and the day before the shoot my very new family jumped on the Eurostar along with the crew to Paris.
Arlo slept the whole way.
I was nervous. I was meeting my first AD and the French camera crew when we arrived. I had no idea what they would think about working with a director and her five-month-old baby. It felt… unprofessional. It was hot. 35 degrees and threatening 40 on the shoot day. With no air-conditioning in our apartment, Arlo barely slept the night before the shoot. So here I was, facing a fourteen-hour day on set, shooting film with limited stock, on no sleep. Not good.
It was brilliant.
My crew were brilliant. Imelda was brilliant. Arlo and Rowan were brilliant. It was one of the best days I’d ever had on set. We found new ways of working with ease – DP Nicola Daley and her crew were on point throughout; lighting ahead of me, always ready for me to step on and compose the shot, and I was able to breastfed Arlo on set when I needed to. I did forget to pump when he was with Rowan, resulting in the aforementioned state at 1am.
We made something truly beautiful. I’m very proud.
Rather than detracting from my work, having Arlo around made me feel more relaxed and liberated than I usually am on set. It had the same effect on the crew too – there was a lot of laughing but no loss of focus. The work felt like fun. Not to mention baby cuddles on tap are a pretty good ice-breaker! Thanks to the support I received from my producer, my crew and my family I was able to do my job at the highest level. I felt more focused, more empowered and more creative than ever. The energy on set was beautiful. We created the perfect atmosphere in which to channel emotion and story.
I know I’m lucky to have had such a positive first experience as a working parent in the film industry, but I hope it’s a sign of change; that things will keep getting better. To producers, broadcaster, funding bodies, agencies and clients – raising a child makes you an amazing multi-tasker, a high-end communicator, an incredible project manager, a fabulous collaborator and a unique storyteller, able to access deep emotions. Sounds like a director you might want to hire.
(I did get back into our apartment for the night… after tracking down Jamie and the crew at the local bar. Barefoot.)