The Levelling receives its world premiere tonight at the Toronto International Film Festival. In our final diary instalment writer/director Hope Dickson Leach (HDL) talks to her husband Phil Miller (PJEM) about primary parenting, routine and freezers full of food.
HDL: The film is done and we’re now getting ready to fly to Toronto for the World Premiere. It’s almost exactly a year since I went down to Somerset to prep the film. I thought now would be a good time for you and I to talk about that year: the highs and lows, what we did, what we could have done better, what we might do next time. Are you ready?
PJEM: I guess so….
HDL: What was the hardest thing about making this film, from your point of view? Was it me being away for a long time), or was it when I went away and kept coming back again, during the edit?
PJEM: I think the hardest thing, for me, was seeing the difficulty and trouble it took to make the film happen in the first place – the script writing, the endless meetings, ‘notes’, the fickle film world, endless flying up and down to London, and so on. What a business! – I’m glad I am not in it.
But for me and the children – I suspect it was the edit, really, when you were up and down to London a lot. The children, and probably a tiny bit me too, thought you were ‘done’, but the disruption went on for months.
During the 9 weeks of the main shoot, I was lucky enough that my employer, The Herald newspaper, allowed me to take time off (albeit unpaid). This meant I could concentrate on the boys’ welfare and not worry about juggling temporary single parent-dom with my journalistic work and all that entails. The boys missed you greatly, but they also (like most children I suspect) love routine. Once we had our routines sorted – the journey to school and nursery, pick-up time, a quite regimented supper-bath-bed system, I felt we had a kind of equilibrium. It’s when a parent keeps coming and going that causes disruption.
For the longer times without seeing you, two weeks at a time, I drew up a chart of days for our eldest to tick off. He didn’t always do it, but it did help him visualize time, which is tough for young children. For them the phrase ‘next week’ is a meaningless eternity.
The edit was also tough because I was back at work, it was a pretty frantic time. I think when I was off work, as tricky as some moments were, at least I wasn’t being stressed by work too.
I don’t really know how working single parents do it. My father was a single parent too, and whenever I thought: My, this is tough, I thought of him with three children, and no end in sight, and realized my nine weeks or so really wasn’t that tough. I also wrote a novel in that period, so the time went past quite quickly. We were also blessed, in Edinburgh, with a beautiful long summer and mild Autumn, so we had a lot of time outside. My time with you away was also greatly aided by both our mothers coming to help, I was not alone for some of the time, and play dates from new friends and old.
The single toughest moment, I think, was the weekend we came down to the set to see you and the film being made. The boys were very emotional, and leaving you at Bristol airport, we were all in bits and pieces. They had seen you for such a short period of time and you had been working, and in a strange place, for them. That was the hardest moment, wasn’t it?
HDL: God yes. And for me the day they came to the set, and one of them was sobbing, hysterical, and told me to GET IN A TAXI AND COME HOME AND NEVER WORK AGAIN I found it hard to refuse him. But it also clarified things for me, because once he’d said that, I felt like I could actually tell him why I had to stay, and he might hear me. Do you feel they were able to process the process, as it were, about what was happening? Why I had to go to work? That I would be home?
HDL: Did you ever think, screw this, we’re never doing this again?
PJEM: Nope. There’s far tougher things to do in life. You were making a film – what an amazing thing. I was off work for the first time in 20 years, and looking after my boys. There were tough moments, I was often very tired out, but nothing that would put me off doing it again.
There was one day actually, when I was feeling quite flu-ey, and the cat was seemingly dying (actually he was just stealing pizza and getting bloated), and I nearly set fire to the kitchen and had to run home, and also messed up a pick-up arrangement for our eldest and a friend…I thought, this isn’t fun at all.
HDL: Do you think the structure of our family, how we relate, our responsibilities and roles, have changed?
PJEM: No, as far as structure, you are still the prime parent for our boys! I suspect that will be the case for some time. They love and need and require their mother. I provide stern looks and the odd cuddle. Obviously when you were away, I was the centre of their world for a time. It’s a profound, beautiful and exhausting thing.
I do think it’s good for them to see me cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing (well, I did a little bit) etc and know that these tasks are for men too. That is how I was brought up too. They also are well aware that you have work, it is demanding and time consuming and responsible, as well as me.
HDL: That’s interesting, because I do feel like things have changed. I feel like I’m no longer as much the primary carer as I used to be. I feel like they reach out to you for things more now, and it feels really good. A relief.
HDL: Before going away, I lined up granny visits and packed the freezer full of food. How useful was this? I notice not all the food was eaten when I returned. Was this something that I did to make myself feel better, do you think, or did it actually help?
PJEM: It was useful. I always had it as a back-up when times were fraught. I did a bit of cooking too, we had Nana and Granny to stay, they also cooked, so not all of it was used up. And, of course, you froze enough food to feed an army…
HDL: You’re welcome.
HDL: You took two months off work to be the primary carer. How was that?
PJEM: I found the first week the hardest – just getting my own rhythms and their’s right, how to combine the writing I wanted to do with the house stuff, the boys. Bedtime was long and sometimes draining emotionally. I also worried for the boys a lot in those early days. After a couple of weeks, I was more settled and to a certain extent the boys were too. I did miss my work, my work environment, my colleagues (and pay cheques) too. For a while it seemed the only people I spoke to in life were two little boys and a slightly grumpy cat. It was a little bit of an isolating and dislocated existence at times.
HDL: Hearing you say that is really rewarding for me. As someone who works freelance and became the default primary carer, it’s sort of hard to explain to anyone how that feels unless they’ve experienced it. It’s not like I wanted to punish you or anything, but knowing you now know what it feels like makes me feel like I can talk to you about it in a different way.
PJEM: Our eldest was also in his first year of Primary School: in a new area, a new city and a new home. It was a particularly tricky time for him, and that threw up lots of challenges too. But he did so well, dealing with them all – I was very proud of how he coped. We did a lot of talking and going over things he was concerned about, and I tried to improve my own communication with him. I think we did alright in the end.
HDL: Do you think the boys respond robustly to my unregulated life, or do you think it throws them?
PJEM: I think any unregulated parental life throws children. I don’t think there’s any getting round that. But they are also used, now, to it being unregulated. I think it’s hard on you when you ‘come back’ because they unload their emotion on you. Every child is different – ours our particularly emotional and intelligent so yes, it affects them. They are, now, far more used to you going away. Making the movie was the first time you had ever been away for such a long time.
HDL: I feel like this film is something we made together, you and me, because I couldn’t have done it without you. Do you feel like that?
PJEM: I have to say, no not really. I felt I did what I could to help you make it, but you wrote it, made it happen, directed it…I don’t feel any purchase on the film itself. The boys…they are actually in a scene, so they had more direct input than me.
HDL: I’m afraid they’re on the cutting room floor. You knew that, right?
PJEM: I helped make it happen a little bit. I don’t feel any ownership, even fractionally, of the film. It’s wonderful to see it come together, though.
HDL: In my eyes you were essential, and in terms of the film being made I was essential, so it couldn’t have happened without you. I want you to know that.
HDL: What do you think we’ll do next time?
PJEM: Next time? When you’re making a $80m blockbuster? We’ll hire a full-time nanny of course.