Today (Friday 3 May 2019) is the release day of independent documentary IRENE’S GHOST, directed by Iain Cunningham. To celebrate and mark the release we spoke to Iain about his own experience of parenthood and how the production supported other parents on the film’s creative team. Over to Iain…
Finding a balance with family life is something lots of filmmakers struggle with, and in my case, that meant sometimes involving them directly in the making of the film. IRENE’S GHOST is a documentary about family, with lots of my family members in it, including my daughter Isla.
I was working in television as a freelancer when my wife and I had Isla, our first child, and my wife Liz was working fulltime at a radio station. When Isla arrived, we made a decision that I would set up on my own so I could get a bit more control over my time. I spent the first two years of Isla’s life working a couple of days on the fledgling company and the rest of the week looking after her.
When Isla was born, I suddenly had a front row seat to her emotional development. I started to watch the world through her eyes, as new parents do, and I also started to think about my own babyhood. My early life had been wrapped in secrecy somehow in our family. My mother had passed away when I was three years old, and after that it all became something of a taboo subject. I was 18 the first time I saw photos of her, and of me as a baby, when my Dad gave me some of her things.
I didn’t know if I was a good baby, if I slept, or any of that normal stuff, let alone how I reacted to not having a mother in my life. Watching Isla grow, I realised what a huge impact it must have had on me as a child. It came to a head really when she was approaching three years old, the age I was when Irene, my mother, died. That was really the catalyst to start looking for information about my mother, which eventually became the documentary IRENE’S GHOST.
I’m lucky that my partner, Liz, had a fulltime job to help support us as I started out on my own, and also started making the film. We now work together, which has made it easier to plan the route through this project, which took five years to complete. Along the way (and halfway into the edit) our second child Anise arrived.
Almost everyone on the production team was looking after small children alongside their work on IRENE’S GHOST. We’ve all had to be creative with the time we have, negotiating childcare and the desire we all share to be present parents.
The animation director, Ellie Land, was pregnant when we first met at the beginning of the process. Since working on the she’s had another child too. Gene now age five and Howie age 18 months, and both sat in on our Skype chats at various points.
Ellie’s memory from early production is that most phone calls with the team were spent on the fly whilst walking Gene to sleep, with notes jotted down on the back of her hand.
“I learned that for my own sanity I had to separate clearly the time that I was working and the time I spent with my children. That included creating a space to work that was distinct from the family clutter.”
She also commented, “On the first stage of animation production, Gene was older and was at nursery while I worked, and this went fairly smoothly. However at this time I suffered an episode of stress induced anxiety, which came about due to the demands of juggling freelance projects, my lectureship and the newness of parenting. I realised that I wasn’t looking after myself and spent some time changing that.”
Our producer, Rebecca Mark-Lawson, who’s experienced in juggling childcare and production, could see that we needed to re-look at resources to support Ellie in the right way. Our small team meant that we could be fairly flexible with scheduling to accommodate Ellie’s needs, we tailored the budget to cover some extra childcare costs for Ellie.
Ellie acknowledged the positive impact of this support, “The intervention from Becky gave me time to focus and I feel very lucky to have worked with her, she was so sympathetic to my situation. I actually found that during this time I was incredibly focused and enjoyed my time working, reconnecting with who I was again. It became an escape from the mundanity of domesticity. My kids are still too young to understand what I do, but I hope that when they are old enough, they will appreciate that my work is exciting, always changing, a great source of personal development and leaves an animated imprint on the world.”
For my part, as director of IRENE’S GHOST, I wanted to make meetings after school drop off, and in fact most of the film was shot that way, between drop off and pick up. Decisions were made to use the kitchen table for rostrum, rather than travel to a studio. Trips away to film became family trips, to Margate, the Isle of Wight, the Northumberland Coast and to Glasgow, where the edit took place. As well as those trips combining work and family time, there were also occasional moments I filmed with my daughter Isla. It felt very special to be able to share that process with her and allow her to express herself as part of it too, after all she ignited that first spark to start making the film. Now we’re taking the film on the road Isla is ten years old and is still involved, and I hope that seeing the film set off out into the world will be a spark for her too.
As composer Chris Tye says of juggling work with family life, “At times it can feel like there isn’t enough time, and indeed more time is always useful, but I have my inspiration to work hard surrounding me all the time.”
Director – Iain Cunningham
Producer – Rebecca Mark-Lawson
Animation Director – Ellie Land
Editor – David Arthur
Impact Development – Liz Cunningham
Composer – Chris Tye