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Testimonial: Alex Helfrecht and Jörg Tittel

We are Co-Directors, Co-Writers and Co-Parents. Oh yeah, and we’ve been married for nearly a decade. Not that we have much time to think about such trivial things like love. We shot our first feature, THE WHITE KING, in Hungary last year, which meant moving the whole family, including our two children Olivia (then four) and Raphael (then two) abroad for four months.

Here are seven things we learned from making THE WHITE KING with – and as – a family.

1. Continuity – and we don’t mean script supervisors

Whether you are shooting in your back yard or abroad, one thing is key when kids are involved: their sense of security. The more you replicate the routine that they are used to, the less of a shock a new place is for them. Kids are often described as being very adaptable but every child is different. Our daughter, at four, really missed her friends and nursery teachers despite her young age.

So we did what we could to help the transition. We were in Hungary for four months and Jörg dutifully drove a car full of their toys, bed linen, posters, and “special treat” foods all the way across Europe – the trip took three days! – to make sure their room and things felt familiar when the children arrived.

We also endeavoured to respect their routines. Supper time and bath time was the same as they had always been, and regular Skype calls to their grandparents were a Sunday ritual. Our daughter was very attached to her UK nursery and we made sure that she wrote them regular post cards (and they wrote back!) We also had visits from Grandmas and godparents, which the children loved.

Whether you are shooting in your back yard or abroad, one thing is key when kids are involved: their sense of security.

2. Better safe than sorry

We brought our kids’ nanny with us from the UK AND Olivia’s first nanny. We also put them in a lovely bilingual Montessori kindergarten during the week, which they adored. So why two nannies? The idea of our children’s one and only responsible adult falling sick was unbearable. We had two months of shooting including night shoots ahead of us. It turned out to be a good plan since the UK nanny managed to break her foot two weeks in.

The nannies’ presence also helped us (yes, don’t forget about yourselves!) because making a film is like running a marathon, and you need sleep. Once shooting began, the two nannies had to take it on turns to be on “night duty” if the kids woke up, because we simply couldn’t work on broken nights. This was explained to the children, and in actual fact they slept through during the whole two months of shooting. Prep was a different story… typical!

During the shoot, one of our nannies became nanny/mother’s help, and was responsible for the cooking, cleaning and laundry for the whole household. This is not prima donna-ish, it is essential! You don’t want to spend the limited time you have with your kids doing cleaning/ironing etc.

Make sure you get the best childcare you can get: you are trusting them to be in loco parentis and to run your household, and cannot have doubts about their competence. They need to be able to think of every eventuality e.g.: it’s Friday 4pm and your four year old has suddenly developed a high fever having had a persistent cough all week; the right nanny will think to get your child seen by close-of-business and pick up the “just in case medicine” knowing the weekend is coming and doctors will be unavailable, etc. And most importantly, make sure your kids LOVE them.

Be grateful to the carers of your children and reward them well, they are invaluable. They aren’t doing a regular childcare job when they move abroad with you! They aren’t “staff”, they are protecting the structure of your entire family life whilst you are in this strange zone called “production”.

Be grateful to the carers of your children and reward them well, they are invaluable.

3. Always have childcare in the budget

This is SO IMPORTANT! Indie filmmakers – especially on their debut feature – tend to make little to no money, and that’s even more of a reason to ensure that all childcare costs – au pairs, nannies, mother’s help, nurseries – are all covered by production, especially when filming abroad. Add them as a line item from day one and don’t be ashamed of it. Ask for as much as you need, and it could well be a lot. The producers/financiers of your film have picked you because of your talent and in order to do your best work, your family’s wellbeing is a pre-requisite. People will and should respect you for putting your children’s needs as a bottom line.

People will and should respect you for putting your children’s needs as a bottom line.

4. Don’t make false promises to your children

During production, a filmmaking parent will likely have no proper time to spend with their children. We learned that it’s best to be realistic and not over-estimate the time you will have with them. Don’t say that you will pick them up from the playgroup and then let them down. Don’t promise to be back for bath time when you could very well be delayed on a location. They take being let down very badly. Knowing that, it’s best to promise your little one, “Mummy/Daddy will see you for five minutes tomorrow morning. It will be short but wonderful.” Then you can always surprise them if you are freed up earlier, or if a weekend rehearsal is cancelled! And that is bliss indeed!

5. When you are present, be present

This applies to all facets of pre-production, production, post-production and promotion…and has been hard for us. There are so many stresses and hurdles along the way: creative, logistical, monetary, political. This rollercoaster can cloud your head for the whole day. With filmmaking, you never really “come home from the office”. This “being present” thing is easier said than done, but we learnt that when with them it’s best to try and banish all this intensity from your brain. Be in the moment with your kids, listen to them, play with them, laugh with them. Try not to have a phone in your hand. Ever.

Be in the moment with your kids, listen to them, play with them, laugh with them. Try not to have a phone in your hand. Ever.

6. Make your kids extras on one day

We were filming in a 40-degree heat wave and felt sorry for our hundreds of extras who had to endure these hellish conditions. At the same time we had two children guilt-tripping us for spending so much time away from them. And so we organised for them to be extras in a store sequence. The Hungarian extras appreciated that we treated our own children the same way as them, and our children learnt how absurdly boring a film set can be and that we were really slogging away for their benefit!

It was good for the children to have an insight, however surreal, into what we actually do. Our son loved “pressing the buttons” on the Arri Alexa and we actually have his shot in the dailies, and our daughter adored dressing up in the costume van. Both our kids and the kids of other crew members had a jolly old time playing in the paddling pool we erected for them on the base. But they also realised that filmmaking involves a lot of “boring” waiting between takes. Now they know that we have so much more fun with them. At least we’ll never admit otherwise.

It is your obligation as a filmmaker AND a parent to make the best film you can.

7. Don’t compromise on the movie

It is your obligation as a filmmaker AND a parent to make the best film you can. Having children is not an excuse, it’s a validation. There is nothing more satisfying than looking your children in the eyes knowing you’ve made something amazing. You love what you do and you’re doing it for them!

 

2018-11-05T16:45:44+01:00June, 2016|Production Stories, The Long Read|