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Testimonial: Jennifer Monks and Michelle Eastwood

It was a manic Monday in the To Know Him production office – 7 days from the start of principal photography. I was about to go out on a tech recce and I got the text! Michelle (my producing partner) had given birth! It was official – not only was I now the last member of the creative team still pregnant (which I will get to in a minute) but I was also now flying solo as lead Producer on the production…. it was all on me! Shit!

Flashback to nine months previous when Michelle Eastwood (Escape Films) asked me if I wanted to produce a 30-minute drama with her for the British Sign Language Broadcasting Trust. I was of course thrilled, we had previously worked together to produce three short films for the Creative England iWrite scheme and it had been a blast. Michelle had always been a very flexible producer to work with and was understanding of my needs as a mum to a 7-year-old. When Michelle announced we would be collaborating with Liverpool writer Kellie Smith, it was a second bonus. Kellie had written fabulous iWrite short The Big Day so I knew this would mean quality material.

What none of us banked upon was that this safe pair of hands (myself) would fall pregnant shortly after we paired up and that our writer, Kellie, was also pregnant.

Now, when I look back to the start of our partnership (and do the maths) I realise that Michelle’s engagement with me was in part strategic. Unknown to me she was in the early days of her pregnancy and she knew that we would be shooting this film around the time she was due to deliver. It made sense for her to engage another producer and also one which was based in the area where the film was set (Liverpool). She needed a safe pair of hands for when she wouldn’t be around (as well as a partner in crime). What none of us banked upon was that this safe pair of hands (myself) would fall pregnant shortly after we paired up and that our writer, Kellie, was also pregnant.

I think all of us probably had a lump in our throats at the thought of telling each other we were pregnant. I know I did. Not because we were ashamed but because ultimately, as women in the industry, we probably realised that it was going to make our careers (and potentially delivery of this film) slightly more complex. Michelle told me later that she and Kellie had shared their revelation to each other in a wonderfully comedic fashion – Kellie had crumbled first and Michelle had replied – “Oh My God… Me Too!” They were both simultaneously worrying about telling the other.

I remember going to meet Michelle at her office to tell her my news when we were still in development of the script. I remember thinking that somehow – as the last one into the pregnancy club – I was somehow the weak link. I needn’t of worried, Michelle (and Kellie) were fantastically supportive of my news and we soon accepted that we were a group of machines and if any women could do this then it was most certainly us.

I think he found the prospect of being surrounded by three pregnant hormonal women a slightly comedic proposition. It was. But he wasn’t fazed. It was refreshing.

There was just one person left to tell, our director, Ted Evans. Ted was no stranger to pregnancies having had two children at a young age himself. I remember stepping into a lift with him and Michelle enroute to a meeting and deciding there, in that small space, it was as good a time as ever to tell him about my expanding waist line – he laughed. I think he found the prospect of being surrounded by three pregnant hormonal women a slightly comedic proposition. It was. But he wasn’t fazed. It was refreshing.

Once all our news was out and due dates had been calculated, it was clear that I was going to be the last woman standing (or should I say pushing). Michelle was never going to be on location because she was due just before we were scheduled to shoot, Kellie slightly earlier, but I remember feeling like at some point, I probably needed to worry about whether I would make the distance. This being my second pregnancy I think that definitely helped me be more relaxed. But what drove me was my ambition to not let anything get in my way of finishing the job I had started, least of all an expanding waistline.

I had already cried many times over leaving my daughter for night shoots, working away, carrying major mum guilt; I was done with putting myself through the ringer for being a working parent.

I had my first daughter in 2010 and since then have been working freelance. Being based in Liverpool and with childcare commitments, I have always felt geographically and socially removed from the industry, probably how many Raising Films parents feel. I had spent the past 7 years building my profile and slate to the point where it is now, and I was most definitely not going to let a second child get in the way of where I wanted to go. That may sound slightly cruel, but I mean it in the sense that I had already cried many times over leaving my daughter for night shoots, working away, carrying major mum guilt; I was done with putting myself through the ringer for being a working parent. I didn’t want to have a second baby and disappear – and my unswerving attitude to this production was probably the first sign of that.

Anyway – we return to the day that Michelle texted me her birth news, myself and my (all-female) production office team were thrilled. I of course had put in place a stellar team to carry the production should something happen to me, as well as engaging a fabulous Post-Producer to be there for me post-labour. But I did get slightly nervous when I received Michelle’s text that the shoot, edit and immediate post-production was solely sitting with myself and that Michelle wouldn’t be available should something major happen. And why should she be, she was entitled to enjoy these special moments with her firstborn, uninterrupted.

This positive experience was largely due to having an incredibly talented crew (led by a great Director) but also I think because the team could see a heavily pregnant woman working her ass off and so felt motivated to do the same.

I always knew this day was coming but the reality felt a little different. I was snapped out of my minor anxiety by some sort of production issue and swiftly moved on and I can honestly say that from that point forward, I didn’t think about the practicalities of being nearly 8 months pregnant and working 12-hour shoot days. When I was stood in the freezing cold on a beach, I didn’t think about the baby kicking away inside of me and I didn’t feel my backache. Production went about as smoothly as any production could. The atmosphere on set was great and the material looked lovely. This positive experience was largely due to having an incredibly talented crew (led by a great Director) but also I think because the team could see a heavily pregnant woman working her ass off and so felt motivated to do the same. There was no slacking.

Being a producer is part of who I am in just as much a way as being a mum is.

When the time came for me to deliver my daughter she thankfully came late (allowing enough time for us to picture lock five days before I gave birth) and was born via induction. A producers dream; I had a schedule and a slot for the baby to arrive. I think I was back on emails within about 48 hours. But that was my choice. I felt like it was as important for me to deliver the film for everyone involved as it was for me to deliver my daughter safely. Of course I’m not comparing the two (labour was probably slightly easier than production) but I’m emphasising the point I made earlier – that being a producer is part of who I am in just as much a way as being a mum is. I don’t want to have just one of these identities and so I worked stupidly hard to ensure I maintain both.

Although this piece is written from my perspective I must acknowledge the process which other parents on our film went through. Kellie was writing script revisions at 9 months pregnant with her 3-year-old on her lap, Ted spent two weeks in Liverpool, a long way from his kids in London and Michelle was watching rough cuts whilst establishing a new-born feeding regime. We all did our thing because we love what we do as well as loving our kids.

Michelle Eastwood of Escape Films:

Just to add to Jen’s words… it was amazing working with two other pregnant women on To Know Him.  As she said, none of us knew the others were pregnant when we started but when we all found out it lead to an incredibly supportive team. Especially between Jen and myself as we were sharing the producer role – we could say, well, if you go into labour I’ll do this, and if I go into labour, could you do that… I have to say though, I was worried when Jen said she was pregnant as we both knew the bulk of the production was going to be on her shoulders as I would be giving birth the week before (hopefully – and yes, she was on time, typical producer baby).

I worried about Jen’s stress levels and general health – when most women would have been on the brink of starting their maternity leave, she was in the throes of production.  It is stressful producing a film and she didn’t need that kind of stress, but I trusted that she knew herself well enough to know she could manage it. The decision about whether or not to continue on the project when the shoot was seven weeks before she was due to give birth was hers, and no-one should make it for her.  And of course, she smashed it.

I want to keep the career I’ve worked so hard to build, so I’m in the process of striking what seems to be a good balance – half the day with her, half the day working

I also wanted to make it clear to Jen and Ted that whilst I was happy to look at cuts, immediately after giving birth I wanted to be with my baby and not worry about work. I’ve worked really hard all my life and I never thought I’d have a child, and now that this amazing thing was happening, I wanted to defend the unique period following it. So I chose to make that clear, and everyone respected it.  Of course, I did end up doing some work, as is my compulsive nature, but it was my choice, it wasn’t expected of me, and that’s important. I knew I would have to get back to work extremely quickly after the birth – and I am now working again, part time, when my daughter is 3 months old. I knew I would lose momentum on my projects if I didn’t do this, I’d lose a lot of what I’ve been working for.

Thank god I have a supportive partner who has quit work to look after our child and is excited about the idea of following me to set!

Ted and I are making a feature this year – Retreat – through iFeatures, and if I decided to take a “normal” maternity leave, I wouldn’t be able to produce that film, which we’ve fought so hard to get financed. That’s the reality. It is the nature of my work, and it’s a lot of pressure.  Sometimes I regret that I have little choice about how much time I spend exclusively with my child in her first year. But I want to keep the career I’ve worked so hard to build, so I’m in the process of striking what seems to be a good balance – half the day with her, half the day working. Obviously, this will have to change when I’m in production! Thank god I have a supportive partner who has quit work to look after our child and is excited about the idea of following me to set!

We finish this production with three new babies born during its gestation and a total of seven children between the Director, Producers and writer, I think we did pretty good.

TO KNOW HIM is a 30-minute hybrid drama told through BSL and English Language Directed by Ted Evans and commissioned by BSLBT. It will be screened as part of the SEE HEAR weekender at the Bristol Watershed on 24/25th February.

2018-11-12T12:59:13+00:00February, 2018|Development Stories, Production Stories, The Long Read|