Testimonial: Vicki Lesley

Making a film is hard. Making a film and having a baby is a lot harder!

Back in 2006, I was a busy freelancer working on popular factual shows for broadcasters like the BBC, Channel 4 and Discovery, travelling the world and generally having a great time. But deep down I yearned to work on something a bit more serious. Looking back, I was also soon to turn 30 and I think I was wondering where my life was heading as I left my rather hedonistic 20s behind.

So I made a decision – with hindsight a much bigger and consequential decision than I realised at the time (which was probably a lucky thing!) I decided that I was going to make an independent feature documentary about something bigger and more weighty than the stuff I was doing in my TV work. Nuclear power was just coming back into the news then. It was something I didn’t know an awful lot about but it seemed like an important debate and perhaps something I could influence, even in a small way, by making a film about it.

And so I emailed everyone in my address book and told them I was going to make a documentary and asking them if they could give me a tenner. If 10,000 people could do that I reasoned, then I’d have the budget to make this film. I’d never heard of crowdfunding then, but that was what I was doing. I set up a company and called it Tenner Films – after my plan to try and raise a big pile of tenners! Of course, I don’t know 10,000 people – but many of my friends and family obliged with an initial donation, and so my journey began.

Over the next 7 years I continued my work in TV, but interspersed it with trying to get my own documentary off the ground. I raised money through crowdfunding, but also through grants, and later from Creative England and from private investors who bought shares in the film – enough eventually to give up the TV work and focus on the film full time. I got a very experienced Executive Producer on board, and we pitched to international broadcasters at major film festivals in the UK and Germany. I filmed hours of fascinating interviews with politicians, engineers, nuclear industry chiefs and anti-nuclear campaigners.

And then I fell pregnant.

It was a bit of a surprise though of course a very happy one. But what would it mean for my film? I worried about telling my producer the news (in the event he was delighted for me) – and wondered how on earth I could continue what was already a really tough endeavour with the new factor of a baby to consider. I resolved that I wouldn’t let it stop me from following my dream and finishing this project that I’d already spent so long on.

I resolved that I wouldn’t let it stop me from following my dream and finishing this project that I’d already spent so long on.

When I was 6 months pregnant, I completed a major filming trip around the USA – my bump was certainly a conversation starter and in some ways even an advantage. I think carrying a child made me connect with some of the big issues the film addresses about powering our planet and our relationship with nature, with technology and with future generations in a deeper way. But despite my swollen ankles and constant back ache, becoming a mum still seemed quite abstract to me.

Then, in January 2014, my son was born – and of course, everything changed. I wish I could say it’s been easy. But as all working mums know, wearing both hats is a really big challenge. For the first 9 months, my film was completely on hold. Then my little boy started spending a few hours each week with a childminder so I could start to get back into things again. We’ve gradually built up the hours until, as I write, I have three days each week to work on the film.

Filmmaking isn’t a 9 to 5 job – but with childcare you have to stop what you’re doing when the hours are up no matter how ‘in the zone’ you are. And it’s not always easy just to pick up again where you left off two or three days later.

I’ve found it far harder than I thought to combine the mental and emotional challenges of being a mum to a baby and now a toddler with the headspace you need to slog away on an independent film. Filmmaking isn’t a 9 to 5 job – but with childcare you have to stop what you’re doing when the hours are up no matter how ‘in the zone’ you are. And it’s not always easy just to pick up again where you left off two or three days later.

More pragmatically but no less importantly, there is the financial impact. As my film is totally independent, with funding piecemeal and extremely hard won, I don’t currently earn anything from working on it. Previously I was able to cross-subsidise working on the film with a certain amount of paid TV work, but now with time being so precious I have to devote what hours I do have to the film. This has resulted in me actually earning effectively a negative salary – paying a childminder so that I can work for free. I’m extremely conscious of my privileged position having a partner with a ‘regular’ job whose wages cover our mortgage and bills.

TonyBennshoot2
Vicki Lesley filming with Tony Benn.

With no TV commissioner waiting for the film, it often feels like making this film is more akin to an expensive hobby and that it’s selfish of me to hand my son over to someone else to be looked after to pursue it. But then I remind myself of all of the years of work I’ve put in to get here – and particularly of the fact that as a woman, and now a mother, my voice and perspective is just as valid as that of any male filmmaker who for the most part would not find themselves in a similar situation. I feel I owe it not just to myself but to other women, especially those with children, to keep on going.

Happily after a decade of this eventful filmmaking journey, the end really is now in sight.

My film ‘The Atom: A Love Affair,’ on the politics and history of nuclear power, is now very close to completion – with a roster of international broadcasters and distributors waiting to take a look at the fine cut, and our own plans for a nationwide cinema release taking shape (this is something my producer, Christopher Hird at Dartmouth Films has considerable experience with from the many other independent films he’s produced and released into cinemas, including most recently ‘The Divide,’ about the human impacts of inequality).

Once this film is out into the world, I’m not too sure what path my documentary career will take next, but I know that I want to keep making films, and be actively involved in caring for my son. I hope I’ll be able to find a satisfactory way of doing both…

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