Please tell us how the film came about. Was the film influenced by your own personal experience?
No unfortunately I have never had the honour of breastfeeding a child although it would certainly be interesting to have a go. The film is not my own but a collaboration between me and Hollie McNish who wrote the poem. The poem is very much based on her personal experience of breastfeeding in public and was literally written whilst sitting on a toilet seat breast feeding her little girl.
You could say the film has been years in the making as Hollie and I went to secondary school together and were very good friends. I really admire her and her work and we have been wanting to make something together for a long time. When I was given an open brief by Channel 4’s Random Acts it seemed like the perfect opportunity.
Please tell us about the creative process of making the film – did you write the script, was it a short shoot, how did you find the locations?
Budget restrictions always require you to problem solve and can often force you to be more creative than you otherwise would. The poem is long and fast and covers so much ground I had to come up with creative solutions to keep the imagery as varied as the dialogue. I had incredible support from the team at Indy 8 but it was a passion project for me so on occasion I did find myself searching for locations on my bike in the 30 degree summer sun. At one point I genuinely cycled so far out looking for a suitable billboard location I had pretty much left London.
Hollie’s poem had already existed online for a while but it was a very low-fi performance piece. On its own it was already extremely powerful so to turn it into a film was in some ways very easy, in other ways a huge challenge.
The easy part was having ideas for what visual elements would bring the poem to life – as I listened to the poem it would evoke so many images in my mind it was more about how many we could shoot in the time restrictions.
The really hard part was making sure I didn’t spoil something that was already incredibly effective. That meant making choices about how the cinematography of the performance should be allowed to remain simple and straight forward to retain that direct connection between Hollie and the audience. Also how to create the right environment for Hollie to perform in. Reciting poetry to a huge room of people takes some nerves but doing it staring directly into the unblinking eye of a camera is still a very different thing. Hollie was faultless the entire shoot, she even looked after people’s babies between takes.
Did the pacing and cuts evolve in the edit or had you already storyboarded in detail before the shoot?
I’m not one for storyboarding. It’s part and parcel of making advertising but I find that it can actually be very restrictive to the film-making process. I had a list of visual references and a shot list that sent my producers into a panic, but I was able to approach it the way it suits me to make films. I like to allow the process to breath as much as possible, I can best describe how I like to work as more of a collage approach. I know what elements I need to tell the story but the way they come together evolves through the edit process.
I often imagine in my mind collecting these separate bags of images that I know will be useful in the edit. So in my head I split my visuals into four main separate strands; Hollie’s performance, portraiture of mums feeding babies, the still life, and then a narrative thread which I knew I could split up through the montage to give the audience the semblance of a story, but hidden in a way that makes it feel like it’s just part of the montage sequence.
The girl who walks into the cafe and ends up in the pink toilet feeding her newborn is called Katie. I filmed her with her baby in the pink toilet and immediately knew I needed to make more of that scene. It’s one of my favourite images in the film, it’s barely directed at all, it’s just a real mum feeding her hungry baby.
Did you put a call out for lactating mothers to feature in your film?
Yes. We had an incredible response. Mainly thanks to Hollie. She has a huge following of dedicated fans so as soon as she put a call out we were flooded with mums and babies who wanted to be in the film. I was unsure how comfortable people would be breast-feeding their babies on camera but it is such a natural thing for a mother to do all I had to do was avoid trying to direct too much and allow things to be real.
How did you go about achieving the natural intimacy with the cast?
I have a lot of experience directing people who have never been on camera before. I often actually prefer it to working with actors – even when I am working with actors I I treat the process the same way.
I want everything to be real rather than performance. For me directing is about creating an environment for things to occur naturally and capturing it on camera rather than trying to force anything to happen.
Intimacy was achieved by making sure everyone understood there was no right or wrong way to do things. If your baby cries and doesn’t want to feed well then that’s perfect, what could be more honest than that? If your baby won’t stop feeding and falls asleep well that’s great too.
Hollie and I were really keen not to try and sugar coat what it means to be a mum. There is a lot of imagery online portraying breast feeding as this beautiful, euphoric process which I am sure it can be at times but it can also be messy, uncomfortable, and hard work. Hopefully the scenes show the mums out there that it’s OK to struggle. Things aren’t always perfect but it is still a beautiful natural part of life.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
One last technical detail that I found very interesting in the editing process of the film. It’s important to create a rhythm in a film and the normal approach to this is to edit to the right piece of music whether you hear it in the final film or not. One thing that had me quite scared during the film-making process was how many changing rhythms and tempos Hollie’s poem has. A crescendo in the middle of a film is a very strange thing for a film-maker but that’s how Hollie’s poem was structured so that’s how we needed to make the film work.
I worked on the sound with Jon Clarke over at Factory and we soon realised that we were going to have to create our own piece of music that fitted with the changing rhythms of the poem. This was really challenging and both Jon and I had a real high-five moment when the underlying score started to come together. He did a great job and I owe him big time.