Filmmaker Corinna McFarlane on Life in a Forest

The Silent Storm, out this month, stars Damian Lewis (Homeland) and Andrea Riseborough (Birdman). We talk to the writer and director, Corinna McFarlane, about her theatre roots and living alone in a forest…

Corinna McFarlane, 35, made her name in the film industry with a critically acclaimed comedy documentary. That was 2008. She has since been writing, exploring, researching and working hard to secure funding for her latest film – The Silent Storm. In the first of two interviews, we ask McFarlane about life as a filmmaker, her path into the industry and her debut film Three Miles North of Molkom.

Meet Corinna McFarlane…

“I live near Bristol, in a water tower in the woods, on the doorstep of nature. Ideally, if I were rich, I’d like a cottage somewhere rural but to live in London. But I’m not there yet, I’m still renting. So I’m living here while writing my next film.

I don’t find my surroundings, or being isolated, scary at all. I grew up in Inner City London so it takes an awful lot to scare me. It’s the most tame spot; it’s idyllic old England – it’s so twee, it’s ridiculous.

Every morning I get up at 7.30am. As a writer, living alone and working from home, until I’ve signed off on a script it feels like each day I’m about to go on a mission – even though it’s into my own mind. It’s like: get up; you can do it. I have to go through a pep talk, to lighten the weight of the task. Then I do half an hour of yoga, run with the dog, have breakfast and start work at 10am.

I’m most productive in the evening. I sit at the desk all day and get through stuff – I’m writing a script so it might be reviewing a draft, watching films for research purposes, re-working something. But the bolts of creativity come to me in the afternoon or night. Last night, I was up at 1am – writing until 4am, and then up again to start the day at 7.30am.

Inspiration often comes to me at bedtime. I can sit all day with no ideas, go to bed, turn the light out and suddenly it comes. It’s bonkers. But if I’m drawing a blank, I might walk the dog, get out in nature – I use the trees, the woods for inspiration.

Corinna McFarlane on filmmaking…

I always wanted to work in film, so when I was young I followed the idealised British model of starting in theatre. When I was at uni, studying political science, I set up a theatre company and we used to run club nights. With the money, we’d put on plays – comedy sketches and satire.

We got picked up by a theatre in Brighton and spent the summer touring Brighton, London and the Edinburgh fringe. It did well critically, we got four stars, and we were only a small show.

I did that for three summers then went into Soho looking for work, hoping to enter at a higher level but there wasn’t a warm reception; they said theatre was irrelevant. So I started again. But I realised the best way to do it was to make my own work.

I cut my teeth working for free as a producer on The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael – and that’s where I met Nicky Bentham, who produced The Silent Storm. I really learnt what it meant to make an independent film. It went from being very indy, cheaply made, to competing at Cannes and I got to be part of shaping that whole journey.

I spent two years working on that, working for two guys, so I was very conscious that if I could do it for someone else, I could do it for myself. And it was on that film that I met Rob Cannon, who I went on to make Three Miles North of Molkom with.

I wanted to make drama and as a young woman in film – there are so few of us – people are very wary of investing. So I decided the closest route to making something cinematic was documentary. But I tried to make that documentary as cinematic as possible. It’s not a conventional, fly-on-the-wall documentary; it’s episodic and follows a dramatic structure.

It’s actually being remade as a Hollywood movie by Oscar-winning production company Blueprint Pictures, headed by Dan Mazer who directed Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat and Ali G. They saw dramatic potential in it.

Moving from documentary to drama…

Once I’d established myself critically, my dad had a stroke. He survived but it was quite profound and stirred something in me. He was orphaned in the Highlands as a boy (he’s Scottish) and I didn’t know my ancestry so I decided to embark on a journey to discover Scotland and use it as a creative art project. I knew I’d write a script.

I left London, converted a Land Rover so I could sleep in the back and moved to Scotland in my car. I spent a year in the Highlands and a story came – fiction, but rooted in my own history so it’s still personal.

I came back after a year and showed it to Nicky Bentham. We did some rewrites then she said she’d been selected for mentorship and had been mentored by James Bond producer Barbara Broccoli. She passed the script on to Barbara the night before the latest Bond movie was being shot and she loved it. She gave us an office in the basement of James Bond HQ.”

In the next interview, Corinna McFarlane tells us about securing a star-studded cast for The Silent Storm, how it feels to be a woman in film (spoiler: scary and difficult), working with James Bond producer Barbara Broccoli and upcoming projects…