In this exclusive transcript, director Hope Dickson Leach and director/actress Alice Lowe have a brilliantly raw and in-depth conversation about motherhood, working in the film industry and the very real juggle when trying to do both…
This is an as yet unseen transcript of a conversation between director Hope Leach Dickson (The Levelling, Silly Girl) and director/actress Alice Lowe (Sightseeers, Prevenge), published in its entirety. In this conversation, they cover the demands (and guilt associated with) motherhood, the film industry and its treatment of women – and what ‘success’ means to them.
The Levellers – an impressive debut from award-winning director Hope Dickson Leach – is out in UK cinemas today. With a breakout performance from rising star Ellie Kendrick (Game of Thrones, Misfits) as the young Clover and strong performances from David Troughton (Grantchester, ChickLit) and newcomer Jack Holden in supporting roles, this is a relevant and heartfelt British drama that explores themes of recession, bereavement, family conflict and reconciliation.
In conversation: director Hope Dickson Leach (main image, on left) and director/actress Alice Lowe (on right):
Hope Dickson Leach: Alice.
Alice Lowe: Yes Hope.
HDL: We met in person for the first time in Toronto. You’d just come from Venice and for me it was my world premiere. I had left my children at home and you had your baby with you. This being the first feature I had made, I found the amount of press a lot to get my head around, and was so glad I was on my own – with my husband there to look after me. How did you manage to do it all with a baby? Were you running on adrenaline?
AL: I guess I was lucky that I had had previous experience of the ‘festival circuit’ with Sightseers in 2012. But then I was doing it with another co-star and writer and a director, so I could share the workload! And there was someone to have a beer with etc. This time was much more demanding as, by greedily giving myself several of the films credits, I was the only person carrying the promotion. It was intense. At the early parts, Venice Toronto, etc, the baby was pretty much an albeit very entertaining pudding – as long as she was fed, she was happy. So that was a blessing. I could have her sleeping on my lap while I typed up an interview. Or be breastfeeding her while I had a meeting (frequently!). But it did mean I couldn’t go and see any films, and I couldn’t really go to any parties. So it was a bit lonely. My partner works full time, so could only come with me to Venice. I honestly don’t know how I did it. She’s a very easy baby, as you know. So that made it possible. How did you feel leaving the kids at home? I’m looking to you for how to manage this in the future Hope!
HDL: I don’t know how you did it either. I think you might just be a rockstar. My kids – I hate leaving them at home, but I also know I couldn’t do it with them there. I brought Teddy, four, to LFF (London Film Festival) with me and that was really hard. My mother came too to look after him, but he just wanted to be with me. There was this awful moment when I was doing a radio interview with Jason Solomons and I heard a thumping on the glass wall and it was Teddy banging at me – he was bored and wanted me NOW. I felt awful. I know that if they’re at home they are getting what they need: their friends, nursery/school, routine, beds, toys etc. and I’m able to talk and go to parties and films and do press and so on. So that’s why I keep it short. But then there’s also this pressure that when you get home that you have to be present with them ALL THE TIME. I feel this guilt like I’ve been on holiday or something, so I want to do all the pickups and playdates and things, but then I can’t as there’s all this other stuff going on – often including the admin around the next festival, and planning things for them while I’m away, buying birthday presents for parties, filling the freezer, doing all the laundry – so I just feel shit about it all. And then there’s this weird thing when you have a festival at home – like I did in Glasgow (and the EIFF – Edinburgh International Film Festival – is round the corner). You think – okay, this is good, I can do both! But of course you can’t because you can’t do festival life and fulfil the needs of family life. I don’t know how to solve this really. I think I might just have to become a massive diva where I only go to a few festivals and demand that I’m allowed to take my children with me and have a few hours blocked out each day to spend with them and so on. You suddenly understand why stars behave like that – because otherwise nothing in their lives is theirs anymore. So now just to win the Oscar.
AL: OMG I have had the looking through the studio glass to GUILT. Usually watching Della as she screams and writhes and some poor unfortunate is trying to console her. Sometimes it is absolutely worse when the kids are there with you. Della does that thing where she’s absolutely fine and entertaining herself, and you walk in the room and she cries and moans just to illustrate to you how neglectful you are being. Manipulative little sods. I am getting to the point where I think it’s not really fair on her to be dividing my attention because I’m working simultaneously. And it starts to feel more healthy to absent myself for a few hours and let her be perfectly happy and entertained by someone whose full attention she gets. My point is, often the problem is coming from you, psychologically. And the kids are bloody fine.
It is surreal but healthy I think when you’ve just been at a champagne reception, then you have to clean poo off a revolving chair. You do start to see why people have melt-downs in press interviews. I think my worst (and possibly only) one was when I was doing a phone interview whilst trying to get the baby in a car seat into a cab to go from one Hollywood studio to another (I was late) in the belting hot sun with a screaming baby. I said I had to go and the interviewer said, ‘ok, so one last question…’ And I was like, ‘No. Really. I have to go.’ And I just hung up! I felt horribly rude. I’m sure he thought I was an asshole, but seriously.
I also have a HUGE bugbear about airports/airlines that don’t allow you to take your pram up to the door of the plane. I have done the walk of torture clasping a heavy toddler and many bags too many times. I felt like Mel Gibson or any of his films where he tortures people. I had to keep taking breaks and collapsing on the floor. While the baby tried to crawl amidst several hundred people’s legs in the passport queue. Absolute nightmare. Take someone with you, people. Please. Don’t be like me. Also in LA. Five meetings, seven taxis, no lunch = crying. And that’s me. Not the baby.
Please win the Oscar.
What’s your worse ‘diva’ behaviour? (I bet it’s hilarious, charming and polite).
HDL: I hate having my photo taken. So I’m a total brat about that. Other than that I’m pretty tame really – refusing to take calls after 5.30pm, not going to events if they’re on weekends, pretty mild stuff. Clearly I need to work harder on this. *adds to to-do list*
HDL: Since Toronto [film festival] there have been lots of festivals for both of us. For each festival I’ve asked if I can bring my family with me, but in the end it seems simpler to leave them behind as there is so much travel, and then not much actual time in the festival city, in order to get back for school hours. Plus I realise I would have to bring my husband with me to look after/entertain the children while I work, and given that no one is able to pay for them all, in the end I go on my own. I’ve found that I tend to go for the minimum time possible, as I want to get home quickly to be back with my family. As such this is a totally different festival circuit experience for me than those I’ve had with short films where you try and hang out for as long as possible and do as much ‘networking’ as you can. It’s so important to travel with your film – especially your first I expect – but I wonder if for the next one I might be able to just pick a few and go to those for longer, maybe even with my family, and then stay at home for lots of them. How’s your circuit been?
AL: Yeah, money becomes the issue. I don’t think people generally realise – and maybe it’s something I was naive about too – you don’t get paid to promote your film! Obviously, when it’s your film and your baby (excuse pun. Okay, and maybe you have points on it or something), you of course want to promote it. And lap up the reward of people coming to see it. But even when it’s ‘all expenses paid’, you still end up spending. And you can’t work on anything else! I can’t write when I travel. And certainly not with a baby. Do you write when you’re on the road?
HDL: I always schedule it in and never do it. It’s a killer. I saw Henning Mankell at the Edinburgh Book Festival once and he said he writes every morning, no matter where he is. He had written that morning. And I thought – GOAL! So I still hope it might work. I just have to keep it in sight.
AL: I used to think I would write whilst filming as an actress. But it’s not possible. Absolute bollocks. I think if you’re a novelist, fair enough, write every morning. Keep the muscle honed. But our equivalent of that is FILMING. Don’t you think? And can’t get round to that without a script! I’m a fan of the fast and furious script write.
HDL: I do my best writing in intense bouts – ideally in some kind of shipping container on a mountainside with endless packets of chocolate digestives. Dark chocolate though. Milk chocolate digestives are the devil’s work.
AL: But yes, the networking thing. Almost impossible with a baby. Which again makes you question the value of going to festivals as this is a major part of it. At the moment it’s free to bring Della as she’s under two. But yes, I can see, at some point I will leave Della at home when she’s at school/nursery. And then I can imagine feeling like I want to rush home. Did you feel there was anything major you missed out on by going home early?
HDL: I do look at other filmmakers who are bouncing from one to another and feel, dammit, that looks fun. And I know how valuable those connections are that you form over having fun. I don’t feel like I have many of those times anymore. But I did have them so I guess this is just getting older, or something. I do make specific time for people instead. A coffee in Goteborg with a Swedish actor I met in Les Arcs was one of my loveliest festival memories. Taking part in a masterclass at a university where I was invited by a feminist film lecturer I met on Twitter. It might not be as rock and roll as drinking till 3 in the morning with Darius Khondji, but maybe I’m maturing and that’s okay.
AL: That’s a really interesting way of looking at it. And I think I am finally growing up too. Once it would have given me serious FOMO to miss a party. But now I actively avoid them if I can! I’m so boring. I also think, they don’t help you to be a better artist. That’s the thing from a festival tour, you could easily get snared into just being a ‘regular’ on the circuit. Just going to festivals and never making another film! It’s a real danger! I have to say meeting you on the circuit kept me sane. A life saver! Every now and then I would meet some serious ‘quality’ people. And those people you don’t need to spend 12 hours getting drunk with. Five mins in an airport or lunch grabbed between commitments keeps you going. (Although getting pissed with them is great too. We certainly had a few champagnes at the IWC thing!)
HDL: I don’t know what you’re talking about. I am a pure and sober individual. But also, you saved me too. And I fucking love your film.
AL: I feel like the festival circuit has been amazing. For all the fatigue and loneliness and intensity and strangeness. For your first film, you couldn’t ask for a better run. You must feel like that too? The Levelling has had the dream reception for a debut. Has it all been worth it?
HDL: You’re absolutely right. It’s been brilliant. The Levelling is a hard movie in lots of ways, and I’m so grateful for the reception it’s had. I’ve met lots of champions of the film, and having taken so long to make my first feature I’d almost lost the faith in film industry – but this has brought me back. There are so many good people out there and we’re all fighting for the same thing. I’m a believer.
AL: Ha, me too! Glad to hear it! I am kind of endlessly optimistic. So I always feel like, even if there’s a battle to fight, that keeps me going. I think it’s very hard to find truth within yourself. And this comes with maturity. And it’s what makes a good filmmaker/film. And that’s a goal to hold onto I think. Even though it’s easy to dip in and out of authenticity in this industry and in life generally. It’s nice when you get rewarded and deep inside you know it’s good work. When you’ve compromised or let yourself down, you know it I think. I think people recognise bona fide talent and they will buoy you up. It’s just a rite of passage to get to the point where you make ‘that film’. I don’t think I could have made Prevenge [trailer below] any earlier than I did. Sometimes I think it comes at the right time and you look at early failures and think, ‘oh, that wasn’t a failure, it was a lesson.’ Did you think your first film was going to be The Levelling? Or did you work through lots of different phases to come to that film. It’s hard to imagine your first film being anything else now, don’t you feel?! A bit like a first born you can’t imagine being without.HDL: I didn’t, but that’s a whole other story we can talk about over tea or champagne. I can imagine my first film having been something else, as I live out parallel careers in my head where it was something else, and imagine where I would be now. (It’s really an affliction). I think because I want to make so many different kinds of films there’s something terrifying about people pigeon-holing you. ‘Oh, you do DRAMA.’ You know. ‘You’re that pregnant horror chick.’ So while I love The Levelling [trailer below] and all the people who made it with me, being the non-committal freak I am, I can’t help but wonder how things would be different if I’d done a different film first. But it’s all hypothetical in the end. I learnt so much from the film, about myself as well as the films I want to make. I think ultimately it probably was the best first film for me. But maybe that’s just because it was the first. Does that make sense? LET’S NEVER TALK METAPHYSICS.
HDL: So then the film gets released, if you’re lucky – which we both have been. I didn’t do any US travel for my US release but I know you did. However we’ve both done (in fact I’m in the middle of) the UK tour around the country doing preview screenings and Q&As. I’ve been massively fortunate that my distributors Peccadillo have worked around my own commitments to manage this release. They took on board the easter holidays in setting up the release date, and then have worked with other family commitments I have in scheduling the tour. I couldn’t have done it otherwise. Without constant gin.
AL: Yes, Kaleidoscope were very accommodating. But then, I’ve paired all of this with my maternity leave essentially. So it’s like, what else am I going to be doing? Who else, what other employer, would let me make a film while pregnant, then bring a baby along for the whole ride? If I was acting, I wouldn’t be able to bring the baby and have her attached to me 24/7! And because of the subject matter of the film, it’s kind of part of the package. I’m sure people think me taking the baby along is a gimmick, but actually practically/financially I haven’t had much choice. I’m wondering how long I can pull it off for! When your kids were tiny did you feel like, ‘my directing dream is over?’ or did you have an inkling/hope?
HDL: When I first heard about Prevenge, I thought GENIUS! But I also thought, wow – she’s not going to get any time to herself in those first few baby months. I was a wreck as a new parent. However it was my work that got me through, so I think actually you’re rather brilliant in having just made parenthood and work part of the same thing. Especially since this is going to be your (and Della’s) life – start as you mean to go on. I think I had this false idea of maternity leave, which was that I would have time and then life would be normal again and I could return to my old way of life. I have mixed feelings about maternity leave – while it’s brilliant and we are so lucky to have in this country, I do think it can create a false space for parents (mostly mothers, let’s face it) and often is the reason people don’t go back into the same work they were doing. While it’s not for everyone, the Prevenge maternity leave model would have been brilliant for me – I just wasn’t confident enough to do that. Anyway! Back to the question – I thought it was over, yes. That’s why I started Raising Films! I needed to figure it all out. Luckily there are some other rad women out there (the co-founders) who also wanted to figure it out. So here we are.
AL: Yes, I guess it would feel easy to think that I’d lost out on those ‘precious first few weeks/months’. But I didn’t feel like that. It depends on the individual I think. For me, my job is not ‘work’, I love and live and breathe it. So stopping that for anything would be very depressing and disorientating for me. It’s second nature for me to be thinking about stuff. Without being too pretentious, my art is my life and my life is my art. Or something. Amanda Palmer says it better. But really to be just finding this relationship with my film at the same time as with my baby was just brilliant and not stressful at all. I loved it. (Travel is the stressful bit!) I agree with the whole maternity leave thing. I kind of think we’re ghettoising mothers! I think if it was more normalised to take your kids into work etc, that would be great. A lot of raised eyebrows when I was taking a baby to festivals, but then a lot of people telling me, ‘oh, you’ve made me think maybe I could bring my kids next time.’ Also, in Finland where I just hosted some screenings, everyone, in radio stations I did interviews at said, ‘oh, we’ve all brought our kids in here loads, so don’t worry, we’re used to it’. Very different to the British radio stations I’ve been to where no one said that! I think it’s unfair to fathers too this sense of kids only being in the domestic space, very removed. I think there should be more flexibility to work at home, less boundaries. Kids are just little adults, they shouldn’t be shunted away, like a weird hobby. People always comment on how chilled out Della is, and I think that’s because she has been everywhere, met lots of people, and is comfortable around adults. She never makes a scene in restaurants (although when she’s two I’m sure she will). But my point is, kids are more adaptable than we give them credit.
I agree, the RF women are amazing. So inspiring. You guys are changing the industry, I really believe that. And how you find the time! It’s really a generous act to be extending this out to helping other people.
HDL: It’s weird isn’t it? I think I felt like I HAD to stop work and spend ‘quality’ time with my new babies, but actually I think I resented them a little for that, because I love my work too. I’m so glad more parents are sharing the maternity/paternity leave. It’s definitely something that can make such a difference in the way the family functions going forward.
AL: Ha gin! I think I’m catching a glimpse of the future. The more Della gets her own will and determination and life, the more I’m going to be juggling. I mean, you’re juggling the diary of whole two other little people with their own hopes and dreams as well as your own! It’s quite remarkable. I mean, I’m struggling with my own diary, and all Della has to worry about is inoculations and the odd play date. How do you manage it all (I know I know. Gin. What else? Witchcraft?)
HDL: The school gate massive. Seriously, this whole village thing is the best. And my husband is incredible. Let’s not forget him. I’m so bossy it’s incredible and he just takes it all and nails it
AL: Hmm, I need a village.
AL: The US travel by the way was the most intense of anything. Tonsilitis and bedbugs on the first trip. Exhaustion on the second. And a billion meetings meanwhile. At the same time I’m aware what an amazing opportunity it all is. But that also makes you hyperaware of not fucking it up! Do you have a strategy? Future plan? World/Hollywood domination? Or keeping it British? Or mixing the two?
HDL: I mean, getting sick – what’s up with that? When are we going to have a plug-in that just stops all that? I have no strategy. I have a hundred strategies. I love American films and there are so many great people over there so I’m all about mixing it up, but at the same time I’m aware that it would mean moving the family over there. Taking them out of school. Asking my husband to take time away from his own work. For what, my ego? My work, yes, but it does feel selfish. Meanwhile I feel more and more determined to stay in Scotland as I want there to be a film industry in the UK outside of London, and I know writers and directors are only one part of it, but unless you stay, the industry can only become a service industry. Plus living in Scotland is awesome, so that’s a reason to stay. How do you manage London? I know lots of parents move out because the pace of life becomes too hard with a family. Might you leave?
AL: I was chatting about ‘strategy’ with a (male) director friend of mine, and I started thinking I needed one. It makes you seem together and confident, even when you’re not. Almost like having ‘a plan’ makes you see your potential as other people see it. And not as you do. Also, I really want to resist spending time on stuff that is ‘selling out’ or not really what I’m proud of. And I think this is more possible when you have a possible plan about what you DO want to do. Instead of just coming across negative. (GUILTY ha ha). I think staying in Scotland is actually a brilliant plan, it’s your heart and soul, it sets you apart, and it keeps you knowing who you are, which is important. I am tempted to move out of London (see above!), but at the moment I could not be assed with the travel for meetings. When I’m at the level where I can just say, ‘I’m not coming in for that casting, you either offer me the job or not.’ Then maybe. How do you find the whole ‘coming to London’ thing? Do you think we get pigeonholed for resisting travel as mothers? I am battling reluctance to go to LA every 10 mins, which I’m sure my agents would love me to do.
HDL: I always ask for people to pay for my travel now, and I have to organise a glut of meetings whenever I come down. Which is fine actually. But I know I miss out on those casual – oh come to this screening, drinks etc. thing that goes on in London. But really, being a fuller, more satisfied human being is so much better for me and for my work that I don’t care anymore. This isn’t something I would have said 10 years ago.
HDL: Let’s talk about money. At this point in the film’s life we don’t get paid anymore. There is a huge amount of unpaid work we have to do – writing articles, interviews, blogs, radio etc. – which are all fantastic and really important for getting the film out there and raising your own profile. At the same time there’s an urgency to meetings and opportunities that are coming your way and I feel like these are JUMP ON THIS NOW moments that you can’t ignore…. I lucked out and won the IWC bursary which is literally the only way I’m surviving. My childcare costs are astronomical at this point. How are you managing?
AL: Haha, see above! Well, my solution at the moment is : I AM THE CHILDCARE! He he. But I’m aware my luck on this is running out. I have a great partner who is very hands on. But he also works full time and realistically I am the primary carer. As soon as I get my next commission (and it’s annoying it has to be in this order), I will get childcare on a regular basis so I can start writing the next script. I just don’t have the headspace until that can happen. I have pretty much worked out what the film is, I just don’t have the quiet alone time to do some concentrated bouts of work. I was so happy that you won the IWC because I knew exactly where that money would be going. This is the thing about being a female director. I know you will have been to loads of these women in film talks/seminars etc. One I went to just went on and on about women needing more training and how to get it. A woman in the audience stood up and said, ‘we don’t need more training, we need a JOB.’ I feel like this is spot on. We just need a chance. A chance at a sustainable career. Money. I actually said this in a funding meeting when they asked me, ‘what do you want from this process?’ And I was like, ‘money’. Not for materialistic purposes either! I don’t give a shit about a Porsche and a Hollywood condo. I just want to be able to carry on doing the work I love without constant creeping fear. And there is more pressure on women directors I think for their work to seem ‘worthwhile’ or ‘effective’ or whatever. With men there seems to be more of a tradition for directors to be like, ‘I’m an artist, give me the money whether it’s going to make it back or not.’ My other theory is that male directors survive by getting commercials. And this is a big hole in the ‘female directors’ debate which is rarely talked about. How do we land the big gigs if we haven’t had loads of practice with big money, big sets, big equipment, big ‘toys’, by doing lots of commercials? And I think there’s even more inherent sexism in that sector. Do you do ads? Would you?
HDL: ALL OF THIS. Yes. But in answer to your question, no I don’t do ads. I would absolutely, but it’s never really come up. Because I write too that has always been a much more manageable thing for me. I can make the writing time fit around school hours and nursery hours and late nights. Ads seem to be a lot about pitching and then really intense work for short bouts. I couldn’t pull that off with the way my life is set up. Plus there isn’t such a big ad/promo industry in Scotland, so I’m slightly out of it. There is a great community/campaign about sexism in advertising called She Says. We’re talking to them at Raising Films, but we should do more. It’s going on my to-do list.
AL: I am checking this out! the only time I’ve had slight troubles with crew has been when they’ve been mainly commercials crew. They do seem a bit more ‘macho’. For example: ‘women aren’t funny’ – successful commercials director. And ‘don’t try to be funny Alice, the men are here to do that. Aw, why you pulling a weird funny face in that bit, you look so pretty when you don’t do that.’ Yes, REALLY.
AL: And in answer to your question, I am not managing! I am treading water trying to land some commissions whilst taking the baby to all my meetings and asking people to tolerate it. People think because my face has been on a poster that I’m rolling in it. But sadly, the seventies ended several decades ago. Sometimes me and my friends joke that if we lived in the sixties, we’d be zipping over to our Hampstead cottages in our Mercs off the back of a bit part in Paddington. Luckily I have some points on Prevenge (I made a mistake with Sightseers and didn’t have any), but I haven’t seen any of it yet. I mean, the reality is there’s less and less money in this industry. Especially if you want to make Indie films. I don’t know what the solution to that is. At the moment I mix doing uni talks with a bit of acting/voiceover. And I feel lucky to have those options. In reality I have about five different jobs! I did have savings, but not any more. I guess that’s what having a kid does to you! I wouldn’t change any of it though. And I do think lean times are often the most creative. I sometimes joke that I don’t really know what to do with success and do everything I can to avoid it. It seems so final. Whereas, ‘the creative struggle’ is a bit more romantic isn’t it?! Do you struggle with permitting yourself to succeed? Do you think it’s something women in particular wrestle with?
HDL: I do. I’m not sure if it’s a female thing, as ironically I’ve always been very pessimistic (saddled with a name like Hope), but it might be. I wonder if we just overthink things more often. The bigger fear I have is being judged – which perhaps has become part of the success thing. There’s a lot of complicated thinking around the relationship between success and ‘deserving it’ that I think makes it hard for me, and perhaps others. I deserve this, I don’t etc. When most of the time it’s out of your control. I have a lot of days when I don’t want to talk to anyone or really engage with the world and I think somehow in my head that has always equated with me therefore not being someone who could be successful. But perhaps there is a different way to think about success. Perhaps we don’t have to fit the mould of the people who have gone before. And perhaps they didn’t succeed in that way anyway. It would be nice to blow apart all the myths around success. For people like me who overthink everything I think (Jesus, I’m doing it again) that’s why role models of all shapes and sizes, ages and routes are crucial to celebrate. Maybe it makes success that much less terrifying.
AL: HA HA HOPE! Well I SEE YOU AS HOPE-FUL, so THERE! Again, it’s a maturity thing. When I look back at my younger self I think, ah you had talent, but you self-sabotaged so often because of emotional immaturity. It’s that thing of being 99% of the way there, then using the last 1% to self-detonate because of fear. And some of it comes from ‘I’m a special snowflake so it’s 100% or NOTHING’. Whereas my older self sees that we’re all just 1% talented/inspired and the rest is just bloody hard work and consistency. (Even more so the consistency thing for women. Men can fail more often. We are still seen as a risk. Always, in fact.) I used to just drink a lot at parties, embarrass myself, have relationships with unsuitable career-shattering people, bitch inappropriately, rail against injustices with everyone and anyone, thus rendering myself utterly avoidable. Now I just don’t care as much what people think of me, thus rendering myself ironically a much more consistent person. If I were to give advice to my younger self (and to anyone in the industry), I would say, ‘everyone else’s behaviour is immaterial. Be true to YOURSELF. Behave consistently as you think right, and it will come good. Other people’s behaviour is their problem.’ Possibly my younger self would say, ‘well it’s all very well for YOU to say that, it’s the noughties, sexism in comedy is TERRIBLE, and there’s no Raising Films!’ And I would have to concede the point.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
HDL: Listen to Alice Lowe.