Drama I told my Mum I was going on an R.E. trip airs on BBC Two this Saturday as part of the BBC's Performance Live series. A Contact and 20 Stories High production, I told my Mum explores the morality associated with abortion, 50 years after it was first legalised in Britain. The stories were borne out of a Contact theatrical production that went on to tour the UK before being adapted for TV with director Lindy Heymann and the play's writer Julia Samuels.
Mandy News talk to director Lindy about starting out as a director and the challenges of adapting theatre for the screen to tell important stories.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into the industry.
I come from a visual background. I started off directing music videos and then inadvertently got involved in more fictional stuff. I did a feature film with a friend of mine called Showboy. It was really a film that we came up with together and just went off and did. We ended up shooting it over one summer in Vegas. We were all in it. It was a kind of faux documentary. It was a crazy film, a baptism of fire. It ended up winning a BIFA. That got me an agent.
Then, I ended up working on more fictional stuff. I did another independent feature film called Kicks a few years ago. I’ve been doing more and more stuff. I’ve recently started doing more television. That’s how I came to this.
How did you start doing music videos?
I got a job as a runner in a music video company. It was in the 1990s, it was a very odd time. I had mates that were doing music and starting labels and things like that. It came together, it was just one of those things. I had a friend who had been fired from a record company and he started his own label. I was helping him with that.
That label signed a band called Suede and he needed a music video. They were just starting out and they didn’t have any money. I went to the bosses of the music video company. I was just the runner but because I’d been on everyone’s shoots, I just went around all the assistants on the crew and recruited a crew and started directing a music video.
You directed a Suede music video?
My first music video was Suede’s first music video. A track called ‘The Drowners’.
That’s amazing! A lot of British directors seem to come out of the music video background: Eran Creevy, the Lennox Brothers, Corin Hardy… is that something that you knew before you got into those things?
No, everything about I’ve done has been accidental and fortuitous in a way. I do think with music videos, unlike commercials, you learn a lot about being on the ground, making something out of nothing, telling stories, and you get to experiment. It’s kind of yours even though it’s for a band, because you’re completely in charge of the visual side of it. You learn a lot. It makes you a can-do kind of director as opposed to someone who needs a lot.
I love music videos. I don’t do them so much anymore. It’s such a brilliant medium for directing.
Could you tell us a little bit about how you got to I Told my Mum I was Going on an RE Trip? How did that and the concept behind it come about?
Julia Samuels, the writer, and the director of the theatre piece wanted a television director that they could collaborate with. We had somebody mutual in common who recommended me. I was really lucky; Julia was in London with the show, she emailed me and asked if I could come to the last performance on the following night. I could and I did.
We met the next day for breakfast. I was quite overwhelmed by the show because I had never particularly thought about the subject matter. Experiencing four young actresses talking about abortion for an hour and a half is quite a full on experience.
What was exciting when I spoke to her the next day was that I knew about verbatim theatre. I’d seen it years ago with a piece by Alecky Blythe, who is super famous for bringing verbatim theatre to the UK. I’d seen something she had done at the Bush years ago. I think Julia was amazed I knew of verbatim theatre.
I had quite a lot of ideas about what she could do visually with it. I was just spewing them out. We had similar heads in terms of how we worked. We were both quite collaborative. I was very into the process of coming up with ideas and working with people.
The actresses are phenomenal.
Are they the same actresses from the show?
Yes. That really drew me to it, because I could tell they were going to be amazing on screen. There was quite a lot of worry about. Quite a lot of the time you put theatre on television and it doesn’t translate. They were very conscious that they didn’t want it to be just like NT live, a broadcast of a show. We had a really fun meeting and after that, I think she thought, ‘This is going to be good.’ I fell into it.
It was a long process. That meeting was in February and we didn’t shoot it until September/October. There was six months of working on the script. We did that very closely together, adapting it. We got it down to about 40 minutes, which is a huge amount to lose. I remember Julia’s first pass on the script. She was talking about losing 20 seconds from one section and 25 seconds from another, and I knew that it was going to have to be more radical than that. The words are all words that were spoken by the real interviewees, so she was very attached to every single word.
It worked really well because the whole performance live experience is meant for theatre directors and television directors to come together and collaborate to create a piece that makes that transition. She used the word re-imagining early on. To say that to a director is gold. That was what I did.
I’m not a hardened television director, I’ve got much more experience in film. Television can be quite reductive by the nature of its process, how many producers you have, and how many hoops it’s got to go through. It’s not used to being particularly authored by a filmmaker unless it’s a very established writer-director. I think having me worked for Julia because someone else might have just come along and said, ‘This is how we’re going to do it, bish bash bosh, here it is.’
With the sound design, have you done anything specifically different? There was the use of audio with musicians within the theatre show. How have you translated that sound design to the television?
Some of it did change. Keith Saha and Dorcas, who wrote all the poems and music for the show, were quite closely involved in our process. Things were slightly adapted. There were quite a few things where we wanted to honour the theatre production and the liveness of the experience of Dorcas singing those songs.
We came up with a way to record it live while we were shooting it, as opposed to what might be done normally, where they record it and mime. Our sound recorders came up with having a studio mic that Dorcas could perform into, which would record it in studio quality. It was really interesting, because there were things that we experimented with in terms of translating it.
The theatre producers and group had all come from a live experience of rehearsing and performing live, putting the act down in one go. We weren’t doing that. We weren’t recording it as a whole live thing. We wanted to honour the fact that we were taking things in one take. The monologues were in one take. Those performances were intact rather than cut, as you would do in television.
And lot of the music is put on in post as opposed to performed within the set usually.
Exactly. Also, the whole experience of Dorcas’s cousin character was quite changed. That was something that I brought to it. I had the idea of doing it in a recording studio, as if she’s making a record. That was something I pitched to Julia and Keith and they were up for that. In the stage version, it’s a bare stage with no set as such.
It sounds fantastic. How long did the process take to shoot?
We shot it in five days, which was tough. Originally, they planned it for a day. When we met the producer, she said we couldn’t do it in a day and we’d try and get three days. We fought to get five. It was really tough.
We were shooting in different locations. We did two days in a hospital, we did a day in Contact Theatre on their actual stage, then we did two days in a block of flats, and then a house. It was quite ambitious, but again it’s what I was saying about music videos. It gives you that thing, combined with independent film: we can do this, we just have to approach it differently.
That was hard for some of the TV crew because they were telling us we couldn’t do it that way. But we did it! You can do it.
It’s amazing, the camaraderie and ability to get things done.
I think the main difference between television and film is that relationship to it. You know you’re making something really special with a film. The fact that you’ve got it that far, whatever it is. With television, for a lot of people it’s a job of work. I’m always quite shocked. You don’t want that kind of cynicism. You want it to always be special, whatever it is.
What’s next for you?
I’ve got two features in development. I’m hoping that one will happen this year. It’s a biopic of Richey Edwards from the Manic Street Preachers. We’ve got a script. It’s written. We’ve had backing from Creative England so I’m hoping that we’re going to shoot it this year. It’s a really good script.
The interesting thing is that this experience has whetted my appetite for working with more theatre people and more difficult subject matter. I made a short film quite recently about male suicide. I think some of these subjects that are difficult to talk about deserve some time.
If you had any advice to pass on to any would-be directors coming up in the industry, what would that be?
As early as possible, work out the kind of filmmaker you are. I know that sounds a strange thing, but I would have quite liked to have had that thought earlier on. What it then means is that you can position yourself and you can pursue the right sorts of projects, because so much of it is timing.
My greatest quote at the moment is from my seven-year-old son, who came home and said, ‘Do you know why I’m a really good football player?’ He said, ‘Because I believe in myself and I never give up.’ That is my motto. It is sticking to your guns, because so much of it is being in the right place at the right time. Especially for actors, so much of it can happen at any point: you find that right part that makes people get you.
I told my Mum I was going on an R.E. trip airs on BBC Two this Saturday (January 20) at 11.15pm.
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