'Don’t give up' Pin Cushion director Deborah Haywood on writing, directing, getting funded and more
Pin Cushion is an award-winning British drama film garnering rave reviews from The Guardian, The Daily Mail, Empire and a whole host of other publications with Variety calling the lead performance "an arresting big-screen debut from Lily Newmark". Here Mandy News talks to Pin Cushion's brilliant and inspiring director Deborah Haywood about writing the project, getting BFI production funding, directing and what aspiring writers and directors can do to succeed.
Deborah, tell us how you got involved in the film industry and directing and writing.
I did a degree at Derby university, Literature and Creative Writing, so I got into writing there. Actually, I got into writing on my access course. I hadn’t got any qualifications because I left school at 15. I then wanted to rectify that when I was about 23/24 so I went to do an access course and one of the modules was creative writing. That’s when I thought “this is amazing.” It just felt really addictive.
So I carried on writing, of different varieties. I wrote two novels that went straight to the recycle bin because they were just so cringingly awful. I started trying to write TV drama and wrote film scripts and then I realised that, actually, I was aiming too high. I noticed that there were a lot of short films getting made and then I saw an advert by EM Media, which is now Creative England iShorts, asking for short film scripts. So I wrote one called Lady Margaret and got selected for development along with 18 other people. They were making six or eight films at the end of it.
I got through and got a greenlight, even though I didn’t know what a greenlight was at the time. I expected to get paired up with the director and they said “no, you’re going to direct!” I was saying “Oh, I don’t know what a director does!” and they said “Here’s your opportunity to find out.” So I did it and was absolutely terrified. Then it was really well-received and I got selected for Screen International Stars of Tomorrow.
I was put on there, was smiling but really, inside, I was thinking that I didn’t want to direct again. It was just too terrifying. I didn’t think that I was good at it even though I appreciated that I got good performances from the actors. Then I found out that there were really low rates for women directors internationally and I thought, “if I’ve got this opportunity now to direct something again and I don’t take it then I’m not doing anything about those figures. I’m not doing anything for women coming up behind me like my daughter, your daughter, my grandchildren-to-be or whatever.” So I thought “I’m just going to have to brace myself and try and figure out how to enjoy it.”
So I made some more short films and, still, was absolutely terrified. By the time I came to make Pin Cushion, I realised that actually the producer is key. The producer will help you bring on people and more collaborators so it’s just a more creative, enjoyable experience. That’s what we did. It took me, from when I first started writing, 20 years to make my first feature film and from making my first short film to making my feature, it was 10 years. I think persistence and determination is key and, also, patience.
When you came to direct Lady Margaret, what support were you given and what was your first day like as a director?
I was so terrified, I didn’t sleep for three nights before. I was like a frozen, petrified thing on set but I had to try and pretend that I knew what I was doing when I didn’t at all.
I read somewhere that a film crew is like a pack of dogs. If the leader shows wavering and that they can’t do it then the one underneath takes over and drives it. That was the most scary thing, pretending that I know what I’m doing and leading. Otherwise somebody else is going to take over it and then the film’s going to end up rubbish.
So I just faked it, really. I just faked that I knew what I was doing. It has been a tough journey but also a really rewarding one. I’ve just learnt loads and the more I learn, the more that I learn that I’ve got so much more to learn. I don’t think that you can ever learn it all so it’s always going to be exciting. That’s a drug I think.
How did you come to Pin Cushion?
I first wrote the treatment for it in 2008 and then put it to the side because I was making shorts and practicing. In 2011, I took it to Binger film lab in Amsterdam where you spend five months just writing, thinking and working out your characters and your story.
Then, when I came back, I applied for iFeatures. We got through to the first round (myself and Gavin Humphries, my producer). Then we got booted off it but the BFI asked us to come and make it with them for more money. We went through a development process with Creative England through their BFI network scheme with Celine Haddad and did that for probably two or three years.
Once we were happy with the script, we applied for BFI production funding. Luckily they loved it and said yes! We still had to go and pitch and do that sort of thing but it was quite straight forward. Then Gavin was introduced to Maggie Monteith who is from Dignity Film Finance and she put the rest of the money in.
Once you had the budget, was Gavin on board from when the treatment was written?
He came on board when I was applying for iFeatures. You needed a producer to apply for it. I met Gavin when I was on Stars of Tomorrow, funnily enough. I kept in touch with him and used to bump into him every now and again. I always noticed he was always at the social events, always networking, always increasing his contacts. He was very likeable and also very well-liked.
Hope Dickson Leach who is a friend of mine and a filmmaker living in Edinburgh suggested Gavin to produce it so I did and he just turned out to be a really good match for me. Really had my back. Really supportive, really good at story notes and just a great person. Sensitive and just nice.
The look of the film is amazing - the colouring, the costume and the setting. They look like very strong choices of costume designer, production designer, etc. Was that a collaborative effort? Did Gavin help bring in the right people to see your vision?
Yeah, I said to him that I want a cinematographer who is the right personality for me – either a woman or gay man. Somebody who I felt comfortable with and also who teenage girls would feel comfortable with and not feel conscious in front of. Someone who would be bold.
The same went for the production designer and everyone else really. I didn’t quite believe that it was ever going to get made so that gave me freedom with the script. You always hear that funding will fall out or whatever so I was thinking, “it still might not get made so I’m just going to say what I think and how I really want it to be and let’s aim for that.”
Also, as a woman, I didn’t know whether I would get to make a second feature because I think the drop-off point from making a first feature to making a second is just massive. It’s a lot harder for women to make a second feature so I thought “I might only have one chance, so I’m just going to throw myself at it and really go for it.”
How long was pre-production and how long was the shoot?
I’m not really sure how long pre-production was. It was probably around five weeks but really, because we already had the money, it was a lot longer. We had a lot longer to do an unofficial pre-production before official pre-production.
Then we shot for 26 days. It felt like a really long shoot to me because the most I’d ever been on set was five days making a short. It felt like a marathon!
What were the biggest challenges in shooting your first feature?
Energy, stamina, holding onto your vision and being true to that vision. You get a lot of different voices swaying you and a lot of doubts and problems thrown at you.
It’s key to listen to your belly, hold on to the original core of what you wanted while at the same time inviting other opinions and voices in. The key is to do what’s best for the film at every opportunity and let everyone enhance your vision but not allow it to morph into something that it isn’t because then I think it becomes woolly and loses itself a bit.
As a writer/director, how did you split between the two?
I didn’t really consciously think of it. I do remember, when I finished the script, thinking “now I’ve got to think as a director.” When I was actually filming it was kind of handy because I’d got the writer with me – me!
Any time I felt that something needed a bit of improvisation or if I heard one of the actors say something and it didn’t seem right, I didn’t have to go to the writer or think “we need to change this.” I knew that because I’d written it. I didn’t have to be precious about it and they could say it in their own words.
Also, because I knew the script so well, if the line producer came up to me and said “we’ve got five scenes that we need to shoot today and it looks like we can’t shoot two of them, which can you drop?” I obviously had an instinct that the story would still stand if we dropped a certain two. That was a handy shorthand to have and I’d always got the producer, Gavin, that I could go to just to check that I was right to drop those scenes.
I just kind of winged it I suppose.
Pin Cushion has been getting some fantastic reviews. Where are you now with the film?
It’s done 37 festivals already and I’ve been to around 30 of them. It opened Venice Critics’ Week which I think gave it a really great launch because it had that seal of approval and became an attractive proposition for festivals.
It’s just got such great responses from audiences which I think has kept it going. Now, we’ve released it and are doing the Reclaim the Frame: Birds Eye View Tour. I’m just hoping that UK audiences are going to respond as warmly as the festival audience have. I do feel nervous but all I can do is say yes to everything, turn up to everything that I’m invited to and everything else is out of my control.
As long as I’ve done my best, which I have, I can’t really have any regrets. I made this for myself and I do feel that I am like an average person. I’m not anyone special or someone obscure. I’m a regular person, so hopefully other regular people will respond to it.
I just felt that I owned up to who I am, how lonely life can be and was just honest. Hopefully other people going to the cinema will recognise themselves in that and feel a connection with the film. That’s all you can hope for. I’ve tried to connect by being honest and actually making myself quite vulnerable by saying “this is who I am, do you feel the same?”
What are you working on next?
At the moment, I am putting all my energies into Pin Cushion but when I’ve got the odd day, I am working on a couple of projects. One keeps changing titles but at the moment it’s called Squawk. It’s a horror/nightmare script about a woman who’s got post-natal depression.
Also, I did a film called Sis. That really kind of launched me and my voice. It’s a dark-comedy/drama about two little girls who hear that there’s a man in the area who is a paedophile. They ask what a paedophile is and are told that it’s a man who likes children so they want to go and find him and show him their handstands.
It’s a dark-comedy so I want to make something in that arena again - a dark children’s comedy but I want it to be a musical.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers/directors?
Don’t think that there’s anything that you can’t do. Write from your gut rather than from what you think other people will like. Listen to your belly. Hold on to your vision, glue yourself to your vision but also bring other people on who can enhance it.
Just don’t give up. It took me 20 years but it’s really worth it because of the reward and satisfaction. I feel that emotionally I’ve self-actualised and it’s just the best feeling. We’re all going to die so don’t worry about making a fool of yourself. Just go for it.
Embrace failure because they’re your biggest learning curve, failure and mistakes, and I’ve made so many. That’s where you get your biggest growth from. It’s fear that holds us back. I’m full of fear but every time when I go do something and I’m scared, I just think about that George Clooney quote in Three Kings: “You don’t get the confidence and then do the thing. You do the thing and then that gives you the confidence.” It’s so true.
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Pin Cushion is in select cinemas across the UK now. Please go to http://pincushionfilm.co.uk for more information and cinema listing details.