Raising Films's Hope Dickson Leach explains how filmmaking parents can support each other
Hope Dickson Leach is a BAFTA Scotland winning filmmaker, winner of the BFI London Film Festival and IWC's Filmmaker Bursary Award. She is also a mother of two and the founder of Raising Films, an incredible campaign and community for parents and carers in the UK film and television industries. Here she tells Mandy News all about the wonderful institution she kickstarted and how she is encouraging filmmaker parents to pursue their dreams while raising a family.
Hope, please give us a little introduction to yourself and how you got involved with the industry.
I’m a writer/director. I thought I wanted to be a brain surgeon when I was young but what I really loved doing was painting and I was happiest in the art department so I used to spend all my time there. I joined the National Youth theatre when I was 17, in the design department, and built sets and all that kind of amazing stuff. As much as I loved theatre, I never loved theatre as much as I loved going to the cinema so I started thinking “Maybe I should go to the cinema, try and get in there.”
When I was at university, in Edinburgh, I was part of the student theatre company and again I was doing set design and stage management and never really felt at home there, the way I did in cinema. So, after I graduated, I started working at the Edinburgh Film Festival as an intern, organising a couple of films, lugging around boxes of video tapes as it was back then. I just loved it immediately. I thought “this is definitely the right place for me!”
The amazing thing that did it for me, as well as helping me understand a little bit more about the life cycles of film and how films get made, how they get shown, how they find audiences, was also that everybody working there was wanting to make films and I felt like I’d found my tribe!
Then I met some real filmmakers during the festival. Directors and producers etc and I thought “They are real! They don’t have some magic, they haven’t been hatched from eggs, they’re not this kind of magic species! This is something that we can all do!" That was just a real light-bulb moment for me so I was excited by that. By this point, I was working also for BAFTA Scotland and I was a runner on some commercials and I thought “You know, actually I’m going to go to film school!” So I applied to film school in New York, got on the waiting list, went over there and said “Please! Please can I come?” I got a place and that was the beginning of my film story really, straight to Columbia which was fantastic!
I went over there and, I think because I had been doing a little bit of work in the industry beforehand – I’d also been reading scripts for producers and worked in production a little bit – I knew what I really wanted to get out of this experience. It was a post-graduate degree, not undergraduate, and I knew that if I was going to be paying this much money and putting myself into this much debt then I really had to make this work for me.
So I was very focussed and very determined and I knew, I think, at that point that I didn’t want to be a producer and moved my interests over. So I focussed on the directing, screenwriting and acting classes which is what we had to do there at Columbia and just completely fell in love with it. When I arrived I said I’d give myself a year and at the end of the year, I can just leave. There’s nobody making me stay. But I just loved it so much. It was such a fantastic opportunity because we were making stuff all the time. We were shooting every weekend, we were editing, we were bringing it in, it was being critiqued and torn-apart, then we were acting in other peoples’ stuff. We were doing everything!
We also had this profound experience at the beginning because, when we arrived in New York, the term started and two weeks later it was 9/11. It was a really strange, intense experience for everybody. Some of them were New Yorkers already but some of us weren’t and we had travelled across the world to be there and I think we all started to question whether this was the right thing for us to be doing. It made us think “What are the more important things that the world needs right now?” and it helped us all think about why we wanted to make films. It made us really support each other and not be madly competitive.
Also to know that there will be different kinds of films and that there wasn’t one kind of film that was right. I might not want to make romantic comedies but my friend does and I love her work. I’m learning so much about the genre because of what she’s doing and so that’s going to help me as well. I know there are a lot of different ways to develop your careers and film school obviously isn’t for everybody but, for me, it was a perfect fit and I felt incredibly lucky to be among so many talented, brilliant people as well as the teachers, who were brilliant, but your peers are really the thing that makes film school special.
Amazing. How did you go about everything after film school?
I graduated and made a bunch of shorts, some of which went out to festivals and my graduation short The Dawn Chorus went out to Sundance which was really cool. I was back in London by this point. I’d moved back and just had to figure out how to crack the UK film industry which took a long time. I then had to make a bunch more shorts in the UK because obviously they need to get to know the funders and the best way for them to get to know you is by working together. I made more shorts while I was developing some features and I kind of got stuck in that world for a while, writing and re-writing, writing and re-writing and then having babies and moving to Scotland and, with my personal life becoming important, it was a tough slog.
I think I did every talent development scheme there was going and I just started to think it was never going to happen for me. I had some really tough times developing some of the features with some people and I just felt "actually, it’s not working" and I had this moment of clarity at 3am while breastfeeding my first son. I thought “Well I don’t have to be in the film industry actually, it’s not required of me, I can do anything else! It’s not too late, clearly my life’s changing anyway, maybe it’s time to leave?” I felt so happy about this choice and I told my husband in the morning and he said “That’s great, that’s great! Maybe just find a way to do it that makes you happy?” “That’s not a bad idea!”
I knew I’d be heartbroken, I knew I’d found the thing that I loved, I was just frustrated at not being able to make films and anybody who’s in this position and knows that you’re doing all this work in order to be able to do your work, being in development is really, really awful!
One of the things that came out of that was understanding that finding the people I wanted to work with was just as important as the projects. I started to feel a bit more secure about saying “OK I’ve got to find people who fit with me, with the way that I see the world and the things that are so important to me.”
When I had my second son and I still hadn’t made my future I was just “OK this is getting desperate now!” because I couldn’t think of any female directors that had two children and I started to panic a bit. I literally can’t think of anyone with more than one and it just freaked me out. That’s when I reached out to (author of Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema) So Mayer and said “What happens in Sweden? Do they have child care in the budget? What’s going on with that?” We started investigating and trying to find out about the other models on offer. I was feeling like this was something I was supposed to be ashamed of, the fact that I was a mother. I just felt really alone.
I kind of spun it on its head a bit and called a town hall meeting and said “anybody else who’s going through this and think that maybe this is one of the reasons that there aren’t many women in the film industry, please will you come along?” Two people turned up! Which was amazing and they are now the founders of Raising Films. We all just went “You know what? Actually, this is something that no one talks about!” It’s like we’re all sort of embarrassed or feel like we’re ashamed that we’ve made this terrible choice to have a family and therefore that means we get pushed out of the film industry. We thought “No! No more! No more of this!”
It became increasingly clear to me that, not only do we want womens’ stories, we want stories of people who have lived normal lives, lives the audiences are going to relate to. It felt like, if you’re actually a parent, your world experience is very different to people who aren’t and lots of people in the audiences are parents and carers.
Suddenly that helped us feel a little bit more like “Yeah, this is important actually.” It also made us realise that the children are equally important and it gave us a moral urgency to our quest and that’s what got us to where we are today. Three years later with Raising Films, I’ve made a feature and we’ve kind’ve got a fabulous community who are engaged.
We see our challenges shared by so many other people in the sector and we want these things to change, not just for us but for them. It’s this wonderful rallying community to argue for more humane film industries so that we can be more inclusive to different and exciting voices that are out there.
So how did it go from being an idea, a discussion, a town hall meeting to what it is now with Raising Films? How did you formalise that?
It was really hard because I was in Scotland and lots of them were in London. I think Line was still teaching in Bournemouth at that point but basically down South. It was a social media gather to start with, a Twitter tag, a Facebook group, all that kind of stuff and just finding people out there, finding any data or things out there.
We got in touch with Dr Natalie Wreyford at Calling the Shots in Southampton who had brilliant research into this and we just started to look at it from lots of different angles. I think because I was then going through iFeatures, towards making The Levelling, suddenly this was a conversation with financiers and schemes. iFeatures was amazing because right from the start they said “Yup, we will pay for child care for you coming to the residential” and all that kind of stuff. There was a breastfeeding mum on one of the earlier residentials and iFeatures paid for her mother, the granny, to come and have a hotel room as well.
Suddenly, just by even raising this subject, people were giving permission and it just felt like it was a conversation that needed to happen. So we built the website as well. That was crucial. One of the things that seemed important was going back to my early instinct around the time I felt "I don’t know anyone who’s done this - help!" So we wanted to find the stories of people who had done it and celebrate those but also see what frustrations they came up against and what made it easier for them and what were some of the solutions they found that we could share and people could get better educated in.
There’s amazing work being done out there by some production companies, some producers and some financiers but not by all of them, obviously. What we wanted to do was provide a platform to show this and to not only provide a space for people to connect with each other, try and solve problems and rant if they needed to, but also to go “look, this is how they did it on this film, you could do this!”
I think just hearing from people like Susanne Bier, who was one of our first interviewees, saying that she couldn’t have made the films she made if she hadn’t been a parent, I think that was such a crucial thing. It was saying “look, these are important experiences as an artist to have”, but systemically there are so many boundaries in place that it’s like you need to look at how we can change the basic model of filmmaking and make it more inclusive to parents and carers.
So we got our website and a couple of years ago we had our first crowdfunder. Then we hired Laura part-time to just manage the organisation because we realised that we wanted to do so much and, with Laura on board, we were able to apply for funding from people like Creative Skillset and Creative England and BFI to run programmes that could offer development and professional and personal development. That was our first project in Creative Scotland! They came on board and funded our first survey because we knew how important data was – we suddenly had this survey and we could say 79% of people feel that their careers have been negatively impacted by becoming a parent or carer.
We are engaged on a national level. There is still so much more we can do as an industry to support these people and to help them get back to work or develop their careers while they’ve got young children or whatever it is. Sorry I’m just ranting….!
No, it's really insightful and great to know – for us and for people who feel like this!
It just meant that we were finding these communities of people, we were offering training days which were led by a life coach which were really specialised. As I said, I’d been through every kind of developing talent programme in the UK and I thought "you need something different." Support needs to be personalised, looking at you as the film maker and what you need. Whether you need confidence, whether you need to talk to a child psychologist for reassurance that if you go away and shoot your kid is not going to be damaged forever, or whether you want to talk to an accountant. Do you actually want to change your role in the industry and move over into a different area and how can we help you with that?
And this is for people throughout the industry as well. People who work in film festivals also need help and there are so many different areas where this is problematic. We're just trying to have a really inclusive approach throughout the industry so that we can get more diverse workers and people in every role in the industry. The more film critics we have that have got different backgrounds, the better, because they’re the people who decide what films will get into cinemas in some ways. So it’s the whole culture of filmmaking that needs to be addressed and that’s why we really include everybody in these sessions.
We are at a really exciting point. We have got lots of programmes that we run. We’ve got Making It Possible, we’ve got Closer, which is a 12-week programme which you can do from home. We’ve got a live tape and all online because a lot of parents don’t live in London for a start and don’t have time to do these things so they can do it in the evenings. With the residential element as well, we invite them for a weekend and that’s been a really brilliant programme.
One of the things that feels like a massive accomplishment is making it part of the conversation and just saying “it’s OK to talk about this stuff” and we don’t want to hold it against people. I think this is one of the reasons why people don’t talk about it because they’re like “ah well, you’re not going to hire women if we start talking about child care” and we say “hang on, if we can make it alright" and we can make it so male producers understand this too! We want them to have quality time with their family or time for their own personal mental health, or whatever it is, and just say, this is a broader conversation than breastfeeding mums on set. This is about trying to make the industry a better place to work and call a halt to the craziness that we’ve got to and we think people who feel well-treated and respected will do better work and that seems basic to us. That’s where we want to bring everybody’s thinking in line with that!
What are the big challenges?
I think awareness is crucial and I think money is the crucial thing. Every single person’s job, and every production, is going to be slightly different and bespoke and that is how productions work anyway. Think about the needs of the story, what are the needs of the locations? What we’re saying is we want to add into that what the needs of your employees are – what do THEY need?
For example, I heard recently when I was in Berlin, from the producer of Toni Erdmann, that they were shooting in Belgrade. They went over there for four-five months and so the director, who was a parent, got a house, they put her up in a bigger house so that her kids could come over but also all the heads of departments were offered the same thing. That is so fantastic. If you’re going to bring people over to another country for that amount of time, for them to find that money in the budget, for the financiers not to balk and go “Who, hang on, that’s ridiculous, we can’t really relocate people’s families!”
Well why not? They’re the best people for the job, they’re all on board, this makes them work harder, do better. What if there were job-share arrangements? Art department is one department where I know this has worked very successfully in the past. I’m thinking of Harry Potter, they did a lot of job sharing in the art department. In post-production it’s something that totally can work well. That is something that’s really great for parents and carers because they can continue to work on feature-length projects.
There are different models and it’s really about making sure that, when you’re assembling a production or a work force for whatever part of the industry you’re in, you’ve got an open mind and the space to go “what do you actually need? How can we try and make that easier for you?” I think that is something that is going to make a difference. It’s not just about making people happy but making it actually possible for a lot of people because many aren't able to go away for six months without bringing their family with them. It means they just can’t take the job. And if you want to keep all these brilliant women in the industry, whom we’ve trained up and we’re now investing so much money in, training, selecting and promoting the work of young film makers, we don’t want to lose all that.
An industry is irresponsible to say “now you’ve got a family I’m afraid we’re not going to be able to accommodate you”. It only takes a little bit more and what it means is you’ve got fresher, more interesting voices, you’ve got voices who have a big spectrum of life experience and it‘s helpful for everybody to feel like they’re part of a workforce who’s valued and respected like that.
Can you explain to us how people can support Raising Films, about your crowd-funder, and also how people come to you to find out more about being supported?
Absolutely. If you go to our website Raisingfilms.com, you can join up there for free as a member and what that will do is put you through to a backstage area on the website where there are groups and a community engaged in conversation. You can find people in your area or in a similar situation that you can reach out to. There is a peer-to-peer networking space on the website but also, if you’re signed up, we will be letting you know about opportunities that we can offer.
One of the brilliant things that we do is the CTBF family support fund where you can get up to £75 per day towards child care or care costs. If, for example, you want to train to go back to work or train on a new project or to get you back to work and you need the money for a deposit for a nursery, for example, that’s available.
In terms of the crowd funder, please just go and give us your money – we would love that! You will then be part of our family, we will stay in touch with you and, really excitingly, Friday (March 9), we have a party at BAFTA, 195 Piccadilly, London, UK which Alice Lowe is hosting. It's going to be really fun. It’s going to be dancing, music and a raffle, all kinds of great stuff, at BAFTA. Tickets are £25 a head and you can go to the website and find out about how to buy a ticket there. We really would love as many people to come as possible. It would be a great opportunity to meet us and other people from the organisation and find out more about Raising Films there as well.
Those are two ways you can get involved. Share your story. If you want to write in and ask us questions, we are on social media all the time and we love to hear from people. So do get in touch and we want everybody to come on in. It’s not an exclusive club, there’s something for everyone.Tags: