So, I had been attempting to develop a feature, with a view to directing. But development was slow and torturous: three years plus. A long gestation, you might say.
Once I got pregnant, I had kind of accepted that I might never direct.
I knew plenty of male directors with young babies, but no female directors. It’s notorious how under-represented female directors are in the industry. Making your first feature is a labor of love, and I was resigned to the idea that two labors—filmmaking and babymaking—were incompatible. Something had to give.
After making Sightseers, I had naively assumed that the filmmaking path would be smoother for me. Haha, lesson learned: Never, ever assume this. During the making of that film, I felt like a huge penny had dropped for me: “Aha, I think I can do this!” I had this epiphany that filmmaking is more than just words on a page—it’s a physical process, intuitive, organic, about movement, pace and tone, more like painting. So, I said I wanted to direct my next screenplay. I think this probably added about three years to my development “sentence.”
But biology doesn’t wait, so I was faced with this moment of having to decide—a choice that male directors don’t have to make. Seriously, they don’t. I meet them all the time at festivals. “Oh, I’ve got a 6-month-old at home,” etc., etc. One theory holds that, despite the 50/50 gender split at film school, women drop out of the film industry when they have kids.
Conceiving the Story
This choice translated itself into a fear of, or perhaps even resentment about, being pregnant. A career of freedom in my choices, a certain lack of responsibility, the immaturity of the comedy mentality, the sometimes infantilized state of being an actor (“Can I escort you to the toilet and hold your tea?,” for example). The loss of this filled me with an impending doom. The average and completely normal fears of “Will I die? Will the baby die? What will happen to my body/my identity/my relationship/my job/my place in the world?” were magnified by the pressure of being an actress.
“Is she too fat? Too old? Too pregnant? Too invisible? I can’t actually see her any more, I’m assuming she’s busy. She’s had a kid or something…” Actress and producer friends told me to keep the pregnancy secret as to avoid the dreaded externally imposed retirement. After all, actresses in the 1960s would frequently disappear when they got married and had kids. As if acting was just an elaborate form of mating display or social debut. But I wanted to work! All I had worked for so hard, to disappear in a piss-stick? So I kept it schtum, kept mum about it.
I had done an acting gig with a director Jamie Adams for a film called Black Mountain Poets. It was improvised and shot over five days. I had thought Jamie was crazy and that a five-day feature was impossible. But we did it, and I thought, “What have I got to lose?” The film went to South by Southwest and Sundance and had favorable reviews. I found a skill set within me which I hadn’t quite tested to such an extent: “Oh yes, I can come up with stuff on short notice that works.”
Jamie messaged me with an offer. A company had released financing for a low-budget, short-shoot feature. Would I want to come up with something? I could write whatever I wanted; I had a blank slate. I was furious. That such a brilliant opportunity would come up now felt ironic. Where had they been?! I turned it down in a huff: “I’m pregnant, Jamie.”
I went away and thought about it. I was feeling quite uncomfortable. Pregnancy wasn’t sitting well with being a freelancer. It’s a precarious existence. In prenatal yoga, I felt like a black sheep: “Why does everyone talk like that? Have they been lobotomized? Midwives; oh God, they can be bossy.” First trimester: “I’m so tired, I’ve had to turn down work. I feel like I’m jet-lagged but without the glamorous holiday. How am I going to earn money? How will we live? What about when the baby’s here? Will I like it? Will I have to hang out with other moms that I don’t like? Will I work again?”
I began to have fantasies about what character I could play as a pregnant woman. It would have to be the opposite of what one gets offered as an actress of my age and description: Crying. Meek. Self-sacrificial. Life over. Uninteresting. No other qualities other than being a mother. Didn’t exist before she gave birth. Supporting other people’s narratives. Servile. Boring. You get the picture.
I had long loved Taxi Driver—what aspiring filmmaker doesn’t—but wondered why there were few female loner, maverick, outsider characters. I felt this was a hole. Why do we romanticize Travis Bickle? We inherently understand that he is a symbol. We identify with him because he signifies loneliness. We don’t see him as a condemnation of men or of taxi drivers. But as an audience, often it’s expected that we will judge a female character more harshly. Did she do the “right thing?” Is she “likable?” Is this a terrible representation of women? It seemed there was little exploration of a woman as an individual—not supporting the structured roles of wife/mother/girlfriend, but the loner on a journey of existential crisis, detached from society.
So, I pitched Prevenge. The company, Western Edge Pictures, loved it. But could we do it in two months? Script, pre-production, filming? Yes. They were unfazed. Meanwhile, director Jamie said he loved it, but that he felt it was my story to tell. (He directs rom-coms. A pregnant woman on a revenge spree? Not really his bag.) So I was going to direct it too. Hell’s teeth.
Going Into Labor: Production Starts
I was in the crazy, hormonally charged second trimester, where women traditionally paint their house, knit baby blankets, etc., but I was prolific. I couldn’t stop. I used the page-long beat sheet I had sketched out for the pitch, but I was using years of screenwriting experiments—script structure which is by now nailed into my brain. Still, I knew I’d have to break a few rules.
I’d written Prevenge thinking about continuity of the bump, and whether I would be ill or tired or whatever, so I designed a really short shoot: a series of two-handers between me and other actors, long scenes in single locations, minimal costume changes, varying styles of shooting in order to maximize results. I kept saying to people, “Don’t worry, I don’t think it will happen. I can’t imagine how we’ll get the insurance.” But it forged ahead. I wrote the script in about a week, so that we could start pre-production, booking locations and actors and choosing which city to film in. I bought a Baby’s First Steps book in a stationery shop to use as a work book and as Ruth’s kill list. I had to start building up some mood and texture, despite the time constraints—like painting a nursery in record time for an imminent arrival.
Before I knew it, we were shooting. The producers told me afterward that there had been bumps in the road, but I was kept in blissful ignorance. Pregnancy does give you this kind of protection, which worked well for directing. If I asked for something, people had to indulge me!
I pretty much forgot about my pregnancy… within the boundaries of safety. We used stunt doubles and camera tricks, and as the director, I was never going to force my lead into doing something dangerous. I felt this sense of elation that everything I had envisioned was working out. Years of experience—not just of screenwriting, but being on set, producing low-budget films, mucking in on various projects, doing my own makeup and set design, whatever—all came into play to make this seemingly impossible feat plausible. It takes 15 years to become an overnight success, and 15 years of gestation to mother a film…
My theory: Motherhood does not have to turn you into a Stepford zombie. I was the same person I’d always been, enjoying being on set, loving the challenges and lateral thinking, the camaraderie, the energy, feeding on the inspiration of brilliant collaborators. It felt the same. And it felt like a relief—that I was able to express my “creative voice.” (Bleugh. Sorry, that sounds like self-help.) It did feel like my creativity had been pent up, just like my increasingly growing baby. Now I was giving birth to it, I suppose, and the labor was surprisingly painless.
But then I had the baby. Neat structure, really: working on the film and the baby’s post-production at the same time. I had no idea how long post would take. Would I be a different person? Who would the baby be? Would she let me make a film? Would my guilt/exhaustion take over?
So, with a tiny newborn, I began tentatively to look at rushes, first cuts. I did this remotely, with my editor on skype, emailing him notes typed over a sleeping baby on my lap. Gradually I began to crawl into the edit for days, taking the baby with me. Actually, an edit is not the worst place for looking after a new born. There’s a hell of a lot of sitting around as a new mom. Dark room? Bonus.
Then as the film’s need for attention grew, as did the baby, I began to go into the sound mix, the music mix. We actually had to winch the baby in her car seat into the loft where sound designer extraordinaire Martin Pavey works. It was a hot day. It felt crazy. But it was happening. And the baby seemed pretty chill. (She still is, in fact. I feel a bit bad writing a film about how evil she is.)
My execs were amazing and didn’t pressure me. I had this incredibly intimate process of editing, where in a sense I got to know the film, in the same way as you do a baby. It was a process of coming to respect the material. Not forcing the film or scenes to be something they were not; trusting the original instinct. I have to say that the lack of people “poking their head in the edit door” with a zillion conflicting opinions was an unusual privilege. Whether this was born of a literal or metaphorical reverent sense of “don’t wake the baby,” I can’t say, but it was appreciated.
Urgency came from the film getting into both Venice and Toronto. Suddenly we were going to show the world our baby. We were all astonished—a film of such low budget and constraints! We were over the moon. Since then, I have toured the world with the film, and the baby, who has retained her chill composure, even if I haven’t. (Yeah, I’m the woman at the festival party with the pram wedged behind her. I can’t say this hasn’t raised eyebrows.)
People have generally been extraordinarily kind. “Don’t ask, don’t get” is my new mantra as a mother working in the film industry. Until some prejudices are challenged, we don’t know just how tolerant people actually are—which was kind of my ethos for my audience’s tolerance for the film and its lead and subject matter! My theory was to not underestimate the audience in their expectations of a film. That you can challenge them to watch someone different from themselves, making different choices than they would, in a constantly shifting genre which they may not have experienced before. And they can still enjoy it.
My journey from putting restraints upon myself, through pregnancy, to throwing caution to the wind, just jumping in, seeing what I was capable of, using my handicap as a strength, liberating my creativity… led me to trust my instincts more. A mother’s instinct, perhaps? MM
Prevenge opened in theaters in New York and Los Angeles and nationwide on Shudder March 24, 2017, courtesy of Kaleidoscope.