Interview by Chris Olson
Recently I had the pleasure of watching a beautifully made short film, called Lady in the Park, and was luck enough to interview its star (Peter Warnock) and director - Serena Chloe Gardner. This is my interview with Gardner, who talks period filmmaking, mental health issues, and the eternal issue of filming on location.
How would you describe your film, Lady in the Park?
Lady in the Park is the story of Alex Wilson, a cafe owner in the 1960s struggling to bring up his family. When his cafe begins to decline, his world starts to fall apart beyond his control and no matter what he attempts to do to 'right the boat' so to speak, it all still goes wrong regardless, which ultimately leads to his family's tragic demise.
Why did you want to tell this story, set during this time period?
Well for a few reasons. My films have a mental health awareness theme and this film was based on a true event which happened and I was always fascinated with news clippings where you read "Loving father shoots entire family and then himself" (not necessarily a spoiler everyone!) but then you'd read another excerpt from an interview with a neighbour which said "I never saw it coming, they we're always such a happy family" - so then the question arose - "How does this sort of thing happen to a seemingly happy normal everyday family then?". You don't have to be a serial killer or depraved to commit such a violent act. There are so many reasons and lots of situations which spiral events which are beyond our control and your mental well being plays such an important role in society today but is rarely talked about or discussed.
To emphasise the importance of this I chose to set the film in the 1960s when people discussed mental health issues like depression even less than today and you were very much, especially men, told to "man up" and to keep your feelings in. This lead to many people feeling isolated with their issues and felt like they had nowhere to turn.
So with the 1960s setting this made storytelling of this issue easier to highlight the way I wanted it to be shown. Not to make you feel sorry for what you may think is an awful person or act but for the situation that could happen to any one of us and to keep sharing, loving and keep unconditionally caring about one another and accepting our friends and loved ones which I feel we're losing in society today too.
The aesthetic of the film is brilliantly done. When you were approaching the different elements of the film (music, editing, visuals), was there any specific theme or idea that you wanted to tie them together with?
I worked with a brilliant composer for the music, Patrick E. Fagan who really understood the characters journeys and importantly that music carries emotion and this is a highly emotive film so I wanted the audience to experience the waves or the highs and lows as the film flowed. I was especially keen to separate the difference from making a 60's film to a film that happens to be set in the 60's. Meaning I didn't want all the music to be 60's themed...we have it with the radio in the cafe helping to set the 60's scene and if you listen closely even a news radio article on the arrival of The Beatles but it was important for me that these music themes were kept separate for storytelling purposes.
Aesthetically it was immensely important that the detail in front of the camera from sets to costume, props; the money in the till in the cafe was specifically 1960's so we spent a year making sure that all of it was. Every single thing you will see in the film is original 1960's and was super hard to find (especially that till!) but I did this because it makes my job as a director so much better when the actors really feel the world I am asking them to immerse themselves in.
I also had a really good cinematographer too, Jason Weidner, who was on hand to light and frame everything and make sure we were visually getting the period and the world to look just right on screen and keeping out any modern items that would suddenly jump out so we didn't have to increase the editor's time in post.
Some of the themes in the film are quite heavy. Did you feel any sense of pressure representing them on screen?
Our film was based on a true event that happened in Birmingham that I've known about since childhood so it was really important that I found the right actors that could represent them so closely. We spent six weeks in casting and had over 400 applicants for the two main parts but luckily we cast Peter Warnock and Jemma Lewis as the two main leads who were just phenomenal actors. We rehearsed over two weeks and they came along and did some extensive character workshops with us to the point that when we got on set they were those characters! I was hugely delighted with their performances and believe the connection they made with them in rehearsal really made them stand out on screen.
Often filmmakers tell us that they face issues when it comes to making their movies. Did you experience any difficulties making this short film?
Oh gosh yes! Mainly locations, setting something in the 1960's means that locations with period detail are hard to find and even harder to rent on a limited budget but we did manage it...but we also had a bit of a nightmare. We had one location where we had our film permit, booked six months in advance of the shoot, we're all ready to go but we turn up with a cast and crew of 30 people and no one knows anything?! Turns out the manager of the location (who happened to also not be there that day) had written it in the diary for the next month - despite confirming earlier that week to us that all was still fine! Luckily after frantically waving our permit around for 20 mins to the poor lady at the reception she kindly offered to stay late while we filmed (hurray!)...but we had to wait for the last tour group to go through...45 minutes later we could start! We got it done though but it was a bit of a nightmare!
Sounds it! Who, if any, would you say are your filmmaking and/or story telling influences?
Gosh I have so many influences I'm a huge James Cameron and Katherine Bigalow fan - their storytelling mesmerised me as a child...but as a grown up I also love the real world storytelling of Ken Loach and I also love the stylistics of Lynch and Winding-Refn and I love the genius of Edgar Wright....okay that's too many....I just love films!
You can never have too many. What do you have planned next?
I actually already have a new short film in the pipeline called Blackout. It's the story of a talented young carer called Grace Ryan who is growing up on a council estate in London and looking after her sick mum. She wants to be just like her friends and is a a brilliant artist but can't escape the abusive cycle that she's living in.
I've always wanted to highlight the plight of young carers in our society because they do this bloody amazing job of looking after an ill parent or sibling and often have huge adult responsibilities way beyond their years but their voices often go unheard in favour of the ill parent/sibling. So this film is for them! To let them know how brilliant they are, that they can still be anything they want to be later in life and this journey will just make them stronger!
What would you say if you were a dolphin?
I would say "Flabber Dabber-ree Doo!!! Flubba-Dub!" because I always imagine a dolphin's favourite TV show is Scooby-Doo and they all watch it on a Sunday underwater with their friends :)