NETWORK@LFF Filmmaker Interviews: April Kelley and Sara Huxley

The founders of Mini Productions speak with Billie Collins ahead of their new film Rose playing in London Film Festival 2020

29 September 2020

I’m bad with blood. This means that I’m: a) rubbish in a crisis, and b) horror-avoidant. You can imagine my nerves, then, when sitting down to watch Rose: A Love Story, in which the eponymous Rose (Sophie Rundle) lives in the woods with husband Sam (Matt Stokoe, also the film’s writer) to curb her vampiric tendencies. Instead of passing out, however, I found myself desperately rooting for the couple as their world comes under threat, and oddly endeared to a particular leech-based ritual (no spoilers).

Rose – which is directed by Jennifer Sheridan –  is Mini Productions’ debut feature, and will be premiering at this year’s BFI London Film Festival. Mini Productions is helmed by best mates April Kelley and Sara Huxley. They’ve produced an incredible slate of shorts, ranging from war drama to romantic comedy, featuring the likes of Russell Tovey, Cherrelle Skeete and Peter Mullan. I caught up with April and Sara to discuss their upcoming feature debut – a tightly wound and moving film which is a testament to the strength of their partnership.

April, you started Mini Productions when training as an actor. Why did you make that leap into producing?

April: I was in my second year of drama school, and we were doing a module on what we could do when we weren’t acting that wasn’t going to be soul destroying. I proposed starting a production company. My tutor pulled me aside and said, “Do you want to come back and do something more realistic?” Two weeks later I registered the company. I was 21.

And Sara came in a few years later?

Sara: She stalked me.

A: I did. It was before Tinder was a thing. When I finished drama school the company was picking up, and I wanted to share it with someone. A mutual friend of ours said, “You should meet my friend Sara, you guys could organise the world. I’ll introduce you.” I don’t know why, but I went, “No – I’ll find her on Twitter!”

S: And I meet up with strangers from Twitter apparently.

A: We met up and spent the best part of 3 hours getting really excited and chatting over each other. I left that night, called my Dad and said, “You’ve lost your shares in the company.” I gave Sara half the company and never looked back.

You both act alongside producing, sometimes doing both roles on the same project. Can you tell me how you balance those roles in practice?

S: First of all, nothing is forced. I started in theatre, making work with friends from drama school, and you think why not just do it yourself because you’ve got no money to pay actors. Something I can’t stand is when people really force themselves into parts because they just want to act.

Instead we’ve tried to develop projects for ourselves that we really love, sometimes to test something out, like shooting with a certain DP, or a proof of concept for a feature, where it sits naturally for us to be in it, and it’s a collaborative process with an exciting writer or director. Then there are loads of projects we haven’t acted in, where we wanted to prove ourselves as producers, so people don’t just think: ‘they’re actors and they put themselves in everything.’  

 A: You only have to look at the top dogs in Hollywood, like your Bradley Coopers and Reece Witherspoons; they’re all producing now. I mean, we made it cool, but they’re all doing it. When we started out we did different genres for our shorts slate to hit the different festival circuits. Then there we some things where we thought: ‘this story, this representation, is not on our screens – how can we bring it to screens?’

That variation in your slate is brilliant. I watched Treacle on bisexual visibility day this week – it felt like a good way to celebrate! Can you tell me more about what you look for in projects?

 S: We’ve trimmed down a lot on projects now; we’re only taking on bigger ones, mostly features. I don’t mind what genre a project is, but I have to really love it. There aren’t many scripts where you’re like, ‘oh, this is amazing.’ So you work really hard as a producer. I always say it’s like giving birth. It’s exhausting, and it really hurts sometimes, but you come out the other end and you do it because you love it. So I have to read a script and get really, really excited by it. What about you?

 A: Kinda ditto.

 S: Yours is also marketing. She loves to see how she can sell it.

 A: We’ve worked with directors who want to put every single penny on screen, and that’s admirable. But if we don’t take some of that money – even when it’s a short – and use it for marketing, then no one’s gonna see it. I’m a big fan of creating the film and then finding the bigger story around it. We think our niche is mostly female driven films, but kind of balancing them between different genres. Rose has that gothic horror genre, but at its heart it’s a love story.

Let’s talk more about Rose. What made you feel ready to make that step up to a feature?

A: It was a mixture of things. We met the director Jen (Sheridan) back in 2015/16 at Aesthetica Short Film Festival. Rose had been packaged by the Development Partnership (the development and production arm of The Artists Partnership talent agency). Matt Stokoe had written it and was in it, and Jen was represented by them as a director. It was starting to come together, and Jen approached us. But we were very much thinking “We need to make a feature.” We had a couple of films on our slate already, but when you’re young and you haven’t done it before, to have another producer helping us package it was a godsend.

S: It was kudos to Jen and our relationships – which is what we’ve found with a lot of projects now. Some of the contacts we made years ago are now doing so well, and it’s a joy because you’re all friends. Martyna Knitter, who was the DoP on Rose was also the DoP on one of our shorts, Annie Waits. We introduced her to Jen, and they got on like a house on fire. And we were locked down for a month in Wales in deep snow, so thank God we all loved each other.

A: The accommodation was so thin on the ground that Sara and I had to share a bed for a month.

S: The room had no door, and was also the production office. People would just come in and out to use the Wi-Fi and watch TV. That’s the height of producing. Everyone thinks it’s so glamorous – it really isn’t. But it’s a lot of fun.

The hard work paid off! One of the things I love about Rose is that when you say ‘vampire’ it comes with a lot of cultural baggage, but the word isn’t used in the film, and it feels like a fresh interpretation of the genre.

A: Ooh ‘cultural baggage!’ I’m using that!

Oh yeah, can’t move for all this cultural baggage lying around!

It’s a film partly about isolation and the intensity of relationships in close quarters. It almost feels apt that it’s premiering during lockdown, at a very different LFF. How does it feel to have your film premiering at the festival, and in such strange circumstances?

S: Billie… Are you asking if we predicted coronavirus?

Did you?!

S: Well, in some ways…! It’s a funny time we’re in. We obviously had no idea what was going to happen, and we were worried about whether people would want to watch a film about isolation, where one of the leads sometimes wears a mask. But it’s so beautifully acted that it holds its own. It’s very exciting to be part of LFF, it’s all we’ve ever wanted!

A: It’s a dream come true. I’ve worked for the festival for 4 years in social media and producing on the red carpet. So I’ve been immersed in it for years and seen how it comes together, and I used to think: “I want a film here one day.”

S: We’ve said it so many times! In the UK it feels like the most prestigious festival. We actually squealed and ran into each other’s arms when we found out.

A: What’s also amazing is that they’ve slashed this programme pretty much in half; the fact that we’ve managed to make this small programme is even more special, and we’re even more thankful.

And it will be accessible to so many more people across the UK too! What have you learned from this first feature that you’ll take forward to the next one?

S: Always push for more money to get a production accountant. We couldn’t afford one, so I did all the accounting, and April was production manager, I line produced everything, and we were both producers on set. We’ve proven ourselves making it, and doing everything that a film involves, from the business side to marketing and distribution. It’s a lot of work, so it’s worth being brave enough to ask for a bit more money so that you don’t die of exhaustion. But also, you can step up like, ‘what’s the next thing we can make?’ It’s really worth pushing for money so that you can focus on producing and doing what you really want to do. What have you learned, April?

A: I’ve learned that we need more beds on set.

S: Not shooting in January too. In deep snow.

Valuable lessons!

S: Also developing those trusted relationships. We worked with Jen on one short film before, and also with Martyna and a few members of our art department, like the wonderful Jess Barrell, our production designer. Sometimes you do a short film and think, “What’s the point?” But having worked with those people before and then bringing them on to a feature is an utter joy because everyone’s so invested. Testing out those relationships in shorts is really valuable, because it means we understood how those people work. And when you’re tired and cold on your second week of shooting, it’s nice to have good people around you.

A: I would say that we needed more people in production. As soon as money gets tight, it’s production where you cut corners.

S: Yeah, you start thinking, “Well, I’ll just do that, and I can do that as well!”

A: There were 3 of us doing everything – now we’d push for at least a team of 4.

So you don’t get overstretched, and can take care of yourselves. April, you’re an ambassador for Bipolar UK. What practical measures can productions take to be supportive to members of their team who might have bipolar or similar mental health conditions?

A: Sara’s recently done a course about this!

S: A PACT seminar on mental health in the workplace, advocating a real awareness. It’s particularly important in this climate, when people who might never have had problems with their mental health are now incredibly anxious, or experiencing things that disrupt their work.

A: Sara is my absolute rock. She’s my carer. When you do something like Rose, it can be hard on the most stable of people, let alone when you’re living with bipolar. What we need to do is educate. It’s one thing me living with it; I’m pretty clued up, and if I’m on set I might have to adjust my medication slightly so I’m not groggy in the morning. But when I go and do jobs I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve got bipolar, because there’s still stigma. We need to see it represented on our screens for people to begin to understand it. Like in the third episode of Modern Love, Anne Hathaway’s character is living with bipolar, and that’s the first thing I’ve been able to show people. It’s about eradicating shame and creating a safe space for people to open up, for us to go, “What do you need?” It’s no different to anyone that might have a physical disability. I know personally that the later the shoot can begin, the better and more coherent I am.

And the more everyone is aware of each other’s needs, and the more time you have to prepare – it means everyone performs better, right? If everyone feels supported, they’re gonna do better work.

S: I do think production have a responsibility to educate themselves though. You get told everything in production in the end – if someone’s unwell, if they can’t work or are late. So if production has a mentality to care and gives that message out, it ripples into your crew. Even having an awareness on set – if someone’s being aggressive or impatient in the workplace, that’s enough to tip somebody over, so you need the strength to step in as production, and it makes a difference.

I couldn’t have got through Rose without April – I lost my uncle mid-way through shooting. That’s what I mean about having the right people around you, and if you don’t have your friends with you, then it’s the responsibility of producers to give out that message of care and support.

A: And keep talking about it, in whatever way you can. Our next 2 passion projects are heavily about mental health, in a very digestible and relatable way. So again, just get it up on our screens!