Network@LFF Filmmaker Interviews: Jenny Monks

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Ahead of her film An Everyday Act playing at London Film Festival, producer Jenny Monks speaks with filmmaker and writer George Rogers

7 October 2020

Jenny Monks’ career as a producer has been integral to the British film industry for the best part of a decade. Her BAFTA and BIFA-nominated work spans across both narrative and documentary filmmaking, and has played across the world from SXSW and Sundance Festival to Cannes.

Her new short film An Everyday Act premieres at the BFI’s London Film Festival in 2020. Written and directed by Jenny’s fellow Liverpudlian Gavin Scott Whitfield, the film focuses on Eric, a 12-year-old boy who tries to change his family’s circumstances with one terrible act.

Ahead of the film playing in the Kids Will Be Kids short film programme at the festival, I spoke with Jenny, and couldn’t wait to hear all about this visually stunning and emotionally challenging film.   

First of all, how did you become attached to An Everyday Act, and what appealed to you about the project?

I was introduced to Gavin by Jess Loveland who works at BFI Network. I wasn’t looking to do any more shorts because I’m doing a lot more in the long-form space. When I met Gavin though, I got an understanding of the type of filmmaker he is; how unashamedly artistic he is. It was refreshing in a populist culture. I like filmmakers who stick to their guns in terms of the type of projects they want to make. I felt that his blending of what is effectively quite an arthouse style with a very hard-hitting subject matter was interesting. The fact that he wanted to tell a story about the repercussions of young people being recruited into gangs without focusing on the violence was really clever and I just really liked the script, so I was like, ‘Okay. I’ll do it.’

You mentioned the hard-hitting subject matter; there is obviously a political element to that. The film explores how austerity measures affect families in working-class communities in an overwhelming way. I was wondering to what extent this was the catalyst of An Everyday Act. 

100%. That was something that was at the heart of the story we wanted to tell. Gavin wanted to focus in on the very human and unexplored impact of those sort of policies. There’s a shot in the film that isn’t very complimentary of the Tories. We went back and forth on it a lot, because I wasn’t sure about a filmmaker putting their own political bias so distinctly into the film, but, in the end, sometimes you have to trust the filmmaker. It is absolutely an artistic response to a political situation, focusing on the real victims of austerity: young people up and down Britain.

An Everyday Act is visually very interesting; I know you shot on 16mm film. What was it like using celluloid to tell this story?

I would say working with film is a different discipline. You don’t get the opportunity to just go again and again; it’s about nailing the performance, the camera work and everything technically as well as creatively. As a producer, you have to be confident that the filmmaker you are working with has the discipline to make the most of the opportunities it presents. I thought it totally made sense creatively for us to shoot on film because it was about opposing a very arthouse style of filmmaking with a gritty subject matter. Originally, the film was actually shot in colour and then graded to black and white. The reason for doing that was to give us a broader dynamic range. If we had just shot on black and white, we wouldn’t have had that. We had a great calibre of crew who were attracted to and excited about the project because it was 16mm. It also meant we were able to offer the opportunity to a younger generation of Camera Assistants who had never worked on film to experience it. I really enjoyed that element of the process. I have to give credit to Intermission Film here too. We produced in association with Intermission and it was Sam Cryer at that company who read the script and enabled us to shoot on film. Had he not done that, we would have been raising money for a lot longer. It’s a real credit to Intermission Film’s ability to see a filmmaker’s vision and back it.

At the centre of the film are two stunning performances from young first-time actors: Liam Moogan as Eric and Libbi-Jean Keeley as his sister, Hayley. Talk us through the process of casting and working with such brilliant young performers.

We street cast in quite a deprived Liverpool community for about a month before we shot. It was really revealing, because what Gavin didn’t want to do was have a drama student or theatre kid who’d been on stage coming and portraying these characters. We engaged with youth clubs, spoke to local schools – anything we could to try and find a child who was as close to Eric’s situation as could be. Liam Moogan was amazing to find. He had a stillness in him in the audition that I couldn’t put my finger on; the minutiae of his reactions, whilst very raw because he is an untrained actor, were perfect for playing Eric.

It was very important to me that the children we cast were really well supported and looked after because they were going to be thrown on to a film set, which they’ve never been on before; they’re not actor kids, they’ll be doing hours they’re not used to doing outside of school, all with people they don’t know. So, we spent 3 weeks before the shoot taking Liam and Libby on fun days out together to try and get that brother-sister connection. Then the week before, we hired the family home where we shot the house scenes, and while it was dressed and lit we had Libby and Liam come and spend time in the house to character workshop. Gavin would run the scenes with them, but actually it was more about getting them familiar with the environment, making them feel comfortable in the home, making them feel like this was their home.

When we watched Libby back on the dailies at the end of that process, her performances are just so tragically beautiful and innocent. I think she’s a real find. This is actually the first thing she’s ever done, and she is now really keen to do more acting and find more opportunities, which is just lovely for us.  

How did you find the experience of working with BFI Network on this project?

So supportive! So wonderful. I couldn’t have done what I’ve done so far without BFI. One thing they are great at doing is finding filmmakers and producers who are outside of London who actually just want to get on and create good work. The networks, the support, all the stuff they’re doing online now that people can’t physically meet up, it’s just brilliant. Gavin was given a lot of creative freedom, which I think is so important for a filmmaker at the start of their career, for people to trust in them. I think that was what the whole process was about; trusting in him and his vision, along with me, and the BFI supporting him however he needed. Also, Gavin and I are continuing to work together, so they’ve enabled a new relationship to spark moving into feature territory. I’m very grateful to them.

Finally, An Everyday Act will be a part of the Kids Will Be Kids short film programme at this month’s London Film Festival. How do you feel about being a part of LFF this year?

London Film Festival is the most prominent film festival in the country and is supported by the BFI, who supported our project, so it feels like the perfect home for it. It’s great that LFF is going online too, because that means a lot of the communities that were involved in the making of our film will be able to go online and access it, whereas they wouldn’t be able to go to London. It’s brilliant, it feels like we’ve brought the film home.

An Everyday Act is available to view on BFI London Film Festival's digital viewing platform from 7-18 October.