Kingdom of Us

Lucy Cohen and Julia Nottingham discuss the intimacies, responsibilities and challenges of making feature documentary Kingdom of Us.

7 March 2018
By Mary Burke
Mary Burke is a Senior Production and Development Executive at the BFI Film Fund. Mary previously worked at Warp Films, where she was Executive Producer and board member.
 
The first documentary feature from filmmaker Lucy Cohen follows a mother and her seven children as they experience the grief of their father's suicide. The BFI's Mary Burke sat down with Lucy and producer Julia to talk in detail about the process of getting the film made, and working with the family.
 
Mary: Lucy, you were making documentaries for broadcasters for a long time. How did you know you wanted to make the leap across into making features? 
 
Lucy: It wasn't an active decision to make a feature film. After meeting the family, I approached broadcasters, but there wasn’t much interest. In hindsight it may have been difficult to make in a traditional broadcast sense, where there needs to be more certainty of the story and the angle before you have the commission, especially for a director without a high profile. I knew there were so many different elements and layers to explore and although I didn't know the questions I was asking yet - let alone what the answers - it felt like such a special family and situation to try to understand. After filming for a while and then meeting with Julia Nottingham, the potential for a feature really came about. She was really encouraging in saying. "No, this is a feature. You can make this bigger. Have ambition and see what it could be.” 
 
Mary: Julia, how did you know at idea stage that it had the potential to work in a theatrical space? 
 
Julia: I remember watching the teaser that Lucy had created and I got a real tingle. The story was one in a million. I wouldn't say, hand on heart, I thought it would be a theatrical feature, I just knew I wanted to work with Lucy and this story. 
 
Mary: There's always a journey to a feature doc because there’s no script. How did you guys find each other?
 
Julia: We met on The Possibilities Are Endless, which was the last film I did. But really, we met face to face at Sheffield Doc/Fest’s MeetMarket. 
 
Mary: And you did a short? What were your intentions with that?
 
Lucy: After Julia and Pulse Films came on board we got a small amount of money from BFI NETWORK via Creative England’s Emerging Talent Fund to do a more extensive taster. However, these things really do take time and there was a gap in the edit where I made a short film for the BFI Luminous gala in 2015. The theme was love and film and ‘Life in Film’ is about film and memory through the eyes of an old lady looking back. We used archive and interview and there are some ideas and elements that have an echo in Kingdom of Us. Most importantly it was good to work on something with the same team – Michael Aaglund, the editor, Charlie Goodger, the DoP and of course Julia – because it helped our relationships to created something else together. 
 
Mary: At what point did you come in to see us at the BFI?
 
Lucy: Julia always said that we should wait until we knew that what we were pitching was really good and we were sure of the vision. I was more impatient, but Julia said we had to wait for the right moment when we knew we were really proud of what we had. 
 
Julia: I felt it was really important not to jump the gun because that first impression is really integral. I'd learnt the hard way with a few previous projects about what not to do in terms of applying for funding and getting the pitch ready. So when we applied we felt really confident about what we wanted from BFI and what we needed in the terms of the creative and financial support. There was an end in sight and we knew how we wanted the rest of the film to go. 
 
Lucy: Things take time, it was over two years since the project began that we had the funding to really get going. Unfortunately I don't have a background in commercials or short-form stuff - and an observational TV project can take months and months. This meant that whilst I was working on Kingdom of Us there wasn’t the option to go and do other work now and then. Even though it felt difficult at the time – not knowing if we would get funded - I wouldn’t have changed anything. The film really needed the time it took, not just for change to happen, but to really understand what it could be. 
 
Mary: Particularly with this film because the passage of time is so key to the story. How many years was it until you stopped filming and were you looking for storylines?
 
Lucy: I was filming for three years and while I was looking for storylines, it’s a film about absence too - I was filming the impact of something not being there, as opposed to all the things that are. Once we stopped filming, I didn’t go back and do any pickups, it just didn't feel right and we dealt with what we had. I knew that the film needed to have a satisfying ending for the audience, but it was crucial not to suggest that there is an ending to the story, because there was no ending for the family. The day I stopped filming, I knew that that the last scene I shot would be the last scene in the film. Two of the sisters were playing on their old climbing frame and it felt like everything had changed, but nothing had and it just felt like it meant something. 
 
a girl looking out a window
 
Mary: What I think is so remarkable about this film is the intimacy within it. How has it affected you to be that intimate with your subjects? 
 
Lucy: With the passage of time you get to know people and you become friends, and being alone with the camera and no sound people, as much as it was the nightmare in the mix, it does create more intimacy. 
 
There's no master interviews, there was nothing formal about it, I’d just hang out there. It made me laugh at the premiere when Nikita said, "There were times when Lucy wanted to film, and I wasn't really in the mood. If I'd known it was gonna be on Netflix, I really would have." Nobody knew that it would become something, so there's no expectation, no pressure, and hopefully, no performance there. There was absolute code with the family that I stopped filming whenever they wanted me to, but they never did want that. And if there's anything they don't want to be in it, they tell me. I've always done things in that way and there was hardly anything they wanted to change. When you're filming something so personal, so private, ultimately they're the ones that live with the film. I knew Pippa's arc wouldn't be shown unless there was some hope at the end of it, and she found some hope.
 
It takes its toll on you as a filmmaker. I have Julia to talk to, but sometimes I’d just leave, pull over in a lay-by and cry. It's important that I'm empathising, but I'm not grieving with them - it's not my place to. I try to be a very neutral, calm presence. But everything goes in, and it has to come out somewhere. 
 
Julia: It's really important for everyone to understand the responsibility of making films, fictional and doc. That's why being sure of the story is so important, because if you're sitting in a lay-by crying, you know why you're there even though you're going through those emotions. 
 
Lucy: Clio Barnard said in a book about responsibility in filmmaking, something along the lines of, “the responsibility of representing real lives and real people is huge. If you don't think you have the stamina for sleepless nights worrying about the ethics of representing real lives and real people, then make fiction. If you don't think you'll have sleepless nights, then you shouldn't be making documentaries.” I found that really heartening in a way, that it's okay to have sleepless nights. 
 
Mary: Can you talk about how you make a small British film with public funding backing you, to selling to the biggest platform in the world? 
 
Julia: Its nuts, but it was straightforward. The film was announced once we got the BFI funding, so the U.K. knew about it and we were contacted by sales agents, festivals, etc. We decided to work with a sales agent called Dogwoof who specialise in the documentary world, and we all met with Netflix and they loved the film. We realised that they had the right intention and they saw the film for what it was. They understood the sensitivities with the family. So from seeming to be this massive organisation, they were so personable and dedicated, and they put so many resources into it. If you are ever in this position, you must always do your due diligence and make sure that the story that you are making is the story they want to buy.
 
Lucy: I thought they wouldn’t be interested, that it wasn’t a Netflix film - it's quiet and domestic, so I was surprised by that. I remember they gave us three hours to talk through their initial reaction to the film, and Julia came out and said, "Oh my God. I feel like I need to watch the film again. I'm sure she's seen it more times than I have." There are so many characters in the film, and every time they talked about one in that three-hour meeting, they got everyone's name right. They were like the documentary Sherlock Holmes, seeing things that I'd never seen before.  
 
Mary: It feels exciting to have somebody working at that level, letting filmmakers make the films that they want to make. This sounds like a really brilliant ad for Netflix. One of the criticisms sometimes is that these platforms don't really think about festivals and theatrical exhibition. How did that work for you?
 
Julia: We didn't get into certain festivals, which we were really disappointed by. But it was the best for the family and for everyone - premiering at the BFI London Film Festival was really brilliant. When we met with Netflix originally we said having a festival launch was important to us, so it was about stating our goals and making sure the conversation was open about where we were applying to.
 
children playing in their garden with a rainbow
 
Mary: You were nominated for the Best British Debut BAFTA, one of only two female directors this year. What has been the highlight for you in all of this?
 
Lucy: Being at the BIFAs, where we were up for Best Documentary, and sat at the table with Pippa next to me and the family all around. They were there in that moment together, so relaxed and feeling really proud. We’d come on this journey and it felt amazing and special being there with them. 
 
Julia: You said something really special to the family. That it’s a 90 minute film, but they've got their whole life behind them and ahead of them. 
 
Lucy: It's just a fragment of their lives, it's not a sum of all their parts. They’re all huge oceans and this is a tiny drop, and it doesn't define all of who they are. 
 
Mary: Finally, what are your top tips for new filmmakers?
 
Julia: It is really important with your debut that you don’t just work with first-timers, you should try and surround yourself with some experience. One can never have that first film again and it’s such an exciting time because there's so much hunger and ambition. Don't think nothing's on your side because you've got that on your side. And that's a huge thing.
 
Lucy: I think to know what the right story is, when there's an absolute, physical, tangible magnetism between your subject and you that you can't pull away from. You're not just interested in something, it's mutual, moving, and it's tugging at you all the time. And I hope to have that with every film.