Lizzie Francke sits down with Deborah Haywood to chat about Pin Cushion, giving yourself the permission to direct and trusting your instincts.
Lizzie: So tell me a bit about the very beginnings of your creative career. You made Lady Margaret at E.M. Media, but what were you doing before? And tell us a little bit about how Lady Margaret came about as your first short.
Deborah: Okay. Well I haven't been to film school or anything like that. And I've not been traditional in my university, I've done it back to front. So I left school at 15 with no qualifications. Then I had my daughter at 17. Then when she got to, I don't know, five I think it was, something like that, I was really really ashamed of myself because I'd got... You know, I wasn't articulate, I wasn't educated, and I wanted to set an example for her. And I heard then that you can do an access course which is a year's course at college, and then be able to go on to university and become an English teacher. And I was like, "Oh my God, that sounds absolutely amazing, then I can be somebody proper."
Then on that access course, I did a module called "Creative Writing." And then realized that actually I really loved writing, and it was like a drug to me. And it kind of helped me as a person as well to articulate things that had happened to me, and that I was going through, and I became addicted to it. And then kind of forgot about becoming an English teacher, because then I wanted to be a poet or a novelist.
Lizzie: You'd been thinking about fiction, and then you started thinking about drama. What made you think, "I want to tell these stories in a kind of acted out way" rather than internal way of the novel?
Deborah: I think because I wasn't so interested in the description, I was more interested in the story and the character and the dialogue. And I didn't want to write, you know, "She walked down this petal-filled road" and all that kind of thing. I just wanted to know what was going on.
I remember one moment when I saw Ladybird, Ladybird it was on the TV.
Lizzie: That's the Ken Loach film?
Deborah: Yeah. And I thought, "Oh my God, this is... I recognize this world." And then Trainspotting came out and I was like, "I know this world." And then also Shane Meadows and Paddy Considine coming from like the time where I grew up. And knowing that they went to Burton College as well. I was like, "Well if they can do it, I can do it."
Lizzie: In fact, I can't remember whether I read this in another interview with you or whether you actually told me this, but you read somewhere an interview with Shane Meadows in the newspaper, and that's when you realized...kind of gave yourself the permission?
Deborah: Yeah, in the Burton Mail, because they kept being in the Burton Mail. And I was like, "What?" And then when I heard their film, and saw their film, I was like, "Oh my God, that's people that talk like me." And it was like, "God, so people like me can be," you know, "in this film world."
Lizzie: So that made you think film is something that you wanted to do as well as theater, or TV?
Deborah: Yeah and then I thought what I enjoy most is film and TV dramas, so it made sense to actually want to try and write and work in the thing that you enjoy the most. And I was like, "I'm gonna try."
Lizzie: So tell us a bit about the process of writing the short and applying to E.M. Media.
Deborah: Well actually I had misread it. So I'd seen an advert the year before, and I thought it was for scripts. So I wrote a script and then realized that actually, when I went to send it off that it was for films that they wanted, not actual scripts. So then I wrote a feature, and then I sent it in..
Lizzie: What was the feature?
Deborah: It was called Wastelands, it was kind of my story about my domestic violent relationship. And somebody...can you remember Anne Langley? I think it was like a new writer's thing. And she wrote me back and said something like, "We're not going to make this film, but it's the most interesting script that she's read in three years.” So that gave me encouragement. So I kept following them, and then when I saw an advert for an actual script intake I sent off Lady Margaret
Lizzie: Can you give a bit of context about the short?
Deborah: Yeah. I mean how that came about was that they wanted, I think it was a five or ten minute script. And I wanted to write. And I thought, because I was still very inexperienced about writing that all short films had to have a twist at the end of them. So I wrote Lady Margaret, for the twist at the end. Everyone used to say around our way, "If you go down Bretby lanes and get out your car and shout out 'Lady Margaret,' she appears." And I used to think I would never dare to do it because I used to think if I got out the car and shouted "Lady Margaret," they might drive off. So it kind of came from that.
And so I wrote this short, and I was really pleased with myself. Because at the end, like they made her get out and strip, and she was really upset and then they drove off laughing. But then in the back, she could see that Lady Margaret was in the back being driven off. So that was my twist. And then Paul Welsh selected it, he was the exec on the shorts.
Lizzie: Paul Welsh at the time was looking after shorts in development in E.M. Media, he selected the script?
Deborah: Yes, for development. And then I had my first development meeting, and he said, "This script's really great apart from the last 15 lines." And I was like, "But I've written it for those 15 lines." And he said, "No. It's just all this character stuff that's great. And it's all about sex and teenagers and..." and so he made me take it out.
Lizzie: How did you feel about that? Your first development?
Deborah: I felt gutted, actually. Because I was like, "But that was the best bit." But he said you couldn't have a film like that with a ghost as well. Which I kind of disagree now, I think you probably can. But I don't think I had the skills to pull it off at that point, anyway. So I think it would have cheapened it.
But afterwards it's funny, because some people said to me, "Oh God." You know, "I thought the ghost was gonna turn up. Thank God she didn't." But then other people said, "It would have been so cool if she did turn up. So I don't know. It's like a divide thing, isn't it? And down to choice. But I'm pleased that she didn't, in the end because it forced me to look more at character rather than to rely on a kind of... Twist.
Lizzie: You missed the important point, which is that you'd written the script, you sent it in, you had your meeting with Paul, he said...
Deborah: And then at the end of it, Paul phoned me and he said, "Oh, we got the green light." And I was like, "What's a green light? I don't know what you're talking about.” And then he said, "Yeah, we're gonna make it." he said, "And you're going to direct it." And I was like, "What?" I don't know what a director does. And he was like, "Well, you write like a director." Which I still don't really know what that means. And he said, "So, you know, here's your opportunity to find out what a director does." And I was like, "Oh my God."
Lizzie: So you had a producer that you were matched up with and a crew and were going into a very supportive environment?
Deborah: Well I don't know... I mean it was as supportive as it could be, but in the end you still have to go and do it on your own. So yeah, I kind of got all this support around me, but then you're thrown into... And it was absolutely terrifying. Especially, I felt like everyone was looking at me, and I was the most inexperienced person there. Which I still am, you know, I think, probably when I did, Pin Cushion, I was probably the most inexperienced person on the set.
How I got around that is I think if you've written it then it's your vision as well. And nobody else can know your vision. The gaffer might have got 20 years experience and knows, you know, has been working year in and year out, but they still don't know what's inside your head, and it's your vision. So I think that can give you the confidence to ask for what you want.
Lizzie: So you made Lady Margaret, it does really well in the festival circuit, now you are a filmmaker.
Deborah: Well yeah, because I got selected for Stars of Tomorrow. I felt a bit shocked because I was like, "God, you know, I got selected for this," and also I didn't know whether I wanted to be a director because it was so scary. Because, you know, I had always wanted to be a writer.
But then, learning about the statistics for women, I thought if I've got this opportunity now to be a director and if I said, "Oh no, I want just…you know, I want to be a writer," then I'm not doing anything to change the numbers. And also I felt like you can't really make the decision after one short. I think I want to make some more. And there were things that I'd really enjoyed about it.
But I think it was just the overall fear of it that was stopping me wanting to do it again. So I had to overcome that, but I knew that I had encouragement, and that I must have done something right to get that encouragement. I remember Paul sent me an email from you that you'd emailed him and said that you'd seen it and said "Congratulations." And I was high for about three weeks. You know, just to have that validation, and from somebody who works in the industry, it's incredible to get it because I felt that you know... It's like mentally I was still that single parent at home.
Lizzie: For you, what was the image that inspired Pin Cushion? What was the sort of psychic space for you and what was the first thing that made you think "I want to explore these characters?"
Deborah: What it means to me, it's a girl who gets a reputation for taking more pricks than a pin cushion. And I had got a reputation in school even though I was 11 or 12. And I'd been really bullied.
And so I think I was still coping with a lot of trauma from that, and I think also one of the reasons I was so scared when I went to do Lady Margaret, was like, how could I lead when I'm so damaged from bullying? At school, you know, I'd never quite come to terms with it or overcome it or anything. So I think it was still very much in my mind. So I started writing about my own experience. And then it took a life on its own.
Lizzie: So with Pin Cushion, you were starting to write it 12 years ago.
Deborah: Yeah. I took it to Binger.
Lizzie: That's right. So talk a little bit about Binger, what’s it really been like going on that kind of lab experience?
Deborah: Well you go to Amsterdam for five months, and I had lots of master classes and people coming in giving talks. I've learned a lot, I mean I don't think you can go on one of those things and not learn. But I think I did go off it. I always wanted it to be very like story-focused, because I love story. But I think they were kind of like, "Oh you know, your film doesn't have to have a story." you know, "Concentrate on characters and all the..." And I was like, "Yeah, but characters are great, but I like stories," you know, a meaty story. Otherwise I'm not that excited. But it was great to explore character and be there and have that experience. And then I came back after that, and then iFeatures was advertised. It was Hope (Dickson-Leach) actually suggested, "Why don't you contact Gavin (Humphries)? He could be a good producer for you."
Lizzie: So you met on "Stars of Tomorrow," and you were developing Pin Cushion with Gavin...
Deborah: Yeah, and then we applied to iFeatures together and we got selected for it, but then we got kicked off at the first hurdle. Which I'm really, really glad about now, even though I was absolutely devastated about it at the time.
Lizzie: But you felt liberated. When it came to an end, that development?
Deborah: Well no. What I was liberated by was you, actually. Because I'd got this script and I’d been working all the way through Binger with that, and then all the way through iFeatures, pushing it in this direction. And you read it and you were like, "Look, if this is the direction you want to go, then of course we'll support you. But I think... I wonder if you've gone off track with it. Because it's very different to the document that I read originally." so you said, "You just go away for six months and have a think about what you want to do."
So then I went away, and I went to San Francisco. Gavin was coming over to visit and he said, "Have you had a think? How do you feel?" And I said, "Do you know what? I have had a think, and I've thought that the original one that I wrote, I've always felt like I've betrayed that. And that's what my interest was really in that kind of arena.” But I'd always felt, deep down, I've done all this work in that other direction, that I couldn't admit to myself that actually I wanted to throw that away and go back to the original. And I felt kind of cheeky because it's like, "God, I've been given this opportunity to learn from these, like, clever people, and then I'm gonna just say 'Oh, thanks for that, but I'm going' you know, 'back to my old thing.'"
And so I'd said that to Gavin, and he said, "Well why don't you let me read it?" And then he read it and he was like, "This is so great. It feels so much more like you." You know, "Why didn't you show it before?" And I said, "Well, because I was too ashamed of it." But, you know, I should have thought. Because I remember that document I sent to you and you phoned me while I was in Edinburgh, I was at the festival with Lady Margaret and you were up there, and you were like, "I've just read Pin Cushion and I love it. I'd like to talk."
Lizzie: In that process of all the different ways that you developed, whether it's Binger, iFeatures, you were growing as a voice. Those couple of years, it was you defining your voice.
Deborah: And accepting that, you know, my voice is valid rather than trying to, you know, mold it into a shape that somebody else thinks is valid. And yeah, I feel lucky to have you and the support of the BFI to enable me to do that. And to actually actively encourage it, to be yourself. I'd like to explore new territory and new stuff. And I feel like I want to really grow and progress and go deeper and be braver and bolder and tell new stories.
Lizzie: So, Pin Cushion, it's played in Venice and you've gone to so many festivals since. You're having all these conversations with people - your audience. Do you think that connection with the audience, who are engaging with your work is helping you as a filmmaker engage with yourself as well?
Deborah: Yeah, and I think it's actually encouraging me. I've had so many really personal responses. And I think when I was writing Pin Cushion it was like, "God, I feel really lonely. This is how I feel about life, so I'll disguise it in these characters." And then if somebody else connects with them, it's like, I don't know, it's kind of like giving them a hug, because it's like, "I feel like this as well, and if you do as well then that's two of us," kind of thing. Because I think life is a struggle.
I think before I made Pin Cushion I wouldn't have admitted that I didn't feel like I should admit that I had been bullied. Also, you know, unassertiveness stuff. I was like, "How can I, if I feel really unassertive, how can I go and direct a film?" Because they'll know it's about me, so they'll know I'm unassertive and then they're gonna pick on me. You know, like that kind of thing. So all these kind of things, and actually it pays to be honest and admit who you are, because then other people recognize themselves in it. And then, you know, connect with you and you all feel like life's in a good place kind of thing.
Lizzie: Brilliant, to wrap it up then what would be the wisdom, with everything you've learned, if you could go back and talk to your young self, what is the bit of advice you'd be giving?
Deborah: Just go for it and delve inside yourself. Take advice and help from the outside, but the answers are always within you, and just have to be brave enough to like look inside yourself and get it out onto the paper and then onto the screen.
Pin Cushion will be released in select cinemas across the UK from Friday 13th July. Please go to http://pincushionfilm.co.uk/ for more information and cinema listing details.