On my wall is a mosaic of candy coloured post-it notes with scribbled words I struggle to make sense of: landing page, festivals, social media, trailer. It’s an exercise devised by my husband whose day job as a Digital Project Manager befits his supreme organisational skills. ‘These are your inputs,’ he tells me, pointing at the wall, ‘and these are your outcomes.’ Maybe, but we both know the challenge of making “Voyageuse” visible to audiences when most UK films never see the inside of a cinema.
According to film industry wisdom a successful PR campaign rests on the ‘story,’ meaning not the plot of the film but the story I choose to tell about the making of the film and, by extension, myself. This was underlined by a recent email from my lawyer, a partner in one of London’s foremost entertainment law firms. In it he describes “Voyageuse” as a ‘masterpiece’ adding, ‘but will May shy from the attention?’ Sitting in my kitchen in Glasgow, I could not feel more removed from the business of film if I tried.
In over two years of writing this blog I’ve often commented on the Scottish film industry. Recently I wrote a piece for the website, Bella Caledonia. Prompted by Bella’s editor, Mike Small, initially I wasn’t enthusiastic when he proposed I write about the Scottish Studio – or rather the lack of one. My own interest was indigenous cinema – not TV, not Hollywood, not adverts – but native narrative features and the difficulties faced by the writers, producers and directors who can’t scrape a living without a day job, a solvent partner or an inheritance.
The response to my piece, published – ironically – on April 1, was mostly positive. The only brickbats came from the Scottish freelance sector who in their self-interest and short-termism fail to contemplate a 5, 10 or 20 year strategy for film and whose hopes of future employment are pinned on the speculative building of a studio to host incoming films and TV. Some misconstrued my criticism of ‘leadership’ as ad hominem attacks while choosing to ignore the systemic failure of successive CEOs and Chiefs of publicly-funded agencies. Under a pseudonym one commenter presumed that as an indie filmmaker (who isn’t in the UK?) I would condemn us all to making marginal movies. I wouldn’t. I’d rather be in Hollywood or mainland Europe.
Does it matter? When I started work on this film in 2014 I didn’t give much thought to outcomes, only how I could tell a story – Erica’s story – because I was moved by her diaries, a term I use to dignify a pile of random A4 sheets torn from notebooks and written on both sides by her small cramped hand in blue biro. For years I’ve wondered – how could I know someone for eleven years but not the extent of their anguish? Why did I choose to keep some of Erica’s belongings, only adding to the baggage of my own life? Why did I commit years to the task of making a film about her? And now, having made a film of 106 minutes duration, do I care if anyone ever sees it?
In search of answers, from the raw materials at my disposal I now realise that in the quietest of ways I have made a horror film. Erica’s psyche, painstakingly reconstructed in “Voyageuse,” is at once very familiar yet deeply disturbing. Only now I understand how dissociation prevented her from verbally confiding her chronic depression and how only on paper could she express her pain. On our first meeting in 1993, I noted the bottles on her bathroom shelf: Lithium, Diazepam (originally marketed as Valium) and Amitriptyline, drugs prescribed to her for over 20 years. Erring on discretion, I never once discussed this with her.
On Erica’s death in 2004, I was appalled to find she had continued with her psychotropic regimen. As I cleared the shelf and returned the drugs to the local pharmacy, I cursed the doctors who for 31 years had kept her medicated with little apparent supervision. In a drawer I also discovered a pile of invoices for private psychotherapy sessions, gathered over many years and totalling a five-figure sum. Clearly Erica had attempted to overcome her depression but in the end was too overwhelmed, if the pitiable state of her house was anything to go by. How many thousands of Ericas, I wonder, sit alone in their homes each day with little or no human contact and who long for – as she wrote – “a death, gently administered” but who cannot summon the courage to commit suicide?
In film, as with all else, one thing’s for sure: in this life you don’t get long. This is no throwaway aphorism. A few weeks ago I attended my uncle’s funeral. He was my late father’s youngest brother and I was very fond of him. His death was unexpected and abrupt – he died at home, alone, propped in his favourite chair. No one knew how long he had been there.
My cousins invited me to his home to discuss the arrangements. Over tea and cake we shared stories and passed round photos. A snapshot taken in the early 1960s shows my uncle and my late mother standing by the closemouth of a typical Glasgow tenement. Both are immaculately dressed. They don’t look at the camera but cling to each other, laughing and carefree, looking incredibly young and full of joy. Compared to Erica’s vast collection, (mainly shot by her mother, Vera) it struck me that so few photographs of my own family survive.
A few years ago, over lunch, my uncle asked if I would promise to speak at his funeral. ‘Of course,’ I replied. A strange request, perhaps prompted by the number of deaths in our family in recent years, including the untimely passing of his wife – my aunt – due to a hospital-acquired infection. ‘You,’ I cajoled, ‘You’ve got ages to go.’
So on a cold and overcast Monday afternoon, at my uncle’s funeral service I delivered a short eulogy. My theme was kindness, for he was a kind and caring man who took me and my siblings to countless matinees at the local cinemas and who more than anyone influenced my chosen career. The room, packed with familiar faces grown older, included a sizeable and lesser known group, seated towards the rear.
As I recounted memories of his life, I felt torn because my cousins denied me the chance to state at this public gathering how my uncle was in fact gay and had finally come out only after my aunt’s premature death; for decades this had been an open secret within our extended family. Those seated in the back rows, I realised, were his gay friends and colleagues come to pay their respects and that I, the only family member willing to speak had somehow betrayed them. While pleased to keep my promise, I felt bereft, not only by the loss of a close relative but by my own collusion in denying my late uncle his own, true story. That I respected my cousins’ wish for propriety couldn’t salve my conscience.
Faced with the wall of candy-coloured post-its, what story, I wonder, can I tell that might – just might – help my film? As I write this, already I’m anticipating a second private screening in early May, once again at the BFI Stephen Street for the benefit of my star, Siân Phillips and a small group of invited guests. By then perhaps I’ll have a rough draft of the story of ‘me’ I’m willing to tell. Or at least a way to introduce my film.
The above photograph was taken in the late 1960s by Erica. It shows her husband, Gwynne reading a story to his oldest son, Owen, now my husband.