Filmmaker Q&A: May Miles Thomas on the making of Voyageuse
May Miles Thomas's Voyageuse premiered last month at the Glasgow Film Festival, tracing the life of Miles Thomas's mother-in-law, Erica, from her origins in Hungary, from where she fled with her family to England in 1938, through education at Cambridge and Oxford, her struggles in a career as a scientist, to marriage, children and her relationship with her own mother.
Without funding and in the absence of a crew, Miles Thomas skillfully pieces together Erica's life through a jigsaw of photographs, film and diaries left behind following her death in 2004, combined with beautifully-shot footage of the locations where Erica's life played out to illustrate a story little-known to even those closest to her.
Here, May tells us more about the making of Voyageuse, the creative freedom of creating on a micro-budget and why you never stop learning as a filmmaker.
What compelled you to tell Erica's story?
I believe that in order to make a film you have to be truly in love with the idea because you’ll live with it for a long time. Initially I wrote about Erica, not with a film in mind but to process my grief after she died in 2004, only a year after my mother’s death. I wanted to understand who Erica was because I knew so little about her. For years she suffered from depression but never spoke about it. Reading her diaries, letters and other papers revealed the trajectory of an entire life, an inner life – a gift for any writer. In a way it was counterintuitive to contemplate a film about an unknown woman with few redeeming characteristics but soon I realised here was a chance to reveal a greater truth about what it means when the past outweighs the future. I’m also convinced there are thousands of Ericas out there – older women who are barely visible in society but whose stories are worth telling.
What was in the trove of documents left behind? How long did it take you and your husband to go through and - in particular - how long did it take you to make sense of it all?
When she died Erica left behind an unbelievable amount of ‘stuff’. She lived in a large house in Edinburgh and managed to fill it with three houses’ worth of furniture and other possessions. While she was alive I offered to help declutter but she always resisted. By the end of her life Erica was reduced to living in a small corner of one room, surrounded by piles of boxes, broken old furniture and useless appliances. Initially me and my husband decided to move from Glasgow to clear the house. After three months we managed to clear most of her possessions but Erica’s most personal objects: family films, photographs and documents took me about four years to collate and archive. Among these were a series of letters written to her parents where she describes falling in love for the first time and several spiteful letters written to people she bore a grudge against but which, as she wrote, were never sent. The most painful were her later diaries, written on scraps of paper that revealed the extent of her depression and loneliness. At the time I remember saying to my husband how I wanted to make a film to give Erica’s story a better ending.
Talk us through the timeline of the film's production - there was 14 years between Erica's death and the film's premiere - what spurred you to take the decision to make the film and what was the process?
Erica died in 2004 but the idea of a film didn’t occur to me until 2005-6. At first I wrote a treatment based loosely on the idea of an older woman and her relationship with a lodger, drawing on Erica’s experience since she often took in students. The resulting screenplay was conceived of as a conventional drama but my efforts to attract development funding failed so it went on the back burner. By 2007 I was working on a new project, The Devil’s Plantation that started out as an interactive website but which eventually became a feature-length film. In 2010 the project won a BAFTA New Talent Award in the Best Interactive category and at the time I was approached by a funder about future projects but I decided I didn’t want to go to development hell so I declined.
While making the film version of The Devil’s Plantation I discovered an approach to storytelling that was achievable on a micro budget so I scrapped my previous efforts and designed the Erica project from scratch. Starting with her possessions and a massive archive of film and photographs, I researched Erica’s life: her childhood, education, career and family. Working on and off, the script took several years. In partnership with the CCA in Glasgow, in 2014 I submitted the project to Creative Scotland under their Quality Arts Production fund (I’m ineligible for the Screen Fund) but it was rejected. Undaunted, I realised that the only way to make Voyageuse was to use only what was within my gift. Over the years I’ve acquired a unique set of skills both creatively and technically which made the decision easier.
You composed the film single-handedly. What freedoms and challenges did that bring, and how did you overcome the trickier aspects?
I think there’s a trade-off between public funding and/or endorsement and creative autonomy. The trick for any filmmaker is to know what you’re prepared to forfeit while retaining the integrity of the original idea. Back in 2000 when I made my first feature, One Life Stand, I talked about how DIY digital movies offered filmmakers access to the process but only a determined few actually made any films. Usually in this scenario a group of likeminded collaborators agree to work to standard production norms, i.e. to a predetermined schedule of pre-production, shoot and post. But because of the nonlinear nature of Voyageuse it was impossible practically and financially to keep a crew on standby over the two and a half years it took to shoot the film.
With no budget I took my chances where I could. For instance, knowing that Erica’s house would be the spine of the film, I needed a location to replicate hers so I asked an elderly neighbour for permission to shoot in her home while she was abroad for three weeks. Here I photographed the entire house before dressing each room with Erica’s belongings. The house was the only location where I brought in a collaborator, the DP George Cameron Geddes. For budgetary reasons the other 100-plus locations I shot on my own, including in three other countries.
Nothing in Voyageuse followed the rules. I began the shoot before the final script was finished and started editing before I completed the shoot. This method of working allowed me to test ideas and to constantly revise the storytelling. Only when I cast Siân Phillips at the end of 2015 did I finally lock the screenplay and even then I still had roughly a third of the film to shoot. One of the most challenging aspects was deciding how best to illustrate the script’s more abstract and abstruse sequences, such as a sequence describing theories of brainwashing and mind control. Working in this way spurred me to think on my feet and react instantly when the solution presented itself. That and the fact I didn’t need to wait on anyone’s permission made the whole process liberating.
As well as the wealth of archive material, and the atmospheric re-imagining of Erica's house and beautiful, the story is told through simple shots of the current (sometimes modern) facades and interiors of the locations in Erica's letters. What led you to take this approach, as opposed to add sourced archive, either of the locations or to represent them?
The new material I shot came out of the research because I wanted to document all the places she lived, studied and worked exactly as I found them. To have sourced additional archive was out of the question due to the prohibitive cost of licensing. Another important reason for shooting on location was what the New Yorker film critic, Richard Brody refers to as ‘the experiential’ – how as an independent filmmaker the experience of making is just as rewarding and valuable as the finished film. That’s why I chose the title Voyageuse – a female traveller – because it’s as much about my journey making the film as it was about Erica’s journey through life.
You're a well established and respected filmmaker in Scotland, yet Voyaguese was self-funded. Was this choice, a necessity, or a mixture of both?
The decision to self-fund Voyageuse was purely pragmatic because as a passion project I wasn’t prepared to compromise the screenplay or my way of working. Which is moot of course because the project had been rejected by Creative Scotland although no reason was ever given or any feedback offered which wasn’t helpful. I find it disappointing that the prevailing orthodoxy for film production doesn’t allow for taking an alternative approach, both in the method of production and narrative construction. In retrospect I don’t believe Voyageuse would have been made better with more resource. In fact it was the most effective way to tell Erica’s story because I allowed myself the time and space to take risks. Had I relied on other sources of finance I would never have been allowed to work in this way.
Did you consider crowdfunding any parts of it, or if not, is this something you've done for any of your other work?
Crowdfunding is well-established now and while I’m intrigued by it I’m also aware nobody ever hears about the failures. So far I’ve never considered crowdfunding for any of my projects because I doubt it would succeed, plus I’m pretty terrible at putting myself out there! I do think though there’s value in crowdfunding for building and growing an audience. For instance, in recent years the festival circuit has become managerialised and rigid at the expense of films made outside the loop of institutional and industry endorsement. This creates obstacles for indie filmmakers because even with a solid social media campaign it’s hard to make a film visible without the support of MSM and the only way to attract publicity and/or reviews through conventional media typically means screening on the festival circuit. It’s possible that crowdfunding can help to support screenings which can help films to gain visibility. Personally I wouldn’t rule out crowdfunding in the future but it would depend on the project and at what stage the funding would be most useful.
Finally, what advice do you have for filmmakers who are starting out who have a great idea or story they're burning to tell, who are lacking in resources, confidence, or both?
I get asked a lot to advise on other people’s projects and I usually start out by asking a question I always ask myself – what have you got to bring to the party? The gap between a killer idea and a finished film is immense but it’s not mission impossible. Whether funded or not, films have to be willed into existence. So you’ve got a great idea? Fine – but is it achievable? If you’re starting out then unless you’re well-connected chances are you’re not bankable, i.e. the industry won’t take a risk on you, so you have to fall back on your own resources. You have a choice – either to make a film or not. Often I encounter putative filmmakers seduced by the trappings, who believe the only way to make a film is with top of the range kit and a crew of fifty.
So if you’ve got a great idea, write it down – even just a half page outline. Ask yourself – what is the story really about? Only then should you embark on the script. Always bear in mind – is it do-able? By which I mean can it be made with few resources? If yes, then you must decide what and who you need to make the film happen. It may be that you need other people to work with, which is fine as long as the terms are stated upfront and it’s by mutual agreement. If you want to go it alone, that’s also fine, but be prepared to learn new skills. On every film I’ve made I’ve had to update my skills, whether it’s using a new camera, producing a 5:1 surround mix or learning how to code a DCP. It really helps to have a project to work on but even without one, I can’t overstate the satisfaction of acquiring new skills – or the confidence it gives.
Voyageuese by May Miles Thomas is available to watch on Vimeo now.