It’s raining. The sky sits heavy along the rim of the land and there’s water everywhere. Against the gunmetal clouds, bright yellow diggers stand frozen, reneging on their promise to keep digging and let the waters flow. It’s in this apocalyptic landscape that filmmaker Hope Dickson Leach found the perfect place to set her first feature film The Levelling, telling the story of a dairy farm on the Somerset Levels and a father and daughter torn apart by what’s left unspoken.
“I was applying for funding at the time of the dredging crisis in 2014 and the floods were all over the paper,” she explains of the decision to set her story in this world. “I saw Matilda Temperley’s incredible photos and I just thought it was an awful, extraordinary thing with an end of the world type feeling that was so appealing to explore creatively.”
And explore it she does. The landscape is a powerful force in the film, beautiful, wild and threatening in equal measure. From the oppressive skies to the far-reaching horizons, the murmurations dancing through the air to the unavoidable, cloying mud, the Catto farm is one of stark contrast and contradiction. “I’m a little bit frightened of the countryside but I’m also drawn to it, so it was partly influenced by how I feel. The countryside is a difficult, relentless place to live and work. I wanted to avoid that kind of twee, happy farming with a soundtrack thing, because that’s just not reality,” she continues. “The film’s protagonist, Clover, loves the farm so I needed somewhere that would be unruly and feral but also sort of beautiful and amazing to capture that. Somewhere with shades; somewhere real. You need authenticity of place to achieve an authentic emotional connection with the audience. And the emotions I was working with were so complex and understated and subtle I wanted to make sure we could get them through from the setting and not just the characters within it.”
It’s through this mechanism that Hope layers resonance and meaning in her work. “The Levelling is about the family. It started there, with a family that doesn’t talk anymore and suffers a terrible loss,” she says. “But the context, the setting, allowed it to be bigger than just the people fighting, to unpack how relationships and human development respond to things that are beyond us. In that way I find context and setting extremely important, particularly for cinematic storytelling.”
“The setting, allowed The Levelling to be bigger than just the people fighting, to unpack how relationships and human development respond to things that are beyond us.”
Although her first full-length feature film, The Levelling isn’t alone in this regard. She’s leveraged the power of setting throughout her filmmaking career to add depth, humour and insight. Her thesis project from Columbia University’s Film Programme, Dawn Chorus, sees a brother a sister stuck in a bizarre annual re-enactment of a tragic event in a desperate attempt to find their parents in the wreckage. Similarly in Morning Echo, a family lives three months behind the rest of the world to maintain a lie told out of kindness to their terminally ill daughter. “In all my films there’s this constant idea that the set up is there to push the characters, until they have to respond, or not, and suffer the consequences,” she explains. “It’s a way of addressing the forces that feel out of control in our lives and particularly in our relationships, but the lens of a specific event or circumstance – be it a plane crash or a debilitating illness, or the flooding of the Somerset Levels – offers a powerful metaphor to play with. With The Levelling specifically, the landscape became such a fabulous allegory for family and how if you want to survive you literally need to keep the channels open.”
Family in itself is a setting that seems constant in Hope’s work, an endless topography of emotion for her characters to navigate. “I do always end up telling stories about families,” she laughs. “It’s not intentional but I do just think they are a really fascinating, basic unit of relationships – they’ve got all the drama, comedy, heartbreak and triumph of life in them, and they’re universal. Everyone has a family, or a group of people that function as a family so we can all recognise ourselves in that.” She goes on to explain that she can see a clear throughline about communication that’s taken her from her work on The Dawn Chorus to The Levelling; looking at how the lack of meaningful conversations might affect a person’s emotional development. She pauses, thoughtfully. “When you’re looking at humans and how we interact, what’s not being said is just as telling, if not more so than the words we actually speak.”
“When you’re looking at humans and how we interact, what’s not being said is just as telling, if not more so than the words we actually speak.”
Which brings us to discuss her current project. Although still strongly drawing on her favourite themes, this time, things are a little bit different. The Cradle is an adapted screenplay from Patrick Somerville’s novel of the same name and where previously Hope has written and directed her own material, for this film she worked closely with the author to shape his story into a screenplay. Why the change? “Honestly, I just fell in love with the story – it’s so beautiful, and funny, which I really felt like I needed – and it’s such a generous gift to be allowed to work with it,” she says. “Plus, filmmaking is full of distractions so it has been wonderful having someone to share the writing process with, because it takes a lot. You realise how valuable it can be, how it can be the right way forward.”
In her answer it sounds like there’s something larger at play, which she confirms, barely taking a breath. She references Southampton University’s academic study, Calling the Shots, which over four years researched, collated and wrote a contemporary history of women in the UK film industry. “Through unpicking the data and hearing the stories, they discovered that women take so much longer to make their films than men, but that that seemed to directly correlate with the fact women tend to write their own material to direct,” Hope explains. “No one knows and we can only question why this is, whether it’s that women feel they have to write their own material or no one else will give them a script to direct, or if women feel that the stories they want to direct or see aren’t being commissioned by anyone else– but I found the study really interesting and it made me think, if I restrict myself to just writing and directing my own stuff, inevitably I will take much longer in between projects. Opening myself up to other things and exploring the scripts and stories out there that I could collaborate on with others would improve that.”
In talking about Calling the Shots, Hope’s enthusiasm for the subject of representation and equality on screen and off is plain to see. It’s something she’s considered and explored at length in both her creative practice and public advocacy for the cause. “As a parent I’ve found it extremely difficult balancing child rearing and professional development,” she acknowledges. “It’s incredibly tricky and I still haven’t cracked it, because every time you think you’ve found something that works your children change, because they are human beings you know and it’s the uncertainty of not knowing what’s next or how each project will unfold that can be difficult to manage.” To give voice to everyone facing these kinds of challenges, Hope cofounded Raising Films, a digital space for parents and carers to talk about the barriers they face and the experiences they’ve had trying to make a career in film, work.
For Hope, a lot of the stories that are told through the platform come down to the systems and patterns needed, so parents and carers can do their jobs well, simply not being there. And wages are a huge part of that. “How can we still work in an industry where people don’t get paid, or get paid very, very little, as standard?” she asks, her frustration palpable as she gets into her stride. Listening to Hope speak on the subject you get the feeling she’s talked about all this a lot – and could talk about it an awful lot more. “It all comes back down to the fact that you do your best work when you’re not distracted by other stresses, when you’re not panicking and feeling anxious about childcare arrangements, or whether you’re getting paid or what time you might finish, or whether you got the job because you can do the job or if you’re being respected or valued,” she continues. “All those things are at the core of what we’re trying to do with Raising Films. I know I do my best work when I feel respected and valued and there are many things that we can all do as individuals to make that the case across the board. We just need to make those things industry standard.”
“We want to pick apart systemic exclusion and we’re doing it from the point of view of parents and carers, but with the absolute and complete conscious knowledge that this is something which will completely benefit everybody who is currently excluded.”
Of course, these aren’t issues that only affect parents or carers, which Hope is quick to point out. “What we’re essentially trying to do is humanise the industry, to make it a fairer and better place,” she says. “We want to pick apart systemic exclusion and we’re doing it from the point of view of parents and carers, but with the absolute and complete conscious knowledge that this is something which will completely benefit everybody who is currently excluded.”
Representation is a key issue in the film industry at the moment, and rightly so. From actors and directors to crews and audiences, there’s a rising pressure on decision makers to break down barriers and give everyone the access to tell and see the stories they want and deserve. This, in Hope’s view, is the crux of the issue. “If we want a film industry that is fresh and exciting we need to invite in more voices,” she concludes, “and that doesn’t happen when an elite few control the overarching narrative. And it doesn’t happen if we all just sit around stroking our chins and talking about the fact the industry has a problem. We need very simple, very real changes now. I’m not a big fan of people being exploited personally, or creatively, to make work. I’m not a big fan of unhappy relationships where things are tense and conflict ridden and angry. I’m not sure that the best work gets made like that. We can be welcoming and still ambitious. We can be open and still break new ground. And those changes will lead to better work. I’m sure of it.”
Now that really does sound like Hope talking. And it’s pretty inspiring stuff.
The Levelling is available on DVD and download now.
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