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Its not the usual career path for a filmmaker is it Owen
.banking, finance, mortgages? There must have been a turning point that made you give up
well, security, for a start!
I really gave up security fifteen years ago in 1986 when I left the safe warm environs of the building society I worked for at the time as Head of Research. I joined a new consultancy firm working in and around London. A few years later, I set up an innovative new business with a couple of million pounds of venture capital. The idea involved transacting business over computer networks; shades of the Internet which came five years later. But it was ahead of its time. It failed after a couple of years when the backers pulled out. After that, I started publishing specialist subscription magazines, aimed at financial institutions.
The big turnaround in my life happened in 1995. By then I was publishing six magazines and running a series of conferences. The workload was enormous and the pressure intense. Over a couple of weeks, during which I was negotiating the sale of the publishing business to a major newspaper publisher, I began to experience chest pains, which very quickly led to emergency heart bypass surgery. On the morning of the operation, when I was lying on the trolley after the angiogram, the cardiologist informed me that three of the four main arteries to my heart were completely blocked and the fourth was struggling. He said I should be dead. The surgeons operated a couple of hours later and Im still here to tell the tale.
Lets be clear about this. You were something of an acknowledged expert in the mortgage field, publishing your own magazines. Did you always harbour film ambitions tucked away deep within your own personal balance sheet?
No, not really. Ive always enjoyed going to the cinema and watching films but I had no ambitions to make films. Having said that, in my teens and twenties I shot a lot of standard eight and super eight film and enjoyed trying to create stories from what was going on in my life. I used to edit the footage and add titles and credits, but no sound. I always felt there was something lacking with no sound but adding sound to my films seemed far too complicated to contemplate. When video cameras began to replace cine cameras, I lost heart. I couldnt afford a video camera and I didnt want to make any more silent films. Also, I was involved in the theatre from my schooldays and enjoyed acting in plays put on by the Provincial Players (the drama society at work). These were put on over three or four nights at the Library Theatre in Bradford and were always very well received and popular. So I suppose there has been some latent ambition there for most of my life.
On your day off from the bank, what movies did you go and see. What on the big screen really made impact, impressed and moved you so you thought about it the rest of the week while working on the ledgers. Im assuming they were still ledgers in those early years!
Yes, amazingly there were still ledgers when I started working at Lloyds Bank back in 1969 but only briefly. The bank computerised during my first couple of years there. The sorts of films that impressed me were films that took me out of myself, ones that were good enough for me to feel a part of that films world for a couple of hours.
I think Im probably a fairly typical cinema-goer; I like films that I find absorbing, ones where I come out of the cinema and feel glad I went to see that particular film. I dont like films that depress me, I can be depressed without going to the cinema. That doesnt mean that I dont appreciate films which help me to understand better the often depressing world I live in.
I prefer films that make me feel happy to films which, whilst they may be great and important films, leave me feeling worse than before I saw them. Thats not what I pay my five or six pounds for. All of which probably explains why my favourite film of all time is Frank Capras "Its a Wonderful Life". Its funny, tragic and enormously uplifting; I watch it whenever Im depressed.
You chose to enter the MA screenwriters course at the Northern Film School in Leeds. Why that course in particular?
Following my heart surgery, I was told to change my lifestyle or I would very soon be dead. It fair concentrates the mind when youre told that! So I closed the publishing business, sold what publications I could and wondered what to do with the rest of my life. Apart from a couple of small periodic research projects which punctuated periods of signing on for the dole, I had nothing to do.
I decided to do the one thing I had always wanted to do but had never had the time for. I wrote a book, a novel. I sent the first draft to a professional reader for some feedback and got fourteen pages of negative comment back from her. The only thing she liked was the title. I rewrote it and sent it in again.
This time the response was about fifty-fifty between positive and negative comment. Encouraged by that I began the third draft but also decided that if I was serious about writing, I should try to get some education in that area. For family reasons I was not able to move away from Leeds for this and the only course that looked remotely like it might interest me was the MA in Screenwriting (Fiction) at the Northern Film School.
I phoned Brian Dunnigan who was running the course at the time and asked if he would even consider an application from a fifty year old with heart problems. He said it would depend on how well I could write and that I should send in one of my screenplays for them to consider. I said I hadnt actually written any screenplays to which his response was: "Well then go and buy a book and write one." Three months later I submitted my application, together with a full length feature screenplay and was accepted on the course.
When you were supposed to be screenwriting you were already opening up to filmmaking. You had started to collect basic shooting kit bit by bit. What was the idea behind that?
Collecting equipment arose as a result of my involvement with a Christian charity working with homeless people in Leeds which I had helped to set up in 1987. I began working with a group of homeless people who were being looked after by the charity, teaching them to make video material which could be used to promote the work of the charity. In order to do this I needed equipment. As my father had died recently and left me some money, I used some of that to buy a Sony DSR 300 full size professional camera and other professional kit including mikes and lights. We made five short films which we compiled into a sort of Newsreel before my course ended and I had to start generating an income.
The films you made at that time included the short film Scratch. Whats the story of Scratch and how did it come to be made?
Soon after I started the screenwriting course my wife saw an article about my local film club saying they were desperate for writers and inviting writers to join the club. During my first year as a member, I wrote a short for the clubs entry to a competition which the club then asked me to direct as well. And that was it! How can anyone who has been involved in the making of a film, any film, ever be satisfied with doing anything else? It was the most enjoyable, exciting and exhilarating experience.
It won an award. That must have been quite pleasing for an early work
The film won a couple of minor awards but, more importantly for me, I was bitten by the film making bug, I wanted to make more films, which was one of the reasons why I started the project with the homeless people.
Lets move on to your current opus. Baby Blues is just finishing at the moment. What is it about?
Baby Blues is based on a true story. Its about a young Christian couple who have their first baby following which she suffers from the most acute form of post-natal disorder, Puerperal Psychosis. Basically she goes mad and is admitted to a psychiatric hospital where her treatment includes ECT, electro-convulsive therapy. The film charts how her illness affects her relationship with her husband, their relationships with other people, and his faith.
Puerperal psychosis is a very disturbing condition, is it not, but everyone thinks they know about a bit about post-natal depression. Is that why you called it Baby Blues, because thats NOT what puerperal psychosis is?
There are three stages or levels of post-natal disorder which can affect a woman after the birth of a baby. The mildest of these is what is commonly referred to as Baby Blues, a sort of mild depression which usually wears off after a few days or weeks. Then there is full blown post-natal depression which requires treatment with drugs. But the most severe of these illnesses is Puerperal Psychosis. Because of the risk of the woman harming herself and/or her baby this usually requires hospitalisation. Treatment with drugs is often successful but if it fails, ECT is used as a last resort. So the title describes in general terms what the story is about and therefore gives the audience a hint about what they are going to see. If I had called it Puerperal Psychosis, I dont think the audience would have been any the wiser and Post-Natal Depression doesnt really have much going for it as a title.
We are talking pretty heavy stuff here, psychotic illness, electro-convulsive therapy, psychiatric care issues, spiritual challenges, covetousness, temptation, guilt
.theres plenty of drama in that, but what about accuracy? Have you witnessed puerperal psychosis happening to someone you know? How did you research ECT?
I said the film was based on a true story. Its actually based on my story. Twenty five years ago, my wife suffered from the illness. So I already knew a lot about the condition and the effect it has on all concerned. When I decided to write the story, I did a lot of research, on the Internet and with psychiatrists to see what had changed over the last twenty five years. Amazingly, it is one area of medicine which has hardly moved forward at all in that time. Doctors and psychiatrists still dont know why it happens, what causes it, or why ECT works as a cure, just that it does. As an aside, it was pleasing at one of our recent test screenings to have several members of the medical profession in the audience, including a couple of doctors, a surgeon and a psychologist, all of whom had had some experience of dealing with mental illness but none of whom identified any problems of a factual or medical nature with the film.
People can suffer for years after a real-life experience like this and screen portrayals of this can upset people very, very deeply. How will you handle possible unfortunate reaction?
Apart from the doctors, amongst those who have been in our test audiences have been people who have had their lives affected by mental illness, including some who have suffered from acute post-natal disorders including Puerperal Psychosis. Without exception, these people have been amongst those who have liked the film the most, despite the fact that some of them have cried during the screening. Two of the doctors also told me that they know several of their patients who they would really like to see the film because they are sure it would help them. So I dont anticipate adverse reaction from sufferers or former sufferers or even from those close to them.