Mancunion Filmmaker Nick Connor’s short narrative “Cotton Wool” follows a single mother, who suffers a devastating stroke, leaving her teenage daughter and 7-year-old son to care for her. This tragic incident tests the family’s strength to hold things together as roles are reversed.
After a highly successful screening and Q&A at Manchester Lift-Off, this emotional short received a Special Mention, and therefore will screen at LA Lift-Off in September. We interviewed director Richard to hear a little more about how this film came to be, and his path as a filmmaker.
Interview by Sneh Rupra
First of all, how did it feel for Cotton Wool to be screened at Manchester Lift-Off, and to get a Special Mention?
It was honestly brilliant, the atmosphere was great, the audience was packed and I haven’t had a better experience showing the film to date. Even our world premiere didn’t create as much buzz as at the Lift-Off screening. The Q&A after the screening was fantastic, because the audience is mostly film lovers & filmmakers the engagement and discussion about the film was inspiring and understanding of craft rather than just the final film.
This is my second film to screen at Lift-Off (the first being ‘Northern Lights’ in 2017) and I can safely say I haven’t found a festival that has given me a better audience or feedback. To have been given a Special Mention by Lift-Off and now have the film shown in LA is unbelievable and is a massive honour.
Did you enjoy the Lift-Off experience, and meeting some of the other filmmakers also screening?
I really enjoyed the Lift-Off experience, the venues are always urban and quirky which adds an edge to watching the film that isn’t always found in a regular cinema screening. Networking is at the heart of the event, so it was great to meet other local filmmakers and receive their feedback on the film afterwards, as well as seeing their own films in the Local Filmmakers Showcase. It’s great to see filmmakers from all over the North come together to support each other and share their films.
What inspired the story of this film?
My grandmother suffered a stroke when my mother was 10. Sadly she passed away shortly after, but I was interested in what would have happened if she had survived, leaving her children to care for her. There are over 243,000 child carers under the age of 19 in England & Wales, 22,000 of those under the age of 9. It’s a side of society that is rarely seen in film, so I knew that I had to draw attention to this topic.
What was your family’s reaction to seeing such a personal story on film?
As you can imagine it was quite hard for my mum to watch as it’s so personal to her – despite the differences, it is my grandmother’s story in many ways. The young boy sees his mother suffer a stroke in front of him and believes she is pretending to be a monster before then realising something is very wrong – that was my mum’s experience, that scene is as she told it to me. The rest of the film is pure fiction, and in reality my grandmother died shortly after those events. Most of my aunties and uncles haven’t seen the film yet, but those members of the family who have, such as my mum, have found it very emotional. I never got to meet my grandmother, neither did my brother or sister, so I suppose it’s a kind of connection to her and it’s quite therapeutic. I love this film, not because I made it or that I think it’s good, but because it connects me to her and my family.
How did you go about casting, especially the little boy?
When it came to casting the role of Sam we originally were thinking a few years older, maybe 10 or 12 – just because we didn’t know if such a young actor could pull of the challenge that came with the role. Then I saw ‘The A Word’, Max Vento who plays the central role in the series blew me away, at just 7 years old Max was authentically portraying a child with autism in this series. Max’s slight nuances and power on screen made me immediately know he was the actor I wanted. This was just at the treatment stage, before a script was in place or any dialogue was written, so we got in touch with Max’s agent, I met with him and his parents, and he signed on. I then got to work writing the first draft.
The rest of the casting came very instinctually – Kate Rutter (The Full Monty, Oranges and Sunshine) really moved me in ‘I, Daniel Blake’ as she epitomises compassion in that film, something which was key in ‘Cotton Wool’. Similarly, ‘Crissy Rock’ in Ken Loach’s ‘Ladybird, Ladybird’ just absorbed me – the scene where her child is taken from her really got to me, and from that moment I knew I had to work with her.
Leanne Best, in my opinion, is one of the most versatile actors working today, if you compare her performance in ‘Undercover’ to ‘Home Fires’ or ‘Cold Feet’ you wouldn’t know it was the same person. Leanne’s amazing use of expression beyond the page tells me everything about the character which is important when the lead character can’t speak.
What was the most unexpected moment you had while working with Max?
I love this story … Max works heavily off instinct, so sometimes he’ll give you things you don’t expect that just enhance a scene. There is a scene in the film where his mother suffers a mini-stroke and he’s been taught by the nurses to give his mum 5 minutes to come back round before pressing a button that alerts emergency services. He is home alone and is obviously panicking as he recognises the signs that his mum is having a mini-stroke.
I told Max the basics of the scene: to count down, and when it reached the 5 minute mark to hit the button. We go for a take, and he gets so into the scene, close to tears and panicking, just very in the moment. Then just after he presses the button he throws himself onto the floor, curls himself into a ball and begins rocking back and forth – still in character – saying ‘Mum, please!’. It was harrowing. I never told Max to do this (luckily the camera was handheld so we could catch his reaction) and it was shocking for me, so this made it into the final cut. Then in true Max fashion he got back up smiling, ready for another take. Unbelievable for a 7 year old.
The cinematography and editing has created a really stunning piece of film – how did you go about getting it so perfect?
Thank you, I really appreciate that! That credit has to go to my brilliant DOP Alan (McLaughlin) and Co-Editor Amy (Pfeil). I have a great team and there is a lot of trust involved in trying things out, we were all on the same page from day one which is obviously a huge bonus. Alan is a genius with the camera, he translated what I wanted amazingly, so when I say he honestly brought what was in my head to the screen, I mean it.
Amy and I are perfectionists in the edit room – it’s no exaggeration to say that we would spend 12-14 hours a day for the entire 6 week edit, tirelessly trying to make the best film possible. We’re our biggest critics and probably spend way too much time perfecting every 2 frames but it has definitely been worth it!
I’ve got to give big props to our 1st AC Nico (Biarese) who got pinsharp focus-pulling, no matter where me and Alan’s crazy minds went with the handheld camera mid-take – I honestly have no idea how he does it.
Were there any unforeseen challenges you faced during production?
Everything you could think of, Murphy’s Law always tends to creep up on me when I’m working! We feared snow from day one on set, which presented challenges in moving cast, crew and equipment! We decided to make the best of the snow and use it to enhance some of the scenes that we already had planned, e.g. when Sam is walking to the shop in the snow, and when Rachel imagines being able to move around as she once did.
Family is such a key theme, and it’s explored very emotionally — was it hard to maintain some distance on set?
We all knew what to expect as the film is incredibly emotional – we had an important story that no one else was telling, so our role in making it was equally important. If we let anything get in the way then we weren’t doing justice to the people we were representing, so I personally had to put everything to one side and focus. Because the film is so personal, it is hard to separate the reality and the fiction, especially when you’re telling the story of someone you care so much about, but never got the chance to meet. Finding a balance and distance in that respect was important, but with so little time on set we had no time to think about anything else anyway.
Has the experience of making this film changed your perceptions in any way?
One-hundred percent, hearing the statistics of child carers is just astonishing, there are over 243,000 child carers under the age of 19 in England & Wales and 22,000 of those under the age of 9. Speaking to stroke survivors and audiences who’ve dealt with similar stories has changed both my perceptions and me as a person. I’m incredibly grateful and lucky that I’ve not had to deal with struggles similar to those I’ve portrayed on screen.
Are there any new projects on the horizon that you can tell us about?
I’ve just directed a film at the NFTS which was very much outside my comfort zone. It’s the first time I’ve worked with someone else’s script, and not only that, it was a comedy, when I normally direct drama. No crying and heartbreak this time! It was refreshing though, I had a brilliant team around me and it was a great challenge. The film is called ‘The Narrator’ and we’ve just premiered at the BFI Southbank to a great response from the industry.
I’m writing at the moment and I’ve got an concept I really want to get off the ground, it’s received quite a bit of interest so far, but we’ll see what happens…
‘Cotton Wool’ will next screen at LA Lift-Off in September.
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