Based on the true story of Sabrina Archey, whose tragic letter went viral on the internet, Sylvia follows a mother (Jolie Lennon, Wonder Woman), her two daughters (Maisie and Evie Prendergast) and her own mother (Gaynor Fraser) on their last road trip with their beloved car Sylvia before they sell it. However, all is not as it seems, with the mother’s reasons for selling the car later revealed to be linked to a family tragedy.
The film has been awarded numerous accolades (including Best Film at The American Pavilion at Cannes) and will be screening at the Edmonton International Film Festival as well as Arizona’s Show Low Film Festival. First time director Richard Prendergast, along with his wife Rachel, who produced the film, talk to us about their experiences making Sylvia.
I saw Sylvia yesterday and I was very impressed by it. I thought it was a very moving account of a true story that’s received a lot of acclaim. What made you want to adapt it to film and relocate it to the UK?
Richard: In regards to bringing it (the story) over to the UK, it was mostly a budget call. We didn’t get given any budget to make this film and we thought that it would nicely transfer over to the UK, it would not be detrimental to the story, so yeah, that was the primary reason. We also wanted to make use of some of the beautiful locations that we have in Norfolk.
How easy was it to find some of these locations? I was quite impressed by how they looked onscreen.
Richard: Yeah, so there was a location between Norwich and Yarmouth called the Acle Straight, and it’s a really weird bit of scenery because it’s so flat and open and I’d wanted to take advantage of it for some time. As this was a road trip film, we knew that we wanted to have lots of driving shots and thought that it was a great opportunity to take advantage of these vistas.
How easy was it to balance filming these driving sequences containing dialogue exchanges with a mostly inexperienced cast, with the exception of Jolie?
Richard: I guess a year on, you can look at it with sort of rose-tinted glasses (laughs). It definitely presented some challenges. One thing that we didn’t anticipate was that the car would be so loud, so quite a bit of work needed to be done to the exhaust. It wasn’t until we started driving it around that we realised that it was really loud and sort of rumbling inside. However, we got it repaired and we had a really good sound guy called Blai who just took everything in his stride and performed brilliantly.
Rachel: Yeah, he was very relaxed, and the cast were the same as well. Jolie, even though she’s had a lot of experience, most of it’s been on action films, so this was for her an opportunity to do something a lot more in-depth and challenging with her acting. She’s so professional and was really good at encompassing her character. The kids had never done anything like this before, and were just brilliant.
There are various shots in the film that look like they were filmed with a Super 8mm home movie camera, how easy was that to achieve and how important was it for you to use that cinematographic style?
Richard: Well, I’m going to take that as a compliment that these shots looked convincingly like Super 8 then! It was all shot on digital as was the rest of the film and was passed through a number of plug-ins to make the image look like Super 8.
Was the intention to create a nostalgic feel that tapped into the mother’s memories of her family as she remembers them?
Richard: Yeah, that was Jack Clayton-Wright’s idea – he cut the end sequence and I never planned to put that stuff there and he put one shot from there earlier on as a flashback. However I thought it looked too similar to the rest of the film, so I decided to give it that super 8 look so that it looked like a flashback and correlated to the voiceover of her memories of her family.
In terms of the chemistry between the actresses playing the family, did they gel quite quickly or did they require a lot of rehearsal time for them to get used to each other?
Rachel: Do you know what, they were so natural. The night before filming we had everyone round to our house for lasagne, and within a few minutes Evie was on the conservatory floor with Gaynor, who plays the grandma, playing doctors (laughs) so we thought, ‘This might work’. On the first day of shooting, they all obviously spent a lot of time in the car together and they gelled so quickly. After the first day, they had just gelled, it was like their own independent family.
One of the things that struck me about the script was the naturalistic dialogue used in the exchanges between the various family members. How easy was it to adapt the true story into the script for the finished film?
Richard: I found that script quite easy to write. I spent a couple of days putting the first draft together and I knew exactly what I wanted to do from the start, so since I’d read the true story, I knew exactly the direction that I wanted to take the script in. The dialogue is based on relations with my family and how I imagine people would interact with each other when they’re having a difficult time. Everyone, when they’re having a difficult time, wants their mum around, so I just imagined what would be said between mother and daughter.
Could you relate to the broader thematic elements of the true story, such as the family’s relationship with their car and their financial problems, or were they elements that are unrelated to your life experiences?
Richard: I think most people experience financial difficulties. It’s always a struggle balancing money with life and family, and it was all sort of laid out with Sabrina. She did get into financial difficulties after the fire and the insurance didn’t pay out on the funerals and it went into a lengthy court battle. I guess it’s about putting yourself into that person’s shoes, imagining dealing with that difficult loss and the financial burden, and having this one last thing left that you have to sell in order to continue paying your bills.
It’s interesting that you mention that, because the ending with the father reading the mum’s letter really sells that message of putting yourself in the shoes of someone less fortunate. How important was it for you that this message really be conveyed to the audience?
Richard: I think Sabrina had done it herself. Her letter was so beautifully written and that’s why it was so popular online. So really, my job as a director was to do it justice and to put pictures and screen performances to that letter. I didn’t want to adapt it too much. The letter is slightly edited down from her original version, but I tried to keep it as close to the original as possible.
So as this is your debut film as director and producer respectively, how easy was it for the both of you to enter the world of narrative film-making from a creative and financial standpoint?
Richard: I think the pre-production is a completely different process to what I’m used to. I come from a sports filming background and then I went into documentaries and did some commercials, but with actors, you’re having to spend that bit of extra time blocking out the scenes and just planning everything meticulously. So, yeah, it was difficult in terms of the planning and imagining how it’s going to come together onscreen. I definitely learnt a lot from going through the process.
What was the moment that inspired you to go into narrative film-making? Was it particularly hearing about this true story or were there any other factors?
Rachel: I think, you know, as much as we love our sort of paid bread-and-butter work, both of us love film and to make that big step into narrative film-making was what we both loved to do. It was a bit of a scary step, but one we decided that we needed to do in order to make this transition. We’ve worked well together for years and we’re married so we talked a lot about it.
Richard: Yeah, my inspiration was coming from projects with very short shelf lives. You work on something like a commercial and it may have a shelf life of a month, two months and most of the time people are hovering over the skip button and can’t wait to get on to the video that they actually want to watch. So for me, I wanted to be the video or the film that people wanted to watch and take something away from, and to have a bit more longevity to the project.
How confident were you on set of realising your vision or was it more of a collaborative effort? Did you take on board a lot of advice from key crew members such as your editor or director of photography?
Richard: Well, I had my shot plan laid out in quite meticulous detail and I had an editing plan on paper and then I handed them over to Rowan the DoP and Jack Clayton-Wright in the editing. Jack made a few calls as to cutting a few scenes out that he felt were unnecessary to the flow of the narrative which I agreed with. On set, I had the dialogue written the way I would say it, and Jolie took a lot of the dialogue and asked if she could rephrase it to how she would speak, which I was OK with. I don’t come from an acting background. My background is more in cinematography, so I’m totally happy for actors to interpret scenes in their own way.
The film has a subject matter that has a broad, almost universal appeal, which can be seen from the critical acclaim that it has received. Did that make it easier for you to obtain financing for the production?
Rachel: We tried very hard to get funding and we didn’t get a penny. We had a pivotal moment early on last year where we had to decide that if we were going to make the film, we would have to fund it ourselves. It was a huge financial risk, to invest all of our money, but Richard was so enthused about doing it and it was important for us to be making something outside of our day-to-day work. Luckily it has paid off and it’s been received very positively.
Richard: When we say that we didn’t get any funding, we didn’t get any funding from the usual government bodies, but we did get a little bit of support from Buckhart Productions, who are Andy Buckley and Ben Hartley, who plays Ryan, the dad, in the film. So they came on board and helped us out a bit, but it was a teeny-tiny budget we were working with.
Rachel: They didn’t get involved with the production until we’d already made the decision to make the film and self-fund it. However, they’ve provided a great level of support and become good mentors to us. Really, it was more of a full-on investment of our money, which is why we had to use our own children and families. If you look at the credits, the surname ‘Prendergast’ crops up more than once! (laughs) I think that if we had waited to potentially get some funding, it would never have come to fruition.
Do you see independent financing as the way to go rather than rely on funding from government bodies for your future projects? Obviously, feature films will require greater budgets than short films.
Rachel: Yeah, I think definitely. It’s not that I felt let down by the funding people, it’s just that it’s so time consuming and you often don’t get a response when you need it regarding applications for funding. Also I think we loved having more creative input without any creative bodies wanting a piece of the pie. So I think private funding is the way forward for the feature films.
Richard: It also makes you think in a commercial context. A lot of the content funded by ‘soft money’ as we call it often doesn’t have really any commercial sense behind it. Whereas we want to aim towards a wide audience with our future projects and ensure commercial success.
Sylvia is up for a number of other awards in North America. Has the film been placed in consideration for any larger industry award, such as the BAFTAs or the Oscars?
Rachel: Yeah, so we were long-listed for a BAFTA at the beginning of the year, so we got down to the last 20 and have now entered it for Oscar consideration. That’s pretty huge for us. If you’d told us last year that this would have been possible, we wouldn’t have believed it. Of course, all the accolades we’ve picked up along the way have just been brilliant and filled us with the confidence that we can do it again. It’s now about making sure that that positivity is being passed on down to our next project as well.
Did the two of you see yourselves staying with making more short films or eventually expanding into feature films?
Rachel: Yeah, I definitely think that the next step for us is to do a feature film. We’ve got two that we’re working on at the moment. One is a biopic/drama/dark comedy and we’re also planning to do a drama/horror – they’re in development as we speak.
Did the two of you ever imagine that you would get to this stage, where you’re receiving the kind of accolades the film’s been getting?
Rachel: No, I don’t think so. The accolades are encouraging, but the feedback we’ve been getting from viewers, such as emails where people are saying that it’s touched them, has been even better. Even now that we’ve entered the Oscars, I can’t even allow myself to think about the possibility due to the many other great films that are up for nomination (laughs). I can’t allow myself to think like that.
Well, based on what I’ve seen, you both seem like a couple that definitely deserve all the success that’s coming your way and more to come. Let’s hope the film makes it to the Oscars!
Rachel: (laughs) Thanks so much, we’ll keep you posted!