Hope Dixon Leach: Fertile ground for filmmaker and childcare campaigner
Farmland provided great growth for Hope Dixon Leach when she made her first feature film, The Levelling. The sodden plains of Somerset after terrible floods in 2014, bringing bankruptcy for many businesses, are the background for Clover’s (Elle Kendrick from Game of Thrones) dismal homecoming to her taciturn father Aubrey (David Troughton, whom British fans may know from the BBC radio series The Archers.)
Clover is grieving for her brother Harry, who died in a ‘shooting accident’, and wishes it was Aubrey instead. Clover and her father are forced to start again, and so are Clover and the land. Not only does Ellie Kendrick put in some backbreaking work with a spade, she puts in the same breakthrough performance as Game of Thrones co-star Maisie Williams did in The Falling. Female-made and led indie Brit flicks are clearly working – when they actually get made.
For Hope Dixon Leach, as she’s probably sick of being reminded, was tipped as a star of the future by Screen International a decade ago, after her shorts The Dawn Chorus and Morning Echo. She had a feature idea for a teenage girl who blamed Princess Diana for her parents’ divorce, but explains that she got stuck in the British financing system who wanted microbudget features or more shorts before committing. This was before crowdfunding, and by the time that possibility arrived, she had two very small children to consider before her filmmaking. But now here she is, having lived, as she says “with Clover for a very long time.”
"There’s even a gender issue in dairy farming.. you have to milk the cows every day." Hope Dixon Leach.
The reality of the flooding in Somerset, and how it ravaged local farmland, became the backdrop for The Levelling after the director saw photographs of the flooded plains. “ They were stunning photos and I had to go to Somerset and find out what was going on. I learned all about flood control and management.” Then she got stuck in on farming. “Originally I wanted to set it on a beef farm and then as I learnt more I understood that dairy farming is more intensive. There’s even a gender issue in dairy farming I found fascinating – that you have to milk the cows every day.
“I have huge respect for farmers,” she adds. “It’s a difficult industry and in no way did I want it to seem any less complex in the film. The real life farmers on the Somerset Levels were so kind and helpful – they very much wanted their story told and I hope I did it justice.”
As someone who grew up in Hong Kong, and now lives in Edinburgh, learning to milk a cow didn’t come naturally. Nor did it to David Troughton and Ellie Kendrick, “who it turns out, were afraid of cows,” she laughs. “Not something they told me when they were auditioning.” Fortunately, any scenes featuring dead cattle were faked: strict regulations on the movement of dead cattle meant one was made out of the plaster, the others out of wire and cow-hide. She recalls the last scene, a terrible day “when the rain machine fell into a ditch.”
This small Somerset film has now been seen around the world, including at the prestigious Toronto film festival, where organisers called it “a jewel.” Hope Dixon Leach Ellie Kendrick ‘her gift’, “because I entrusted Clover to her. You know, characters live with you and then ultimately you have to give them to an actor. She gave it everything.”
“I was just thinking, I should give up this attempt at being a filmmaker. I was sure there was something else I could do. Just a normal job I could get." Hope Dixon Leach
A ten year career hiatus just after being predicted for greatness is probably not what Hope Dixon Leach imagined, but something else has come out of her alternative trajectory: Raising Films, an organization aimed at helping parents working within the entertainment industry, and highlighting the issue that lack of childcare and long distance travel for filming doesn’t make it easy for women wanting to forge ahead in a creative industry (Raising Films raises the cudgels for for male primary caregivers as well.)
Take her own example on the set of The Levelling: four hundred miles from home, with two small sons she either had to take with her or be separated from.
Primarily still an online community where parents can share experiences and find support, this year Raising Films held a conference, she explains, “where we’re trying to look at practical solutions, be it childcare being included within film budgets, or even at a crèche bus. It’s a conversation that’s got to be had because if it stops either men or women being able to work within their chosen industry, ultimately it’s bad economics.”
Hope Dixon Leach describes her “giving up” moment; a nightfeed with one of her sons. “I was just thinking, I should give up this attempt at being a filmmaker. I was sure there was something else I could do. Just a normal job I could get. Thankfully my husband reminded me how miserable I’d be not trying to make films and that what I had to do, ‘was find a way to make it work for me.’ And maybe finally that’s what’s been happening.”
Go to www.raisingfilms.com for more information.
The Levelling is released on DVD and itunes on July 17, 2017