A Bit Of Light: Exclusive interview with writer Rebecca Callard

Exclusive, Interviews

“It is magic realism. It’s a story about a woman who moves back in with her dad at 40 because she’s got nowhere else to go. They have a good relationship, but it’s complicated. They all can’t quite connect or navigate what they’re all going through and so the magic element comes in, this extra ‘Mary Poppins’ element comes in. I think Youssef said it was ‘Mary Poppins with trauma’ [haha!]

We’re speaking to Rebecca Callard about her upcoming film, A Bit Of Light, which she has adapted from her stage play and which will be showing at this year’s Raindance festival.

The 40-year-old in question is Ella (played by Anna Paquin), who has moved in with her father Alan (Ray Winstone). Battling sobriety and losing custody of her children, Ella is in a tough place. However, things change after striking up a rather unusual friendship with Neil (Luca Hogan).

Spending the majority of her career in front of the camera, Callard’s journey to penning her first feature film came after she starred in a play that a fellow actor had written.

“I was just like ‘I’d like to do this too’ but then got rid of that thought. Then I was in a time where I was struggling to get out of some emotion and so I thought that that was the right time to write the story that I wanted to tell.”

Callard decided to write her play and enter it into the Bruntwood competition, which is the UK’s biggest national competition for playwriting

However, the first thing she needed was somewhere to write it… “I didn’t have a computer or anything!” she laughs. “I just had an iPad and my keyboard had broken and I didn’t have any software to write. So the entire play was like a giant text because I had to do it all on the screen! In a way it was quite good because it was like a splurge of thoughts and feelings and honesty [but] I was just like ‘I’m not going to win anything!’”

She was wrong. Callard’s play made it to the top ten, and with that a scene of her play was presented to her along with a commendation. As for the prize money? “I actually bought myself a computer!” she laughs.

Pretty soon her play was starting to cause waves and things were really kicked up a gear when she got a call from a familiar face… “I’ve known Stephen Moyer since I met him on the set of a show we did called The Grand that Russell T Davies wrote. I was like 21 I think Stephen was 23 or 24, and we have known each other since then.

“He’d seen the Twitter announcement and said to me ‘Can I read your play?’ Then he was like, ‘I’ve got to make it, it’s got to be a film and it’s got to be me that’s going make it! And what about Anna to play Ella?’”

At first Callard was a little hesitant that Paquin wasn’t quite old enough to play the role, but queue the lengthy process it takes to buy the rights to a film and get everything in order and by the time it came to shooting, Paquin was the perfect age.

With Moyer a big fan of the original material, adapting A Bit Of Light from stage to screen was pretty straightforward: “Stephen was quite keen to keep a lot of what I’d written. I was always saying to him ‘let’s cut it’ and he was like ‘I like the language. I like how these characters speak to each other. So I don’t want to really cut that’, so a lot of it stayed. There was a lot of talking in the play, and there’s a lot of talking in the film!”

The main things that had to change were due to budget, but actually a few of those changes turned out for the best, especially when it came to cutting costs on settings “A lot of it is set outside,” she laughs. “It’s in the house with Anna and Ray or it’s in a park. The characters go to Scarborough, which is where I used to go with my grandma when I was a kid. It was really important that it was going to be Scarborough. At times it probably would have been a lot easier if the unit moved to be closer to where we shot, but we all went to Scarborough and I was really thrilled that we could maintain that because I think Scarborough is a very cinematic place. Obviously Saint Maud is all shot in Scarborough and I just think it looks incredible. We shot our ending sequence in the same place where they shot the ending of Saint Maud. I actually did a picture as Saint Maud when I was there!”

If you think it sounds like Callard spent a lot of time on set, you’d be right. “I was on set every single day,” she nods. “I’ve heard that writers often aren’t on sets (I have started to call myself a writer now but it’s taken me a while to have the courage to say that!) but Stephen and Anna insisted that I be there. I think perhaps with other people I wouldn’t have had that. So that was incredible to be so involved in it.”

In fact, it sounds like the whole process of creating A Bit Of Light was collaborative from the off. “I don’t think there’s anything that Stephen and I didn’t agree on,” she nods. “He massively involved me and I think if I’d had anything that I was like ‘oh, I didn’t mean that’ I would have been able to say that. I was involved with everything. I feel very lucky.”

That collaboration extended to the casting of young Neil, a pivotal character in the movie and integral to the vibe of it. The part eventually went to Luca Hogan in his first ever feature film. “He’s absolutely incredible in the film,” Callard enthuses. “It was Anna that had the final say really because they have so much together but Stephen and I both thought that Luca was the right Neil and then Anna did too!”

You hear a lot that film sets have a ‘family vibe’ but when speaking to Callard, that familial element really comes across, and that is never more clear than when Callard is speaking about young Luca. “Luca has been long listed for a BIFA!” she enthuses. “A career highlight [for me was] calling his mum last Wednesday to tell her!

“We’ve become mates,” she continues. “His family are really supportive and it was really hard because I was like, ‘I’m gonna cry, she’s gonna cry’ and I rang her and she was in her office. I was like, ‘are you sitting down…?’ [haha]”

It’s clear this story means a lot to Callard and she’s obviously happy to have not only made the transition to writer, but to see her movie become a reality. In fact, she still seems like she’s surprised that she’s in this position right now.

“I just had to keep pinching myself the whole time and going ‘this is just a story I made up and everyone’s taking it very seriously!’” she laughs. “I still can’t believe it’s happened really. With Raindance I’m like ‘is this really happening? It is this odd little tale that I had in my head!’.

“That’s what’s really scary as well, to put it out there for people, something that is so honest and familiar to me. The story is very personal to me. So, to put things out there for it to be judged is huge and quite scary.”

Callard lists another career highlight as being on set of A Bit Of Light on that first day, watching her ‘odd little tale’ become a reality. “The first day when we started shooting, I was like ‘how has this happened? How is Anna Paquin playing the lead in my film? How am I here watching that? How is Ray Winston and Youssef [Kerkour] and Pippa [Bennett-Warner] in my film? And Luca as well. How have I got this cast?!”

Ah yes, speaking of the cast, Moyer really has pulled out all the stops to get a great group of actors together. Of course, starting with his wife Anna Paquin.

“I genuinely think she is magnificent in this part,” Callard tells us. “It’s not an easy role. Ella is a difficult person. And people don’t necessarily want to see difficult women on screen. I think we really root for difficult men and hope that we’ll have those moments of vulnerability and we’ll be like ‘hey, all is forgiven, wonderful’. But I think we don’t forgive women as easily on screen.

“Ella is an unconventional mother in many ways and we don’t forgive that either. It was a lot for Anna to play but I really think she didn’t in any way hold back. There were so many scenes that she did, and I’d be watching the monitor just thinking ‘this is just remarkable’. It’s almost like everything that I had in my head, she did. We were aligned like that.”

Playing Ella’s father is Ray Winstone, in a role that perhaps we haven’t really seen him in before. “I do remember seeing him on his first day wandering around and getting a coffee and thinking ‘that’s fucking Ray Winstone, how has that happened?!’ He is wonderful, really wonderful.

“We had a lot to do, and he had a lot of lines and we had to do it quickly. With low budget stuff, you don’t get the sort of space to rehearse things over and over again or spend a whole day on a scene. Ray’s a real mucker-inner and so at lunchtime I’d be sat with Stephen and he would come up to Stephen and he’d be like ‘I’ve been thinking about this’. He was always thinking about it. He was always very generous and gracious.

“Obviously Ray has this extensive career and he’s done everything but I do feel like some of the things that he gives Alan we might not have seen from Ray before…”

Anna Paquin and Ray Winstone play father and daughter in A Bit Of Light.

It’s clear the cast were just as committed to bringing Callard’s story to light (sorry) as much as those off the camera, and though the movie has, in Callard’s words, “a lot of talking” and is “very realistic”, A Bit Of Light most certainly is genre. Well, of course, we’re featuring it in SciFiNow aren’t we?! Though that may be surprising considering the movie’s synopsis and heavy subject matter, it’s not surprising when you meet Callard. Speaking to us via Zoom and with a plethora of genre posters in the background, Callard is clearly a genre fan.

“My favourite films are all horror and my favourite shows are The Leftovers and Station Eleven. I’m writing a horror film at the moment. But I also want to talk about how we feel when we’re going through our darker times, and so conflating those was important to me.”

That myriad of themes and emotions is exactly what Callard would like audiences to get from A Bit Of Light once those credits roll.

“I’d like them to go, “what just happened?”’ she laughs, “and to have their different feelings about the magic in it and ‘was that that or wasn’t it?’

“I’d also like them to talk about the difficulties that the characters are going through. The film is different perspectives of people and I really do feel like all the characters and how they feel is really important. So I’d love for them to talk about all those different characters, and debate about their emotions, and understand where all the characters are and how difficult it is for them all to get through this period.

“I went to see a film yesterday, The Banshees of Inisherin, it’s absolutely incredible. And as the lights went up, I turned to my partner and I was like ‘that was incredible’ and there was somebody a bit further on that was like ‘that was weird’. So I know that that’s going to happen [with A Bit Of Light]  and that’s okay as well because the story is weird. It’s definitely a weird story!”

We like weird! You can catch A Bit Of Light at Raindance film festival. General release is TBC

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