Yorkshire film-maker Debbie Howard has enlisted two of the country’s top actors to highlight the issue of cot death. She also has an innovative way of raising funds to get her film seen. Catherine Scott meets her.
When a number of her friends lost babies through stillbirth or miscarriage, Debbie Howard decided it was time to lift the taboo that surrounded the subject.
“I saw the loss they were suffering and yet people didn’t know how to respond to them,” explains Debbie.
So she started researching the subject. Working alongside charity SANDS (Stillborn And Neonatal Deaths) Debbie met and interviewed a large number of couples who had experienced a stillborn baby.
Then four years ago she started to put a script together for her short film Peekaboo.
“The more I met people and the more I listened to their stories the sense of responsibility grew and grew. I became very conscious of making sure I got it right.
“I showed the script to SANDS who have been incredibly supportive. they suggested some changes and have given it their backing.”
Peekaboo tells the story of grieving parents Emily and Andy as they struggle to maintain their relationship in the devastating aftermath of three stillborn babies.
Emily and Andy have been trying to have a baby for years. After a series of pregnancies ending in stillbirth, their world is torn apart by grief. Andy suggests a move to a new house, in order to try and make a fresh start, and leave their hopes and dreams of a family behind them. However, the move throws Emily over the edge and triggers a breakdown, which has devastating consequences. Andy tries to guide Emily through this difficult time, while trying not to fall apart himself. He struggles with his own loss quietly, trying to be there to support his wife and help to guide her through her journey to acceptance.
“It is a drama not a documentary but I wanted to make the truth in the grieving very real,” said Debbie who plans to make a full-length documentary on the subject next year.
Once she had her script Debbie approached the two actors she really wanted to play Emily and Andy.
Despite having very little budget she wasn’t daunted about asking Lesley Sharp (The Full Monty, Vera Drake, Scott and Bailey) and Shaun Dooley (Red Riding, Eden Lake, The Mark of Cain).
“I didn’t think for a minute they would say ‘yes’, but I am a firm believer that if you don’t ask you don’t get. There is no harm in asking when you really have nothing to lose.”
To her surpise Lesley Sharp emailed back almost immediatly after reading the script and said she would do it.
“I thought it was a beautful script,” says Lesley.
“For a short film it told a really powerful story very economically. It is only about 15 minutes long and yet it is quite extraordinary.
“Peekaboo is a brave and unique script. I hope that it helps to raise awareness of the terrible loss from stillbirth, and helps to improve our understanding of this taboo subject matter in the future so that we might be able to offer more care and support to those who are suffering from such an awful tragedy.”
Shaun adds: “Peekaboo tackles a difficult subject matter that I haven’t seen before. I believe it is incredibly important to be addressing uncomfortable issues such as this in our business and that’s what drew me to the film.”
Filming took place in Sheffield in March this year and Debbie is now working to raise the funds critical to ensuring that it makes it to the screen, with funding for film scarce in the current climate.
Debbie, who runs production company Big Buddha Films, has employed innovative methods to raise finance for Peekaboo.
“It’s been an exciting journey and I’ve been absolutely overwhelmed by the support that we’ve had so far,” explains Debbie, who again wasn’t shy at asking people to help make her movie a reality.
“We’ve raised £22,000 in cash from donations, alongside £15,000 in goods and services from the many people involved in the making of Peekaboo; however, we still need to raise another £3,000 to complete post production and support marketing and distribution.”
Debbie has launched an online crowdfunding campaign in the hope that more people will recognise the importance of the movie and play a part in ensuring that the film can be completed.
‘’Everyone that donates towards the making of the film, whether it’s £10 or £2,000, gets great rewards, such as a credit on the film or invites to a screening.’’ says Debbie who hopes to launch it at film festival next year before hopefully getting a distribution deal and eventually seeing it shown on television.
“I just want to get it seen by as many people as possible especially those who have no knowledge of stillbirth. I want them to get some understanding of what people go through.”
For Debbie, Peekaboo is her biggest film to date. Before setting up Big Buddha Films she was an actress for 25 years appearing on television and the stage.
“I gradually became more disillusioned. As you get older, especially as a woman, the roles disappear from under your feet.”
Debbie started writing film scripts with the intention of getting other people to make them, but it was only when she met another filmmaker that she decidedd to give it a go herself.
“She said the only way your film would end up the way you wanted it was to make it yourself. I thought about it and I know that I am quite controlling and wouldn’t have been happy with someone else’s interpretation so I decided to give it ago and did a trial with Screen Yorkshire.”
What Debbie lacked in technical expertise she made up for with her creative vision and the experience of being in front of the camera.
She set up Big Buddha Films with the intention of making films with a strong female voice that tackle human dilemmas, making up for what she felt was missing in the film industry.
But there isn’t much money in independent film making and as a single mum of 15-year-old twins she has to support her family. When not making films Debbie works with Creative Partnerships going into schools to work on projects, which helps pay the bills. “Next year will be very hard,” she admits. “Funding is drying up for everyone.”
But Debbie doesn’t strike you as the type of person to let money get her down.
“I always manage to provide for the kids.”
It is clear that her children, Sonny and Jasmine, are one of her main drivers.
Both had roles in Peekaboo although Debbie confesses that Sonny’s part did end up on the cutting room floor.
“He is fine about it. He knows what my films are about.
“Jasmine really wants to be an actress and she has appeared in a few of my films. I am always really keen for people to follow their dreams and do a job they enjoy doing.If they don’t enjoy it then do something else.”
For Debbie it is all about her characters.
“If I go to watch a film and I don’t care about the characters in it or the story that’s being told then there’s been no point in watching it no matter how beautiful it looks.
“Of course it is great if something can look beautiful as well but that’s not where I am coming from. I think that is where having a background as an actor helps.”
How to play your part in film
Sheffield film maker Debbie Howard has turned to crowd funding as a way of ensuring her film Peekaboo makes it on to the big screen.
Crowd funding means any one can donate money towards the film in return for various rewards, which could be a mention in the film’s credits, tickets to the premiere, or being credited as executive producer.
So far Debbie has had donations from £5 to £3,000. To find out more or to donate online, go to: www.sponsume.com/project/peekaboo-teaser or www.bigbuddhafilms.com/films/fiction/peekaboo