Telling real-life stories on screen is a complicated, pressurized task for any director — and even more so when your story is current, controversial, and shot during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Contending with all these factors, Directors UK member Alex Kalymnios brought the BBC’s Three Families to the screen. Starring Sinéad Keenan, Amy James-Kelly and Genevieve O’Reilly, Three Families tells the real stories of women living under Northern Ireland's abortion laws.
We spoke to Alex about the challenges and responsibilities that came with telling these stories, how she worked with her fantastic cast, the challenges posed by the pandemic and the sensitive subject, and much more. Read our interview with Alex below.
How did you first become attached to Three Families, and why did it speak to you?
I had just got back from working in America, directing my first US Pilot, and I had a meeting with Susan Hogg at Studio Lambert. She brought up Three Families and I just couldn’t stop asking questions about these women and the laws.
Women’s Rights and the right to choose has always been so important to me as a woman, and now even more so, as a mother to a daughter. A few years back, the law was changing in Georgia, USA (the state had signed a law to restrict abortions) and I had just been offered a really exciting opportunity to shoot there – but I turned it down, as my small way of saying no to these laws. I didn’t have any power — I am not a big production company or name — and therefore had not real impact on the state’s income or image. I’m just one person, but I had to stand by my beliefs and refuse to work in a place where women’s rights were not respected. I then heard about Northern Ireland abortion laws changing and I felt utterly embarrassed, as I never knew what was happening so close to home. I suddenly felt like a hypocrite — I had happily worked fifteen years ago in Northern Ireland at the start of my directing career, and although I wasn’t in the same position to say no to work, the truth is I didn’t know. I just didn’t know about this archaic law from 1861 they had in place in Northern Ireland. I had naively assumed the laws on abortion were the same as in England.
So when Susan approached me to direct the show I said yes immediately. I was compelled to get on board, to expose these stories to a wider audience who also may not know what is happening just across the water. It was too important a story not to tell.
Did you feel that there was a particular pressure in telling these stories? How did it compare to other projects you’ve worked on?
There’s always a pressure when you’re doing a real-life story. I have already worked on two projects that are based on real life: Cleveland Abduction, about the kidnapping of Michelle Knight by Ariel Castro, and Love You to Death, inspired by true events, a Munchausen syndrome by proxy story about a mother and daughter. So I had been in both worlds: one project was very closely adapted from a memoir, and the other was inspired by the true events. And both approaches have their challenges and responsibilities.
As a director, I am obsessed with the details and the instinct is to want everything to be absolutely correct. But I realised that sometimes when you’re talking to people who have experienced abuse and traumatic situations, that the facts and details get muddled, and really it’s the moments they remember. Moments and feelings. And that’s what I think is most important with storytelling — especially with these true stories — it’s finding those moments of truth and really nailing them, even if the details are different.
Three Families was based on three true stories. We had to change a few small things to hide our characters’ identities, but again, it was a case of the detail versus the truth: we didn’t stray too far with the detail, but our priority was finding and exploring those moments of emotional truth.
What do you think should be the director’s main concern when telling stories like these, that explore live, real issues and sensitive personal experience?
When dealing with real life sensitive issues, it’s important to keep remembering this is someone’s true story and to always respect that. There is a responsibility in sharing this with the world and I am conscious of that throughout the whole process.
And I know this sounds obvious but as directors we need to trust our instincts. When I first get a script, I read it really slowly and carefully, and anything that affects me — makes me laugh, cry, or shocks me — I put a tick by it. It’s important, because weeks or months later when you’re shooting or editing, you can remember that moment had an effect on you and never lose sight of it.
With Three Families, a lot of the moments I ticked turned out to be the ones that I saw people discussing on Twitter after broadcast. So trusting your instincts about what hits home, and protecting them throughout the process, is key.
Did you do any of your own research after becoming attached as director?
When I came on board the Studio Lambert team had already done quite a lot of research. Gwyneth Hughes (the writer) and the story team spent a long time in Northern Ireland finding these stories and shared their work with me. I also watched documentaries and studied a lot of articles online.
It was really important for me to have an understanding of all these women’s collective trauma and also grasp the complicated law restrictions surrounding abortion. Ultimately, I wanted to make sure I found the personal way into the stories we were telling. These are ordinary women, this literally could happen to you if you lived in a country with these laws. So all the women I studied through my research were always at the forefront of my mind when I approached my prep for the project.
I also found the research helpful because I didn’t have any direct access to the three women whose stories we were telling. Although one them reached out directly and thanked me for the way it turned out. Specifically, she mentioned one moment that she felt we captured perfectly which was key to her story. There’s a scene in Three Families where everyone’s celebrating outside Stormont after the law changed. For me, that’s such an important moment – at the core of it, amongst all the celebration, I wanted to focus on a little girl watching everyone. She has no idea what’s going on, except that her mum’s happy. But we, as an audience, know that her future has changed forever. The person who that scene is based on thanked me for the focus on the child. She told me she’d done it all for her daughter and the future generations. And that meant the world to me, because that specific beat wasn’t in the script and that was a sequence I created and had to fight for in the edit. That’s what I mean by trusting your instincts and finding those moment of emotional truth.
You have a fantastic cast in Sinéad Keenan, Amy James-Kelly and Genevieve O’Reilly. What was it like working with them, and how did you help them connect with the very raw and real emotions at the programme’s core?
The cast were brilliant and I’m so proud of each one. I think all the key cast had their own reasons for doing the show, and they all brought their own personal experiences into the mix too. We had some COVID-era, two-metres-apart, masked rehearsals where we just discussed the nature of the story – which was really helpful, because everyone talked quite intimately, which ultimately informed certain moments.
According to your interview in Broadcast Magazine, Three Families deliberately eschews a ‘Kitchen Sink’ style: what was the thinking behind that, and how did you achieve it?
I really wanted to avoid the social realist look, and go against what people might expect from an “abortion drama”. I wanted it to feel elegant and accessible. Firstly, I got an amazing DoP, Ula Pontikos, on board, and we talked about the look very early on. When people think about Northern Ireland on screen what too often comes to mind is the Troubles, red brick and that very specific colour palette – however, I wanted to go against that. We also decided to shoot in a 2:40 aspect ratio with anamorphic lenses, so that it felt cinematic, elevated and not claustrophobic — and to use the frame to epitomise the emotional states of our characters, while conveying their relationships with each other via their positions within the widescreen format.
The choice of locations was another massive consideration. Northern Ireland is an island — it’s surrounded by water! And it’s such a beautiful place, I wanted to show off that beauty. I wanted to visually emphasize that these women are living in a modern world. This is literally happening now. I wanted to contrast the modern world they occupy with this archaic law, so where possible I looked for locations that represented the old and the new.
I also tried to highlight the differences in the characters’ class and social status through the wardrobe and production design. The idea behind that was to show that this one law has an effect on all women in Northern Ireland, it cuts across society.
One thing you had to contend with was COVID-19. How did that impact production, and what did you do to get around it?
I’m not going to lie, it was tricky. We were one of the first productions to go back after COVID, because we already had insurance. People were a bit anxious to be back on set, and it actually changed our locations to a certain extent. Some of our council house locations were suddenly too small for social distancing – there literally wasn’t two metres of space to distance. So we had to upgrade some living circumstances a little. Masks were also tricky just in terms of communicating and giving visual cues. Communicating through a smile or an expression is so important and something we have taken for granted. We take almost all our cues visually — even if we are not aware of it. So that made directing different from a practical aspect.
Then halfway through the shoot one of the crew tested positive for COVID, so we shut down production for ten days. It was annoying to lose locations and all the production repercussions of that, however it was also a blessing. It gave me a bit of a chance to look at the material, do some editing, and it gave everyone a bit of a pause — I’d be tempted to recommend every production has a two-week break mid-shoot!
What other challenges did you face making Three Families, and how did you tackle them?
It’s a massively sensitive issue, so we had a codename for the production, there was a media blackout on it, and everything was very hush-hush. There were even moments where, when we were shooting the pro-life demonstrations, people would come up to us and ask if they could join in. It’s a very emotive subject with some very strong views out there, and so there was always a sensitivity to how we approached shooting.
Is there a particular moment during the making of Three Families that stands out to you as a highlight, when you knew you were on the right track?
It’s not a highlight – but there was one moment that really made us think “Wow, we have to tell this story now.” Whilst we were shooting, they were changing the abortion laws in Poland. There were marches in the streets – it was huge news. That really affected us and made it even more urgent to tell this story.
What do you make of the response to Three Families, and what do you hope audiences get out of it?
The reaction has been great. The contributors have been really happy with it. The response on Twitter was incredible. It was on Gogglebox as well, and as a filmmaker that was really fascinating, to watch other people watching your work. We also had some lovely four and five star reviews, which helped. I feel grateful that it’s been so well received, because it’s quite a hard watch – and I respect and appreciate everyone who put aside the time to watch it. Ultimately, for audiences who have watched it, I hope they have a little more understanding in how complex and difficult these situations are and afford these women the compassion and support they deserve, no matter what their personal stance is on abortion.
What are you working on next, and are there any experiences from working on Three Families that you think will inform your work going forward?
At the moment I’m writing a feature film, which is something I’ve been dipping in and out of in between projects over the years, so it’s nice to have some time to focus on it. I’ve also been reading loads of scripts and figuring out my next TV move.
The Three Families experience stresses for me the importance of telling the right story. So, when I’m looking at projects coming in, I need to have a connection with the material, and it has to have some significance. That doesn’t mean I have to do another Three Families, in fact I’ll likely do something totally different. That’s the best aspect of being a filmmaker: being able to tell all sorts of stories. But regardless of the genre, it’s got to say something, and that is what I am much more aware of now when choosing projects. What do I want to say? Does this story really need to be out there, and if it does, do I need to be the one telling it?
So, I guess that boils down to: know why you must work on that project. If you’re going to spend quite a few months working on something, it needs to be worth it. Three Families definitely was.
Banner photo: Ula Pontikos