After impressing us with her previous short Treacle at 2019 edition of the BFI Flare Festival Director Rosie Westhoff returns to our pages today with Our Sister. Working with formidable producer and Adapted Pictures collaborator Fiona Hardingham, Our Sister marks a considerable tonal shift for Westhoff’s work. Having previously centred on stories that walk the line between comedy and drama, this is the first of her short films which could be considered a straight drama. Taking place in the aftermath of a bereavement, we follow Tasha a nonverbal teenage girl with autism and her sister Zoe as they try to navigate a world that has suddenly significantly changed for them. Marking the beginning of World Autism Month, DN is proud to bring you the online premiere of Our Sister alongside an interview with Westhoff where we discuss crafting a new perspective on the grieving process, the importance of producers as creative collaborators and her BAFTA-nominated work in TV.
What was the initial inspiration behind the idea for Our Sister?
I met one of the writers, Josephine Brown a few years ago on a shoot we were both on, and we got on very well and I asked her if she would write something for me to direct. She came back to me with her equally brilliant writing partner Bradley Innes Wilson and the two of them created a beautiful story about the all-encompassing nature of grief and the intense bond you share with your sisters. It’s typical to see the process of grief on film from the parent’s perspective, but when a child has died what about the siblings left behind? What do they do when no one is strong enough to care for them as they grieve?
We wanted to explore the grieving process of two sisters with very different coping mechanisms, with the elder having autism. The character Tasha was inspired by Josephine’s autistic brother and loosely based on her own experiences with her brother when their mother passed away.
The film was backed by BFI Network, what was the experience of going through their short film funding process like?
The funding application process involved three rounds of applications, interviews and development days. The BFI were incredibly supportive throughout the process, particularly with their script notes and edit notes. We also had the opportunity to premiere at the London Film Festival as part of the BFI Network’s short film programme, which was a brilliant springboard for the film.
It was important to me that it felt like an authentic representation of a relationship between autistic and neurotypical siblings.
Our Sister takes place in the aftermath of a major emotional change, how did you work with your actors to convey that sense of loss and create the history they have as sisters?
It was our aim to throw the characters back into the real world as soon as possible, where there are no distractions of funeral planning, and what is left is the realisation that life goes on, no matter how crippling it is. So, we decided to set it the day after the funeral of their little sister. The story highlights how unique we all are and how when dealing with tragedy, such as the loss of a sibling, we all process and mourn in different ways. So, for both actors Achanti Palmer, who plays Tasha, and Lauren Corah, who plays Zoe, we were asking a lot. I have to give a huge shout out here to our Casting Director Heather Basten, who worked tirelessly with us in finding the perfect girls. We got self-tapes in from loads of different girls with autism and then we decided to only meet with a few, so as not to get too many girls’ hopes up.
After meeting Achanti I knew instantly it had to be her because of her honesty, humour, kindness and ability to show her inner self without saying much. For Zoe’s character we met with a lot of girls and Lauren brought something very different to the others, she brought a naivety like a girl who hasn’t grown up in a big city, yet a maturity like she had lived through a lot. Then we chemistry read the girls and actually Achanti had a huge say in it being Lauren as she felt the most comfortable with her, which was obvious from the start. We had a couple of days together the three of us, where we dissected the script and spoke about the emotions in every section, what they were feeling and what they were hiding. We did a lot of drawing of the characters and the emotions. Using colours and pictures to explain what their characters were going through.
I then worked with the Rehearsal Coach Miranda Harcourt who works a lot with teenagers, non-actors and actors with disabilities. With Miranda, we spent a day with the girls, Lauren’s mum, our Producer Fiona, and Miranda’s youngest daughter Davida. Here, we workshopped a lot of different things but most of it was based around building intimacy and connection between the girls so that the audience believed they were sisters. I did something similar with my last film Treacle but it’s much harder with teenagers who are more nervous and not used to this sort of thing at all. For both the girls it’s their first onscreen role.
I’m curious to know if there was much improvisation, a lot of the dialogue and moments between the sisters feel so organic, if it was, what was that like? And if it wasn’t how did you create that feeling?
We had been through about six months of rewrites just with the four of us, myself, the writers and our producer, and then a further six months with BFI Network. So, we were pretty solid with the script and not wanting to move away from it. I did, however, allow Lauren who plays Zoe to change words or add things she felt comfortable with. But as Achanti’s character Tasha is non-verbal she obviously didn’t change words, but she requested to do things slightly differently with her behaviour than it was scripted and that was always welcomed because we said from the start the actor would probably create the character better than we could.
How swift was your production process, you have numerous shorts under your belt at this point, have you found that it’s become smoother as you’ve progressed?
We actually started the casting process before we were fully financed as Heather Basten wanted about eight weeks to cast, which we respected and gave her the time needed. She couldn’t have had it any other way because finding these girls, one of whom has autism was always going to be difficult and also because we wanted to shoot in May, we needed to be cast by the end of April because child licences take about a month. I think we were fully funded in March and then we shot at the end of May. Myself and Fiona did light prep in April and then heavy prep in May.
It definitely becomes smoother but I’d never say easier because on every film I’m always striving to be better.
This one felt very different from the others because of Achanti probably. She’s a new actor and the material is a lot heavier than any of my other films so I wanted to get it right. I think we spent about one day a week together for six weeks just getting to know each other and building trust, and because this one is lottery funded there is a bit more you have to do as a producer so that took Fiona a lot of work. All in all, it felt a lot like my last film, four days, multiple locations, a reasonably sized budget and crew. It definitely becomes smoother but I’d never say easier because on every film I’m always striving to be better and so my expectations on myself and others are always higher.
This marks a significant tonal shift from your previous work, did you feel much of a challenge by taking on the script?
It’s my first straight drama but it’s still in the coming of age genre where I feel the most comfortable. All my films have shown young women going through big milestones in their lives, and all have been characters that aren’t often portrayed on screen, and even though this film is a bit different to Crush and Treacle I feel like it’s still me. Sometimes directors are expected to stick to one style, particularly in films, you don’t see it so much with TV directors, they can be forgiven for going from one genre to another, but as I find my voice as a filmmaker I want to experiment and explore with the craft especially as I’m still a new director.
When we started talking about making this film I was a bit daunted in taking on a drama but not too much, I think I was more daunted about being a neurotypical director representing a character with autism and working with an actor with autism. To combat that I worked with an autistic artist and author named Charlotte Amelia Poe to talk with her about the script and character to get her advice on the portrayal, my work with her was invaluable. In the end, I felt confident going into making it because I felt so at home with the girls. I love working with teenagers, particularly ones as smart, funny, cool and loving as Achanti and Lauren.
Our Sister arrives online today following its successful festival run, including winning Best British Short at Leeds International Film Festival and the Film the House ‘Best Short Over 19’ category. What reactions did audiences have to this fresh perspective on the grieving process and sisterhood?
I think audiences were moved by the story and the relationship between the two sisters, which was lovely to hear. I feel like the unspoken bond between the girls was something that connected with people. There’s not a lot of dialogue in the film and I was pleased that people seemed to enjoy the simplicity and subtlety of the storytelling. It was particularly special to receive positive feedback from the autistic community. It was important to me that it felt like an authentic representation of a relationship between autistic and neurotypical siblings.
I feel like the unspoken bond between the girls was something that connected with people.
The Main Part, you’re episode for Sparks: New Voices, New Stories, was nominated for TV BAFTA. How did you find the transition from shorts to TV?
The episode I made for Sparks was similar to a short, as the running time was 10 minutes. So in a way it was a great stepping stone into television. Working with the commissioners and execs at the BBC was a slightly different experience. There are more people that have input into the project than you typically have in a short film, so it was really good to go through that process. I also had the opportunity to build sets for the first time, which was incredible. So it was also a chance to try new things that I hadn’t done before. But my working process was very similar to the process I’ve developed in shorts, particularly in terms of working with the actors and working with the writer, as well as the prep work and collaboration with HODs. So it felt like a very natural progression.
Reflecting back on everything you’ve made to this point, what are some of the key lessons you’ll carry forward with you?
I think you need to work with crew, particularly on short film shoots, who really care and are true collaborators. Short films are not easy, they’re fast-paced and never have enough money and everyone’s on minimum wage so your crew need to want to be there. Working with your talented friends is important, and also to value those who give their all, and try to give back to them, next time I’d like to work with more friends I think.
Most of all the key lesson for me is find producers who can be your creative collaborators not just your logistical masterminds. There’s a bit of a mystic around directors, and how they are the sole creative vision and leaders of the film and the ones that make it what it is. This is false, great producers have creative vision too and are often the ones making sure the film gets made and push the directors to get what’s needed.
Find producers who can be your creative collaborators not just your logistical masterminds.
That’s what I learnt on this film with Fiona Hardingham who is both brilliant at story, she’s a trained actor and is an audiobook narrator for her day job, and character development. It’s an added bonus that she’s a logistical queen, and a brilliant negotiator but, above all, does everything with kindness. So, I think the biggest lesson is to continue to work with Fiona and wonderful producers like her.
Speaking of which are there any new projects we can look forward to from you and Adapted Pictures? We heard talk of a YA series.
Yes, through our company Adapted Pictures, Fiona Hardingham and I are developing a YA book to TV adaptation. We took it to TorinoFilmLab in early 2020, which was a huge help in moving the project forward. Since then we’ve received funding from the BFI Young Audience Content Fund for a pilot script and series bible. That allowed us to bring on the writer and script editor we wanted to work with. We’ll be taking the project out to broadcasters later this year.
And finally, can you tell us anything about your first feature?
It’s very early days, but I’m excited to be working on my first feature. We’re developing the film with the BFI again and both they and Film London have been incredibly supportive. It’s a very personal, semi-autobiographical film, which revisits many of the themes from the shorts that I’ve made, including family bonds, friendship and loss, with a young female protagonist at the centre of the story.