A ten minute monologue short where a young woman’s innermost thoughts are laid bare totally captivates in Mat Sheldon’s The Electricity in Me. The story being told is that of a young woman who upon discovering she is pregnant by her professor, a man she refers to as “my monster”, finds herself in the UK where she makes the decision to give her newborn son up for adoption. The film’s visceral stream of consciousness comes directly from the diaries and letters of Writer/Director Sheldon’s birth mother, Joan Stockdale, whose thoughts and feelings he has crafted into an emotionally captivating film about a woman he never knew directly but whose creativity, refusal to conform and loyalty are clearly apparent. The Electricity in Me is a film also driven by a superb performance from award-winning actor Ellora Torchia whose embodiment of the role devastatingly shines through the screen. Floored by this powerful portrait of a formidable woman, DN spoke to Sheldon about the moment he realised he had to write the script, giving voice to his birth mother’s story, the incredible and inspiring connection Torchia had to Joan’s writing and why it was important for him to centre the film around a single take’s uninterrupted performance despite cutting away.
What made you choose to make a film based on these personal writings of your mother?
When I was 14, I saw Joan’s photo for the first time. I didn’t look at it for another 20 years, unable to really understand what this stranger’s face meant to me. Who was this woman who was a complete mystery to me but looked like me? Was she my mother? Did she abandon me or did she try and protect me? But even though I didn’t look at the photo, I know I really kept looking at her in my mind’s eye. This film is the other side of the mirror about her looking back at me. “It is so strange he looks like me. I had so thoroughly renounced all claim to him that I didn’t expect to be there at all” (Letter, January 4, 1970).
I have wanted to tell Joan’s story, my birth mother, for a long time but felt like it was impossible in a short film to convey some of the complexity of her life and our mythical relationship which was simultaneously very real to me and nothing since I never knew her and she died at the age of 37 from breast cancer. However, a chance to pitch to actor Ellora Torchia forced me to write something. Suddenly, it felt entirely right to give Joan a voice by allowing her to talk directly to us, the audience, about exactly what she felt when she lost her son. These words were written, in part, in the reflective, poetic style of her hospital diaries which were brutally honest with wry observations about her life laced with a dark sense of humour. This included sketching the type of cancer cells that were killing her, observing that it was a surprise she couldn’t walk to Sainsbury’s because “my legs don’t work anymore” and a to-do list that summarised short, medium and long term goals when she got better including knitting a scarf and getting married. Which, in a very Joan kind of way was listed as both a medium and long term goal.
I’m impressed that the chance to pitch to Ellora forced you to put pen to paper. How did that opportunity come about and why do you think that this was the right time for this visceral film to come to be?
I had been tracking Ellora for a while and stayed up until 3am to watch her in the Sundance online screening of In The Earth just to see her latest work. Six months later a mutual friend introduced us. We had a coffee and I pitched the film to her, handing over my birth mother’s hospital diary to her in the meeting and just the dialogue for the script since that’s all I had time to write in the day or so before meeting her. To my horror and delight, she read what I had there and then, in front of me, and said she would do it there and then despite knowing absolutely nothing about me. Ellora Torchia’s extraordinary connection with the character is wholly real; a living and breathing embodiment of my flesh and blood. Someone I never met but know deeply.
It felt entirely right to give Joan a voice by allowing her to talk directly to us, the audience, about exactly what she felt when she lost her son.
How did you find delving into the private thoughts of a woman so close to you yet who is as you’ve said to all intents and purposes a stranger?
In short, pretty intense and actually very straightforward. What’s interesting is that character development is easy when you know who you are writing. Whether it’s what they like to eat, their politics, how they put on their shoes, or who they are in love with. And who or what they hate. What surprised me is how well I knew my birth mother, without having to really think about it. I guess I’ve been developing the character for a long time but just didn’t realise that was going on in the background.
I’ve had the diaries for a long time and they are very vividly written, Joan comments “I have been quite mesmerised by the Royal Wedding. I think for 2 reasons (1) Diana is very young & it makes me think as I did when I gave Matthew up for adoption that I have spoiled all my chances. (2) She is fair with blue eyes as I am & finally I have an example of a type like my own being considered beautiful. I suppose this combines to provide the attraction of ‘what might have been’ hopefulness and hopelessness.” I have never known how to use them to stimulate a story about them nor how to manage my feelings about her which are complicated I guess because I feel like I know her – and don’t know her.
You’ve mentioned Ellora’s extraordinary and immediate connection to Joan’s writing. How did you feel hearing the words aloud and what was your process when it came to working with her on the performance?
It was wonderful. After the first time she read to me as a full performance with tears spilling down her face, just me and her, I knew Ellora’s truth about the character, her very embodiment of this person who had become this almost mythical character to me was going to be real and perfect and moving and amazing.
And, the reality is, I don’t feel I did too much to shape her performance after that first rehearsal. We definitely talked about Joan and who she was and how Ellora felt about her but I didn’t want to rehearse to keep it as pure as possible. Ellora’s attention to detail and pure craft quickly became clear after revealing to me that she ran her lines over 100 times before we met to rehearse and after seeing her performance a couple of times, seeing real tears rolling down her face, I knew we weren’t going to need to rehearse again. It was about me getting out of the way and keeping everything around her supporting her to find that place she needed to be to share her innermost connection with the character.
How did you pull together the crew for this and what was your set up for the shoot?
There was plenty of hustling to find the right people but ultimately their response was led by the script and how they felt about the writing and how they felt about working with Ellora too which very much elevated the project. What we’re really proud of is that none of the team had ever worked with each other apart from the DP and gaffer and the production designer/art director. So myself and Producer Nileema Yesmin built it from the ground up but on the day it felt like we were in perfect sync. It was a dream really – and finished early!
Take 3, an unbroken 6 minute shot, was the only one used in the film and whilst we cut away part through, it’s all the same performance.
We shot on Alexi Mini LF, 4.5K open gate, recording to ARRIRAW codec with Arri Signature Prime lenses and take 3, an unbroken 6 minute shot, was the only one used in the film. Whilst we cut away part way through, it’s all the same performance. After the shoot, it quickly became clear in the edit that a visual counterpoint was needed to fully understand where Joan was from and the land, the Saskatchewan prairies she grew up in and where she was returned to when she was laid to rest in the family cemetery. Wintry Saskatchewan prairie locations were scouted in early November by my Canadian cousin (and Joan’s niece) Jess and shot in mid-November by Director Photography Aaron Bernakevitch with key shots agreed over the phone and input from the main unit DP on framing and lens choices. Wintry prairies sound, for absolute authenticity including obligatory Canada geese, was later recorded by production sound mixer Brad Martin out in the Alberta prairies, just before Spring broke in early 2022.
Could you tell us more about that decision to present Joan’s monologue from a single take despite punctuating it with those counterpoint shots?
I just wanted it to be really clear that this person wanted to talk to us. And she was going to say things she had never had a chance to say before, which would be a visceral experience that you couldn’t look away from. Cutting away can increase and decrease impact depending on how the story is landing with the audience and what you see next (in the edit) but I felt that we just needed to give this woman time to sit with us and say what she needed to say without artifice.
She was going to say things she had never had a chance to say before, which would be a visceral experience that you couldn’t look away from.
Lucy Berry at Final Cut London was responsible for the edit at the same house that cut the Oscar winning The Long Goodbye and was a somewhat lengthy process totalling 31 edit versions as we sought to find the right balance and how much back story to share with Ellora’s performance, the right quotes from Joan’s diaries and a key letter and the Canada shots.
What were you searching for across those 31 edits and how did you know when the cut was right?
More than anything, I was hoping it would feel like it was enough of a mystery to discover who Joan was and be real and true but articulated in such a way that made you want to know more about the story. What is a kick is how people have said how the running time feels far less than 10 minutes even though, in reality, it is a 6 minute monologue plus other contextual components i.e. landscapes, diary/letter excerpts, etc. It’s a very simple film, obviously.
What are you working on next?
Three things, writing a feature screenplay for The Electricity in Me which imagines an alternative history for a woman (Joan) suffering with cancer who believes that she will be healed if she reconciles with the son she gave up for adoption, The Colour Of Our Memory, a science fiction drama connecting memory and identity to the future and Deadweight, another short film, examining the crushing reality of family in a darkly comedic story.