There is nothing extraordinary about Norma. A sweet-natured and caring elderly lady, she bears a crown of hair curlers on her head and the weight of decades of marriage on her shoulders. But today is Norma’s birthday and she has finally had enough of her daughter’s constant complaints and her husband’s barely concealed resentment. Written and directed by Emily Munster during lockdown No.1, Norma is a character study of a woman trapped in her house and in the memories of her long-lost youth, giving the nine-minute darkly funny short huge emotional heft and crowd appeal. Grounded by a winning central performance by Susie Blake, the film showcases the importance of dreaming and seeking happiness at every stage in life, without ever slipping into saccharine or self-pitying waters. We are celebrating the online premiere of Norma with cake and plenty of insights from Munster – from the reasons behind choosing to have the narrative unfold in one single location, to overcoming her imposter syndrome as a first-time narrative writer/director and plenty more. So grab a plate and pull up a chair because DN is where the party’s at.
This has clearly been a passion project of yours for some time. What drove you to finally make it and why was it important for you to do so?
I had a very early version of this story in my head for years and had been making endless excuses about how I was too busy to try and write a script, let alone make a film. When lockdown hit, I suddenly had an empty schedule and no more excuses. With the privilege of boredom during that bleak time, I could either stare at the news cycle for 24 hours a day or do something productive. I’d been wanting to make this film for so long, I knew I had to grab this rare opportunity with both hands. In addition to that, the experience of lockdown only strengthened the feeling I was trying to express through the film (although to be clear this film is not specifically based on my life) so I knew that the time was right.
You wrote the short during lockdown and there’s an interesting parallel with the narrative as it unfolds in one single location. There’s a claustrophobic, almost suffocating feel to it – something we can all empathise with. Was that intentional?
Yes very intentional – I wanted the characters to feel completely isolated from the outside world to try and emulate what it feels like to be Norma. From the opening shot, we are locked onto her face as she is verbally bombarded from two different directions, unable to escape. Norma exists in a desperate silence and I wanted to give her sadness space to breathe as the house creaks around her. I specifically didn’t want to see the garden or hear birds/traffic outside so we worked hard, particularly through the cinematography and sound design (with the super talented Ruaraid Achilleos-Sarll and Hannah Stewart), to keep this world as closed and still as possible.
Norma exists in a desperate silence and I wanted to give her sadness space to breathe as the house creaks around her.
I had also always wanted to make a film set in just one location because it forces you to be more creative with storytelling (also – it’s cheaper!). Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men is one of my favourite films so it was fun to rewatch that and see how they went about using only one location. I also discovered Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant during this process which was very inspiring in its seemingly infinite use of different angles within one small space. So although lockdown definitely helped compound this feeling of claustrophobia, it was very much already in the DNA of the original story.
Was Norma’s character inspired by something or someone in your life?
Norma was inspired by many people and also nobody in particular. She’s an amalgamation that just materialised during the writing process. The character’s believability and charm is so much down to the nuanced performance – we were so lucky to have Susie Blake on board. Susie brought the character to life in such a beautifully tragic way (as did the hilarious David Fielder as Norman). Our Casting Director Martin Vaughan is some kind of casting wizard, I really cannot imagine anyone else playing these roles now.
I’ve noticed more than ever how few leading roles there are for women over 40 so I’m very proud of Norma in that respect.
I love that the film challenges the stigma that comes with women of a mature age, dictating how they should act and what they should want from life. Is this something you are passionate about?
I’m passionate about helping people fulfil their potential, regardless of age, so the fact that Norma has been this unhappy for this long makes me instinctively want to help her forge a new path for herself. Having a more mature female character as the protagonist was not something I was specifically aware of when writing – it just made sense to me that the characters would be a bit older so that all of the flaws inside this marriage were deeply entrenched. However, now that I’ve been through this process, I’ve noticed more than ever how few leading roles there are for women over 40 so I’m very proud of Norma in that respect – and I hope to continue writing for characters of all ages.
Is there a key moment or scene in the film that defines what it’s about and what it means to you?
The very final shot of Norma defines the film for me, where the monumental shift in their power dynamic has been completed.
This is your debut narrative short as a writer and director. What were the biggest challenges you faced and what did you find the most rewarding?
The biggest challenge was probably imposter syndrome, as cliché as that sounds. Until we were actually on set, it felt a bit like I was playing an elaborate prank on myself. I was consumed by anxiety from start to finish.
The most rewarding part was collaborating with a wildly talented group of people. On the shoot, it seemed crazy to me that every person present was there to help bring my little script to life. The characters had lived inside my head for so long it was pretty surreal to suddenly see them in real life, just walking around eating lunch. It was an amazing experience and I’m so grateful to everyone involved.
It was also hugely rewarding working with our editor, Harvey Eaton, and colourist, Tom Mangham at Black Kite Studios (both via ace producer Megan O’Hagan). They were so patient, thoughtful and skilled at what they do and our collaborations were so creatively satisfying. I’d initially tried to edit the film myself but I was too close to the material and nearly threw my laptop out the window, so I’m very relieved Harvey came on board!
Until we were actually on set, it felt a bit like I was playing an elaborate prank on myself. I was consumed by anxiety from start to finish.
It was also particularly rewarding to work with my two extremely talented friends (Lauren Crockatt the production designer, Hannah Stewart the sound designer). I trust both their tastes implicitly and I know how lucky and important it is to have those close relationships on a creative project. We’ve wanted to make something together for such a long time, I’m so happy we finally made it.
What does the future hold for Norma and Norman?
I’m sure that they live happily ever after!
What are you working on next?
I’m in the early stages of developing my next short, End of January. It’s a story that intends to evoke the experience of what it’s like to want kids in the face of human extinction. It’s a comedy! (It’s not.)