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If The Shoe Fits: An Interview with Barbara Spevack

Tell us about yourself. What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

I’ve always wanted to be an actress, having loved film from a very young age. Becoming a filmmaker was by necessity, in a way. I had written a script that I wanted to act in, Bigger Dolls (2018), but no-one in the film group I went to wanted to make it because of its sensitive subject matter. So, I decided to make it myself. I produced and directed it and found a new member of the group who was willing to film it. From then on, I felt protective of my writing and didn’t want to hand it over to another filmmaker.

I never watched short films before I started making them. Because I’d studied Theatre rather than Film, I had never considered short films as a medium. For decades, I’ve had ideas about scenes in films that I’d created for me as an actress, but I couldn’t think of how to stretch it into a feature-length project. Then I learned about short films, which allow me to take just that one moment and make it the entire focus.

Talk about your last work. What are some of the challenges you faced during production?

The last full-scale, live-action film I made (pre-Covid) was When The Ticking Stops (2020). The main challenge I faced during production was that my mum died. On the morning of first day of filming, I went to the hospital to be with her during one of her chemo sessions. I lost my watch on the way, which has significance to the film as the concept is ‘When the ticking stops, you will die’. The second day of filming, I was getting my makeup done

when my sister phoned to tell me that mum’s test results were back and the cancer had spread and she only had a short time left to live. But, ‘the show must go on’, so I continued with that day’s filming. On what would have been the third day of filming was my mum’s funeral, and I postponed filming that day, although, for a moment, I’d actually considered trying to fit in filming in the morning before the afternoon funeral.

After all that, the original editor dropped out due to personal reasons, as did the second. The third editor then told me that the footage was no good and I’d have to re-film the whole thing. I thought that I’d spent all of that time away from my mum for no reason. Luckily, I happened to be with another filmmaker when I was told this, and he became the film’s fourth and final editor, using the footage that was apparently no good. That film has gone on to win numerous awards.

The film that was part of the Tokyo International Short Film Festival was made before that, but came out after, due to post-production hold ups. If The Shoe Fits (2021) started life as a short story interweaving many fairy tale characters. For making this film, I was encouraged to choose one tale and make that the whole film. I chose Cinderella for two reasons: I had played the role on stage when I was 12 and I wanted to revisit it as an adult, and the logistics of creating a tower for Rapunzel seemed too difficult on no budget.

There were three main challenges with this film. On the day, I felt completely out of control as a director. Secondly, the edit had to be redone by a second editor. Finally, I was going to have original music composed, but, after numerous delays, I eventually had to ask someone else to fit stock music to the film, which worked out just fine.

What makes you want to tell stories? In other words, what are the themes/issues you want to incorporate into your work?

When I was writing my first film, Bigger Dolls, I noticed a change in me as soon as I named my character. It went from wanting to make a film that I’d completely invented to wanting to tell her story. I’d only just chosen this character’s name, but she suddenly became very important to me as a person, and I had to let her story be told.

I was recently diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (high-functioning autism), which means that my brain is wired differently from the majority. As such, I’ve always felt different from other people, but never understood why. I want to show the audience that, even with their flaws and differences and idiosyncrasies, neuroatypical people can be sympathetic and understood. I don’t necessarily write people with autism or mental health issues, I just write for me, and that includes my voice coming through them.

Please tell us about your vision and your method of approaching a new project?

I create a character in a situation and I see the film played out in my head. Although I’ve studied acting, I haven’t studied filmmaking, so I find a crew who, hopefully, know what they’re doing so I can describe to them what I want and they can translate that into filmmaking terms.

I tend to approach new projects with trepidation, given various negative experiences I’ve had with making films in the past. I equate it to having a baby: the labour is horrendous but, once you have your baby and she’s doing well, you want to have another.

Although my films are not on the same scale as the Hollywood features that I grew up watching, as an actress and filmmaker I want, somehow, to leave an impression on people who see my films. Maybe they’ll learn something about an issue, or maybe they’ll feel something for a character they wouldn’t normally identify with.

Who are your filmmaking influencers? What are the films that were influential for you?

The films that I love are the ones I grew up watching, which were mainly Hollywood musicals from the Golden Age. I haven’t yet made a musical (although I have a script for one), but they’re the reason I wanted to be in films.

There are some non-musical films that I’ve watched that are breathtaking and far more than just entertainment, such as The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), starring the phenomenal Fredric March, Schindler’s List (1993) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994).

Film is the best educator. Sitting in a lecture theatre will not help you to learn about history as effectively as sitting in a movie theatre. When it's acted out in front of you, you feel with the characters. You don’t just know the information intellectually; you feel it in your gut. You live alongside the characters and care about them as if they were family.

I created a Holocaust film, The Value of a Life (2020), because, as a Jewish filmmaker, I wanted to produce a film about that paramount moment in history.

The TV series Quantum Leap (1989) really educated me as I was growing up. It taught me about issues in history that I hadn’t been taught about in school, and it also helped to shape my morality. To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) is a seminal film about racism and ethics, which, I’m sure, has shaped many lives, and not just mine. I have a Master’s degree in Moral and Political Philosophy, and I’m sure Quantum Leap and Mockingbird had something to do with that.

Watching films got me through a difficult childhood with undiagnosed Asperger’s. The actors were my family and friends. I sometimes feel like I grew up in 1940s New York rather than 1970/80s Scotland.

How do you think the industry is changing? How has COVID affected independent filmmaking/creation?

During lockdown, I recorded a number of short stories that I had written and my editor-friend put stock footage to them and we made a few short films without having to leave our respective houses. These include one about a teddy bear sharing her worries about her human giving birth, my twist on a familiar fairy tale, and another Holocaust-based one that listens to the thoughts of a German soldier.

I also merged a Dickensian-type of environment with fantasy. These and the others would have been very difficult to film as live-action pieces, and hiring someone to create a new animation is beyond my budget. But, doing them this way, which I wouldn’t’ve have considered if not for lockdown, has led to some emotional, funny, and scary stories.

What advice would you give to aspiring artists? What are some of the things they must follow/avoid?

Be careful who you work with.

Don’t compromise on quality but learn to eventually let go and stop. It won’t be the perfect vision in your head, but ‘good enough’ might be ‘just right’ for the audience.

Be kind and considerate (but still try to get what you want); however, realise that communication with people can be difficult, whether it’s online, over the phone, or using any other medium.

Do you think films/stories can bring about a change in the world?

Yes. I’ve already said above about the educational opportunities of films. There are many films about important issues in the world, such as slavery, dictatorships, genocide, etc., and they can reach a far wider audience than the afore-mentioned lecture theatres.

There are films that I haven’t even seen but just read about that alerted me to issues in the world that I otherwise wouldn’t have known about. People can watch a film about poverty, injustice, or war and then, because of how they feel watching it, can then go out and try to change the world.

Film/TV can also inspire hope with positive images. Star Trek (1966) has inspired many people to become engineers, astronauts, physicists, and so on, and a lot of the tech we use today was created by people who, as children, watched similar items being used in a sci-fi future. The writers of Star Trek dreamed up computers you can hold in your hands, telephones with no wires, and doors that open by themselves, and some of the children watching grew up and invented those things in real life.

Films can touch your soul, inspiring change in humanity.

What do you think people like to watch these days? Has the pandemic changed people's taste?

My taste hasn’t changed, but I don’t know about other people. I like binge-watching American TV series, where you live with the characters for a long time. It seems a lot easier to me to watch four 45-min episodes in a row than commit to a 2-hour film. People with full-time jobs who were forced to stay at home all day due to lockdown spent a lot of time binging TV series. Some shows have a comment to make on society, while some are more entertainment based. Both are worthwhile. I often like to just put on the TV and watch a repeat of The Big Bang Theory during the day or Law & Order: Special Victims Unit at night and just have it keep me company while I take a break from the world. I may not have the time or concentration to watch a new film, but a repeat that happens to be on at that moment is just the thing I need.

Please tell us about your upcoming projects.

I wanted to play a role where my face was disguised in some way, but I was torn between various types of disguising make-up. I then saw a performance that inspired me, leading to a combination of the stage musical Cabaret and American crime drama SVU.


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