Indie Film Spotlight: LET ME GO + Interview with writer/director Polly Steele

When I first heard about Let Me Go about a year ago, I was immediately intrigued. Not just in terms of its story, but I’ve always been a champion of #womeninfilm and this one has a female writer/director AND a terrific female ensemble cast! I really wanted to see the film at Bentonville Film Festival last Spring, but I had just wrapped my first short film Hearts Want so I timing was an issue. But thanks to Evolutionary Films for sending me the screener link that I was able to see it last month.

The film is based on a true story, and though films about the holocaust are a dime a dozen, writer/director Polly Steele told the story from an unconventional perspective. It’s a unique and compelling approach on a real life story from the past that’s still relevant today. I love the talented female cast who effectively portrayed three generation of daughters being affected by a horrific past. It’s a thought-provoking, heartbreaking yet beautiful film that I wish I could see on the big screen. If you get a chance to see this, don’t miss it. Not only is it an absorbing tale, it’s also a visually striking film with an equally gorgeous score.

Let Me Go is a film about mothers and daughters, it is about ghosts from the past and the impact they leave on the present. Developed from Helga Schneider’s true life story, it explores the effect on Helga’s life of being abandoned by her mother, Traudi in 1941 when she was just four years old. The film is set in the year 2000 following not only Helga and Traudi’s journeys but the next two generations and how Beth, Helga’s daughter and Emily her granddaughter are confronted with the long-term effects of Traudi’s leaving.

 

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Read my interview with Polly Steele on her journey into bringing Helga Schneider’s story to life on screen…

Q: There are so many films about the holocaust done already but your film tells a story from such a different perspective, that is from the family of the perpetrators, instead of the victims. Can you tell me what inspired you to write this story?

When I first found this story I had no idea what attracted me to it. Looking back it was probably the vulnerable face of a small child in the black and white photo on the back cover. This vulnerability echoed inside me somewhere and I read the book. I know that trauma arises from all sides in a conflict and Helga’s trauma is no less valid than anyone else’s. Helga’s story was a difficult story to tell after the war had ended, there was no space for stories like hers. Now that 75 years has past since the war, I think we can acknowledge that innocent children from all sides of a conflict suffer. We cannot move on from our own suffering unless we acknowledge the suffering of others.

Q: How did you first hear about Helga Schneider? Can you tell us the process of getting the rights to tell her story and how long it took you to write the script?

Polly (right) meeting Helga in Italy

After reading the book, I flew to Milan to meet her, she only spoke Italian and a little French and I spoke English and French and so we used her agent to translate and we sussed each other out with a lot of looking into each others eyes. I think we came to an understanding that day and I felt that she entrusted me with her life story, I am very grateful to her.

After seven years of writing and re-writing the script, working with various different companies and even putting it aside for a while, somehow the right team came together, the energy changed and here we are having raised the money in a year and made the film the following year, but the whole process was 10 years in the making.

Q: How involved was Helga herself in making this film? I believe you flew to Italy to meet with her?

After meeting her the first time, we kept in touch, I would write to her asking her questions and she would write back . I would google translate and on it went. After a couple of drafts of being completely true to her story I made a leap to include the two youngest characters who are fictitious, because I was fascinated with inherited trauma. I made these creative decisions with Helga’s blessing. The two new characters are based on information given to us by Helga who wanted to protect the real identity of her close family members. She understands now that her story has continued to affect those who came after her and that is what the film focuses on. Ironically when I met her again just before we started filming she told me that the two new characters were very accurate relative to her own experience.

Traudi (Karin Bertling), Beth (Jodhi May) Helga (Juliet Stevenson) and Emily (Lucy Boynton) – Andrew Ogilvy Photography

Q: I love the idea of a multi-generation of daughters being affected and dealing with a shared past. Would you share about the casting process for Juliet Stevenson, Lucy Boynton and Jodhi May, as well as Stanley Weber as the only prominent male character in the film?

Juliet came on board very early on. She read the script and then we met and she followed the films progress always remaining committed. She was our rock.  Jodhi also met me early on in the process and committed whole heartedly, she was fascinated by the subject of inherited trauma and also stayed with us until we were green lit. Lucy I saw on a taped video that she did in L.A and immediately thought she had a special something, elegance, an innocent maturity if that is possible and a very natural look on the screen. Lucy could only confirm very close to shooting but thats because she was up for another film at the same time but luckily we got her! Karin was the last to join and the most difficult character to cast. No one wanted to be a hardcore Nazi… but then we cast our net wider and Karin was waiting in the wings in Stockholm and she is a Gem! I am very proud of all of them and Stanley Weber, and Eva Magyar, I think they all did an amazing job.

Stanley Weber in a still from the film

Q: This is the second narrative feature you wrote and directed. What’s the biggest challenge for you as indie filmmaker in terms of bringing your story vision to life?

These days making an independent feature is an incredibly difficult task…to get the stars to align is a rare and beautiful thing but I also believe that as a woman it has been even harder. This was not an easy story to tell, but I had an amazing team of people supporting me and the film. My producer Lizzie Pickering who has been incredible, raising money relentlessly, never giving up as well as our Executive Producers Georges Tsitos who kept us on track from the beginning and then Rupert Labrum who was our first serious investor and stayed loyally with us until the end and many more who subsequently joined. We gathered support by holding storytelling circles in peoples houses and inviting them to listen to a video of Helga and hear her story and then slowly, slowly the money came.

Q: There are some really difficult scenes to watch, especially between Helga and her mother. Can you tell me what’s been the most challenging aspect of filming this?

Filming any scene whatever the content is about making sure that the actors are 100% in the space and time and world that they are meant to be inhabiting, that way they are authentic and then we have done our job. The whole reason that the scenes between Traudi and Helga are different from anything that I have seen before on this subject is that Traudi makes us understand from her perspective what normal was for them in that extreme situation. It is untenable for us in our world knowing what happened, to accept what she says but it’s equally important that we realise what it was like in their shoes. Helga’s dearest wish is that the film may play a tiny part in preventing history from repeating itself.

Still from Let Me Go trailer – All images are courtesy of Evolutionary Films

Q: I love that the films are shot on location and it was stunningly shot by Michael Wood, set to a lush score by Phil Selway. Can you share about finding the locations in the UK and Austria, as well as the scoring process?

Michael Wood is an amazing D.O.P but then he also had the fabulous Alex Walker our designer to pair up with. The two of them did a beautiful job with few resources. David Broder our other producer found Minley Manor in Kent which was used for the old peoples home and then we decided that being in a few key places in Vienna was crucial, like the Judenplatz and so made the financial commitment to shoot in Vienna too. Michael understood very quickly what I wanted to do with the light in this film and the energy of the restless camera. I feel he achieved a great look and Alex also indulged my minimalist approach to spaces, allowing me to eliminate a lot of props and furniture so that we could really focus on the emotional intensity in some of the scenes. We had a great thing going between the three of us. I also want to mention Daniel Goddard who I have worked with for many years as an editor, he too completely understood what I was aiming for, he is a very sensitive and experienced editor and worked wonders.

Philip Selway has been amazing from the absolute beginning. He came on board before most other people and immediately started talking to me about the script. He was so supportive and also so positive about the story, he really understood the themes and spent a lot of time building up sound beds and themes laying the foundations for what turned out to be a stunningly beautiful score. Philip was key in keeping me true to my initial ideas.

Q: Last but not least, would you tell me some of films that’ve influenced you, particularly those dealing with WWII?

I actually grew up in many different countries but spent ten years of my childhood in France and was very influenced by French films. They have far more stories that are about the emotional journey rather than the physical one and that very much influences how I like to tell stories. I can’t say that I see this film as a WWII film and so never approached it like that. I just wanted to tell the story of a family , who had lost their men in the war and had to find their way in the world together, four women , carrying with them a secret that was so extraordinarily heavy, a secret that could have destroyed them all, but they were given a moment in time to let it go, to tell the truth and to let it go and in that way there is hope.
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The film is available in UK cinemas & digital download on September 15. Hopefully it’ll be available in the US soon.
For more info visit Letmegomovie.com


Thanks so much Polly for chatting with me!

FlixChatter Review: Sing Street (2016)

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Ahhhh… the 80s. Duran Duran, A-Ha, Spandau Ballet, The Cure, etc. I grew up with the bands featured in this movie, which adds the enjoyable quotient tenfold for me. I discovered John Carney a bit late as I saw Begin Again first a couple of years ago, then rented Once after that. I absolutely loved both of them, though Begin Again felt a bit more Hollywood given that it’s got bigger stars like Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, so I’m glad he returned to his Irish roots in his latest.

Set in Dublin in the mid 80s, Sing Street‘s tagline says ‘Boy meets girl, girl unimpressed, boy starts band’ and the movie is exactly what it says on the tin. The boy is Connor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a 15-year-old boy who turns to music to escape his strained family life as his parents are going through a divorce. It’s certainly a story anyone can relate to, I mean we’re all teenagers once too. It’s especially tough when teens have to switch schools and that’s what happens to Connor when he’s sent to an inner-city public school to save money. That’s where he meets the mysterious girl Raphina (Lucy Boynton) with big dreams of becoming a model in London.

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The whole process of Connor and his new pal Darren forming the band is such a joy to watch. Of course being a movie it all feels fairy-tale-ish how it came together, but it’s got such an infectious charm that got the whole theater in a jolly mood. The boys in a band have such quirky personalities, one of my fave parts was in Eamon’s (Mark McKenna) house when he showed off his abilities to play multiple instruments. But all of the music videos they’re filming are such a hoot, as the boys assumed different personas of famous bands from that era. I think my fave look is when the boys were rockin’ the guyliner and teased hair inspired by The Cure. The young actors (except for Boynton who I had seen in BBC miniseries of  Sense & Sensibility) are all unknown. In fact, this is 16-year-old Ferdia’s acting debut, though he had stage and opera experience. The fact that the actors did their own singing certainly adds to the authenticity of the story.

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All the musical performances are definitely the highlight, though there are poignant moments throughout. Kids get bullied in school from fellow students and strict teachers (which I could relate to as I went to an all-girl Catholic high school) and of course, dealing with the broken heart of first loves. The romance between Connor and Raphina is sweet despite being rather mawkish at times. I think the relationship between Connor and his down-on-his-luck older brother Brendan (played affectingly by Jack Reynor) is more memorable. Connor looks up to Brendan who teaches him all there is to know about rock ‘n roll ‘No woman can truly love a man who listens to Phil Collins.’ Ha! Yet in a way, Brendan also lives vicariously through his naive-yet-driven younger brother and in the end was inspired by him.

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I had such a blast watching this movie, in fact it’s one of the most joyful films I’ve ever seen. This is apparently semi-autobiographical for writer/director John Carney and it’s the perfect love letter to the 80s and the power of music. For anyone who’s used music or other forms of art to escape the harsh realities of life will be swept away by the infectious optimism of this movie. The way he integrates music into the storyline is unlike any other filmmaker working today. I definitely will do a Music Break post with my favorite tunes from the movie. In fact, I was listening to the songs as I was writing this review and can’t wait to re-watch this movie again.

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Have you seen ‘Sing Street’? Well, what did YOU think?