This Director Went from a Short to SXSW—No Film School Required
Art and Experience:
Director Stacey Gregg crafts a Hitchcockian drama/thriller for SXSW 2021.
In Stacey Gregg’s feature directorial debut, Here Before, Andrea Riseborough plays a mother, Laura, on the verge of collapse. She’s lost a daughter, and when a new couple moves into the home next door, their young Megan (Niamh Dornan) is uncannily familiar. Reality splinters. What is real, and what is in Laura’s mind?
The film is a delightfully disorienting trip filled with gorgeous imagery. For example, one of Laura’s nightmares is accompanied by a bouncy, bucolic little tune, punctuated with inverted shots, flashes of a winking ketchup face, and her husband’s (Jonjo O’Neill) contorted expression. Despite these more uncanny moments, the story remains a grounded tale of family, loss, and relationships.
And Gregg seems to have an unrelenting work ethic. A screenwriter, playwright, and director, she is currently developing two television series and another feature. She has written for multiple television shows, including The Innocents and Little Birds. She decided to tackle her first feature film after directing her first short, Mercy.
She doesn’t think there should be gatekeepers to filmmaking. Gregg spoke with No Film School ahead of the film’s premiere at SXSW about this belief, the film’s COVID post process, and how she stays inspired. Take a look!
Editor’s note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: So this was your first feature. I read that you initially weren’t planning on directing, but then you did a short. What about that process of making the short made you confident that you could take on a larger-scale project like this?
Stacey Gregg: I think that when I did the short, I didn’t necessarily have mapped out that I would therefore go on and become a director and make a feature. I think that I’ve been a theater maker and a screenwriter for several years. I always had a hunch that I wanted to make film. So I made this short. I was eight months pregnant when I made it. We were in a tiny little house. So I was knocking equipment and people left, right, and center with my bump. And in a way, it was a really great way to do it because there’s nothing as perspective-making as putting yourself out of the center of the frame. I just love doing that. It felt very natural to me, I guess I realized, making that short film, how many transferable skills I had from experience I already had.
And it gave me the bug, I felt really hungry to do something bigger. And when it came to the feature, I knew the script inside out. I was very clear about the film that I wanted to make. And I felt really supported by my producers. And then, as we brought on each creative collaboration and HOD [head of department]—I’m a very collaborative worker anyway. I think that I was very clear about the areas I was very confident in, and it was so much just about communicating to get the best out of people. But also to straight up say, “Well, I’ve not done that before.” Or, “What do you mean? We’ve got eight weeks prep? What do we do in that time?”
And then we shot. And then the pandemic struck, and then we went into lockdown, and I had to learn how to post the film entirely and remotely from my bedroom on my MacBook. So, if my learning curve wasn’t already steep, then it was vertical. And that was the hardest period because it felt so isolated, and to me, it’s such a creative process. You want to be around people and you want to be nourishing yourself and be stimulated. And even doing things like going to galleries, or seeing the cinema when you’re trying to be creative. So, that definitely was the toughest period.
If I may—I feel like there’s been a mystique for a long time about filmmaking that has at times excluded people. Because they feel like, “Oh God, I couldn’t possibly, if I didn’t go to film school, or I haven’t made 10 short films, I couldn’t possibly.” And I had a lot of really great people around me just saying like, “Step up, of course you can.” And now that I’ve done the process myself, I’m really quite evangelical about wanting to pass on that message to people that, “You can do it.”
I think the key things are, be clear about your vision and just try to communicate. It’s not a form of weakness to say, “I really know about this thing, and I know what I want to do, but I haven’t done this before. I don’t know what that means or…” So yeah, I guess, that was the experience.
NFS: That’s perfect actually for us, because that’s basically what our whole website is built on. This idea of, just go out and do it, learn, here are all these resources. That’s a great way to start. Can you talk a little bit more about that post-production process? What did you have to learn, and how you were learning it?
Gregg: Sure, my goodness. So there was editing remotely. So the first thing we did was work out how to share a screen. And how to set up a sort of workflow where we would share the screen. And then I would give notes, and then my editor would take some time, and then we would review and get back together. So I think just setting up something that we both felt comfortable with in the first instance.
ADR was probably the toughest. The grade was tough because we were all on different screens, but I had a really good relationship with my DP. We got there basically, and my colorist.
But ADR was tough because there were just so many different considerations. Andrea was in LA, some actors were in London, the kids luckily were in Belfast. And by the time we got to them, I was able to go down to the studio, but not be in the same room as them. Which felt really important for their performances. So just being patient with that process and also prepping actors because it’s new for them as well, that just took, I think, a bit more care and preparation than it might usually.
My producers were good at helping me reach out to people who were just ahead of me in process. So for example, before I got to ADR, but we were in lockdown, they managed to hook me up with somebody who had just started doing remote ADR on a TV show. Again, just to share the experience that we were having, to share what we were learning, and share people’s different processes and approaches. And in turn, then, I certainly passed on to other filmmakers who were about to go through the same process. So I think there’s a lot of that going on during lockdown, which was incredibly helpful. A sort of solidarity network.
NFS: As far as the shoot itself, I read that it was fairly tight. What was that process like in terms of that shooting schedule and everything?
Gregg: Yeah, it was a very lean script. So I was probably a little blithe going into it, because I was like, “I know what it is. It’s pretty lean, it’s light on dialogue, I think we’ll be fine.” But we had child restriction hours. We were fighting against winter daylight hours in Northern Ireland. And it ended up being a pretty tight shoot and you just have to—there’s a bunch of things.
I had a very economic approach anyway with my DP. So a lot of our setups were very minimal. I really favored uncomplicated long shots and shots on sticks. And all of that really helped in terms of our schedule. Probably because of my theater background, I’m very excited by discovery. So I really wanted to be open to discovering how we might shoot something or what a performance might give us.
So we were scooping up stuff that became a sort of surprise drawer in the edit, and all of that really paid off. And I think mined the most out of that shooting schedule. So sometimes, if we were waiting for somebody, we would just turn the camera on something and turn over and get something interesting. So I think we learned to make the most out of that tight schedule.
It also just makes you very precise. And I quite thrive on that, one of the biggest days we were shooting a really big scene and we were delayed by like four hours. And the time that we were having the window to shoot the scene was getting smaller and smaller. And in the end, it was like… We just had to get it in one, but we did! Again, there’s a certain amount of just working with what you’ve got, because you will get there.
NFS: What did you shoot on?
Gregg: The ALEXA mini and Cooke prime lenses.
NFS: I just love this genre. I love psychological thrillers, and the nods to horror. I feel like there were some visual references in there to some of my favorite films. What inspired the visuals?
Gregg: Certainly, no one source. I think I’m quite like a lot of filmmakers, I’m a magpie and quite eclectic in my tastes. And it’s about sublimating that visual language in a way that is often conscious, but sometimes subconscious, and that’s not something to be afraid of. So for example, I talked a lot about the presence of absence, or defamiliarizing the familiar, a negative space.
There’s a Northern Irish artist, a photographer and video artist called Willie Doherty, and he makes a lot of use of the edgelands and this sort of rural-urban vibe. I was influenced by the novels of Elizabeth Bowen. There was a letter that Nick Cave wrote that was very much in the scrapbook. So I think there was a lot of that visual style. Came from the movies that I love. And yes, there were definitely nods perhaps to tropes, but I think that they were often used in perhaps in an unexpected way or a sideways way. Because I was very aware of the genre element, and how I wanted to use it in a way to Trojan horse in things that I wanted to explore. So that sort of playing with expectation was part of that.
NFS: You’re very prolific, you’re balancing what seems like a million projects right now. TV, plays, working on developing a second film, is that correct?
Gregg: That’s right, yeah.
NFS: That’s amazing.
Gregg: It’s quite exciting.
NFS: Do you have any advice for just balancing that amount of work, or keeping your head on straight with so much going on?
Gregg: Such a great question. Part of that is genuinely that I have a great agent and a great relationship with her. And she helps, because my inclination is to take on too much work because everybody starts from a place of worrying that there won’t be work. So it becomes quite hard at some stage to say no to things. And I think for me, especially because of my background, I’m not from a professional background, I’m actually from quite a working-class background.
So that sense of financial insecurity is quite deep-rooted, even though I’m doing well now, and I’m doing well in the profession. And I think that concern and the drive of taking on too much work can tail you for a long time. So I think becoming more selective simply is a new skill for me. Being honest about when you feel like the quality of a project is being nibbled out because of other commitments or pressures. I think juggling those things is sort of half the secret to being freelance.
I think some people are great at it, some people struggle with it. I think you can get better at it. And I feel like I am now just finally reaching a point where I feel really in control of those things. I feel in control of the projects that I get to work on, that I’m most excited about. And also just being able to say, when things lose steam or don’t feel like the right thing anymore. To be confident enough to say, “This one, no, let’s just put this aside for a bit.”
And the thing is as well, and I think this is quite important, nothing’s ever wasted. Because I do think that fragments of ideas, or thought processes, or little obsessions always find their way into other projects and other bits of work. So I think it’s important not to feel like you’ve lost time on something or it’s been a waste of time.
NFS: That’s amazing advice and definitely something that lots of writers and creators need to learn. What keeps you inspired?
Gregg: Oh, wow. I’m inclined to go really deep with that one, but I’ll try not to. I’ve just always felt compelled to make things. Like most people, I return to some of my favorites. I think sometimes you can get a bit overloaded now, because there’s just so much available, and that’s awesome. But also for me still being able to retreat and just take my time, read a book.
I think trying to think deeply instead of quickly is something that I’m really hanging on to and feels like it’s getting harder, but it really feels to me is more rewarding in the long run. For me, literature and visual art were my first loves. So, I think I’d probably turn to that in times when I feel like I really want inspired or nourished.