Talking To All My Darlings with Lia Campbell and Derek Ugochukwu
A winner of the Audience Award for Best Short at this year’s DIFF, the Spirit of the Festival Award at the Catalyst Film Festival, and the Best Cinematography Award for the Irish Region of the Royal Television Society Awards, To All My Darlings continues to make an impression whenever it gets eyes in front of it. A graduation film for students of IADT, To All My Darlings impresses and inspires, both in screen and behind the scenes in the success of its young and diverse crew.
Starring Demi Isaac Oviawe of Young Offenders fame and Precious Okpaje, the film tells a story set in the Nigerian Irish Church comminty. After a traumatic miscarriage during Sunday service Adaeze must face the medical diagnosis that further pregnancy attempts will be difficult. Adaeze must face the reality of the situation with her husband, Nonso.
Adaeze evaluates the emptiness now left inside her. Struggling with guilt, pressures from the church and deciding how to tell her husband about the medical realities, Adaeze finds herself isolated in a country where her community is already marginalised. Only by taking matters into her own hands does she learn how to mitigate her feelings of guilt and find closure. By battling her interior questions of religious and societal expectations, she emerges as a woman free from external pressures.
Written by Derek Ugochukwu and based on stories from his community, the short shows the multicultural side of contemporary Ireland that needs to appear more and more on our screens. Aged just 22, director, Lia Campbell shows craft and maturity behind the camera in depicting Irish multiculturalism and female fertility.
With a new trailer above now available for the film as it continues its journey on the festival circuit, we spoke to director Lia Campell and writer Derek Ugochukwu to get a better insight into this exciting short.
Film In Dublin: Congratulations on the success To All My Darlings has had of late, what has that been like to experience over the past couple of weeks?
It’s been it’s been amazing and I suppose it’s been nice to finally get the film out in the world because it feels like certainly like for me and Derek, these conversations about this film were happening, maybe a year and a half ago now and we shot the film on in February 2020 just before lockdown happens so it just feels like a relief and so exciting to finally let people see it and it’s it’s just been really amazing that it’s hard such a great response and people seem to really relate and register and take something from it. So I it’s been really exciting and just nice to get out there.
For me it’s kind of like having people send a message you know, telling you they watch the film and they could relate to it, that was such a good part. I never knew there were more people that were going through that in my own personal life, so it was good that the film was able to connect with them, that was a good feeling.
FID: The both of you are IADT grads, can you talk about your own experiences with the National Film School and the kind of support that they’ve given the project?
It’s amazing. The graduation films for IADT really do get full sort of year of development and I think that’s a really unique opportunity for a short film. we had six weeks of script boot camps we had a couple of months of pre-production we really had so much backing and so much support and advice and mentorship. I do think that this film has turned out as well as it has because we had such a force behind both of us and so much support from them and even the equipment to make the film.
It’s a very unique opportunity that they gave to make the graduation film and I’m really thankful and grateful to them, they’ve been amazing, the National Film School has been really supportive and great.
I was doing my MA in screen writing, so at that time having to meet people like Lia who were the film students / writing students, that was something that was very beneficial for IADT to have done. Like Lia said the quality, it’s beyond so that was very helpful and the scripts went through a lot of feedbacks and panels and boot camp and stuff, we wouldn’t have had that if IADT wasn’t there.
FID: How did the two of you came together to work on To All My Darlings and what was the thinking behind the project at that time?
I guess that I initially reached out to Derek just because we were good friends, we met a few times at IADT and other things and I knew that he was a writer and he did the Masters course, so I just wanted to know really if he had any projects that he’d been working on, I was really keen to collaborate with a writer for my graduation film. I really love collaborating, I think filmmaking in itself, the reason that I’ve always wanted to do is because you can bounce ideas off each other, it’s such a collaborative artform.
So then Derek sent over To All My Darlings and I felt that this sort of female story and perspective and struggle and even the issue of fertility and infertility was something that I personally resonated with. It just felt like a lot of elements were coming together and falling into place. Derek very kindly trusted myself and my producer Eamon to take his story and direct it, and it was a very personal story as well for him.
FID: Derek, the film is very much based in your experiences and the experiences of the Nigerian Irish Church community. Is it challenging as a writer to bring your own experiences into your work, can it be difficult to separate yourself from it, or does it make it easier knowing where you’re coming from?
It’s definitely a bit of both, because when you’re writing something, for me it always began from a feeling, that whole feeling of someone who had gone through that and that is very close to me. It started from how I was feeling and then channeling it down into the characterS and when that was done it became, like Lia said, having someone that could take that and handle it the way Lia did. I felt like, say, if it was done with a different team or someone who wasn’t as sensitive, that would have been something that would have been much more difficult.
You’re putting out something and then as you’re doing that as well, you also almost representing and you know people are gonna see that, people back home and people from your community are gonna see the film, so it’s not just your own voice, it’s almost like every other person, so you wanna do it and do it in a way that you know it’s not offensive and that it covers the soul of what you’re trying to say and the message you’re trying to pass across.
FID: To All My Darlings had significant representation for women and people of colour behind the camera, how did that help in terms of what you were trying to communicate with the project?
Yeah like that had to be a part of the project. It had to be an open space, we needed to do it in the most authentic and truthful way and there was definitely a responsibility there to do it the right way, and that involved having those voices on set, giving us feedback.
The project itself, every time I speak about it, I always speak about the fact that it was such a collaboration, so many people had an input into what is the film and that’s why the credits at the end, there are quite a lot of ‘thank yous’, because so many people put their voices into this like even from our costume design, our makeup design, our production design, everything and this film was really its crew and its cast and the team behind it like and I think that’s why it’s come across authentically and hopefully truthful in a truthful way because a lot of people were giving feedback and making sure it was relatable and it felt real. That was the main point for it, showing a story that hasn’t been told before.
FID: And for yourself Derek to get into a Masters for screen writing, what was the big push for you personally to move into that creative area from where you had been previously?
I started out acting and writing had always been in the background, but I just kept having all these stories that I felt like needed to be told and weren’t being told, and I felt like, well, if not me, who? do you know what I mean? If I don’t get to write, my story, our story, who would do it because no one else is fighting to do it, so if someone else isn’t gonna do it, why don’t I?
I remember I initially even sent the script out the first time and you know I wasn’t getting any response because people were like yeah, they don’t know, they’re not sure and I kind of told myself hey look, even if one person can relate to this story at the end of the day that’s job done. I’m gonna write that thing that pushed me to write it, that feeling behind it and that was that. That was the same thing that compelled me to want to write, because I felt like hey look if I can write my story and you know a story that that I feel passionate about and only one person can relate to it then that’s good, that’s fine, at least I’ve put it out there and then it’s up to you to decide how you want to receive it.
FID: One of the things that comes across so well about the film is that it has this real, grounded lived-in sense of the community and the lives of the two main characters. Between Precious and Demi, there’s a real sense of intimacy on-screen in the relationship between the two performers, Lia how do you as a director work with them to create those bonds and to establish that relationship that is key to the film?
I think their relationship is really strong and soft and loving and I think that was really important that actually we wanted to create and portray a very positive relationship. These sort of issues of infertility and feeling inadequate and that, can exist within seemingly a very healthy relationship, and I think that was very important for the characters, for Nonso as well to be very supportive of Adaeze. In my eyes it’s a very modern relationship and Adaeze feels empowered within her relationship with Nonso, but these outside factors and things beyond her control and her own insecurities have started to effect it.
For Demi and Precious, it was just about sort of doing a few rehearsals and letting them get to know each other, and I think that they do come across very well on screen in portraying that sort of honest and intimate relationship, I’m glad that comes across.
FID: How much did Demi herself bring to the character of Adaeze?
I’m so excited that she was a part of that project, I mean, Demi is so talented and really at the early stages of her career, I think a lot of people don’t realize that she’s actually still quite young and she’s playing an older character, an older woman, we kind of always thought, Adaeze would maybe be in her early 30s, and I think that it’s such an achievement and kudos to her for really giving it this lived in character who’s gone through a lot. I think she really did an amazing job and she was just really fantastic to work with. I mean Adaeze’s character is so insular and she’s so quiet, she doesn’t say a lot, it’s really all through what she is internally feeling and I think that’s really difficult. Demi did such an amazing job, for her career like moving forward we need to watch out for Demi like she’s going to be doing amazing things and soon.
To have someone from Young Offenders who had this sort of following already, it was great to get to work with someone of that caliber.
FID: It jumps out as well in terms of the casting, Ellie Kisyombe being in there playing a Deaconess, how did Ellie come to be involved in the film and what it was like having her on set?
We just reached out to Ellie and she is quite a large sort of presence for all her activism, we were always aware of her online and we just kind of reached out to her for the project and she replied and she came in and was great.
Her character is actually very important in the film because she really does represent, someone who’s wanting to do only the best and help, she’s a good person, but then how that can come across to someone who’s going through an inner turmoil, it can be suffocating. I think that we all kind of know somebody like that or someone who represents that. It was great to have her again, all the cast were great to work with.
FID: Derek when you’re developing your own voice as a screenwriter, when you see the final product and you see what the actors are giving to the words that you put it on the page, how is it to experience that and how does it inform the next things that you want to write?
It’s like wow, you just get to know that a lot of things change in a good way. You write the scripts and then you know it goes and goes and then to watch it live, at first you’re like, I don’t know how to explain it, it’s like you’re just watching it and you’re just like oh God…you feel like it’s not even your film that you’re watching and then at some point you come back and then you know your writer’s sense would come back and I’m like OK let me see what after the edits what stayed and what didn’t stay, and I’m like oh my God, that actually worked so much better than I thought, that scene in my head wasn’t like this, it’s a beautiful thing to then see how it turns out.
Now if I’m writing, it’s almost like I’m also editor somehow in my head as well, because now I know how the scene might flow because it’s almost like I’m playing editor, director, actor so I know okay, this is how it’s gonna flow to the next scene. In the writing process I just wrote, wrote, wrote, but then you see the film come out and you know the music, the scoring, the performance, and everything like even the costume, the thing she was wearing I was like, hmm okay that’s colourful, that’s actually very beautiful!
FID: Lia from completing this film, what was the biggest thing that you have learned that you’re ready to take forward for your career?
There’s a lot of things when you’re on set and you’re filming that you have no control over. There were certain things that definitely felt out of control, and there’s so many moving parts to a production, having worked on the project very individually through the prep, but a lot of the times, the things that perhaps went wrong in my head that –as a perfectionist, I’m always trying to control everything – they actually ended up making the film a lot stronger.
That’s also why I quite like more documentary style work is that sometimes what you get on the day that you never planned for is far better than what you had in your head. You kind of just have to roll with it.
I think that’s probably the biggest thing I’ve learned, prep as much as you can, but also be open to changes to new collaborations and ideas because it’ll probably result in something far stronger.
FID: One of the things really to the credit of To All My Darlings is that serves as a modern Irish story and it provides a platform both for the community that is depicted and for the issues that are explored. For both of you, what are the priorities as storytellers, in terms of the kind of work that you want to do and whose kinds of stories that you want to tell?
It’s a hard question because you kind of don’t know until it hits you. I personally don’t really know what project is next until I read something that I love or something stands out, but I’m always interested in projects that I know will test me and be challenging or out of my comfort zone.
I always think that’s the most interesting because it’s a good place to start with, then you’re working to become that better director, that better writer, that better filmmaker – it’s always pushing yourself to something again saying ‘why not me’, that comes a lot to writing as well, why not me and why not my story? Most of the time you’ve just you gotta go for it and have that confidence, because things that scare you are usually the things that you should do. Once you embrace the challenge and come out the other side, you’re always sort of better at your craft in a way. Authentic stories, new stories I haven’t seen before and something that’s meaningful – as filmmakers and writers, we have a responsibility to also showcase new voices and stories that we haven’t seen on screen, that’s a responsibility that I feel as a director.
I’m in the same boat, I wanna write stories that are not being told, voices that are not being heard and base them again on that feeling. What I realise is that I tend to gravitate towards characters that are almost outsiders in some way. I like those stories where people who have to basically fight for and find for themselves the validation of coming into your own, finding your inner voice, finding your strength, proving to yourself that you know you’re what society thinks of you, stories that have so much life to them, especially the Black community’s stories in Ireland for sure, that’s something I wanna keep doing.
FID: You mentioned finishing this short in February of last year and a LOT has gone on since then… Are there any particular projects you’re both working on at the moment?
I’m making a short documentary at the moment about a group of young female endurance runners from East Belfast. And just sort of writing, hopefully doing the next fiction short as well. I feel like now To All My Darlings is sort of doing the rounds, it’s time to push on and do the next project. It‘s always just thinking about the next project, isn’t it? But it’s nice to enjoy the success as well from the film and reconnect with crew and the cast as well.
Right now I’m focusing on writing, I’m currently developing a horror short actually with the Film In Limerick ENGINE scheme for upcoming writers based in Clare, Tipperary and Limerick. I’m hoping to direct that too so if we get selected that would be my debut directing. I want to eventually be able to direct and write in the long run for feature films, so I feel like maybe if I start now developing that skill, maybe that would be something handy in the future. It’s still down the road, so right now I’m developing my craft as a storywriter.
To All My Darlings’ next screening will be taking place at the First Cut Youth Film Festival in the Spotlight Programme, screening on Friday April 23rd at 8pm. The Spotlight Programme was put on for celebrating the vision of emerging filmmakers of third level age. Some are in film courses, some are working independently but all are significant upcoming talents to watch for in the future, as with Lia and Derek, with new voices emerging in Irish filmmaking, the future of film is looking very bright altogether.