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Tribeca 2016 Women Directors: Meet Rachel Tunnard – ‘Adult Life Skills’

Tribeca 2016 Women Directors: Meet Rachel Tunnard - 'Adult Life Skills'

Rachel Tunnard is a writer, director and editor. She is a BAFTA “Brit to Watch” and was named as one of the “Creative England 50” in 2015. Her short film “Emotional Fusebox” was nominated for a BAFTA and a BIFA. As an editor, she has cut award winning features and shorts, as well as trailers, music videos, promos and BAFTA nominated short animations. Tunnard has a First Class Honours degree from the University of Bristol and an MA in menial jobs including cleaning for the Army, working the night shift in a fish factory and people counting. (Press materials)
“Adult Life Skills” will premiere at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival on April 17.
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
RT: Something I made up in my pajamas for my best friends so we could hang out together… 

No, it’s a film about a woman experiencing an early mid-life crisis that has seen her move back home, live in her mum’s shed and strike up a friendship with a little boy who dresses up as a cowboy. It’s a story about being lost and finding yourself, making peace with who you are and regaining self-confidence and dignity.

I always say it is basically the same themes as “Rocky,” if you think about it. But with a shed. And a cowboy. And no boxing.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

RT: I wrote it! 

But I wrote it because I was working as a film editor and reading a lot of scripts and watching a lot of films, yet I wasn’t really finding many that felt authentic to me — ones that chimed with my friendships, my relationships and my experience of the world. It felt like the emphasis in the industry on generating more “strong female stories” meant that there were lots of scripts about women floating around, but none of the British ones felt true to me. 

I think that life is brilliant and a tragedy and this contradiction is at the center of what I wanted to write — a story that is funny but serious; artful but true; ugly but beautiful. A celebration in the face of something awful. I also wanted my characters to embody those contradictions too — because people are messy, right? And we are not always strong. Things happen; we make mistakes; we need other people.

I mean, you apply all this retrospective logic to your decisions in the process of making a film. I think in truth I was just at a crossroads in my life, not sure what I was doing, and writing a story of my own was probably a way of exercising some control over that chaos.
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?

RT: Calling their best friend/family. [And ask themselves] what song makes them want to fist pump the air.  
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

RT: Building the “right” team — not necessarily the most experienced, but the ones who loved it, who I wanted to hang out with, who would get on with each other, who had the most enthusiasm and who I knew would elevate the story above what I could possibly imagine.
Making a low-budget film is really hard in myriad ways, but if you have got a team that you can laugh — and cry — with then that’s the majority of the battle. I always wanted to have a sort of crazy film family and to ride a wave of fun with them all. And we have one. And loads of us are coming to Tribeca to try to welcome you into the fold. And I apologize in advance for that.  
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

RT: We were funded by Creative England (a UK public funding body), private investors through the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme, Film Vast in Sweden, the Wellcome Trust and through pre-sales in the UK and Sweden.
Jodie Whittaker, the lead actress, found out she was pregnant just as we were financing the film. We had to make a decision to either shoot immediately (in six weeks), delay the film for a year or recast. I had written the film for Jodie and she is one of my best friends, so the decision was pretty straightforward.

Most of the crew did not know she was pregnant, however. You can actually see her bump a bit in the film if you know. Her little girl is turning one during Tribeca Film Festival!

In development, I also received some research funding that enabled me to speak to experts in the field of Twin Loss, which ensured that the film had an emotional truth. Twin Loss is a specific area of scientific research due to the unique nature of the loss experienced by the surviving twin. The grief frequently prompts a crisis of identity as well as a wider existential crisis — and often the surviving twin still “experiences” their dead twin as a real manifestation in their daily life.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

RT: The best was from my brother who read an early incarnation of the script, where a sad girl looked out of a window sadly, thinking about sad stuff. He said, “Well done, you’ve done something amazing, I could never do that, a whole script, wow… That said, I don’t like any of it, it is not at all like you and I wouldn’t go and watch it.” 

It made me realize that he was just a total moron whose opinion I should not seek out. Haha — no, it didn’t. It made me realize I had written something that I had no real relationship to — that I was trying to impress people rather than being myself. It made me realize that my entire goal was to get him to go to the cinema, which basically gave me an audience to think of when I was formulating what I wrote.

The worst advice can’t be repeated, but let’s just say it involved the words “a pretty little thing like you should…”
W&H:  What advice do you have for other female directors?
RT: Employ other women.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

RT: Penny Marshall’s “Big.” Because I was eight years old when it came out; because I wanted to be a grown-up; because I wanted a basketball net and a trampoline in my house; because Penny made the younger kid act out the adult scenes during rehearsals so that Tom Hanks could observe how a kid would react to the situation; because she also made Tom Hanks and the kid hang out and become friends even though they only had one scene together so that the emotional story would be truthful despite the high-concept premise. I can go on!
I always feel a lot of pressure as a filmmaker to say something high-brow or academic as an answer to questions like this, but what is a favorite film? For me it’s one that comes on the TV when you are leaving the house and you hover at the doorway thinking, “I’ll go after this next scene… wait — X happens next! Ok, I’ll definitely go after that scene…” And then suddenly you find you’ve stood at the door with your coat on for half an hour and you’re late for whatever you were going to do. People don’t care that you were late though, because you say, “Well, ‘Big’ was on TV and Tom Hanks had just stood up through the roof of the limo and I couldn’t leave!'”

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