In this exclusive interview, we chat with the talented team behind the heartwarming Sharp Shorts funded film Just Jackie. From their early aspirations to their collaborative journey, writer Ali Taylor and director Michael Lee Richardson provide an inside look into the making of their remarkable short.

When did your interest in filmmaking start and what were you doing before you became a filmmaker?

ALI TAYLOR: I’ve always wanted to write for film and TV but I’d no idea how to get into it. I got a job as a copywriter in advertising and worked in that industry for years and years becoming creative director but still I wanted to make the move to drama. I found out about BBC Writersroom and got a few radio drama commissions, then did the MA in TV Fiction Writing at GCU when our youngest started school. I also got on BBC Scottish Voices, the Young Film Foundation and the inaugural Writers’ Lab UK & Ireland. All of this was life-changing. 

MICHAEL LEE RICHARDSON: A lot of people talk about wanting to be a writer since they could hold a pen, but that’s not my story. I actually didn’t write my first script til I was 25 – I sort of knew, theoretically, that people wrote for film and TV, but it had never really occurred to me that it was something I could do, something for someone like me. I was the same with directing, I think I thought you had to go to Director School or get knighted by another, more experienced director or something, and that’s just not been my experience at all. Before filmmaking I did all sorts of things, and I was a youth worker for ten years, which definitely came in handy working on Just Jackie!

What made you want to apply for Sharp Shorts?

ALI TAYLOR: Since my MATV and getting an agent, I’m building TV credits and seeing stuff get to screen which is fantastic. Developing your own work in TV can take a long time. What I thought was wonderful about Sharp Shorts is that it was the chance to write something original, showcasing your own voice, and have it produced within a year with their help and support. I’d seen other Sharp Shorts and been really impressed so decided to go for it.

MICHAEL LEE RICHARDSON: I don’t think I would have applied if it wasn’t for Ali! When she sent me the idea, I fell in love with it – it’s such a sweet story, and I could see so much of myself in it, I just really, really wanted to direct it! I had worked with Short Circuit before on my first feature script, A Good Spell, which shares a lot of themes with Just Jackie, and they’ve been so supportive, I felt like I’d be in safe hands with my first film of this scale and scope (and budget!).

Tell us a bit about your Sharp Shorts-supported film.

ALI TAYLOR: Just Jackie is about a plus sized, nine year old boy who likes sweeties and dressing up in his mum’s clothes and will do anything to get closer to the girl-next-door. Even, to his health-conscious mum’s surprise, ask for a trampoline. A lot of it was inspired from seeing how my kids and their neighbourhood friends were able to find ways to interact over lockdown, when they couldn’t even play in each other’s gardens. I really wanted to write about a friendship forming over a fence.

JAMES HEATH & REECE CARGAN (Producers): We were struck by Just Jackie from the first read. Ali has written a beautifully warm uplifting script, that still manages to challenge and address a serious subject. Many shorts tackling potentially difficult subjects choose to go down the serious dramatic route – however, most of us can agree events of the last few years have left us tired of heavy stories with limited optimism! Ali’s script takes a story that could be about body dysmorphia and gender identity in young children and makes it this feel-good uplifting story about body positivity – yet still addresses the challenges facing young people, particularly in an image driven social media society.

What did you learn through taking part in Sharp Shorts? How was your experience working with the Short Circuit team?

ALI TAYLOR: Michael Lee Richardson was always my dream director for this. I knew Michael would bring so much heart and vision to this. We entered without producers because, basically, we pulled it all together a night or two before the deadline for the application (not recommended). Michael has worked with the producer Reece Cargan before and I had worked with James Heath, so we all teamed up and it was an incredible, collaborative process. The Short Circuit team were really great. I found the notes on my script made it stronger at each stage. We were also assigned a Script Consultant, Theresa Boden, who gave great advice.

What was your creative process? How did you get ready to make your film?

ALI TAYLOR: I wrote the first draft really quickly and shared it with the team. Then they, Short Circuit and the script consultant gave notes at each stage. I am so appreciative of all their feedback. It was a wonderful progression.

MICHAEL LEE RICHARDSON: Ali’s writing is so rich and evocative, she’s really great at giving you a lot of a character in a really short space of time, and as soon as I read the script I knew where I wanted to take it, into this very 90s bubblegum world with this candy colour palette. I pulled together a couple of reference documents, just photos of stuff that felt like it was in the world of the film, which more or less amounted to a list of films I like and things I thought were cool when I was a kid (The Florida Project, Welcome to the Dollhouse, Eighth Grade; scrunchies, the Pink Power Ranger, inflatable furniture). I loved working with our costume designer Cara and our set designer Gail to bring the world to life. I also made storyboards, and worked on a shot list with Steve Cardno, our DoP. We did quite a few recces just to see the space and figure out how we’d work in it – we actually filmed it in Ali’s house, and she was such a great host! We even did a shot by shot storyboard with Ali’s daughter, Florence, which was really useful to see how the film would look – and really helped me to see things we could cut when, for example, it started absolutely chucking it down during our last two hours on set!

“I’ve worked with LGBTQ+ children and young people for over a decade now. There’s a huge, often toxic, ongoing debate about trans and gender non-conforming children at the moment, especially in the UK. I was over the moon when Ali sent me the outline for Just Jackie, this sweet and simple story about acceptance and belonging, which centres Jackie’s Jackieness, and highlights the importance of friendship, and the fact that kids so often get this better than adults. It feels like it brings so much light to a subject that’s often all heat”.

Why do you feel stories like this are important?

ALI TAYLOR: I was really struck by how big a deal the Heartstopper series was to kids – the chance to see a rarely shown, younger skewed queer romance. How powerful it is for young people to see someone like they are on screen. I’d been writing a bit for Children’s TV and am struck that there is still a lack of diversity. I wanted to write a queer film that was joyous and not rooted in trauma and I also really wanted it to be about body positivity and just basically being your beautiful self and accepting of others.

MICHAEL LEE RICHARDSON: I’ve worked with LGBTQ+ children and young people for over a decade now. There’s a huge, often toxic, ongoing debate about trans and gender non-conforming children at the moment, especially in the UK. I was over the moon when Ali sent me the outline for Just Jackie, this sweet and simple story about acceptance and belonging, which centres Jackie’s Jackieness, and highlights the importance of friendship, and the fact that kids so often get this better than adults. It feels like it brings so much light to a subject that’s often all heat. I saw a lot of myself in the story, too – I was definitely that kid singing into my toothbrush in front of the mirror and dressing up to do my own wee shows! – I think a lot of people will see themselves in Jackie.

What are you hoping for audiences to get out of your film?

ALI TAYLOR: I hope it encourages people of all ages to be their beautiful selves and accepting of others.

What was the greatest hurdle you encountered whilst shooting, can you tell us how you overcame that?

MICHAEL LEE RICHARDSON: I was really worried about the casting beforehand – the story is so much about Jackie, and Jackie and Tegan’s friendship, and I knew it would be a lot for a young actor to carry. For Tegan, too, I knew we needed someone who could act who was also comfortable on the trampoline – no mean feat! We worked with casting director Anna Dawson who was so, so great, she got the call out far and wide, and we saw so many fantastic kids. We were really lucky to find Joshua (who plays Jackie), who’s just a wee star – he has such an expressive face, and he really brought Jackie to life! He has to carry so much of the film, and he has so many scenes on his own, and he just took to it so quickly – I’m really impressed by him, I’d love to work with him again. Erin (who plays Tegan) is fantastic – she’s just such a natural, with such a great presence on camera, and when I saw her on the trampoline it just clicked – you don’t even see a tenth of the stuff she can do in the film, she’s so good! Izzy (who plays Mollie) was fantastic, too, a really fab, natural actor, who came in on our last day – absolute madness, with trampolines and pouring rain and 25 neighbourhood kids hopped up on sugary sweeties! – and just got on with it. I’m so impressed by them all.

ALI TAYLOR: The fact that it was shot in our home! The crew were utterly, utterly amazing and my family were really supportive – thanks Mark, Charlotte, Alexander and Florence – and enjoyed being involved.

What piece of advice would you give to someone looking to apply for Sharp Shorts?

ALI TAYLOR: I think it’s really important to think of the story behind the story. Basically, why this story now, why you. In the past it has frustrated me to frame pitches this way. But I really get it now and found it so helpful because it helped me understand exactly what the story was and why it was so important it was told. Even more so, why I could tell it and how I should handle it. Also, get a great team to work with. I couldn’t have been luckier to have Michael, James and Reece and all the crew and cast they found put their all into it. We couldn’t have wished for better cast. Thank you to each and everyone of you as well as Sharp Shorts, Screen Scotland and BFI.

MICHAEL LEE RICHARDSON: I think sometimes filmmakers can shape a project to what they think the commissioner will want – in fact, I know they do, because I’ve done it myself! And while I think you can have a look at previous Sharp Shorts and see what works, I’d tell people to try and put that to one side when they’re coming up with ideas – if your project gets selected you might be spending a year making it, and (you hope!) even longer than that when it’s doing the festival circuit, so you want to make sure it’s something you really love and really want to work on. Will you be happy to watch this film over and over again when you’re editing it? I’d second Ali’s advice to get a good team together – again, you’re going to be working with these people for a while, so you need someone who you trust. Making a film can be a big, mad, stressful, exciting experience, so you need to surround yourself with people you don’t mind seeing your big, mad, stressed and excited self!

Photo credit: Celine Antal

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