Artist Leyla Coll-O’Reilly on directing her first film Groom through Sharp Shorts, navigating COVID-19 and tackling difficult subjects on screen.

Pictured above: Behind the scenes of Leyla Coll-O’Reilly’s Sharp Shorts funded project, Groom
Credit: Tiu Makkonen

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

Before I started working on films I was working in theatre maker and I am a poet. I’ve always been really into films but never considered being able to do it myself. I’m an only child so when I was younger I would spend a lot of time on my own watching the TV or films. I would watch the same thing over and over and memorise the words. I still know all the words to films like Grease, Calamity Jane and The Parent Trap. I think all those days watching movies really influenced me and ingrained into me an understanding of structure and character even if my filmmaking is quite considerably a darker vibe to those films I watched when I was younger.

When I was in my early 20s I decided to take a class in screenwriting and I remember the teacher showing us a list of films we should watch as research for the class. There was not one film that had a woman as the main character, never mind the filmmakers. I put my hand up and pointed this out. The room became really tense and I felt like I’d made a scene. I think that interaction spurred me on to want to make things myself and tell stories that might not have the attention they deserve.

What made you want to apply for Sharp Shorts?

I had already been on a previous scheme last year where I met Laura, who is a producer at Lothian Films. I was so impressed with her and the films she had already made. We bonded over shared experiences and decided we should try and do something together. Making a team with her gave me the confidence to run with the idea for Groom. We were excited to be part of the new scheme and to meet other people who were at similar level to us. We really wanted to make this film and the promise of funds was a big draw.

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

Groom is about a young, school leaver called Hannah who is on a trial shift at a beauty salon. It’s a story about coercive relationships, consent, puberty and sexual desire.

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

Sharp Shorts really allowed us to develop the idea and explore different avenues it could go. We always felt really supported by Mar and Alice. In development, they always asked really useful questions, so rather than telling us what to do, we would find the answers ourselves. It never felt like we were being pushed in a certain direction or being asked to do anything that we didn’t agree with. I found the visiting guests so interesting. I’ve not made a film before, so some of the stuff they were saying was really fresh to me. It was inspiring and made me realise that a career in film is doable.

“Sharp Shorts really allowed us to develop the idea and explore different avenues it could go […] It was inspiring and made me realise that a career in film is doable.”

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

I mean, where do we start? We’ve been working on Groom for about a year now. We have done so much and I was shocked at how much prep went into the whole thing. We were hoping to shoot in October but then the second COVID wave made us push back to March. You’d think that this would mean we’d be super prepared but as always things felt like a sprint at the end. However, we were lucky that the story felt really clear from the beginning. Sometimes you have to slog over an idea and it takes every piece of you to get it done, but Groom came fully formed. I could see the characters in my mind right from the beginning, so we built around that.

Why do you feel stories like this are important?

Globally, we’ve been speaking at length about men abusing their power for years but the stories about women abusers are untouched. We hope that Groom is a valuable addition to the dialogue about power imbalances.

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

I hope Groom allows the audience to interrogate their own relationships and experiences. I hope it challenges them and makes them rethink always seeing older women as motherly or caring.

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

Time. I wish we had more time. We ran out of it everyday and we didn’t have enough to play and find things in the moment. We got through it by cutting things as we went and scaling back but in the future I think I would have spent more time really thinking about it and maybe paring back from earlier on.

How easy was it to navigate the COVID-19 situation? What support did you have?

We were really lucky to get extra money for COVID support that kept our crew and cast safe. It wasn’t easy to navigate, but a lot of the crew had worked on sets previously that had strict COVID protocols, so their experience was really invaluable. On the first day of shooting we thought we had four people with COVID and we shut everything down and isolated people in their cars. We then realised we’d been reading the tests wrong and they were, in fact, all negative. Now, we can laugh about it but it was stressful at the time. I can’t explain the relief it was when we realised. But it also showed us how well our COVID system worked when we did have a false alarm.

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

Communicate with your team on every little thought and no matter how much you think you’ve prepared, prepare more.

Interested in applying for Sharp Shorts? Applications are now open until 10am on Monday 17th May.

Full details can be found here.

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