Hope Dickson Leach: The Levelling and the terrifying, magical part of the grief process

The story has always been for me about that time after a crisis when you have an opportunity to make change. It’s a terrifying, magical part of the grief process, and to be able to find the strength to challenge the patterns that we cling to in our relationships seems to be an extraordinary thing.

Hope Dickson Leach’s compelling film The Levelling will be making its World Premiere at Toronto International Film Festival on Friday.  #DirectedbyWomen conversed with Hope this week about her film, her work with Raising Films initiative, and some of her favorite films by women directors.

DBW: Congrats on having The Levelling, your feature debut, receive its World Premiere at Toronto International Film Festival in the Discovery category: “Directors to watch. The future of world cinema.” That’s exciting, and yet rolling a film out on a big stage like TIFF can be an intense experience. What’s helping you prepare to take the film out into the world?

HDL: It really is exciting. You work hard to get a film made, then you work hard to make it, then you work hard to get it seen. It’s wonderful to be entering the final stage of this film’s journey. As a first time feature director it is obviously all brand new, but I have so many good people around me and the film who have done it many times before and they’re keeping me on track. As large as TIFF is, there’s something very comforting about the fact that there is a whole culture around films being launched, and I get to go along on that ride, and have some fun with making sure that we find the audience it deserves.

DBW: What do you experience as the heart of The Levelling? How would you like audiences to connect with the work at its core?

HDL: The story has always been for me about that time after a crisis when you have an opportunity to make change. It’s a terrifying, magical part of the grief process, and to be able to find the strength to challenge the patterns that we cling to in our relationships seems to be an extraordinary thing. The Levelling is a chance to watch a character go on that journey, and experience everything she has to confront about her family and herself. I hope audiences connect with the humanity of it. Every time I show it to people inevitably someone comes up and shares something very personal with me – a story of grief, or an encounter with suicide, or of a tricky family relationship. People seem to want to talk about these things, and there are few opportunities to do so. I hope, above everything, this film reminds people how important it is to talk about the difficult things in your life.

Ellie Kendrick in Hope Dickson Leach’s THE LEVELLING
Ellie Kendrick in Hope Dickson Leach’s THE LEVELLING

DBW: The film’s trajectory seems driven by minute gestures, each moment holding tension roiling with emotion looking for expression through micro movements. What conversations did you have with your cast to help them ground themselves in each moment?

HDL: That’s a really interesting response to the film. The script was crafted with a consideration to a truthful, compelling story – part detective story (into why her brother killed himself) and part family drama (her complicated relationship with her father). The cast responded so well to what was on the page, and we worked so hard at understanding what every step meant in terms of the development both of the narrative and the characters, that I hope that was what grounded them. They are all incredibly talented performers, and what is extraordinary, I think, is that in this film they seem to stop acting and just are present for every moment of the story. That certainly allowed us in the edit to lose extra lines, and cut for emotion and subtext as much as for plot. I think we then found a language to the story telling that felt grounded in what the characters are feeling. So I think the idea of gestures holding the tension comes as much from our incredible editor Tom Hemmings as it does from the wonderful cast.

DBW: Location is integral to the film. The buildings and the land have a powerful draw. There’s something about the spaces that seems deeply familiar but somehow inaccessible. What led you to these places? Did you know these particular locations already?

HDL: The locations are indeed characters to the film, as the story was built around something that happened in the real world. It was important to me that we wouldn’t find the farm entirely forbidding, as this is somewhere that Clover loves, which is why her leaving was so devastating for her, and her return is so poignant. The farm we shot in has a lovely house, and welcoming feel – which is quite rare as many are very functional looking places. I was immediately drawn to it. I didn’t know these locations, but we spent a long time visiting farms, and the area, to ensure that we found the perfect space. We were also very lucky to have had such helpful location owners, who shared their farming practice with us (the actors and I learnt how to milk cows!), and allowed us to make the film as authentic as possible. That sort of collaboration is invaluable creatively, and practically at this sort of budget level!

David Troughton in Hope Dickson Leach’s THE LEVELLING
David Troughton in Hope Dickson Leach’s THE LEVELLING

DBW: Your Raising Films initiative has a strong commitment to dreaming filmmaking practices into being that facilitate creativity and family flourishing together. I’d love to hear how the Raising Films work has influenced the way you structure your filmmaking process. Can you talk about how you engaged your team to generate such an accomplished film while honoring family relationships?

HDL: I would love to say we got it absolutely right out of the gate, but the truth is that it’s hard to know how to pull off this important dream of combining family life and filmmaking. That is why the conversations about it are so crucial. We did have family visits at weekends during prep, but production itself was harder. My sons came down for a couple of days – I had written them into a scene – but that ended up being a very hard day with tears and tantrums and demands that I come home and never work again. What I learnt was that every family and every individual needs different things, but it’s hard to know what it is that works best for you. Next time I will aim to shoot 5 day weeks (we did 6 day weeks) so I will have weekends to see them. I think that would help us all. However I did prefer not having them around as I was working. I find it hard to do my best work (or any really) with my children there demanding my attention. I know there are people who love having their family nearby, and so their process should reflect that. But for me being able to know I had space to do my work meant that when I was with them I could be present with them, and not distracted. Next time I will also do the edit differently – that in fact was harder than production. It was longer and I was travelling away for a few days each week or fortnight. It was sporadic and ad hoc and it was incredibly hard for my entire family. Lesson learnt.

On set shot of THE LEVELLING director Hope Dickson Leach.
On set shot of THE LEVELLING director Hope Dickson Leach.

DBW: The Levelling deals with deeply fraught family dynamics. Do you envision stories about family evolving as the practices of living life while filmmaking transform?

HDL: My stories often come back to families, it feels like the first place we develop complicated relationships and so perhaps that’s why. I certainly couldn’t have made this film without being a parent myself – it allowed me to envisage the father character in a more sympathetic, and therefore far more complex and interesting way. I expect we all bring our lives to our work, so yes, I think there will be plenty of material for me to explore. Plus until the utopian re-imagination of society happens, filmmaking with a family remains a very challenging thing to do, and the hardest things always push you to interesting places. However I like some of the structure around filmmaking, and I work well within a rigorous practice, so I am not sure I want the process to transform completely for me. At least not right now, who knows what I will feel in a few years? What is really important is that we are able to create a process that does work for our needs – be they caring demands, or access costs, or whatever it takes to enable filmmakers who are currently struggling within the system to be given voices.

DBW: Your premiere takes place during the September #DirectedbyWomen Worldwide Film Viewing Party. We’ll be holding space for you to thrive! Before we wrap up, I’d love it if you could mention films by a few women directors whose work inspires, delights, or challenges you – particularly work that film lovers may not yet have had a chance to see, but that they could be on the lookout for. Let’s help grow a deep culture of appreciation.

HDL: Your #DirectedbyWomen Worldwide Film Viewing Party is the most fantastic idea, I love it. It was great to see what you accomplished last year and I imagine it will just get better and better.

Jane Campion has been one of the biggest inspirations to me, and her film An Angel At My Table lives in my brain constantly. I love Catherine Breillat – Romance, Fat Girl, and the incredible Kelly Reichardt who was one of my teachers at film school. Her work is complex and beautiful and I am continually inspired by how she has managed to find a way to work that works for her, and how that has shaped the stories she tells and the films she makes.

My discovery this year (I’m late to the party) is Lizzie Borden. At the Edinburgh Intl. Film Festival they screened the rarely seen Regrouping, which was mind-blowing to me. I love seeing something so political and so raw and shaped by the process of making it. Her film Born In Flames is being reissued on 35mm and will be at the London Film Festival in October so I will be first in line for that.

DBW: Thanks so much, Hope, for taking time to share about your film. Have a wonderful time in Toronto and then at BFI London and beyond.

World Premiere – Toronto International Film Festival – September 9
additional screenings on September 10, 14, and 17