Behind the Scenes: Filming an Interview with Professor Anna Birch

Having graduated from university in 2018, I thought my research days were behind me. However, an exciting opportunity to dust off my research skills arose when Lil Warren, Heritage Outcomes Manager at Unity Arts, told me of their latest project Blue Circle of Dissent. This National Lottery Funded project focusses on the lives, work, and circles around Mary Wollstonecraft and Blue Stockings Society leader Elizabeth Montagu.

My first independent assignment was to interview Wollstonecraft expert Professor Anna Birch for a short documentary film. Anna is the director of Fragments & Monuments, a company which creates performance and film work about the life and legacy of Wollstonecraft.

As I discovered, most of the work for producing a filmed interview takes place off-camera; this blog is to give you a behind-the-scenes insight into the process.

Preparation, Preparation, Preparation
I began by asking myself a question: what did I already know about Mary Wollstonecraft? Answer: that she was Mary Shelley’s mother, and that she wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), marking her as the first British feminist. There was a lot more to discover…
I read about Wollstonecraft and made notes on what I wanted to know more about. I became particularly intrigued by her travels: she went to live in France in 1792 – when the turbulent revolution was well underway – and travelled to Scandinavia in 1795 to recover a stolen ship in an attempt to win back her former lover.

In a series of meetings with Lil and the Digital Outputs Team, we decided that the interview with Anna would focus on Wollstonecraft as the pioneering female travel writer. I had also learnt three tips for filming day: don’t wear stripes, wear make-up, and wear bright colours. My monochromatic wardrobe struggled with this third tip, but as a wise man once said: two out of three ain’t bad.

When turning my research into questions, I wanted to create a narrative structure to help the interview flow. The questions would begin by setting the scene, asking Anna about her work and involvement with Wollstonecraft. Then we would turn to Wollstonecraft’s travels to France and Scandinavia, and finally her personal life and legacy, concluding with my favourite question: ‘what do you think Wollstonecraft would make of society today?’. With the questions finalised on paper, it was now time to bring them to life.

Lights, Camera…
Of course, I wasn’t working on this interview day alone. Lil was directing, Neil Webster from Edwin Louis Fear Films and Christian Smith were filming, and Sarah Warren was Production Assistant. On filming day, we met for a briefing before walking to Anna’s house (where we would have arrived earlier if my walking pace could match a Londoner’s!).

While Neil and Christian set up the filming equipment, Anna took Lil, Sarah and me up to her library for coffee. Although set-up took longer than anticipated (about an hour), it gave Anna and I valuable time to get to know each other off-screen. We had been to the same university, so we talked about its theatre scene and the lack of female writers on the reading lists, before moving on to Anna’s work with Fragments and Monuments. Anna and the company challenge the traditionally held definition of a monument as something static: they create living, dynamic ‘monuments’ to Wollstonecraft, such as walks that enable participants to trace Wollstonecraft’s footsteps in Stoke Newington. It struck me that our short film would also be a moving monument to the writer.

…Action!
With the all-clear from the crew, Anna and I took our seats at her kitchen table, under two fabulous STEWY prints of Wollstonecraft. Neil and Christian had set up two cameras ‘Parky style’: one at the front of the table with both of us in shot, and one behind my left shoulder for close-up shots of Anna – shots that I kept ‘dirtying’ by inadvertently moving into view!
We wanted the conversation to feel natural, so I listened carefully to Anna’s answers and would pick up on something she had said to link to the following question. Our time spent chatting beforehand really helped during the interview as it felt like a continuation of our conversation upstairs. This rapport translated onto the screen: Sarah said that we looked like we had known each other for years!

We filmed the interview in one take, pausing only once for Neil to reset his camera.  After wrapping, we had a post-interview debrief at the Luminary Bakery, and I then walked with Sarah to Newington Green to visit Wollstonecraft’s former stomping ground (and future site of her memorial sculpture).

“That’s a wrap” doesn’t signal the end of working on the film, as the editing process is just beginning.

Taking part in the interview was a wonderful experience that combined independent research with working as part of a team, all to create a work that will be shared with a wider audience. It was inspiring to meet passionate and knowledgeable creatives, and intellectually stimulating to research and discuss such a fascinating female figure.

I’m greatly looking forward to seeing the finished film, and to working with Unity Arts further on Blue Circle Of Dissent.

Ellen Gage

Location Photos by Christian Maier Smith

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