Vanessa Caswill

INTERVIEW BY JACLYN BETHANY

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Jaclyn Bethany: Hi, Vanessa! Where did you grow up, and what was your childhood like?
Vanessa Caswill: I was born in the South of England. My father is British; my mother, now deceased was a North African Italian Jew. So, I’m a bit of a mongrel. I have family spread across the world, and I grew up in different cultures, speaking and understanding different languages–– both verbal and emotional languages. The ‘British stiff upper lip’ and the ‘Italian Jew’ have very different ways of expressing themselves! 

I’m an only child, so I played alone and was in the company of adults a lot as a child. My parents divorced when I was 11. My favorite childhood game was ‘let’s make a play,’ which made me believe that I wanted to be an actor––it really was a journey to realize that it wasn’t the performing that lit me up, but rather the whole storytelling process. For a long time my passion was theater, particularly experimental theater. It wasn't until I watched Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves at University that I suddenly felt I had a calling in film.

JB: You started out directing shorts and then made the leap to longer form storytelling––specifically directing the prolific British television series Thirteen. What were the challenges of shifting from short to long form content? 
VC: I had a bit more of a gentle journey into long form, having made a television mini movie (e.g. 30 mins) for Sky as my first TV job. I think the biggest challenge with longer form is shooting so much material out of sequence and feeling very confident that you know where everyone should be at at that point emotionally––even when you haven't shot what's just come before. It's also a bit of a marathon to get through nine weeks of high intensity problem solving whilst making the day, and staying in, a creative space.  

JB: Most recently, you directed the Little Women mini series, broadcast on the BBC in December and premiering in the U.S. on PBS. May 13. How did this opportunity come about? 
VC: The script came in through my agent, and the production company, Playground, wanted to meet with me. I managed to convince them to take me on.

JB: There have been versions of Little Women for every generation, beginning with the Katharine Hepburn version on to the one from my generation, which starred Winona Ryder. The book alone serves as an inspiration to so many young girls seeking out their independence and voice in the world. The story still feels extremely relevant. Did you draw inspiration from previous versions? Or were you intent on making it your own?
VC: Ha, good question! The fact that it is so loved and has been adapted so many times before was my greatest concern. Initially, it was hard going into to it knowing that it would be impossible to please everyone. I actually steered clear of the previous versions (I had seen the 1994 version as a teenager). I really didn't want to be influenced by the other versions. I just wanted to be truthful to the script and the novel whilst giving it a contemporary feel. My way into that was using a hand-held camera and focusing on the intimacy between the sisters, as the book is actually very intimate. It doesn't feel like a formal period drama and possesses the impulsive energy of adolescence. 

 Still from  Little Women

Still from Little Women

JB: What was your research process like? Did you discover anything particular fascinating?
VC: I went to Concord and to Orchard House where Louisa May Alcott wrote and set the book. That was incredibly useful. We met a wonderful women there, Executive Director (and historian/educator) Jan Turnquist. She knew everything about the Alcotts and the March family and was a great source of knowledge. It was fascinating to learn that the Alcotts were Transcendentalists, which meant they were radicals––feminists and environmentalists––of the time.

JB: Your adaptation of Little Women features one of the most impressive casts this season (including Angela Lansbury!): Kathryn Newton, Anne Selwy, Willa Fitzgerald and Maya Hawke play the four March sisters. How did you go about casting them? And this is Maya Hawke’s breakout role. Was there a moment you knew she was your Jo?
VC: I knew Maya was our Jo when I met with her via Skype. Her passion for the project and her essence was perfect. The girls hadn't met before. I was casting in person in London, but I was also watching tapes from the States and meeting actors on Skype. It was really important to me that they were certain types of people: grounded, thoughtful, open, and generous. All of the cast shared those qualities, and it made for a really trusting, familial atmosphere on set.

JB: The British television scene is certainly having a moment. What shows have you been enjoying recently? And how does it feel to be part of the beginning of a movement placing women at the center of stories––both in front of and behind the camera? 
VC: I think my favorite TV show last year was The Handmaid’s Tale. I thought that was extraordinary in every way. I also love Mum––it’s a really understated but brilliantly delivered British comedy series. To be honest, I've felt the desire for female-centric stories brewing since I started out [in the industry]. Those are the stories I've always wanted to tell. I suppose now I feel an added sense of responsibility to tell them.

JB: What’s your favorite novel with a female heroine at its center (besides Little Women, of course)?
VC: I always loved Jane Eyre. 

JB: Given that Constellation centers on different destinations, I read that Little Women filmed in Ireland. What were some highlights of filming there?
VC: 
I'd never been to Ireland before. It's always cool to discover a new place. I was living in Dalkey, which was a very picturesque village near the sea and the hills. I swam quite a lot in the very, very cold Irish sea––that was definitely a highlight! 

JB: And finally: what advice would you offer to a young woman aspiring to work in film?
VC: 
Take up some space, be bold, and put yourself out there. 

Little Women premiered Sunday, May 13th, 2018 on MASTERPIECE.