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Rebekah Fortune - 'Pennywort' Director Q&A

We caught up with Rebekah Fortune, director of our Side A: Tooth short, Pennywort, and her daughter, Elinor Machen Fortune, who plays "Freya", to get their insights on this illuminating depiction of a young artist with ASD.

VFF: Laura Turner’s script is the winner of our ‘VFF Best Script’ Award. What about the script drew you in as a Director?

RF: When I read some of Laura's other work it became clear quite quickly we had a very similar style and that we should definitely work together. I worked very closely with Laura in developing the script right from the concept stage and we discussed the story and style quite heavily prior to her beginning writing. Being Neurodiverse myself and having an Autistic Daughter, a story about a woman negotiating the neurotypical world is something I have been wanting to tell for a while. That said we also didn’t want to create a gritty drama or didactic piece but something that had a bit of magic and definitely a sense of hope.

VFF: Your daughter plays Freya, and her performance is truly astounding, is this the first time you’ve both worked together as a Mother-Daughter combo, and what were some of the benefits and challenges of this?

RF: I have worked with Elinor quite a few times previously, and I agree she is an exceptional actress, (but I would say that). When I first directed her in Theatre she was about 6 and although she was always talented, she was slightly more tricky to work with. As a young adult, her professionalism grew and now I find her incredibly easy to direct. Elinor always insists she is properly auditioned and as a general rule I let the Casting Director and Producer decide if we should cast her. She is very generous on set and works incredibly hard, running repeatedly into a lake in the middle of November in the freezing cold without a word of complaint. Mostly working with Elinor is like working with any other talented actor and we maintain a Director/Actor relationship throughout, if anything I probably push her more than others as I know what she can and can’t take. Pennywort was quite close to home for Elinor and me, so there was one occasion when I could tell after a scene had been completed the tears were those of my little girl and not Freya and she needed a cuddle, and it was quite nice being able to give her a hug and be mum for a few minutes.

EMF: (on working with her Mum) The challenges of working with a family member who you also view very much as a friend can of course be plenty, and it can be even harder when you really respect that person's talent whilst also having your own ideas and approaches on how to tackle the script, physicality, voice, etc. I think now we’ve just been doing it for so long that we understand each other’s styles and way of being. I think the biggest challenge we’ve faced is our emotional attachment to the work - we’re so involved and see it as being so important that it can become all-consuming and make it hard to take a step back and just view it as a 'job’ and we can sometimes end up feeding off each other’s emotions.

In many ways though I definitely view this as a strength too, because it means we are equally as invested and want to see a project succeed and do well for each other’s sake. The main benefit for me is that I don’t have to mask or put on any pretences when working with mum. I can ask for what I need and she can usually intuit pretty well what is going on for me even behind the camera. During one of the scenes, in particular, I needed to reach a certain emotional place and it just wasn’t happening. I was shattered and felt like I’d run out of resources. I expressed I was struggling to get to that place and I didn’t know how. She took me aside and said one sentence to me, that she knew on a personal level the effect it would have - to be clear not in a dangerous way or by using anything unsafe or triggering -just understanding that those words would resonate with me in a way that would allow me to find that place internally. I also knew that even though I was in an emotionally vulnerable state, I would be protected and that I could ask to stop at any time which is a really powerful and wonderful thing to have in a creative space as quite frankly, I almost never feel that way when working on most other projects.

VFF: Talk us through your approach to acknowledging ASD within the film?

RF: This is a story about so much more than a diagnosis or a label, and we wanted to ensure that the audience experienced Freya's world as authentically and immersively as possible, simply connecting with her and seeing the world through her eyes for a little while and feeling what she feels. We felt it was important to show audiences how hard it can be to tell if someone is autistic when people are often so good at masking and how easily, without proper knowledge, others make judgments. Freya is a young autistic woman, but she’s also an artist, a sister, a daughter, a friend, a colleague, a human. This is not a story ABOUT Autism. This is a story about a woman navigating her difficulties who happens to be autistic. We hope to see representation handled in this nuanced and sensitive way more often.

VFF: Through costume, hair, and makeup, there are some key contrasts between "Freya" and "Beth", her best friend, what can you tell us about these character design elements?

RF: We wanted to create a contrasting palette throughout the film, Freya's world was muted browns, Greens, and oranges, reflecting the natural world that she feels at peace in, but also how she feels like her true self is often muted so as not to stand out. The 'neurotypical' world, as we called it, was much more highly saturated with bright intense, artificial colours giving a nod to sensory overload and also the feeling of being out of place. Beth herself sat within that colour palette, but also had elements of the water and mermaids as for Freya, Beth sits between the two worlds. She is both part of the 'neurotypical' world and someone Freya can be herself with.

EMF: I do remember a moment when I was reading the script where I felt like I was so much more like Beth than Freya! On reflection, I think that’s because Beth is who I aspire to be. I used to have crazy coloured hair and wear vibrant colourful clothing and would definitely have been on the ‘alternative’ side of things, but I myself lost so much self confidence to be that person anymore. When reading the script, Beth's warmth and compassion and colourful, out-there style resonated with me so much because I wanted to be Beth! Which I guess is exactly why those choices were made for them to be that way because Beth is supposed to represent this ideal that Freya wants to be and instead she ‘camouflages' or ‘masks’ herself to her surroundings with her neutral and autumnal tones.

VFF: One thing our script judges were mulling over…why the name ‘Pennywort’?

RF: The film was named after the flowering wild plant, pennywort, which is known for growing and blooming even in surroundings that are inhospitable - other plants crowding it and taking up more room, yet still it flourishes. Given Freya's love of nature and her intimate connection with the natural world, this felt like an apt metaphor to capture a key element of her character and her resilience as a person. Despite the things inside and out that are challenging to her, Freya is strong and she will flourish - as she does by the end of the film.

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