As a young girl, Hope Dickson Leach dreamed of becoming a painter. She attended boarding school in England from the ages of 9 to 17 and earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy from the University of Edinburgh. But after interning for the likes of Mario Kassar and Todd Solondz, she convinced Columbia University’s film department to give her a chance. There, she devloped her desire to make films as well as her resumé, making three successful shorts: Cavities, Ladies in Waiting and The Dawn Chorus. The Dawn Chorus was an official selection at Sundance, the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and the London Film Festival, among others, and it was named best student short at the Austin Film Festival and best short film at Three Rivers Film Festival in Pennsylvania. Leach is currently working on English Rose, a dark coming-of-age comedy about a teenage girl who believes Princess Diana has ruined her parents’ marriage. She recently spoke with The Independent’s Mariel Lynn DiSibio.
How did you become a filmmaker?
After college, I came to the States and worked as an assistant to director Matthew Irmas on the film Sleep Easy, Hutch Rimes. It was wonderful being able to work with Swoosie Kurtz, who was an actress in the film. During my last year at the University of Edinburgh, I interned with Mario Kassar, who produced the Rambo movies and [was then] head of Carolco International Pictures. I read scripts and had an education in being objective about films I didn’t have a particular interest in, such as action films and comedies. I was also a Sundance Institute intern, working for the festival.
How did you make the decision to attend film school?
As I was working with all of these producers and directors, I was trying to decide if I should go to film school. I knew that Columbia University in New York had a great reputation and as an added bonus you could write, direct, produce, act, and try a little bit of everything. This really helped because I believe that the more you write, the better a director you’ll be. I had no experience and was initially put on a waiting list until I could persuade the school that I had the funding to do the films I wanted to do. When I started, I felt like I had never made anything, but then eventually thought to myself, ‘This is what I want to do.’
What was the experience of working on your first short film like?
The first short film I made was Cavities. At the time I was interning for Todd Solondz. I helped him with everything—casting for his movies, research, going to events. Cavities was the first script I wrote, about a 12-year-old girl’s relationship with her mom and how it changes after her parents’ divorce. I was on the lookout for young actresses and I found Valerie Shusterov, who is also the lead in The Dawn Chorus. She’s so natural and I loved working with her.
What kinds of issues does Cavities cover?
The story is about a young girl who is overweight and unhappy with herself. Her mother is getting remarried and takes her daughter to the store to try on a bridesmaid dress. She sees that Nina, the young girl, is wearing a bra and is surprised that she doesn’t know about it. They have a heart-to-heart and the mother finds out how miserable and self-conscious the young girl is. She teaches her daughter how to be bulimic. It’s a tragedy and I think it’s something that we’ve all felt as adolescents. When you’re a teenager, you have a moment where you can do something like that, and you think it’s for the right reasons, but it’s really such a terrible decision.
What kind of story did you set out to tell in your next short film, Ladies in Waiting?
That film takes place in a boarding school in England and is about a shy new girl coping with peer pressure. She betrays her friend to be popular with the other girls. The faculty at Columbia hated this film because I pushed the boundaries with it by taking adult voices and putting them in the mouths of the young actresses. I did this mainly because I wanted to show that how you tell stories is just as important as the stories you want to tell. It was a great project and I learned so much from it.
Why did you also decide to set Ladies in Waiting and English Rose, your current film, in the same boarding school milieu?
Boarding school is a strange and terrible place. It’s like a microcosm of the real world. Things are always more extreme there than in the outside world. Teenagers have such an extraordinary capacity for fear and paranoia that they are fantastic to use in a dramatic story.
Your short The Dawn Chorus, which isn’t set at a school, was officially selected at several film festivals and won two awards. What was your inspiration for the film?
The Dawn Chorus is about a brother and sister who are plane crash survivors and who cope with losing their parents in the crash by reenacting it every single year at the original site with their original clothes. Their clothes are too small and both look uncomfortable with getting older. The sister hates watching the events unfold and seems disinterested and eventually the brother confronts her. The rest of the survivors are also there helping them reenact until both realize they have to move on with their lives. It took five days to shoot and everyone worked so hard. My inspiration for it was from a friend whose parents had died. I wondered what it would be like to have that kind of trauma therapy.
The piece you’re currently working on, English Rose, is your first feature film. What is it about?
English Rose focuses on a young girl at boarding school whose parents are having strife in their lives, and they eventually get a divorce. The girl sets out to prove to her father that Princess Di is the reason for her parents’ unhappiness. She seeks solace in the arms of men and her best friend is a conspiracy theorist. The girl is trying to make friends and to examine who Diana was and to deal with her parents’ divorce. It also deals with teenagers falling in love for the first time.
When will you be finished shooting English Rose?
I’m aiming for next summer. We’re in the financing, pre-production phase at the moment. Since it’s my first feature, I’m trying to have control over it.
What do you enjoy the most about your work?
It’s exciting to get to know the characters, the actors bring a pot of gold on set when they share their talent. I also love the challenges of being on the set, and with independent films you have a lot of creative freedom.
Interviewer Mariel Lynn DiSibio is a freelance writer living in New York City
To learn more about Dickson Leach’s work, visit dawn-chorus.blogspot.com