Shona Auerbach is an award-winning short film director whose first feature, Dear Frankie, had its UK premiere at Edinburgh. The film got a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival, and it won the audience award for best international feature at the LA Film Festival. It's the story of single mum Lizzie (Emily Mortimer), who tells her nine-year-old son that his father is a sailor. She writes the boy - who is deaf - make-believe letters, telling of his dad's adventures in exotic lands. But when "his dad's ship" is due in port, her deception looks certain to unravel - unless she can find someone to play the part for 24 hours.
How did Dear Frankie first catch your eye?
I was looking for a feature script to direct, and Dear Frankie was a short script I was sent. I fell in love with the story and really wanted to make it. My husband said, "That would make a great feature", and really he put the seed in my head. And we've been working on it for six years, on and off. So it's been going for a while, [but] we've all been doing other things - we've had children, I've been doing commercials, Andrea [Gibb, writer] has done another feature [Afterlife]... we all have had our other things.
So what was it about this script that really grabbed you?
I think it was really the unconditional love this mother has for her son, and the lengths she'll go to to make him happy, which I think is something I connected with. We just want our children to be happy and we don't always make the right decisions in life, but we do the best we can. That's why I identify so much with Lizzie, because I do think she’s doing what she can, she’s doing her best for her child.
How did you find the progression from short film making to feature directing?
It felt like a very natural progression. The big difference is money obviously. I've also been working in commercials for years, so being on the set, working with actors, its become a way of life for me really. I made my short in 1995/1996 and since then I've been doing commercials.
Is there a snobbery in the film world about working on commercials?
I got a couple of comments early on, reminding me this wasn't a commercial. But [the two] are so connected as well, they both work on film, they're both telling a story, wanting a performance that people can believe. It really depends on the commercial too. I've been very lucky with commercials and I've been given some lovely scripts, and generally people have wanted me to make commercials like my short film. So I haven't been forced into a situation of doing stuff I don't enjoy. I've been quite lucky really.
So would you recommend it as a route to get into the industry?
Absolutely. It's a way forward where you can practice your craft, and you're not struggling. Obviously when you're doing a short film you're always struggling, you always need some more money or film stock. The commercial world is full of creative people who want to break rules and boundaries, and try things out. It's an exciting world I think if you get into the right side of it. It depends on the director really, what type of director they are - some may feel very uncomfortable doing commercials. Years ago I remember saying to my parents that I would never make a commercial, I couldn't imagine myself [doing it]. Of course there's also the element that you can make some money on the short term project [and] you're also forced to tell a story in a 30-second slot, which is quite a good discipline really.
How have you reacted to Dear Frankie's success at Cannes?
To be completely honest it's a real shock to the system. I've spent months sitting in the edit suite deciding where to cut a shot - five frames here or there - and suddenly I'm in Cannes and there's a standing ovation. It's an enormous shock to go from quietly getting on with it to a response like that.
What do you think it was that made it break through like that?
I don't know - who knows? It probably sounds a bit naive but it just came like a storm and I wasn't expecting it, which is the best way I think.
Does it feel different as you look forward to its British premiere - can anything beat the Cannes experience?
You can't imagine anything is going to beat it but, having said that, the film came from Scottish roots, it's a Scottish film. All my mum's side of the family are Scottish so to me Edinburgh feels really special, and it would be fantastic if the film got a good response [there] just because of the Scottish connections. So we'll see!
So what's next for you?
I've got a couple of things I'm very interested in, but I'm going to choose very carefully. The fact that I do commercials is allowing me the space to do that. I can't imagine embarking on a project unless I love it 100%, so I've got to be absolutely sure before I sign on the dotted line... but having said that I've got loads of films inside me. At the moment what's rattling round in my head is, I'd love to do a contemporary tragic love story. But we'll see where Dear Frankie takes us.Watch a clip from the film ****************************************************
Interview by Jen Foley. Dear Frankie is due for UK release in 2005.