The first time I met Amy Brandis, I thought she was a member of staff.
I was in a seminar at university and, at the end of the class, a young woman came in to tell us about her new radio show. She stood at the front of the room and told everyone to submit pieces of writing to be featured. It would be great to hear from us, she told us, smiling, as she left for another engagement.
How lovely, I thought, that staff were so invested in giving their students opportunities.
Of course, it turned out that the young woman, Amy, was a first year like me. She was just on a mission.
I’ve known Amy for eight years now and, no matter where she is, no matter what she’s doing, she’s striding: firm-footed, smile on, hand out ready to shake. She does things with an energy that makes you want to do them too. And now she’s done a film.
Screw the Pooch is Amy’s directorial debut. Currently on the festival circuit, the short film follows Kay who, when her mother dies, finds herself with Death as a roommate.
‘2020 was a year in which, on a personal and global level, I experienced loss in ways that I hadn’t before,’ Amy tells me over a Facebook video call. ‘I think previous generations and generations in other countries had seen terrible warfare, or famine – loss on a massive scale. But the pandemic for us in the UK was the first time our generation had seen death affect, if not everyone we knew, the majority of people we knew. I myself struggled with that at points. My family also faced some very difficult experiences as well. There were moments where we felt like we were bargaining with Death. And yet, this film isn’t supposed to be a be-all judgement of what death feels like or what death is. It’s a strange little moment where I’m trying to make sense of the role Death plays in our lives. That’s why it came out as a tragi-comedy and not a tragedy.’
In the trailer for the film, you can see Death [played by Mark Brandis, Amy’s father] in all its glory. It’s a strange, haunting figure, so obviously sinister that there’s something quirky about it, in its bird-skull mask, next to brightly-bereted Kay [Nadia Lamin].
‘2020 was such a painful, tragic, bizarre year that a drama or a straight tragedy didn’t feel appropriate,’ Amy goes on. ‘It wasn’t something I wanted to do. I needed to bring out the tragi-comedy of life as I saw it. What was so incredible was that, after the film was released, I had people contact me saying they’d lost loved-ones. They said it was funny, because they’d pictured Death with them in the house and they would sometimes talk to it. That was incredibly humbling. The perspective I presumed to be my own and not shared by anyone turned out to be more universal than I’d thought.’
2020 has brought universal difficulties. Lockdowns, social-distancing, anxiety and isolation have made progress in many professions difficult. Filmmaking is no exception. COVID tests, bubbling, and PPD all cost money, money young filmmakers don’t have, so rather than expand outwards, Amy hunkered down with her family. Her mother catered and produced (‘she did more than a producer would on a normal set,’). Her brother, Leo, took on three roles: tech, framing, and lighting (‘he’s incredibly talented’). And her dad played Death.
‘My dad actually trained at the National Youth Theatre when he was sixteen,’ Amy says. ‘He loved it, but when he was eighteen he was told by various people, including himself, that acting wasn’t a profession that was going to serve him in life and that he ought to get a Proper Job. I just thought it would be an interesting experience to have him be Death. He leant a mature perspective to the role. He’s experienced more death than I have. But it was also an opportunity for him to come back to acting with a mask to act behind. He didn’t have to worry about facial expression or dialogue, so it seemed like a sort of safer way for him to come back to it.’
Safer, perhaps, but not easy. The costume was ‘essentially a boiler-suit’ Amy says. There was an all-in-one black body suit, two cloaks, two clawed hands, the huge bird skull mask, and two hoods. ‘He spent a lot of time overheating,’ says Amy. ‘He was a real trooper.’
But it’s all paying off. The film has received special mentions at the 2021 Seasonal Short Film UK Festival and the 2021 London International Monthly Film Festival, made the official selection at the London Independent Film Festival and the Kalakari Film Festival, and is a semi-finalist at the Gold Movie Awards.
UK Film Review describe Screw the Pooch as ‘a brilliant, dark comic short that manages to make you laugh, cry, cringe and gasp.’
Amy Brandis is kind of a big deal. But we all knew that anyway. She’s always been able to look you in the eye and say she’s a writer without cracking up, which takes a level of sincerity many people, including those on courses specifically for those professions, often don’t have.
‘We haven’t got long on this planet,’ Amy says. ‘That’s the truth. And you could write the lightest, tamest little comedy in the world, by the way. I don’t mean you have to be super-aware of your own mortality and therefore write super serious things. But we don’t have much time. And that’s kind of what Screw the Pooch was about. You don’t have time to get in your own way. And your audience doesn’t have long on this planet either, so don’t waste their time. Write something you enjoy. That’s it.’
While Screw the Pooch sweeps along the festival circuit, scooping up commendations, Amy’s looking ahead. She’s got two projects in the pipeline, one that’ll need a higher budget, so she’ll be writing funding applications, writing scripts, finding a cast. If this year has taught us anything, it’s that life is unpredictable, that carrying on can be hard. It’s endurance and resilience, making the best you can with what you have, that means you make it.
And Amy’s still striding. Feet firm, smile on, hand out. Still looking you in the eye and saying, ‘I’m a writer.’
And she is.
About the Author
For ten years, Ellen Lavelle has interviewed authors for The Young Journalist Academy, Nothing in the Rulebook, Newark Book Festival, and her own blog. She’s written for several publications, including The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award Blog. Now an editor at Nothing in the Rulebook, she writes fiction and non fiction, while working as a digital copywriter for an education company. You can follow her on Twitter @ellenrlavelle