I first met Anouchka Santella over a plate of spanakopita spring rolls.
‘Are they any good?’ she asked, as I shoved one into my mouth.
‘Mmphf,’ I said, through spinach and feta.
We were at the opening of The Kurious, a ‘multi-disciplinary design and brand development consultancy’, based in Sheffield. It’s a film production and editing space, basically, full of fancy equipment, big monitors and interesting people. People like Anouchka.
‘Do you have Instagram?’ she asked. ‘I’m a writer/director and my film, Hope Valley, is screening next week. You should come. I can send you the details.’
Going through Anouchka’s Instagram is like flicking through Vogue very fast. It makes sense; before becoming a film director she launched her own fashion brand.
‘The thing I really liked about fashion was the visual aspect,’ Anouchka told me when I interviewed her later, over Zoom. ‘I can sew, but not very well. The part I loved was directing the models and deciding how the photographs would look. I’d come up with stories behind the photographs, ideas for how the characters wearing the clothes might be feeling. But no one really cared, it was just a photo, so I started thinking, ‘if only there was something that involved directing people visually and also writing stories…’ And then I realised that was filmmaking.’
But I’m jumping ahead.
I followed Anouchka on Instagram, got her invitation and went to the screening. The auditorium was packed, a weird sight after the pandemic. In the stands were film students, friends, family, actors and crew from the set. At the front was Anouchka, with one other young woman.
Lucy Percival is Anouchka’s producer, script editor and friend. They met at an SYFN (South Yorkshire Filmmaker’s Network) event, just before lockdown and stayed in touch throughout. Anouchka sent Lucy scripts to read, Lucy read them, Anouchka wrote some more.
‘I think Anouchka wrote a script every day for the first six months of the pandemic,’ Lucy tells me. ‘She’d send them to me, we’d have our weekly Zooms and I would give her my unsolicited advice. I am not qualified to give feedback on scripts at all. I was just giving my opinion.’
I’m not sure Lucy is unqualified. She’s been making films since she was ten years old. She started off writing plays with her cousins and then, when she was in Year 5, she saved up for a video camera. She made films with her cousin Izzy (who is actually in Hope Valley) and her friends.
‘I think everyone I have ever been friends with has at least appeared in a film or worked behind the scenes,’ Lucy says. ‘It’s sort of the deal. If you’re going to be my friend, it’s going to happen.’
When they were fourteen, Lucy and Izzy decided to make a feature film. The film ended up being 80 minutes long and featured 40 people from Lucy’s year group. The film was shot out of order over the course of a year and puberty did not make continuity easy. In some scenes people have braces, in others they’re off; the boys’ voices break throughout.
‘It’s horrific,’ Lucy says. ‘No one can ever see it.’
But it exists. And getting a thing to exist isn’t easy, particularly when you’re fourteen. So you can understand why Anouchka would want Lucy’s opinion on her scripts. One of these lockdown scripts was Hope Valley, a short film about a young woman living in the Peak District.
‘I watched a lot of films in lockdown and so many of them were about young girls moving from a small town to a big city and then having to move back home again because something’s gone wrong,’ Anouchka says. ‘I realised that if that happened to me, I’d be moving back to Paris from Sheffield. That would really depress me, which I thought was quite funny. I wanted to write something about that and turn the cliché upside down a bit.’
In the film, Theo, a young woman that has recently lost her job at a cutlery factory, hosts her parents for a visit. She’s also recently broken up with her boyfriend and, tired of going over it all with her mum and dad, she escapes the confines of her flat and begins a night of emotional aimlessness. She ends up at a house party, filmed at the stunning Thornbridge Hall, and runs into various characters from her past. It’s all filmed beautifully, in pastel, otherworldly tones. It’s lovely to see Sheffield and the Peaks depicted in this attractive way, rather than in the shades of grey usually associated with the City of Steel.
‘I normally spend a long time thinking about my scripts,’ Anouchka says. ‘But with this one, I had the idea, sat down and wrote it in about twenty minutes.’
‘A lot of people trust me to read their scripts,’ Lucy says, ‘which is a really big thing. A script really is like the inside of your brain so it’s very exposing. I’ve read a lot of scripts, but I’ve never read anything quite like Anouchka’s. Often, there are similar themes or scenes and you think, ‘ah, that’s a bit like that popular TV show…’ But when I read Anouchka’s stuff I feel like I’ve never seen it before. Her writing makes you laugh when you read it, not just the dialogue – it’s the way the whole thing is written. It’s the sort of thing you start reading and just don’t put down. It’s exciting when that happens because you think, if that’s the script, what is the film going to be like?’
At the screening, the audience is appreciative, laughs in all the right places. There’s quite a community of filmmakers here – people who want the film to be good, who want it to do well. This community spirit, this feeling of people supporting each other, comes with location Lucy says. Some of the locations were ambitious and, when she showed the script to other producers, they told them to cut them down. But they didn’t. The David Mellor factory in Hathersage allowed them to film in the factory for free and even gave them some products for product placement. They were also allowed to film for a whole day at Thornbridge Hall, they just had to give a donation to the house charity.
‘I think they were all just really flattered to be asked,’ Lucy says. ‘They all seemed to like the project and we met them all in person. The whole thing felt very community-based. When we were filming in The Plough Inn, passers-by came up to us and said they’d seen us the other day and asked how it was all going. It all felt very local, which was really nice. Everyone was intrigued by the project and we managed to get all these incredible locations, just by asking. I think that’s one of the amazing things about being in the North. I’ve just moved to London, and you definitely don’t get that here.’
Lucy’s move to London is the reason we’re talking over Zoom, around a week after the screening. Passers-by aren’t the only ones that are intrigued by the pair. Filmmaking, to me, seems to be a particularly bold kind of creative alchemy. You take a group of people, some words on paper and, from basically nothing, you create a whole world. It’s extreme effort, sure, but the pay-off can also be extreme.
I often think about what it takes to generate this extreme effort. It’s clear that Lucy and Anouchka get a kick out of every day. It’s not just about showing up every day on set, it’s about showing up every day in your own head, which can be easier if there’s someone else you have to show up for.
‘I think when you have someone else who’s onboard and sees what you see, it makes you even more excited,’ says Anouchka. ‘Just talking about it with someone who cares is really fun, so if that person is actually involved too, it makes such a difference. It sort of gives you permission to wholly commit.’
Anouchka and Lucy are not finishing committing. In July, they’ll begin shooting their next short film, Mother of the Year. It’s a short film but also proof-of-concept for a series – Lucy and Anouchka hope to make it a TV show.
At the moment, they’re in pre-production.
‘I always love pre-production,’ says Lucy, ‘because nothing’s gone wrong yet.’
Mother of the Year is about a 15-year-old girl that has a cryptic pregnancy – she doesn’t realise she’s pregnant until she’s in labour. She gives birth at school one day and then the story jumps forward to her adulthood. She’s 31, her son is 16. In the midst of this unusual dynamic, she has to balance her responsibility with the sense of being an eternal teenager.
‘I started writing the script last year and sent it to Lucy straight away, because that’s what I do now,’ Anouchka says. ‘Originally, I was going to do three episodes and make them all really low-budget, so I could get the vibe of the series across. But then Lucy came along and said we should make one, really high-quality film. That’s much better than making three episodes that don’t fulfil their potential. That’s why I have Lucy organise all my films and also my entire life.’
‘I feel like we just work really well together,’ says Lucy. ‘By the end of the Hope Valley shoot, I’m pretty sure we were telepathic for about half an hour. We’re really luck in that way and really excited to do the next one.’
To find out more, follow Anouchka and Lucy on Instagram:
About the author
For ten years, Ellen Lavelle has interviewed writers 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 copywriter for an education company. You can follow her on Twitter @ellenrlavelle