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How we made an award-winning short film with no official funding during a pandemic

Taking more than two years to come together, Mr Wong’s Lullaby draws on the personal experiences of co-writers Clare Langford and Anni Swinburn as it explores the impact of dementia and focuses upon the difficulties of work-life balance for the carer.

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Ray Ashcroft as Horace in Mr Wong's Lullaby.

Rookie Films.

Mr Wong’s Lullaby was the working title we gave to an idea that started life in a cafe in St Pancras station on a rainy Wednesday in 2019. We first met when an extract from Anni’s play Lost Crystals featured in a festival of new writing which I was curating. Over the coming months aided by wine and coffee, we discussed the possibility of a feature film but decided that was rather ambitious for a first venture, so we looked at elements of the story to develop into a short script. It was important for us to give a sense of the bigger picture and set a tone which could potentially be moulded into a teaser for a feature – while also being a standalone piece.

When choosing the characters – in particular Horace, Norah and Celeste – we were able to draw on our own personal experiences. Anni was a social worker for over twenty years before retirement and I was a carer for someone with dementia. We established a working relationship with the charity TIDE (Together In Dementia Everyday) who work to provide support for carers, as well as addressing negative stigma around dementia.

This was really helpful for us in deciding how to portray Horace; we wanted to honestly portray the challenges of living with dementia, and how that can be manifest in unusual or unpleasant behaviour, while offering a sensitive and nuanced perspective and respecting the dignity of the person, ensuring that they’re understood as being more than their condition. We wrote and rewrote the script over the next few months, taking feedback from an online read-through and speaking to fellow writers. We finally arrived at a place of satisfaction with the script and became fond of the working title Mr Wong’s Lullaby so kept it – and then the world closed down and funding opportunities with it!

We had a completed script, had secured a location in Sheffield kindly offered by Anni’s friends and we had a core team of supporters, but we were in limbo. I decided to direct to keep costs down but also to keep the tone of the film true to our vision. The next twelve months during lockdown were spent on an exhausting crowdfunding campaign in partnership with TIDE, as well as tweaking the script and assembling our cast and crew via Zoom – all while keeping a close eye on Covid headlines. Our motto was to keep going until we couldn’t.

Finally, in April 2021, we began filming with a technical crew from far and wide as well as our Mr Wong, but most of the cast, other crew members and volunteers came from the Sheffield area. We remained under the watchful gaze of our efficient Covid supervisor. Masks were donned, cameras were sanitized, noses swabbed. We were blessed with three glorious days of sunshine in Sheffield and managed to get the film in the can without casualties, major incidents or a Covid outbreak.

The next five months were spent in post-production and close association with our experienced and helpful editor. Due to pandemic restrictions everything was done online, including editing, sound design, music score, colour grading and locking the picture. Finally, we premiered Mr Wong’s Lullaby at Abbeydale Picture House in October 2021. It was a wonderful evening with a Q&A by our patron Steve Hawley, an experienced film maker himself and Emeritus Professor of Manchester School of Art. The film was very well received and has been on an amazing journey since then.

We submitted the film onto the International Short Film circuit and it has been screened at over 30 festivals around the world, from Sheffield and Coventry to New York, Los Angeles, Brazil, Hong Kong, Rotterdam and, most recently, Fastnet Film Festival in Ireland, where Anni, myself and our families met together to support the screening. Our fabulous little film has also won awards – among them for best short film, best director, best script writers and even an award for best women’s empowerment film in Paris.

We can hardly believe how well the film is doing now it’s out on its own in the world, but we always had great faith in the story and the incredible dedication of our cast and crew. There are thousands of wonderful short films submitted to festivals and we’re so grateful to be a part of this. However the amazing journey of Mr Wong’s Lullaby has not been without sadness, as Anni’s dear friend Chris Walker died in January 2022.

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Anni Swinburn and Clare Langford with the poster for Mr Wong's Lullaby.

Chris and wife Rachel were great supporters of the project. They read the script, liked it and kindly offered their house and garden in Sheffield as a location, moving out for three days so filming could take place. Thankfully they attended the premiere and both loved the film.

We would love to explore the story further. Having set out initially with the idea of creating a feature film, we’ve been delighted with audience reception to the film – the predominant feedback being “loved it, but it’s too short – I want to know more!”. We have certainly learned many valuable lessons from making Mr Wong’s Lullaby, which we’ll take forward onto future ventures. The first takeaway from this experience, which I think experienced filmmakers would agree with and emerging filmmakers should remember, is that your team is everything. A film set is like a well-oiled machine when you have all the right people on your side, all the way from pre-production to your first public screening. The second is catering – don’t scrimp. A well fed crew is a happy crew and a happy crew will help you make the film you want to make! Beyond that, try to relax and not stress the small things. It’s a privilege to be able to make films so enjoy the process!

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