If you don’t recognise Francesca Fowler by name, you’ll probably recognise her by face, having made fairly regular appearances on British television screens for the past decade, as well as starring alongside the likes of Gillian Anderson and Danny Dyer in various films. But having been passionate about writing since childhood, it was inevitable that she would branch out from acting, and 2011 saw the first production of one of her scripts – the dark comedy short 28 Years Later, directed by now long-term collaborator Duncan Roe. The following year, the pair’s second collaboration with Fowler as writer and Roe as Director, Pitfall, won her the Best Writer Award at Underwire Festival.
“I’ve always been writing,” says Fowler when we ask what prompted her to make the leap five years ago. “At school writing and acting were the only things I was good at. I’d written features before, but up until 28 Years Later I’d had nothing produced.”
Upon meeting director Duncan Roe at their mutual agent’s Christmas drinks, the pair began chatting and by the end of the night had decided to enter the now defunct Virgin Media Shorts short film competition with only one week left until the deadline with a story penned by Fowler.
“As we had so little time to put it together, all we had was a skeleton script and we just shot it in one night.” Although 28 Years Later didn’t make the shortlist for the Virgin Media Shorts competition (Virgin’s loss), it did pick up a nomination for Best Comedy at Portobello Film Festival.
Fowler in costume as Abi on the set of Away From Me
Having been performing other people’s scripts for years before having her own performed, we’re intrigued to know if that was useful in terms of knowing how–and how not to–craft a good screenplay.
“It definitely helped coming from an acting background – it provided an amazing foundation in knowing what does and doesn’t make a script work.” But there is also a danger in putting too much emphasis on the script from an actor’s point of view, Francesca explains. “A script is a combination of many different elements – story, structure, characters, dialogue, pacing – all of which need to be right for it to work. Focussing too heavily on just one or two of those elements is going to have a negative impact on the finished script.”
Compared to acting, there freedom that writing offers, Fowler explains, in the increased opportunities to bring characters to life. “As an actor you often get typecast, and end up playing similar characters. But as a writer you get to create any number of characters.”
“It’s interesting seeing both sides of the coin – reading scripts from an actor’s point of view has helped inform my writing, and in-turn my own writing has helped me to assess other writer’s scripts when auditioning for parts as an actor.”
Like many screenwriters, Fowler is partial to experiencing bouts of Too-Many-Ideas Syndrome. “I annoy myself because I come up with a new idea every week. I’ll see something on the street or read a news article and I get a new idea.”
But knowing which ideas will make viable screenplays is skill that, looking out her written output, it’s clear Fowler has mastered. “I believe that if you can turn it into a log line, then you can turn it into a film – no log line, no film.”
And what about her process when it comes to putting pen to paper? “First I let it swim in my head, then I go for an outline – I need to know the beginning, middle, and end. When I started writing I would just jump straight in and I used to end up with messy scripts. Even if it eventually changes, there always has to be a blueprint.”
“I also research existing films in a similar vain to what I’m working on – it’s great to write just for yourself, but you need to know from the outset that a project has an audience.”
Although Fowler and Duncan Roe have been collaborating on various project for the past five years in different roles, new short Away From Me marks her first time in the (co-)director’s chair, in addition to her acting, writing and producing responsibilities.
“Directing is something I’ve always wanted to do, but I’d thought ‘I’ll do that when I’m older'”– something we’ve all thought towards something we’ve wanted to do at one time or another.
“I didn’t want to wear too many hats,” says Fowler, echoing the suspicions (and, if we admit it, jealously) most of us feel towards multi-talented jacks-of-all-trades, like James Franco and Lena Dunham.
When the project was first conceived, Fowler was going to be exclusively behind the camera, but with such a short period in which to cast the film she took on the role of Abi as well. “I connected with the character, so given the circumstances we decided that it was best for the project if I take on the role, and both Duncan and I direct.”
Fowler and Away From Me co-director Duncan Roe on set
Away From Me was shot in three days with next to no budget and a lot of favours called-in. What was the experience of directing herself in the film that she was also producing? “As long as everyone was happy and we felt we were telling the story right, we couldn’t be too precious with it. A happy crew will go the extra mile, which goes a long way when you’re on a tight budget and schedule.”
And would she ever direct herself again in another film project? “Never say never,” she answers after a second’s pause, “but at least not for the next few projects. You have to make sacrifices when you’re doing both, and as a result you can’t fully be there for your actors.”
Having written four short films prior to Away From Me, three of which directed by Duncan Roe, surely it was nice to direct her own writing rather than relinquish control entirely after the screenplay is finished, even if it is to the most congruous of collaborators?
“Definitely. To carry the project through was something I really valued; each film is like your baby – you want the best for it. If there were times when Duncan and I had different ideas about that way something should be done, we’d try it both ways and see which worked best. But equally you don’t always have time, so there’s a trust you have to have with each other. Having worked together so much, we have a short-hand, which helps a lot.”
Looking side-by-side at all of the produced films she’s written, you’d be fair in assuming that Fowler has a penchant for exploring the darker side of humanity, with themes of suicide, kidnapping and deceit prominent in her work. “I’m definitely drawn to dark drama, but it’s not something I really noticed until it was laid out bare to me like that.”
“I’m fascinated by deception and issues around trust–I’ve always been drawn to stories with a twist, whether that’s a character, emotional or plot. I think the fact that you can’t ever truly know someone 100% is terrifying. I’m kind-of obsessed with it. I guess it spills into my work more than I realised.”
When it comes to her inspirations as a filmmaker, Fowler cited Kristen Wiig, Amy Schumer, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in a previous interview with Underwire Festival. But looking at the four shorts she’s written, this list of great comediennes doesn’t seem to match up, given that her creative output isn’t what you would consider comical–perhaps with the exception of dark comedy 28 Years Later, which is still a very different type of comedy to the snort-out-loud likes of Mean Girls and Bridesmaids.
“I love comedy and have written comedy scripts, including a recent sitcom, but it’s just been circumstantial that my only scripts that have been produced so far have been darker ones. I’d love to do more comedy in general, both acting and writing. At the end of the day the story is king, and, for me, that can be in any genre.”
She goes on to explain how although the likes of Schumer and Poehler have influenced her career in certain ways, they are by no means her sole inspirations, listing Alex Garland’s masterful subtly, David Fincher’s darkness, and J.K. Rowling’s determination as a single mother and writer. “You can take different elements of inspiration from different people, there doesn’t necessarily have to be a direct relationship in terms of output.”
Fowler and Roe on the set of Away From Me
Now that she’s piqued our interest, when will people get the opportunity to watch Away From Me? “It has currently been submitted to two film festivals, which we’re waiting to hear back on. We’ve only just started the festival run but we’re hoping people will be able to see it at multiple festivals. We’ll have to wait and see.”
“For the past few years I’ve been writing a lot, building up my portfolio, so I haven’t really had much to show in terms of produced films. But film festivals and film events are worth going to anyway for meeting people. You’re spending time with people who share your passion, which ends up opening doors both socially and professionally. I wish I’d known that when I was starting out, especially as an actor.”
And finally, what’s next for Fowler? As well as developing Away From Me into a feature, she’s recently accepted a commission to write a feature film based on Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu – a gothic vampire novella predating Bram Stoker’s Dracula. With the main location already secured – a 17th century manor house – Fowler has the unusual luxury of being able to stay at the house while she writes the screenplay in order to get familiar with the space. The film starts shooting in February, so the pressure is on for Fowler to get the script written, but pressure is probably something she should get used to because we have a feeling she’s going to be very much in-demand very soon.