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Ailish Castillo recalls the highs and lows of producing her first short film, The Widow. 

Aside from having two babies, the making of my first short film, The Widow, was one of my proudest achievements to date. And a bit like having a baby, it definitely wasn’t easy, but was it worth it? Hell yes. 

From page to screen, and everything in between

I started writing short stories about my Irish Grandparents living through the 50’s and 60’s and the events that occurred around them. I had just moved to Toronto with my husband and our one year old. I’d put my acting career on hold and was feeling pretty homesick. 

Even though I’d never produced before, these short stories were so visual and personal to me and I felt they would resonate with other others, especially young parents, trying their best to navigate the struggles of family life. So I had to develop them into screenplays, somehow. 

Two years later, back in the UK and I’m setting up my own production company, LionBear Films, the name being a lighthearted nod to my two children and the strength they continuously give me. 

Surprisingly, this process, which included registering it with Companies House, was straightforward and inexpensive. Best of all, it meant that I was protected should anything go wrong during the shoot. For peace of mind, these steps are definitely worth taking if you’re planning to produce your own work

My main goal was to get my first and favourite story made, The Widow. Inspired by my grandmother who was left alone to raise her children when her husband died while she was pregnant with their third child, my father. 

Building the Team 

Being a female led story, I was determined from the start, to have as many talented women involved as possible. From my co-director, Nicola Morris, to the cinematographer, Sally Low, to the Production designer, the art department, HMU, 1st AD, 2nd AC, lighting assistant, the list goes on… 

For the cast, I embraced the part of my Grandmother (under my acting/maiden name, Symons). My brilliant actor friends couldn’t have been more supportive – Siobhan Mc Sweeney (Derry Girls) was happy to get involved and play the 1950’s housekeeper. 

Then I lucked out when a friend (who happens to be the BAFTA winning sound engineer for Killing Eve as well as many more amazing BBC series) read the script and said he’d be happy to help me out with Sound! #winning 

The Gift of the Gab 

Maybe it was because I grew up close to the lucky Blarney stone in Cork, Ireland – or perhaps it was because I had nothing to lose – but I found that personally approaching people and talking to them about what I needed went down pretty well! 

The 1952 setting meant that everything in the frame had to represent this era. With a minimal budget, this was pretty tricky. But what can I say, I’m a fool for all things vintage! 

Our local pub was closed, very old and in bad need of repair (a perfect set for what I needed). It was up for sale, so I approached the estate agent with a letter for the potential new owners, on the off chance they might be willing to lend me a few of the upstairs rooms for the film before they renovated it. And guess what – they said yes! 

As a thank you, I gave a talk to the students at the school whose head teacher was one of the new pub owners. 

I made a deal with Thames Hospice that any old furniture they received, I got it at a fraction of the price, used it for the film set, then handed it back for them to upcycle and sell again. In gratitude, I arranged a fundraiser on behalf of the vicar who let us film in her church. 

After approaching Panavision, they kindly agreed to sponsor me by giving me their film kit, free of charge, for the final two days of our four-day shoot. 

Don’t Stop Moving

Looking back, pre-production, production and post-production were not plain sailing, but, at the time, because I had nothing else to compare it to personally, I embraced it as part of the journey. 

Some journeys are easy, and you reach your destination quickly. Others require additional planning and navigating. Certainly, it can be tiring, but you will get there – as long as you keep going. 

Instead of complaining or giving up, I knew I just had to keep the whole production moving forward. At times, it felt like I was pushing a big stubborn bull up a steep hill – if I stopped to think about what could go wrong, the beast would slide back down. 

Supported by a strong team, however, I knew we would ultimately succeed. 

What Lockdown was like for me

I envied those who were able to write that amazing feature that’s been swimming round in their heads…. binge watch their favourite movies or even learn a new language (did anyone actually do that by the way?) 

For me, I was landed with the new role of homeschooling my two kids. It left me with almost no time to think of developing the projects I wanted to get stuck into this year. 

I did, however, get to know a lot more about Raindance. In my search for the right festivals for The Widow, I found myself becoming part of the Raindance Community, discovering more about independent film making from watching the Instagram lockdown sessions, to getting a mini crash course on a story board 101 session to name just a few. 

It’s been a life line that I could tap in and out of when ever I needed to (or whenever Netflix entertained the little ones). Elliot being the right balance between light hearted banter and giving those nuggets of damn good film making advice. 

So, what’s next? 

I’m currently producing a stunning short animation, A Piglet’s Tale, written, directed and edited by Fabrizio Gammardella (he was also editor for The Widow). Soon to be released into the Festival world, it explores the darker side to animal farming. 

The animators have been working remotely in their own homes and it’s been coming together without any of the artists actually being together – Definitely an appropriate lockdown project I’d say! 

It’s currently in the crowdfunding stage, we’re using Indigogo website which I would recommend. For The Widow I used Go Fund Me which was alright but not as cool or, in my opinion, appealing to potential funders and backers. 

Just Do It

Ultimately, there is no way I could have completed The Widow had I not believed in it 100 per cent from the start. Doubt will creep in, but you’ve got to persevere. In my view, the learning and questioning along the way are equally as important as the story you’re telling. 

If you know in your gut that you’ve got to get it out there, then do it. And you don’t necessarily have to have a large budget to get high-production values. 

There’s always another way to get what you need! 

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About 

Born in Cork, Ireland, Ailish began her career in the arts as an actress with her TV debut at just 16years old on Bachelor’s Walk (RTE). Highlights included leading roles in Romeo and Juliet (Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, plus national tour), Starfish (Irish Film Board), Stars in The Morning Sky (Belgrade Coventry), Guantanamo Boy (Stratford Theatre), The Importance of Being Earnest (Lyric Theatre) from which she earned a Highly Commended Award at The Ian Charleson Awards, National Theatre, London. After years of acting in theatre, TV and Film, she branched out and started developing her own short stories into short films. She recently set up a production company, LionBear Films, and now has two short films under her producing belt, The Widow and A Piglet's Tale. She's determined to work with and promote talented women in the industry.