Up and coming writer-director Florence Winter Hill has tackled the concerning subject of arts disappearing from British school curriculums with her latest short film, Elle. She talks to Top 10 Films editor Dan Stephens about the obstacles she’s faced, her route into filmmaking and why it’s so important to celebrate arts in education…
Florence Winter Hill’s Elle tackles the subject of the arts disappearing from the education system. The director may only be 19, but she has already made waves in the film world. Created by a young crew, Elle, starring Isabelle Allen and Byrony Afferson, shares a world where arts subjects are being neglected in the education system.
At just 16, Winter Hill was selected by the National Film & Television School and BFI as one of the “most talented filmmakers in the country”. The award-winning filmmaker saw her debut film Afterlife win multiple awards and screened at BAFTA-qualifying film festivals including ASFF.
Her second film My Beloved Monster was praised by Tom Hooper (The Danish Girl) and Rian Johnson (Star Wars VIII, The Last Jedi), and at only 18 she worked on Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi as a VFX Production Assistant.
Winter Hill created Elle to challenge society’s views on young children with big creative dreams and make a film with a young fearless female protagonist.
Wow! Elle is genuinely stunning; surprising, moving, uplifting. Arts and education are close to my heart too… how much of Elle is based on your own experiences?
I’m not a dancer, but I am a filmmaker and felt this experience through wanting to make films. Everybody who worked on the film had experienced their own version of this story. I feel like it’s very common that creative people are discouraged at a young age, especially through the current education system.
What originally inspired your appreciation of film (a teacher, family member or friend, or a particular film or filmmaker perhaps) and when did you first start filmmaking?
I’ve always loved films and stories of all kinds since I was very young. I’ve been making films for as long as I can remember, any time I could get my hands on a camera I’d be making something. I made my first short film (what I like to call it now) when I was 16, after I was selected as “one of the most talented filmmakers in the country” by the National Film & Television School and BFI.
Did you find your passion and talent for cinema supported by your teachers/school/family or did you find a general leaning towards encouraging more academic study like maths/science?
I started writing Elle when I was completing my A-levels, almost 2 years ago now. I had always been frustrated through my experience in education with the lack of appreciation and encouragement to do arts subjects. They are stigmatised and discouraged throughout the education system, and are being gradually completely cut from curriculums. From my experience, I felt that because of this – children are naturally forgetting what they love.
Most schools now have a system where the subjects are categorised into columns, and you can only choose one subject from each column. Which ultimately means a lot of children have to choose subjects they’re not very interested in, and are restricted in their later choices for A-level.
Schools are too focused on children being able to get a ‘stable job’, that they’re not allowing us to even aim for jobs in creative industries (that appear more unlikely/challenging). Even Isabelle, our lead actress who played Young Cossette in Tom Hooper’s Oscar-nominated film Les Miserables, wasn’t able to choose dance as well as drama at her school. She told me this in her audition and how upset she was about it, and I knew this was something she cared about sharing too.
I wanted to tell a story of what it’s like to go through this. It’s something us young people trying to make our way in the creative industry all have in common – the entire crew on Elle was made up of people between 17-22 who all felt they had been through this and believed in telling the story, as in a way, it was also theirs.
Elle is my battle cry to children (especially young girls as creative industries are lacking women, even though 50% of arts graduates in the UK are female!) to inspire them to keep going in what they love – no matter what gets in the way.
What films and filmmakers inspire and inform your approach to filmmaking?
I love films that break boundaries, not only on an executional level but most importantly in the form of storytelling. I was very inspired by Hayao Miyazaki’s filmmaking growing up, and I think that influences my filmmaking now. I feel like my film taste is changing all the time as I learn more about film and watch a larger variety, but I love Jean Luc Godard’s work, Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows had a huge effect on me, Paul Thomas Anderson, Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Akira Kurosowa’s Dreams, most recently Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird – I could go on! I love films that express the lightness in life along with its complications.
Elle’s a very accomplished piece of work which showcases your talent as a filmmaker but I’m sure you’ll admit the positive impact of your cast and crew?
We crowdfunded the film, and we were very lucky to get a really great reaction from our friends and family, and then the public and members of Kickstarter – the word seemed to spread quite quickly. We realised how common this issue is for not only young people, but also adults, through our funding, and the public were immensely supportive. That meant a lot for a young ambitious filmmaker with a big idea. Filmmaking is never easy – and I felt so lucky to be able to work with such amazing young people just starting their careers in film, like ourselves, it was a huge team effort to bring it all to life and I’m so glad we did it.
How did you go about casting the film, particularly finding the talented Isabelle Allen?
At the beginning – I searched absolutely everywhere. I didn’t want to look straight to someone who was already established, I wanted to look for someone who was living in Elle’s situation. I came across Isabelle one day searching through Spotlight, and I sent the script to her through her agent and luckily – she absolutely loved it, so we asked her to audition.
As soon as Isabelle walked in the audition room, she had such a level of maturity and elegance to her. She is so determined and intuitive with acting – she really loves it and cared for Elle as a character, and that was important for me. I think when she was performing I saw a bit of myself, she really wants something and she is working so hard to get it – it was quite inspiring.
Her audition made us all a bit emotional. She wasn’t professionally trained in dancing but she loved it and had had lessons all her life. For me, the acting was more important to me than the dancing, because I knew we had to connect with her as a character over her dancing. She has learnt from some of the best, spending weeks on set with Eddie Redmayne, Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman, Russel Crowe etc, and it has sparked something really special in her to keep doing it. She is currently starring in the Netflix series Safe as Dexter star Michael C. Hall’s daughter.
And special mention of the excellent score and cinematography – what brought you to work with these talented people?
Ed Stone (the cinematographer) and I have been working together since we were both on the NFTS BFI Film Academy course back in 2015. He worked on a different film to me, but we met on the course and shot a short film shortly after completing the course together, and we found we worked extremely well together. It helps that he is one of the most loveliest guys I’ve ever met, but we also have a very similar taste in films and are both really passionate about creating the best work, so working together is just like hanging out with a best friend, being creative – it’s amazing.
Giuseppe Alfano scored Elle and we actually met through the crowdfunding process. He found the project on kickstarter and contacted me, I listened to his work – funnily enough, exactly at the point I was trying to secure a composer – and it was incredible.
You wrote the film with Peter Vaughan – why did you collaborate on the script and what influence did Peter have?
Peter is a really creative and poetic writer. I was attracted to his writing because this story began as a metaphor, and I wanted it to have a balance of realism and ‘is this reality or are we seeing this through her eyes’? We worked tirelessly on the writing to make it something new and original, but also something that spoke to an audience, and all audiences at that. We wanted the story to not only resonate with young people, but also with adults, because it is a story about growing up and it needed to have both sides – i.e. Miss Ramon, Mum, Elle all being at different stages in their lives using their creative skills in different ways.
What do you hope general audiences will take away from experiencing Elle?
I really hope it will inspire young girls to keep doing what they love, and not let anything stop them. Don’t let someone telling you you won’t make it stop you – let it be more drive to prove them wrong. I want young people to believe in what they want and be free to make that choice for themselves.
I also hope it encourages parents to think about what their children are enjoying most at school, and to encourage them to keep doing it, even if its supposedly unconventional. The arts are so important for our culture and the future of our country, and the future starts in our children’s classrooms. We need to make an effort to encourage and appreciate all forms of art, because we need art just as much as we need maths, but they are not treated as equals.
What’s next for the film in terms of screenings and getting it out to the wider public?
It will be screening at the INDI’s Film Festival running from the 20th to the 22nd of July in Leeds.
Florence Winter Hill’s Elle was screened at Cannes as part of its Shorts Corner selection.