SHE’S best known to Henley Standard readers as the founder of the town’s annual fringe festival — which last year added films to its roster.
But it is as a filmmaker in her own right that Jo Southwell is hoping to make her name in the wider world.
An actress, writer, director and producer, she has recently teamed up with Catherine Morshead, whose directorial credits include episodes of Downton Abbey and Doctor Who.
Their goal, explains Jo, is to make a feature-length retelling of Deirdre of the Sorrows — a tale drawn from Irish folklore but set in the Seventies in this version.
Jo has lived in Henley for 15 years but has close family in Ireland, including her mum, brother and sister.
In order to make Deirdre of the Sorrows a reality, she and Catherine decided to make a short film along the same lines, with the title shortened to Deirdre.
Says Jo: “We’ve made the short. It’s a teaser [for the feature-length version] but also the short film is a product in itself.
“You normally start with a short film and develop it into a feature, but I ended up writing a feature and going backwards and making a short.
“For film investors, and things like that, I just thought I needed something that would show the quality and style of the film I’m trying to sell. And that’s what short films do.”
Deirdre’s production schedule, which included a location shoot in Ireland back in June, meant there wasn’t quite enough time for it to be shown at last month’s fringe and film festival.
However, the trailer is expected to be ready in a fortnight’s time, when it will be available to view on Jo’s website.
She said: “What I’ll do is I’ll release Deirdre on to the short film market. So the big one’s obviously Cannes, which is in May, but you need to submit it a good while before then. Then I’ll submit it to an Irish film festival and
some American film festivals as well.”
Having written the screenplay and scouted the locations, Jo is planning to direct the feature, with Catherine Morshead on board as an executive producer and co-producer.
“One of the reasons I shot Deirdre the short first is that although I know Ireland and I’ve got family there, I’ve not worked there on this side of the camera.
“I’ve worked there as an actress but I haven’t worked behind the camera — and I thought it’s a really good thing for me to do, to go over there with a small crew from the UK, just to see how filming goes on somewhere else.
“We literally had four days to make the short film, because the lead actress is in a TV soap in Ireland, and she had to go back off…
“That’s just what the short film industry is like. It’s complete mayhem, really, in a lot of ways.
“And so going over there, finding the right locations, acting, and we’ve got four days to make this film, and then we get to now, the edit, and it’s like, ah, have we got that shot, is it there?
“You know, making sure you’ve got everything you need. You don’t have any kind of safety net.”
Now you’ve had a chance to review the footage, did you get everything you wanted?
“No, actually. We had to go back to Ireland to do some green screen footage, which was basically the lead actress — stick her in front of the green screen, looking this way, that way, over this way.
“Just because now we’re in the edit, as a director I’m looking for slightly different things, and if you haven’t got the actress acting in the way that you want you can’t use that idea, or can’t use that shot, so let’s go and do those bits…”
Deirdre is billed as an Irish Romeo and Juliet story. Did it add to the challenge to give it a period setting?
“Absolutely. I keep questioning it, actually, because if we’d just shot it as a contemporary film I wouldn’t need to worry about such a big budget. The period bit adds costs, basically, more than anything.
“But the way the story is told, I don’t think people would buy all of it if it was set now. I don’t think the struggles these characters go through would really be believable now, so it’s better
that it’s set slightly distant from now.”
As an independent filmmaker, Jo was recently chosen to take part in Creative England’s talent programme, which runs until December.
“They’ve selected a group of British directors, writers and producers and kind of put us all together and given us the opportunity to discuss potential film ideas, funding, and to become part of the British film industry network, and things like that. So that’s also generating, hopefully, various opportunities for me as a filmmaker that way.”
In fact, Jo confirmed this week that she has been offered a film to direct next year — a police drama that will be shot in Rye, East Sussex. She has also been invited to speak at the Richard Harris International Film Festival in Limerick later this month.
“For me as an independent filmmakers, I’m lucky — I get to be at the start of my film project because I’ve written it. I generally have an idea of how I want to visualise it, and then I get to work with the editor at the end.
“And what normally happens is an editor goes through all the footage and chooses all the bits they can work with and cuts a rough cut together. Then the director comes in and sits down and it’s like, ‘Well, that doesn’t tell the story’ or ‘That’s not the emotion I was looking for there….’ Then you have to go back through all the footage and find the bits that you want.”