Rachel Fowler is a brave and candid filmmaker whose striking exploration of a largely untouched subject matter, the tragedy of stillbirth, is as heartbreaking as it is uplifting. For the production of her directorial debut, Rachel carried out a hugely admirable amount of research, ensuring an accurate and proper treatment of the subject. She then worked tirelessly to pare down the script only to be left with the bare essentials that drive the storytelling whilst allowing the audience the space and time to breathe it all in. Rachel worked with casting director Heather Basten to assemble a stellar crew who understood the subtlety of her vision, led by Caitlin FitzGerald whose poise and emotional energy is the perfect fit. Every character is given their own time and space within the film, granting the audience a full perspective on their heart-wrenching emotions.
‘Stillness’ is part of the Brighton Rocks 2023 programme. For further teasers before the screening please read our review on RocksBlog. Rachel urges us to allow her film to open up conversations on stillbirth and reproductive issues, and to remove the stigma – let’s talk.
What inspired you to turn your talents to behind the camera and make ‘Stillness’?
I wrote ‘Stillness’ as a way of processing my nephew’s death. He was 13 and died of a drug overdose on my daughter’s 9th birthday. I needed to untangle the great joy and great sorrow on the same day and came up with this story. My mother took a photo of my sister over my nephew’s body and I thought about that from my mother’s point of view, someone who sees something and wants to memorialize it, witness it, keep it for the world to see this moment in time. So I chose to make it the photographer’s story, and wanted to take the audience on a very intimate journey of someone who holds space for someone else.
I had a brilliant cinematographer, Eve Cohen. She and I had worked on another project, Mrs. Drake, that Caitlin (the photographer) directed. Eve gave me a crash course in film-making, and guided me throughout. I was also very lucky to have a lot of people who believed in the story and film and me, to be honest, and were there to lift me up and help me through what I didn’t know, especially as a first time filmmaker.
As it is such a huge topic to be dealing with, what specific research did you undertake for the making of the film?
I became an assistant to a photographer through the charity Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep (nilmdts.org), and went on two different shoots with Stuart Hanson, a wonderful photographer from Atlanta. Both sessions were incredibly different, in terms of specifics of the child and family, but the same in terms of love. So much love in the room, so much heartache at saying goodbye, so much desire to hold the child in the family for as long as possible and remember. I wept through both of them, holding up the light so Stuart could get the best shots. They were two of the most precious, generous, beautiful, heart wrenching times I have ever spent with total strangers.
I also met with Gina Harris (CEO) and Cheryl Haggard (founder) of NILMDTS. They were so wonderful, telling me their stories, inspiration, and regrets. For example, Gina has photos of her first son, but not of her second. Her experience of both is incredibly impactful. I also did a ton of research on stillbirth statistics as well, in the US and the UK. There are now so many wonderful charities and groups supporting women and families, Sands, Tommys, Remember My Baby, Child Bereavement UK, The Worst Girl Gang Ever…just to name a few. It’s inspiring.
How did you find the process of writing this script in the aftermath of such a personal tragedy?
It was the best way I could untangle it. So much joy and sorrow on the same day. Ryan’s death is forever associated with Grace’s birthday, though we celebrate Grace’s birthday for a week before and not on the day anymore. Her choice – it’s too hard to share the day with Ryan. I first wrote it as a short story called ‘Stillness In The Morning’. The photographer had a lot more backstory, more interactions with people at the hospital, with her partner. Ultimately, I wanted it to be about the witness to suffering, which is how I felt. Yes, I was suffering, heartbroken, but in a completely different way than my sister was, or my mother was. I felt like I was the witness to so much, and that was the most generous thing I could offer, to hold that space for them, to really see, especially my sister.
The length of the film is just perfect. How did you decide how much to give us and how much you wanted the audience to infer?
I worked on the script for about a year, constantly combing through, taking away as much as possible. Arthur Miller did this with his first and absolutely perfect play, ‘All My Sons’. He went through it again and again, making sure that every line was necessary. The script went from 20 pages to 5. I was thinking “Mono No Aware”, in Japanese, it’s the beautiful sadness in the passing of lives, objects. Really minimalist, so the audience can be drawn in, draw their own conclusions. Show, not tell.
The edit was really important, Fabrizio Gammardella was just a joy to work with. He is exacting in just the right way, patient and willing to tweak over and over again to make sure we got each moment, each choice: to stay, to go, to move forward, to invite, to exhale, to take the photo…
Casting must have been incredibly sensitive. What were you looking for in your actors and how did you approach them about the delicate content?
Caitlin FitzGerald is a dear friend and frequent collaborator, she and I have known each other for over 15 years, and worked on several projects together. I wrote Rose with her in mind. We saw many wonderful actors, thanks to Heather Basten, our casting director. I looked for actors who were willing to invest, be open to not knowing, and rather than push for emotion. All of them are so present. I still am so moved when I watch them all.
There is a beauty in the silence for most of the film. Was this always what you wanted?
Yes. It’s the silence of holding oneself tightly, being cautious, gentle. It’s also the silence of stillness, death. We lead really noisy lives, and silence tends to make us feel like something is wrong, out of place, about to happen. I wanted to channel that. This way we hear all the small sounds of anticipation, fear, sadness, heartbreak, hope.
How was the transition for you from camera facing to being behind the action?
I really had to lean into what I know and I know acting, I know emotion, I know storytelling, I know how to get each specific moment from an actor. I then surrounded myself with people who knew more than me and who were willing to lend me their expertise and teach me while on the job. Eve Cohen (who by the way, is the calm, steady, generous presence you want on set) gave me a crash course in filmmaking and framing. We watched ‘The Lives of Others’, one of my all time favourite films, and she broke down the length of the takes, the camera angles, how it was making us feel or perceive character/story. The hardest part of the shoot was everyone was looking to me to make decisions on the fly – something I am not used to – and I had to be very clear about what I wanted, and trust myself. I learned alot about my own insecurities those two days, and was very grateful for the extremely generous and gifted crew that supported me throughout.
How do you think your film will start conversations and what do you want those to potentially look like?
I hope three conversations will be had. The first being about how we can show up for people in pain, and get comfortable with our discomfort at witnessing that pain. Simone Wiel is a French philosopher, and she said: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” In grief, having someone witness our story is vital, because our story matters, our loss matters. The witnessing makes it real and makes us feel less alone.
The second is around stillbirth. We still don’t talk about these sorts of things enough and they are not a rare occurrence. Having open conversations about this and other issues like miscarriage, infertility, reproductive health can help reduce stigma and shame, and bring about change.
The third is about men being emotional and that being a sign of strength. We need that more than ever as our world evolves, and again it’s something we don’t talk about enough.