Director’s thumbs up

There was a fib about her editing skills and and a short she made starring her own thumbs but, however unlikely a career route, it led Yorkshire’s Rachel Tunnard to making prize-winning films

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“Everything in my career has been a bit of an accident,” admits Rachel Tunnard, director, screenwriter and self-confessed advocate for faking it until you make it. “I’m from a background where the idea of being a director had never even occurred to me. It just wasn’t a possible choice. I sort of fell into it.”

“I was offered a job which came with a thirty grand salary and a company car. I quit instead.”

From Sheffield, Tunnard has made a name for herself as a storyteller with a regional flair. In 2016, she released her British Independent Film Awards-nominated directorial debut Adult Life Skills, a charming tale of overcoming grief starring her longtime friend Jodie Whittaker. She’s the writer behind new film Military Wives, telling the real-life story of a group of women who combat loss and loneliness by forming a choir and reaching new heights. She’s lending her pen to Aardman’s Chicken Run sequel, while a series described as “Fargo in the Peak District” bubbles away at Working Title. It seems Tunnard is doing what she was destined to do but as she’s quick to point out, that’s not exactly true.

“I studied film and theatre at the University of Bristol,” she tells Big Issue North. “On the last day they got us all in a room and said: ‘Congratulations! You’ve finished your degree and only 2 per cent of jobs in the film industry are advertised. Good luck!’ I was like: ‘Oh shit.’ I didn’t know anyone so I left and went to work at the Yellow Pages.”

Thankfully, this early career detour was shortlived. After a phone call with her parents, Tunnard decided to change tack and go all in on her filmmaking dream. “I was offered a regional secretary job which came with a thirty grand salary and a company car – and I was properly considering it. I basically quit instead of taking the promotion.”

Tunnard got her foot in the door as an assistant editor at a studio in Scotland – but not without telling a few fibs.

“My CV had a big fat lie on it that said I knew how to edit so I proceeded to spend the next six weeks trying to not get fired, making lots of tea and persuading someone who knew what they were doing that if they didn’t train me, the whole film was going to fall apart.”

Her persistence paid off. After receiving a commission to write a short film she soon found herself on iFeatures, a training scheme for emerging regional filmmakers. Once again she was forced to rely on her intrepid ingenuity.

“When I got on the scheme everybody had shorts and I didn’t have any. I had to do a presentation of my work so I went home and made some thumb videos and that was the beginning of everything.”

Shot on an iPhone taped to a table and starring Tunnard’s digits sporting smiley faces, these scrappy clips struck a chord with audiences and even inspired her writing. Without trying, she’d stumbled on an unlikely catalyst for her first feature: the story of a 30-year-old woman stuck in a state of arrested development following the death of her twin and unable to move out of her parents’ shed.

“I had a problem with the script. I wanted the lead to be grieving and to be able to show what she’d lost and who she used to be but I didn’t want to use flashbacks,” says Tunnard. “When I looked at the thumbs I thought: Hey – they look like each other. Maybe she could be a twin?”

Filmed in her native Sheffield, partly inspired by her own life and featuring Whittaker in the lead role, Adult Life Skills not only allowed Tunnard to work with one of her closest pals, it also served as the perfect showcase for her distinctly northern voice.

“When I was writing Adult Life Skills I just listened to things my dad, brother and husband said and put them into the mouths of women,” she says of her dialogue style. “Somebody said to me once that the grandma in the film is really progressive and I thought: That’s just the things my dad says.” She laughs. “I listen to the way people talk, steal it and put it into my stories. I think that banter is quite a northern thing.”

Tunnard’s passion and persistence shone through, with her film winning the Nora Ephron Prize at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, an accolade recognising the next generation of female filmmaking talent. “When I moved to London I lived in my cousin’s shed in Finsbury Park for quite a while,” she says, recalling years spent struggling to pursue a film career without a London base.

“There were lots of points where my mum and dad were bailing me out, going: ‘Is this really a realistic career choice?’ Adult Life Skills will always be really special to me because it was just a really enjoyable time. We very consciously wanted to have fun while doing it. I felt like I might only get to make one film, so I’m going to try and enjoy it. Who gets to make a film with their best friends?”

This process of absorption while writing came in particularly useful when scripting Military Wives. Directed by Peter Cattaneo, starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Sharon Horgan and Emma Lowndes, and inspired by real events, this touching story sat right within Tunnard’s wheelhouse, perfectly balancing humour and levity with heavier themes of anxiety and anguish. But before she could get started, the job required some hands-on homework.

“I didn’t feel like I could make jokes about some spouse whose partner in Afghanistan has had his legs blown off unless I met some of the people who have experienced that, because I knew there would be humour there as a coping mechanism. I asked the producers if they would give me money to take the wives out for a very boozy lunch. It was one of the joys of my life making friends with them.”

This direct connection with members of the Military Wives Choir, of which there are now hundreds across the world each inspired by the original Catterick Garrison group, became an invaluable tool for Tunnard’s writing.

“I have so much respect for them because they told me things I never would have thought of. I remember one of them saying that the great thing about her husband being in Afghanistan was that she could grow her pubic hair. She said it’d be like Sherwood Forest and she’d twiddle it around her fingers like a worry bead,” chuckles Tunnard, recalling a line that made it into the movie.

“Some of them were really open with me about when they’d lost partners and friends and I felt a huge desire to shine a light on them. I really enjoy exploring real-life situations where people are coping with something that’s seemingly impossible and the ways in which they manage. I find it fascinating.”

Tunnard’s career so far is proof that talent and enthusiasm can overcome a lack of industry connections, even if perhaps rarely. “A lot of people seem to wait for permission to be told they can do something,” she says, offering advice to budding regional creatives.

“The advancement of technology has meant there’s a democratisation of filmmaking in the sense that you can make a film on your phone. If you’ve got that, people will eventually notice and give you more support in order to progress. It’s all about keeping it fun.”

This remains an overriding factor in Tunnard’s work – especially when it comes to considering what life might have been like had she taken the easy career path. “I think about it all the time,” she laughs. “Whenever I think I can’t do it or it’s too stressful, you’ve got to find a way to enjoy it. Otherwise I really should go back to the Yellow Pages.”

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