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“I was much better equipped for film making when it came to it than I had realised;“ Writer/Director Stacey Gregg discusses her debut feature Here Before, HBO’s The Baby, and Ballywalter
25 Mar 2022 : News Desk
Andrea Riseborough in Here Before.
Following on from the release of her debut feature Here Before, Belfast-native Stacey Gregg discusses how her background in theatre has influenced her, the difficulties of post-production process during a pandemic, and her upcoming work as a writer and director.

Here Before centres on Laura (Andrea Riseborough), a mother who believes her late daughter Josie has been reincarnated in the form of another girl named Megan (Niamh Dornan), whose family have moved in next door. Though initially sceptical of the connection, Laura gradually uncovers insights regarding Megan’s behaviour, and their growing bond causes a clash between the families.

The film premiered at South by Southwest (SXSW) on St Patrick’s Day 2021, before making its Irish Premiere at the Galway Film Fleadh (where it won Best Irish Film) and was released theatrically last month in Ireland. The debut feature has garnered strong reviews, with both Gregg and lead Actress Riseborough earning praise from trades and audiences. It’s currently available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, SKY Store, Microsoft Store, and other online platforms.

“It was the first time I knew utterly that this was a film”

When she began writing Here Before, Gregg was already well established as a playwright having written plays such as Scorch (Outburst Queer Arts Festival, Belfast, 2015; Edinburgh Fringe, 2016); Shibboleth (Abbey Theatre, Dublin, 2015); Override (Watford Palace Theatre, 2013); Lagan (Ovalhouse Theatre London, 2011); Perve (Abbey Theatre, Dublin, 2011; BBC Radio Drama Award 2012); and When Cows Go Boom (Abbey Theatre, Dublin 2008).

However, this was the first time she felt that a story of hers needed a different medium to succeed. “I’d had the premise at the back of my mind for years –  a little girl moves somewhere new and can’t possibly know the things she does – and I was writing for the stage at the time, but it was the first time I knew utterly that this was a film,” Gregg told IFTN. “So, I sat down and wrote my first screenplay. I’m led a lot by instinct, and it was in this intensive writing that I discovered what the film really was, what Laura’s story revealed itself to be, and of course from there the material begins to show its themes and secrets.

Despite coming from a background in documentary filmmaking, in which Gregg has a master’s degree, it took a while before she felt the time was right to move into film.  However, Gregg credits work in theatre as laying the groundwork for her progression into both writing and directing feature film, a journey which started with her first short film Mercy in 2018." It [film] was an itch I’d wanted to scratch but the time hadn’t seemed right,” Gregg recounted.  “I’d started directing more theatre work so that sense of driving a production had started to seem less alien. I’d also reached a point of feeling confident artistic process and instincts.”

“Blood-on-the-Walls Brutal”

These creative instincts helped her attract some top-level talent to the project. Most notably her lead Andrea Risborough. When asked how she became involved, Gregg explained that it was simply a matter of writing to her star. “I wrote to her and she’s basically an excellent human who immediately responded,” Gregg explained. “We met, we got on and got each other, and from then she was in!”

Despite being a first-time feature director, Gregg gave Riseborough the freedom to develop her character organically, something which resulted in a standout performance as Laura. Gregg told IFTN that Riseborough was a joy to work with: “working with her was every bit as enriching as you can imagine. She’s committed, intelligent, mystical, and a trooper. I loved it, and I think she makes fascinating choices as an artist and human.” Navigating relationships such as this, while working on a low-budget feature film over a short period  can be brutal for first-time filmmakers, but this was again a process that Gregg felt well-equipped for, perhaps even more so than she realised.

Theatre is tough and brutal in its own way. Working  flat out with small budgets against time constraints, lots of hustle and constantly having to broker new relationships and navigate work stress. All of that is great training,” Gregg told IFTN, when asked about how daunting this process was. “Working in writers’ rooms has equally been blood-on-the-walls brutal at times. You learn not to be precious, to work and think at speed, to sense when there’s a problem and how to get under it. To be honest I was much better equipped for filmmaking when it came to it than I had realised. “

Being equipped is one thing, but Gregg explains the importance of good preparation and assets, and constantly educating yourself, in getting through preproduction and on to the shoot: “Loads of prep. Really drilling myself on a deck, a sizzle reel, a sound world. Watching loads of video essays on-line, talking to others who have experience,” said Gregg, when quizzed on some of the work done prior to production. On the shoot then she was able to bring a positive attitude to set and lead by example. “When it came to the shoot, I just felt so joyous to be doing it every day, I tried to be led by that even when days were hard.“

“It was pretty lonesome, but there was something surreal and meditative about it too!”

The hard days weren’t restricted to the shoot, however. The pandemic hit just after the film wrapped with all post-production having to be done remotely. A lot of this work was done from Gregg’s bedroom, something that was a huge challenge for the collaboration-focused director. “It was pretty lonesome, but there was something surreal and meditative about it too. I was working remotely with my editors and then the rest of the post team, but to just be on a screen all day in my tiny room on my MacBook was quite restrictive and disorientating, but we got there.”

Despite describing it as a “Baptism by Fire,” Gregg ultimately found a lot of positives in the experience, not least building resilience for future projects, and particularly as any post-production process now feels “luxurious in comparison”. She was also conscious of the fact that she was able to complete the process as many projects and filmmakers were terribly affected by the pandemic and grateful for that fact, while noting the potential of working remotely, saying: “the upside is also that we all acknowledge how much can be achieved remotely, which has positive repercussions for a more flexible way of working moving forward.”

Since completing Here Before Gregg has been busy. Ballywalter another feature written by Gregg marks the feature directorial debut of doctor-turned-director Prasanna Puwanarajah. The film wrapped in 2021 and is expected to premiere soon. The film follows a university drop-out living with her mum and making money as an unlicensed minicab driver, who picks up a budding stand-up comic whose marriage has recently broken up. Five-time IFTA nominee and Screen Star of Tomorrow Seána Kerslake stars alongside Northern Irish comedian and TV personality Patrick Kielty in his first leading film role.

Gregg has also directed a block of The Baby for HBO and Sky, which is releasing on April 24th on HBO and will stream on HBO Max, with a Sky Atlantic and NOW release date set for later this year. Gregg describes it as “a horror comedy and like nothing I’d ever read.” The Baby, from debut screenwriter Siân Robins-Grace, Lucy Gaymer, and Cherynobyl producer Sister, is described as “a darkly funny, raw examination of motherhood, from the perspective of a woman who doesn’t want to be one.”

It stars Michelle De Swarte as 38-year-old Natasha, who is furious that her closest friends are all having babies. But when she is unexpectedly landed with a baby of her own, her life dramatically implodes. Controlling, manipulative, but incredibly cute, the baby twists Natasha’s life into a surreal horror show. As she discovers the true extent of the baby’s deadly nature, Natasha makes increasingly desperate attempts to get rid of it. She doesn’t want a baby. But the baby definitely wants her.

Gregg is also working towards prepping her next feature, details of which are currently being kept under wraps, as well as working on several other projects. Having completed her acclaimed first feature under the cloud of the pandemic, the writer/director is excited at the prospect of creating more work, or as she says herself “All systems go!”

Here Before is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, SKY Store, Microsoft Store, and other online platforms.





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