Just prior to speaking to Ella Greenwood this past week, I must admit I was a bit intimated. I’ve never done an interview before and she has undoubtedly been interviewed thousands of times.
At just 19, she had already been a central character in multiple feature films and directed her own short, Faulty Roots, focusing on teenage mental health – a subject she feels has been neglected in film to date and one she wants to widen societal conversation on. With a feature length iteration on the way starring Gavin & Stacey’s Melanie Walters (Gwen,) Ella informs me she probably also has five to seven other projects in simultaneous development at various stages. Meanwhile, at 22 I can’t fry an onion and cook pasta at the same time. Impressive CV aside, I wanted to find out a little more about what pushed Ella to get behind the camera as well as in front of it.
Of course, growing up somewhere like London means you are instantly immersed in one of the world’s richest cultural locations. She notes that she loved taking advantage of the galleries and museums peppered around the city growing up – clearly, they rubbed off on her. The reason she transitioned into filmmaking as well as acting was a love “to create” and to be in control of the whole production. No small feat for someone with relatively few years of experience just of being alive, never mind professional film production. Acting is one thing, she says, but depends on a whole host of other factors – “whether you get the audition, whether you get the part, whether you’re cut or not.” I remarked later I was surprised how even the most established actors are cut from films they act in without knowing; Ella confirmed that many of her friends and associates won’t admit they have been in a film until seeing themselves in it. In such a cut-throat industry then, it’s no surprise that Ella wanted a bit more control and to be able to tell her own stories, rather than maybe or maybe not feature in someone else’s story.
Ella noted that there was no definitive moment that positioned her behind the camera – growing up, her friends and her always had the desire to create and would often make short sequences together. “Not worthy of being called a film,” she says self-effacingly about those videos, although they must have been extremely good practice given the ease with which she entered the filmmaking scene with Faulty Roots. She does point to that post-A-level summer as a period of fervent creativity. Having mostly taught herself through textbooks whilst studying, she was (and is!) no stranger to a 12-hour workday one day and a little bit of listlessness the next. Indeed, when she finished her exams, she notes “half my time was now free” – she modestly continued “I had to do something!” In contrast to the repressive, regimented nature that some people think of when it comes to home-schooling (think World’s Strictest Parents,) Ella cites her home schooling as having provided her with the freedom to finish her studies in her own time and dedicate the remainder of her time to filmmaking. I thought it a great and refreshing approach to learning that proves Ella’s tenacity and dedication to her craft – although being as gifted as she is probably helps you along the way!
I inquired as to the nature of Faulty Roots – some short films have gone on to spawn record-busting franchises (such as Leigh Wannell’s 2004 short SAW.) Was there a grand design with Faulty Roots to take the world of cinema by storm, with sponsored theme park rides to boot? “Not really, no,” Ella laughs, “I wanted to write a script that I would enjoy acting in… I never imagined I would even make more films, much less working on a feature version.” It’s clearly a challenge she relishes, however. Positive reviews and a clamouring for more conversation when the initial short was released are what led to more in-depth development of the concept and gave Ella assent in her own mind to redevelop a short film around teenage mental health for a feature.
I noted that, in conversation with my peers and examining the articles on our own site, this current generation is probably the most open one there has ever been about mental health struggles. But even for us growing up, mental health received little discussion in the media and has only recently begun to receive more attention from the arts community. When I asked if it was her goal to educate people on mental health, she replied “Definitely… there’s so much to say, and I don’t think people realise just how many people struggle. I’d love to share experiences and bring comfort to people.” Ella is open about the fact she has struggled with her own mental health, something I welcome with open arms. The director’s statement on the Faulty Roots website constitutes something of a mission statement: “to represent what it is like to suffer from depression as a teen… and raise awareness.” It is amazing to see so many young creators being open about their mental health and allowing us to celebrate their fantastic achievements and artworks whilst also learning how to become more sensitive to those both in and out of the public gaze who suffer from mental health difficulties. Ella admits that she “really struggled” with her mental health as a young teen, going as far as to say she “didn’t even have a clue what mental health was.” This is something that plagues a lot of young people who fear there might not be help out there, so it’s great to see people putting this important subject into the public eye in an accessible way.
Faulty Roots, however, is not Ella’s only film. As I mentioned earlier, she had irons in many fires. One of her other recent productions, Dreary Days, is an animation focusing on similar subject matter to Faulty Roots. Animation isn’t the easiest thing to get into however – I wondered if the foray into animation was something that had come about through association with other filmmakers or was another thing Ella had taught herself in pursuit of new methods of self-expression. She calls it a little bit of a self-taught lockdown project. Of course, being stuck inside with no sets to go to for the vast majority of 2020 made it a bit necessary – but she also cites the use of animation as a way of recruiting a different audience than that of Faulty Roots, perhaps a younger audience given its more accessible stylistic approach (a mix of stop-motion and digital animation.) Moreover, Ella emphasises that animation can be a much less constrained method of filmmaking. No need to consider “How much will it cost if I write that in? Who will I have to hire? How many people do I need?” however fantastical the concept can be. The only other person to work on Dreary Days was Ella’s composer, but as she notes, this was one project enhanced by the utter concentration you’re able to give something when everything around you has shut down.
Did lockdown significantly affect Ella’s filmmaking efforts? Luckily, no. Faulty Roots’ feature film adaptation has been in development for a while, but as Ella attests, “I want to spend that time. I want to get it right.” Of course, not being able to be on set has presented its challenges, but most of the development time has been spent attending meetings, doing video interviews, editing – all tasks for which you only really need a laptop. Even in the face of a global pandemic, the real challenge hasn’t been ideas (of which Ella has no shortage,) it’s been the days blending into one big sea of dull mundanity. Even though there’s been plenty of things to celebrate, it’s hard for anyone to motivate themselves to give proper congratulations when the world is struggling to move on. Isolation is the perfect word, really, as Ella points out. Throwing yourself into the work is a great and productive way of getting through the lockdown blues, but at the same time, it’s important to take some time for yourself to maintain your own mental health.
A final thought I pondered on – how much of a barrier was Ella’s relative youth to her filmmaking? Were there executives unprepared to listen to an inexperienced filmmaker, how seriously did festivals take her work when submitted? Ella affirms that her independence has been one of the most helpful aspects in regard to her getting her projects off the ground, and she sees her youth as a blessing, rather than a curse. She notes that executives she has worked with are extremely responsive to her aspirations with Faulty Roots, given how perfectly placed she is to tell such a story. She tells me: “they believe I’m more qualified, being someone who is young and has experienced mental health difficulties, to tell the story than someone who is old and hasn’t.” She diplomatically refused to indict anybody of having been an obvious hindrance to her filmmaking career, though she does admit “even if someone was trying to stop me, I’d find a way to do it anyway. I know I have the tools.” Her outspoken focus on mental health has similarly been well received by the industry and critics because of her accurate, sensitive and insightful portrayals of people in such situations. Only time will tell if the future brings controversy – one thing is for certain however, Ella Greenwood is a dedicated filmmaker who will see off any challenge to tell the stories that appeal to her in a meaningful way.