How the Somerset floods inspired my debut feature The Levelling

In her own words, debut writer-director Hope Dickson Leach reveals how she developed The Levelling, an intimate family drama set against the backdrop of a community in crisis.

Hope Dickson Leach

The Levelling (2016)

The Levelling (2016)

Original British stories. That was the iFeatures remit. To tell a story that felt relevant, current and British. And, hopefully, because this was a film that was going to be my debut feature, I wanted it to be a film that only I could tell.

Hope Dickson Leach

Hope Dickson Leach

I’ve always been drawn to stories about people who have to make life-changing decisions. Decisions are a powerful story tool – they speak both to character and action. I’ve built several short films around the idea of putting someone in a position where they had to make a hard decision that would change their world. I’m also drawn to stories dealing with grief – about responding to terrible events. After all, it’s something everyone faces in his or her life. But in my short films grief has been disabling, static even, so I wanted to find a story that allowed me to explore a more productive relationship with it.

This Friday (12 May), see Hope Dickson Leach’s moving debut feature set amid the Somerset floods. Enjoy a Q&A with actor Ellie Kendrick after the screening.

To create a story that was dynamic I gave my main character a mystery to solve: why did her brother kill himself? And who is to blame? This offered a structure to work with – an organising principle for the more existential material I wanted to explore. On the face of it, this could have been a story that took place anywhere. It is a universal enough experience. But to lift the story beyond a simple drama – to make it cinematic – I wanted the context to work with the content. I wanted a world where the themes and challenges of the personal story were reflected – possibly even created – by something larger than the family. Just as I was developing this idea, the floods of 2014 happened.

Ellie Kendrick on set

Ellie Kendrick on set

It was February. It had been raining for weeks in Somerset and there was flooding on the Levels. This happens every year, as the area is below sea level. But man-made channels normally drain the floods, as they have done for centuries. However, 25 years ago, the Environmental Agency decided to stop maintaining these channels. Without dredging, the silt that gathers in a slow-moving ‘river’ had built up, and in 2014 the incredible amount of rainfall proved too much for the clogged channels. As a result, many people were forced to leave their homes, their farms and their businesses. The whole community was devastated.

My story is about a family who weren’t great at talking to each other. For years they had neglected the channels of communication. That in turn led to tragedy. As such, the context of the floods felt like a perfect fit for the story.

I went down to Somerset to talk to people. I met farmers and activists who were fighting to get the rivers maintained in order to prevent this happening again. I felt privileged to hear people’s stories, from the practical accounts of what happened to their own personal responses to it. And what struck me was not only how much they had been through and what survivors they were, but how incredibly this felt like something everyone could relate to. Through the specifics of what took place across this land, I realised I had found an original British story that could resonate internationally.

Ellie Kendrick and Hope Dickson Leach on set

Ellie Kendrick and Hope Dickson Leach on set

When we got the iFeatures commission, we jumped into action. Having made contact during development, we returned to the farmers we had spoken to and started scouting. They helped us enormously. If the film feels authentic it is because of these relationships and the generosity of the community.

We shot during October 2015 on the Levels themselves. We learned how to milk cows from our location owner and the crew became inured to the smell of cow shit first thing in the morning. The weather held out. The rain stayed away, but we got the brooding grey skies I had hoped for. We filmed wildlife at the local RSPB reserve and endeavoured to capture the beauty of the Somerset landscape, with all its willows, reeds, rivers and ditches.

The Levelling (2016)

The Levelling (2016)

We wrapped on Halloween and found it hard to leave. All the challenges notwithstanding, we fell in love with this world. It will be great to bring the completed film back down here, but also to share it with people who don’t know the area, or farming life. I hope it will encourage people to see this world differently, perhaps even encourage a dialogue between country and city, farmers and consumers. It would be great if it generates a proper conversation about how we can work together to look after the land and the people who work on it, for the benefit of all.

iFeatures is Creative England’s low budget filmmaking initiative supported by the BBC, the BFI and Creative Skillset, and welcomes applications from filmmakers from all over the UK who have an interest in telling stories set in the English regions (outside of the M25)

This article also appears in BFI Filmmakers magazine

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