Queer disabled writer/director Charli Whatley and producer and animator Toby Anthonisz set up production company Faded Neon Films to support underrepresented voices to tell bold cinematic stories. Inclusivity is at the heart of what we do, and we are working on developing new ways to approach filmmaking that make the development and production process accessible to everyone.
Why the project matters
My physical disability came later in life and so, up until I developed a chronic illness, I had navigated the industry in the standard way; working full-time jobs to pay the bills and working on self funded projects for free in my spare time. I sacrificed holidays, social activities and although it was a struggle and often had a negative impact on my mental illness, I could sense a pathway being carved to where I wanted to be and was hopeful and determined despite the years ahead of me to get there. When I contracted glandular fever I was completely floored for 6 months, but had no idea that the illness would trigger a post viral fatigue that would later be diagnosed as ME and years later I’d still only be able to do a quarter of what I did before – on a good day.
I’ve had to grow a lot emotionally to accept this new compromised life and my new limitations, but once I had, my understanding of the privilege I had before and took for granted hung quite heavy on my shoulders. Toby, as my partner, went through a similar journey – having his usual life and ambitions put on hold to care for me. It was from this experience that our lives slowed down and we had far more time to reflect, talk through our changing perceptions and our growing awareness. It became clear to us that despite feeling like we had so much taken away, there were a lot of people who had felt this way their whole lives. Driven by this experience, we started to think about what barriers I was now facing with my disabilities, and began reading, listening, and talking to other people about their experiences and what the barriers they faced. As I’ve learned with my experience of mental illness, it takes time to adjust and feel fully grounded in a new way of living – and once Toby and I had found those roots we felt we had what was needed to give something back and start our own production company. Through Faded Neon Films we want to begin to challenge those barriers and hopefully start to dismantle some systems in the industry that are centering money rather than people when making a film.
These are some of the barriers we have identified and some of the initial ideas we have developed, and will continue to develop as we grow and evolve on this journey:
It is fairly standard industry practice to manage budget constraints by requiring production crew to work longer and more pressured days, often consecutively. This can exclude anyone with a sensitivity to stress and fatigue, and it can also exclude those with caring responsibilities or routine medical appointments, or those who have to supplement income with other sources of work.
At FNF we have a hard line with production days remaining under 10 hours and regular breaks are compulsory. Where possible we’ll schedule longer shoots to suit the health of the crew rather than maximise on kit hire fees, for example with myself and my health I would need a rest day every two days – so this consideration would go into the budgeting and scheduling process of not only the production process, but the post production too. It’s communicated to our directors that we have absolute faith and trust in their creativity and ability to find solutions in the choices they make without compromising the health of themselves and their crew, and so solutions will be sought at the scripting and shot-list stage.
We’ll be offering part time positions for junior roles – such as production assistants and assistant producers on both smaller and larger projects. This will open up pathways to experience for those who are disabled/working class/carers etc.
We are currently trialling job shared roles for HODs – so for example a mother of young children and a disabled person could team up to collaborate on the production design or costume design of one of our films.
Creatives in film are expected to build portfolios with self funded and unpaid projects, and it can be disheartening when those with disposable cash or are able to go to film school have a much faster route in. However we feel that if our attitude as producers is to embrace the slower path, and encourage the people we work with to nurture a belief in themselves that age isn’t a barrier and they can come to things at their own pace, be a solid place of emotional support throughout the process, then we’ll succeed.
We want to encourage our filmmakers to take artistic risks and use small projects (micro short films, music videos, artist films) as their sketchbooks – testing out new collaborations or strengthening existing ones, trying out visual techniques, finding their voice as an artist – nurturing the process in a similar way a film course would but on their own timetable without the pressure of a deadline or meeting the demands of an investor. We have a modest but professional kit and post production software that we can offer for their use, and also encourage using phones and other cheap cameras to build their visual language. These projects don’t need to go into the public sphere or festival circuit, they can just be about the process and the learning that comes from exploring and experimenting.
We feel it’s important to nurture their creative voices so that their experience resonates through their work without them feeling like they have to dig up and display their own trauma just to feel validated or that they have a place in this industry.
Mental and Physical Wellbeing
We of course will encourage authenticity, and when personal stories are what they want to pursue, we will offer one or two sessions with a therapist/counselor before and after the production. This is something currently budgeted into one of my films for both myself and the lead actress as it deals with mental illness and some triggering themes.
Toby and I as producers plan to undertake some training so that we have the tools and language to be approachable and viewed as safe people to communicate any needs to. The nature of our production company is to welcome vulnerable people into the industry, and so we want to be prepared to meet their needs.
We are interested in starting conversations with some mental health charities about partnerships on our films so that having access to someone to speak to will be standard on our productions and open to everyone.
We are currently working on creating a contact list of ‘temps’ who are unable to commit to more than a day here and there, but would be interested to be on set to cover days of sickness or any requirements where someone needs to go to medical appointment or take on caring duties for example.
Representation in the storytelling
We are strong believers that seeing yourself on screen has an incredible transformative power. It can help people feel grounded in their own identity, and with that brings self love, and what follows from that is an openness to others. At this time we are focused on working with writer/directors and nurturing very distinct individual voices we’ve not encountered enough as we should have.
One of the key things we are implementing is a focus on working with people who are over 30 and have faced barriers in the industry. Particularly female identifying, trans and non-binary people. Often awareness in underrepresentation sparks a flurry of schemes for the younger generations, most often under 25s, and this just further excludes those who had no opportunity growing up, and those who didn’t have the privilege to service their own creative ambitions due to caring or parental responsibilities, or they may have taken years to overcome mental illness or addiction.
Previously we have worked with writer/director Emma Miranda Moore, and we are currently developing work with writer/director Melissa-Kelly Franklin, and writer/director Ozge Gozturk.
Networks + Accessibility
Networking is one of the strongest foundations within the film industry, and there is a lot of truth in the idea that connecting with the right people can open the doors to funding, visibility and promotion. The barrier faced is accessing these networks, and also feeling that there is a place for you within them. Things like film schools or having family connections in the upper class social circles can create pathways to strong networks in film. With no access to these things, it can be very difficult to infiltrate; a lot of schemes have paywalls are are run at times that create extra costs for working class parents and carers; those with disability can experience lack of accommodations that meet their needs for access; some chronically ill people have small energy reserves, and often can’t leave their own homes and engage with certain events and networking opportunities.
To dismantle these barriers is going to take more work than we can do alone, but some ideas and resources we are working on to tackle some of this is listed below:
Representation on Screen – increasing visibility
We want all the writers and directors we work with to meet one another and have insight into the work they are doing, and so will hold regular events, meetings and roundtables so they can connect. This will allow them to all grow their awareness outside of their own experience and have a greater awareness to recognise where they can serve other underrepresented people in their work. We hope too that an organic network of peers in these key storytelling roles, will allow them to consult one another to make sure there is authenticity in their characters.
We understand that at the moment it’s important to write diversity into scripts, increasing visibility in roles that aren’t often played by certain people. By doing so we will normalise seeing these people on screen in these roles – for example a person of colour in a period drama, or a disabled and wheelchair user playing a lawyer. For the meantime it’s important to actively work to dismantle our own biases and challenge our initial thoughts for characters. It’s our hope for the future that by doing this work now writer/directors can come to castings with an open mind and currently underrepresented actors will feel more secure to respond to casting calls when the character resonates with them or excites them – not because they feel they look right for the part.
Representation behind the camera
As well as our own networks, we know a lot of amazing people working on building databases of diverse crew members, for example The Equity List founded by Mahalia John, and so we will partner with these people to crew up our productions.
Sharing of ideas
We know there are a lot of other little and large production companies across the UK doing similar work, and so we hope to bring everyone together and form remote town halls where we can share ways of working that are being trialled, success stories, and any lessons learned. We have a lot of faith that people in the industry are starting to adopt attitudes of feeling safe around one another despite there being an unavoidable competitive nature to the business, and forming communities and partnerships. So just as we hope to build a community amongst writer/directors we want to do the same amongst those companies out there breaking down barriers and redressing the balance in film.
There are also some great people in the UK working on the exhibition side who are really aligned with our vision and hopes for the future, and so we want to strengthen our connection and form partnerships with them to help our films reach the audiences they were created for. We are still learning and growing our understanding of how
to make sure our completed films are accessible to everyone – thinking not only about subtitles, audio descriptions but also things like the venues we screen in. We are currently working on a template that lists out all the requirements we need to deliver with each film.
It is still early days for us as a production company. In 2020 when we launched, we were amidst the pandemic which created a lot of barriers for us personally and as a company. However we were able to launch two new directorial voices and work with an experienced female writer/director whose work we greatly admired, through a series of short films made over video calls during the first lockdown.
The pandemic has certainly helped the world become more comfortable with remote working and video conferencing, and we hope the new normal will be a more hybrid version of digital and real life access, which will continue to invite a greater reach of collaboration and active participation into the film industry.
In early 2021 Birds’ Eye View supported us by allowing us to take over their social channels for a day which greatly extended our network and gave a taste of our ideas to a wider audience of people. We had a lot of engagement and contact following this which has been hugely encouraging to know our intentions are aligned with a varied group of experiences.