Lucinda Spurling is well-known for her award-winning Bermudian documentaries, but it has always been the writer and director’s ambition to do feature films, in particular, Bermuda stories that have international appeal. People told her that it was impossible to make a film in Bermuda; however, Maternal Secrets, which she co-wrote, directed and filmed exclusively on the island, has proved them wrong.
Lucinda Spurling first made her name writing, producing and directing documentaries including Rare Bird, about the rediscovery of the cahow; The Lion and the Mouse, about the historical relationship between America and Bermuda; Poverty in Paradise, exploring the struggles of those living below the poverty line; In the Hour of Victory, about letters written by Major Toby Smith to his family during the Second World War; and Respice Finem, which charts the history of The Berkeley Institute. Spurling has received much international recognition for her work and won awards at the Southampton Film Festival, World Fest Houston, Indie Fest USA, Nevada Film Festival and the Bermuda International Film Festival (BIFF).
In spite of her success in documentaries, it has always been Spurling’s ambition to make feature films. “How many documentaries have you watched more than once?” she asks. “But people watch feature films they like many times, and through that you can create a bigger impression and reach a wider audience. I’ve always watched more narrative movies than documentaries, even though I’m a documentary filmmaker. I think that proves the point!”
Maternal Secrets is not only Spurling’s first fiction film, but it is also the first film made in Bermuda since the late Arthur Rankin’s The Ivory Ape, which was released in 1980. “I always loved Arthur Rankin,” says Spurling. “He was a great guy, who gave me advice along the way.”
The film is a female-led thriller about a US senator, Jackson, who goes missing while on a “babymoon” holiday in Bermuda with his pregnant girlfriend, Aubrey. When his estranged mother, Rose, and manipulative ex-girlfriend Samantha suddenly turn up, the situation gets tense. It is a low-budget, made-for-TV movie, with an impressive cast list including Kelly McGillis of Top Gun and Witness fame as Rose, and Kate Mansi from Days of Our Lives as Aubrey. It also stars Sean Stolzen, Luann de Lesseps and Brooke Burfitt.
The film came about after Spurling met British actress and producer Brooke Williams at BIFF 2015. Williams acts under her maiden name, Burfitt, and stars in the film as the villainous ex-girlfriend. “Brooke has a great business plan. Her philosophy is to make low budget genre movies that have a very defined audience and marketplace,” says Spurling.
Williams wrote the first draft of the script, and the two women then went back and forth together perfecting it. Once the script was complete, they managed to raise their budget exclusively through a group of local investors.
Williams explains that they supported the film financially “because they wanted to showcase Bermuda; however, everyone who played a part in it also invested in the film. We didn’t pay extras or any of the local cast. We got all the locations sponsored, and we got a lot of local support to make it happen within the budget. The Fairmont Southampton Resort helped us a lot.”
Spurling added that the local crew also worked on the project “for the love of film, rather than the paycheck.” In addition to Spurling and Williams, there were 14 local crew members.
Separately, the film received a grant from the Bermuda Arts Council to support entering it into festivals, which Spurling said would maximise its reach beyond the traditional outlets of TV and video on demand.
Williams, who moved to Bermuda with her husband three years ago, came up with the story idea while walking around Front Street during the summer of 2016. “I kept seeing all these pregnant women. There couldn’t be that many pregnant women in Bermuda—they must have been tourists. I stopped someone who said that Bermuda was Zika-free and therefore a popular ‘babymoon’ destination. When I spoke to hotels, I found out they were offering ‘babymoon’ packages.
“I came up with this concept around a ‘babymoon’ that becomes a nightmare, and put it forward to a couple of distributors and they came back saying that was what they wanted,” says Williams.
Filming on a small island had its challenges, but Spurling and Williams quickly realised they had so much community support they were relatively easy to overcome. The Bermuda Tourism Authority (BTA), for example, helped to fast-track the work permits for all the lead actors and foreign crew members, and people lent their SUVs for driving around the equipment.
There were, however, considerable benefits to filming in Bermuda. “It’s hard to get your script seen by talent,” continues Williams, “but Bermuda got the actors’ interest, and because of that they read the script, and we got the right cast for this film.”
Casting had been a concern. “We had to have a lot of local actors,” says Williams. “We ran auditions and the turnout was fantastic. We managed to fill all the roles, and there’s a lot of talent here.”
“All the cast were perfect for their roles,” continues Spurling. “Kelly taught us all a lot from her years of experience. Kate really carried the film as the lead. Sean Stolzen is a talented actor who occupied the shadowy area of leading man and possible villain very well. All the Bermudian cast worked for free and many of them had quite big supporting lead parts. All did very well. There are around 30 speaking roles, aside from the leads, that are all Bermudians.”
The next stage is for the distributor, Marvista, to sell the film. “The distributor will sell it to somebody like Lifetime, and when that happens, we’ll get an air date,” explains Spurling.
In the meantime, feedback from the first screening was very positive. “It was really fun to see how people laughed in the spots where they were supposed to laugh and that they were surprised by the twist, because like any good thriller there’s a twist at the end. Most people said to me that they did not see it coming, which is great and means the movie worked.” The audience also enjoyed the drone aerial shots, which were specifically designed to show off Bermuda.
Maternal Secrets has been entered into a number of film festivals, and Spurling expects to hear how they have done in the spring. “Our film is a thriller, and it’s also verging on ‘female-led drama’ so it’s a bit of a hybrid. We, therefore, wanted to enter it into some of the bigger ones,” she explains. “I entered one called RiverRun Festival, which is in North Carolina, where Kelly McGillis lives. We entered a lot in New York, where Luann de Lesseps and Sean Stolzen are based and then ones in LA and London.
“The other group of festivals we entered is women’s festivals because one of the major selling points of our film is that it’s a femaleled thriller. Our two main characters are women. It’s also an ‘F’-rated production team.”
IMDb will issue an “F” rating if your film has a female cast and production team. Maternal Secrets has a female writer, producer and director which, says Spurling, is very unusual.
“There’s a real zeitgeist for films about women, for women and by women,” she continues. “Naomi McDougall Jones, who is an American actress, writer and producer, recently gave a TED talk where she called for a women-in-film ‘revolution,’ encouraging more women to make movies.” McDougall Jones and Spurling met when they presented together at the BIFF 2015 screenwriting workshop where Spurling also met Williams.
In her talk, McDougall Jones quotes some alarming statistics about the lack of gender equality in the film industry, such as the fact that 50 percent of graduates from film school are women, but men direct 95 percent of all US movies. She also points out that 80–90 percent of leading characters in US movies are men but that films by and about women make 23 cents more on the dollar. It is for this reason that she is launching “The 51 Fund” which, according to the fund’s website, “will exclusively finance female-driven content.”
“There is this revolution now, and I think it’s a good time to be a woman in the film industry, and certainly for Brooke and me, it’s a good time to be doing this kind of movie,” says Spurling.
Now that she has completed her first film, Spurling has more in the pipeline. “I have always loved telling stories. I was always writing stories when I was younger, and I believe narrative films are where my heart is.”
Spurling has already written three screenplays, based on events that actually happened. “What I hope will become my niche in feature film is ones that are based on true stories.”
The first is Prerogative of Mercy, based on Jonathan Smith’s book Island Flames. The screenplay is co-written with Alia Hamza and Liana Hall and is about Dame Lois Browne- Evans when she was fighting for the lives of two men facing the death penalty for the murder of the governor in Bermuda during a time of heightened racial tension. In 1977, the decision to hang the men sparked deadly riots.
She has also written Empire of the Air, based on the fatal 1930 crash of British Airship R101. In the synopsis, Spurling writes, “a widow teams up with a psychic medium to uncover the cause of the crash. Pitted against an unconvincing London court of inquiry and with guidance from beyond the grave, they uncover damning evidence revealing a government conspiracy.”
The third screenplay, which is the one she hopes to make first, is called Me & Jezebel and is about Bette Davis moving in with her biggest fan, Liz Fuller, while fleeing paparazzi after the release of her daughter’s tell-all memoir.
“Me & Jezebel is an inexpensive film to make,” Spurling explains. “It’s mostly shot in one location, in Connecticut. It’s got two big female leads so again, it would be a female driven project for a female audience. What I would like to do is have an all-female production team, which I think would be a really cool thing to do!
“Making Me & Jezebel would fulfil my aspiration to direct a film that was my concept. It’s also a film that is close to my heart. I’ve always loved Bette Davis, and this is a true story about Liz, who was a busy mother of a four-year-old son, which is around the same age as my daughter was when I wrote it. Liz felt like she could never have a career and be a wife and mother, and I think that frustration is something I and many other women can relate to.”
The script for Me & Jezebel has already done well in four contests and is a quarter-finalist in the ScreenCraft Film Fund, the ultimate prize of which is getting production funds.
A longer-term ambition is to turn Rare Bird into a narrative film. “When I finished Rare Bird, I never felt I was truly done with the story. It is such a powerful underdog tale. The birds as well as the men, David Wingate, followed by Jeremy Madeiros, racing against time to save the bird from global warming and other man-made crises. It also has an amazing premise—finding a bird thought extinct for 350 years alive on a tiny island. It’s an important, well-known, global story that happened to transpire in Bermuda. It would be an amazing showcase for the island’s natural beauty, and ultimately it is an important story for humanity.”
To turn these screenplays and ideas into films, Spurling will have to go beyond Bermuda to get funding, which is not something she has done before. While she estimates she could make Me & Jezebel for as little as $1 million, Prerogative of Mercy and Empire of the Air will require considerably higher budgets.
“As much as Bermuda has been so good to me, I need to reach beyond in order to be able to come back and make Prerogative of Mercy or Rare Bird here. My passion will always be to do Bermuda stories that have international audiences and while every well runs dry at some point, there are certainly plenty of stories that have never been told.”