"I want the viewers to look beyond their assumptions about people"
Billie Vee and Abbie Lucas are long time friends who have always wanted to work together. Billie is a writer & actress, Abbie is a director- both share the passion for telling thought provoking stories that matter.
After working together on a couple of smaller projects, Billie wrote "Testing Greta", a film about domestic abuse, and asked Abbie if she’d like to direct it.
A year later, Testing Greta won Best Picture award, leaving our judging team stunned. It was emotional, clever, touching, heartbreaking and at some points even darkly comic. More than anything, it made us think.
What we particularly appreciated was the fact that the entire short film was shot in one day, in a single location, presenting two characters only. So minimalistic, and yet so powerful.
We asked Billie and Abbie to join us for an interview, and met talented, hard working artists with a strong message and an incredible amount of passion.
Abbie Lucas (Photo by Anna Chand)
Tell us about your background. Did you always know you want to be a director/writer?
BILLIE: I grew up in Athens where I trained as an actress (Theatro Technis Karolos Koun) and also received my degree in Theatre Studies (University of Athens Philosophy Department). I was cast in a number of roles across TV and theatre in Greece and in Cyprus, before moving to London where, as a performer, I have appeared in shows at the Pleasance London, Southwark Playhouse, Old Red Lion, Upstairs at the Gatehouse, New Diorama Theatre, Hen and Chickens as well as in many independent films and commercials. In 2013 I wrote my first ever short film ‘Two Persons Max’ (dir Tim Kent) and that’s when I realised that I get a thrill from writing, and seeing the audience’s reactions – a thrill different to the one from acting, but equally strong.
ABBIE: I’ve wanted to be a Director since I was 13. When I was 9 I wanted to be a Graphic Designer, but at age 13 I changed it to Directing. To this day I’m not sure which would have been the smarter option! I always loved telling stories and making up little scenarios and driving my parents nuts by giving them a beat by beat breakdown of what happened in any film I saw the cinema. We didn’t really have Media Studies in small town New Zealand so my drama teacher encouraged me to direct plays at school and for the local youth theatre, then I went off to film school and learned filmmaking there. After graduation I moved to the UK and have been working as an editor and directing my own projects.
What made you decide to go into film?
BILLIE: Since I can remember, I have had a passion for film. I was watching everything: from blockbusters to independent films, American / European and Asian cinema… I love the subtlety that acting in front of the camera requires: it’s all in the eyes. If you lie, it shows. Acting in a truthful and natural way in such an artificial environment, such as that of a film set, is a great challenge and it is this that drove me toward film.
ABBIE: I think film is a wonderful way to tell stories. The ability to manipulate the picture and the soundtrack to convey a mood or an emotion is unparalleled in other mediums. Also, there is something magical about going to the cinema and escaping into another world for a while.
Do you have any role models? Who influences your work? What inspires you?
BILLIE: Some of my role models: Sylvester Stallone who, against all odds, created his own path, JK Rowling who kept persevering after being rejected so many times by publishers, Frida Kahlo who had the extraordinary strength to create art by using her own painful experiences, and my mother who has been an example of a strong, successful, yet kind woman - with a great sense of humour.
Who influences my work: The list is long, but a few examples – not in specific order and couldn’t be more diverse:
Edward Norton’s performance in Primal Fear, Meryl Streep in almost everything, the edgy and twisted writing of Charlie Brooker (Black Mirror), Lena Dunham’s uncomfortable and witty writing (Girls), Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock’s suspenseful films (especially the Rope which takes place in one location) Also, the stillness of Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, the painting ‘Scream’ by Munch, the fearless Marina Abramović and Kim Cattrall as unapologetically sexy, funny and real Samantha from Sex and the City.
I’d like to mention here that as a child, I was a collector of real crime articles found in newspapers and magazines… the unpredictable element of the human nature conveyed in all those crimes, also influenced my writing.
What inspires me: Everyday people – a look, a laughter, anything genuine, but unexpected in their behaviour can get my attention and triggers my imagination. I’m very curious as a person, so I never stop asking questions and wanting to know what’s beneath the surface.
Athletes – their discipline, their continuous effort and dedication is admirable.
Animals… I love animals, the way they move, how they hunt and what they do in order to survive.
ABBIE: A selection of Role Models whose work I admire: Jenji Kohan, Tina Fey, Shonda Rhimes, Taika Waititi, Ryan Murphy, Amy Sherman Palladino, The Coen Brothers, Nora Ephron, Audrey Hepburn, Marina Abramovic, Mike Nichols and Paul Arden.
My work is influenced by stories I’ve heard or read, books, painting, travel, photography, the news. Observing people’s reactions and interactions. I’d say that most of good ideas come to me in the shower...
(Photo by Anna Chand)
Billie - why did you choose to write this story? Abbie - what made you want to tell it?
BILLIE: When I decide to write a story, it always resonates within me – it’s almost as if I can’t stop myself from writing it. With Testing Greta, I wanted to show that abuse can happen to literally everyone, regardless of their social / financial status, no matter how educated, intelligent or strong they are. Abuse just happens. And in certain occasions, there is no escape.
Sometimes people hide their pain because they feel embarrassed, or they decide to ignore it because they want to appear strong… this strange pride moves me deeply. It’s like watching a wounded lion, walking away proud and strong. It’s dying, but it won’t lower its gaze. It will just remain the king, even if it suffers.
ABBIE: There are so many reasons for why I wanted to do this film. First and foremost, Billie wrote a script with a wonderful uniqueness to it. I loved that it was a dark story but had these interesting moments of connection, humour and charm. Also, I think the themes are important; it showed that abuse occurs on a spectrum, perhaps happening in ways we don’t suspect, and I knew that the way the story was set up would challenge and provoke the audience, it’s very cool to be in a screening of it and listen to the collective reaction. Aside from all this, of course, I wanted to work with Billie!
(Photo by Anna Chand)
Did you know each other before? How did you get to work together on this film?
BILLIE: We were friends! I wrote the script and asked Abbie if she’d like to direct it.
ABBIE: We did! We’ve been friends for years and worked on a couple of smaller projects together, but Testing Greta was the most ambitious.
Testing Greta deals with the difficult topic of domestic violence, in a subtle, yet shocking, way. Tell us about the choices you made in the process.
BILLIE: I believe in shock value when it comes from an original, truthful place. I decided to start with dark humour and portray an exaggerated situation that would make the audience uncomfortable, yet unable to look away… and then using a poetic metaphor, to uncover the plain harsh reality just to cover It back again at the end.
ABBIE: I’m glad that the subtlety came across because it’s important for me, as a filmmaker, that you don’t hit the audience over the head with an issue. If you want to get a point across you have to do it in a very human way, in order to let the information travel to their hearts. We made a choice to have the shock moment at the beginning with (no spoilers!) the procedure Celia goes through, but we wanted to do it in such a way that it gave the audience permission to laugh. This was a deliberate sleight of hand so they’re not expecting what comes next.
Celia and the Doctor are fascinating characters. They both have very difficult choices to make, and can easily be criticized for their actions (or lack of actions). Billie - your work on screen is beautiful. What was it like to play Celia? Abbie - Tell us about your work process with your actors. Do you have specific methods you find helpful in working with talent?
BILLIE: Thank you – and many thanks to the brilliant co-star Cherise and of course Abbie. To play Celia was like building a sparkling, glamorous armour around me, with everything calculated to the last detail and then gradually letting every last bit of it drop and becoming a little girl, scared and silently complaining that what’s happening to her isn’t fair.
ABBIE: It’s a rare thing, but I’ve worked with both Billie and Cherise Silvestri before, so we already had a shorthand established before we started! For this film we had a very small amount of filming time so we did most of the work in rehearsals. We started with a couple of table reads, talking about the themes, what we wanted to achieve with the film, and working on the characters. Then we did some improvisational exercises to cement those characters and the circumstances they are in immediately before the action starts. We worked in this way sporadically in the months leading up to production and then the week before the shoot we rehearsed the actual script. By this point Billie and Cherise knew the characters so well that all I had to do was tweak the blocking and make the odd suggestion. As for specific methods, I think it’s different with every project but if I’ve done my job properly i.e: casted well, then mostly I just think I need to ask the right questions and create the right circumstances for the actors to play.
What would you like your viewers to take from this film?
BILLIE: The fact that we don’t know what happens behind closed doors and we should never make assumptions. Things aren’t black and white and morality has many aspects.
ABBIE: I would like them to look beyond their assumptions about people.
What was your favorite part in the process of making Testing Greta? Tell us a memorable story from set
BILLIE: My favourite part was the rehearsals! Memorable story? Abbie?
ABBIE: My favourite part was the rehearsals as well. The film was shot entirely in a day so we didn’t have much time for on set antics. Although more than a year later crew will still say it was one of the best on-set lunches they’ve had... Lunch is very important to crew!
(Photo by Anna Chand)
What were some of the challenges in making this film?
BILLIE: Time – we filmed it in one day. Also, the injection for me (I do feel uncomfortable when it comes to needles). It was a fake one, but still…
ABBIE: Aside from the usual struggles of money and time, we wanted a medical location that looked real but wasn’t bright white and stark like a lot of medical offices. We were very lucky to find the one we did, it was perfect!
Can you give a word of advice to aspiring writers/filmmakers around the world?
BILLIE: Find a story you really want to tell and you’ll find a way to make it to a film. No matter how difficult it is and how many hurdles you need to overcome… have faith, work hard and stay committed to your passion.
ABBIE: More so than any previous generation of filmmakers, you have the best access to the tools required to get a film made and seen. Use them to make a strong story that truly resonates with you.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
BILLIE: Two feature films I’ve written and will also be acting in. The first one, a psychological thriller is to be directed by Tim Kent and the second one, a romantic comedy I am co-writing with Abbie Lucas and Shamir Dawood, and it is to be directed by Abbie. I’ve also co-written a sci-fi short film with Stelios Koukouvitakis to be directed by him and produced by Yulia Romanova
Acting wise, I’ve finished filming a TV pilot (dir. Sam Bradford) and I’m preparing for when the next big audition comes… to nail it!
ABBIE: I am very much looking forward to the aforementioned feature with Billie Vee and Shamir Dawood. In addition to that there are two short films I am signed up to do that are both excellent but couldn’t be more different; Clementine by Louise McConnell which is being produced by Natasha Marburger and Reconsolidation by Michael Oldham, Blake Ellis, and Brandon Weis (find out more: www.gofundme.com/reconsolidationFilm)
I’m also directing a play at the end of the year (that’s been a long time in the works!) it’s called Shards by Catherine O’Shea (more here: https://www.gofundme.com/shardsplay). I’m working on writing some scripts as well which is a relatively new endeavour for me!
If you could work with anyone in the world, who would that person be?
BILLIE: David Fincher - writing and acting wise.
ABBIE: It definitely wouldn’t suck if Jenji Kohan took on the American pilot script I’ve co-written...
Please share with us where people can find you on social media, so I readers could keep track of your career :)
Twitter / Instagram: @abbielucas
Testing Greta - Teaser