FILMMAKER Q&A – Dear Grandma and Grandpa: A Quarantine Story – Sophia Featherstone – Director, Editor, Producer

OR: What was the inspiration for your film?

SF: Last spring, my Grandpa forgot where he was while driving. Seeing a BMW dealership, he pulled in and started asking where he was. Luckily, this dealership was one he had frequented in the 50 years he had lived in the area. They called an ambulance and he was taken to the hospital and diagnosed with dementia. A few nights later, he collapsed in the kitchen and was rushed back to the hospital once more. His motor function, as well as his memory, was beginning to deteriorate. It became clear, and my Mum and Uncle decided, that living independently was no longer an option. 

My Grandpa moved (rather unwillingly) into a memory care facility soon after, and my Grandma followed, moving into an ‘independent living’ apartment at the same care home to be close to him. She was later diagnosed with dementia, also. My Grandpa, especially, was really affected by this–he can’t remember that he has been diagnosed with dementia, and so he gets really angry and frustrated when he can’t drive, see other people, or live in the way that he used to. 

Then reports of COVID-19 reaching the US surfaced. My first thought was ‘what does this mean for my Grandparents?’ A few weeks later, my university in the US announced that the rest of the semester would be online, so I rushed to get home to my parents in the UK before borders began closing. My Grandparents, however, were placed in a complete lockdown to keep them safe. 

I filmed ‘Dear Grandma and Grandpa: A Quarantine Story’ a short time after I arrived home. Both of my Grandparents had been calling both my Mum and my Uncle many times a day–they didn’t understand why they couldn’t leave the building, see each other, or be visited by anyone else in the family. They were completely alone. The reality that I may not ever see them again, and that they may not be able to see anyone else in my family again–at least not in person–began to set in. It was this feeling of disconnection and uncertainty that inspired ‘Dear Grandma and Grandpa: A Quarantine Story.’

OR: When did you conceive the idea for your film and how long did it take before it was realized?

SF: I thought of making this film in early May as part of an online micro-documentary class that I took with New York Film Academy. My experiences with them really helped me figure out how I wanted to tell my story. I had originally planned to make it more of a first-person narrative, telling the story to the audience, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought that this film was (at its core) about connection–or trying to connect across the barriers of space and memory–so using an epistolary, second-person narrative seemed to add another layer. From when I had the idea for this film to post-production, the whole film took me about two weeks to make.

OR: What was the most challenging aspect of working in a short film format?

SF: Going to watch a feature film at a movie theatre, it would probably take a lot for someone to get up and leave before the film is over. I don’t think the same can be said for short films. Because the story is only a few minutes, there really isn’t time for even a moment that isn’t engaging, or that isn’t enhancing the story/core message. I suppose it’s being able to take the essence of something and depicting it in a very short amount of time. If forces you to think hard about what the story really needs. This aspect of making a short film was definitely challenging, and is a skill I’m still working to develop. 

OR: What was the most challenging aspect of your production?

SF: The ethics of making a film about my Grandparents, who can’t really consent to being on camera, was something I thought a lot about. I never wanted to exploit their struggles for the purpose of a ‘good’ story. I wanted my family to be able to watch it and be moved and feel as though it was true to the challenges, events, and emotions felt, but not feel like it was an invasion–especially during such a raw and uncertain time. Navigating this was a challenge in that there were so many different things that needed to be considered–and I felt I owed to my Grandparents to think about. 

I think one of the biggest challenges was also how personal it is. I don’t think I’ve ever made anything that has pushed me to be so vulnerable. I still haven’t had the courage to show many of my family members the film just because it is so personal. Somehow it seems different to know that someone I don’t know has seen it. It has a heavier weight when it’s family. 

OR: Do you have any advice for first-time filmmakers?

SF: Being a student filmmaker (and only 20), I’m probably in a position where I need more advice than I can give, but something I tell myself quite often is: just make the film. I have a tendency to come up with ideas and think they’re silly or not worth making. That voice in my head can be helpful sometimes, but if I listened to it all the time, I would never make anything at all. I think it’s definitely better to make a few (or many) silly films than no films at all. Even if you don’t think it’s that great, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth making. 

Also, I think the best storytelling equipment is the equipment you have access to. If that’s a phone, then film with a phone. If it’s a camera, use a camera. If you only have yourself and can’t go anywhere because you’re quarantined (or for any other reason) then tell a story about one person in one place. Everything has a story behind it, you just have to find it.