Director Lilah Vandenburgh and screenwriter IR Bell-Webb spoke with Solzy at the Movies just before SXSW about Heart to Heart.
Originally set to premiere during the 2020 SXSW Film Festival and the BFI Flare Festival, both festivals ended up getting canceled. As a result, Heart to Heart recently made its premiere virtually during OUTFest. This weekend, the episodic will hold another virtual screening during Series Fest. The large bulk of this interview was done over email ahead of SXSW. Because of the cancellation, it never ran. There have been a few modifications to take the Series Fest screening into account. The episodic pilot will be available June 18-24.
Produced by Chiara Ventura and Manon Ardisson, the cast includes Fern Deacon, Siena Kelly, David Tennant, Jo Martin and Felicity Montagu.
How bummed were you that SXSW got cancelled and at what point did you start to reconsider plans to attend?
Lilah Vandenburgh: Very bummed and I especially felt bad for our screenwriter IR Bell-Webb who was attending their first overseas, world-premiere festival. Our lead actress Fern Deacon was also going to be in attendance, along with myself and one of our two producers, Chiara Ventura. I was looking forward to the group of us getting to rep the film in person and see what kind of impact it had on our audiences. We were really looking forward to Q&As and obviously the chance to find a distributor. I also had other filmmaker friends, journalists, and family who were going to be there, so I’m especially sad I didn’t get to see them and show them our work in person. I’m sad but ultimately think the festival made the right call. By the city of Austin and fest organizers taking this seriously, I think they set the tone for the world and other large scale events took their lead, which was best for everyone’s safety
Heart by Heart just played OUTFest and is playing Series Fest. As a filmmaker, what thoughts do you have on the virtual film fests in lieu of an in-person film festival?
Lilah Vandenburgh: I think virtual film festivals are great and reach a different kind of audience. I think they’re often more accessible to people with various disabilities and people without the financial means to travel. I think there’s a specific magic to playing in a live theater and hearing the audience reaction but both online and IRL fests are enormously important to the vitality of filmmaking.
What was the development process like for Heart to Heart?
IR Bell-Webb: Heart to Heart was an idea I came up with while I was still in film school—as part of an audio drama module, if you can believe that—so it’s been with me in various forms for five years now, which makes the development process an odd one. The core concept and the characters—Liddy, her talking heart Lump and this gorgeous nurse Kim—stayed solid but the format and the world around them changed shape a few times while I tried to find the right story for them. By the time I brought the project to producers Chiara Ventura and Manon Ardisson it had already taken on a couple of different forms – but short form drama made immediate sense once they suggested it. Then it was a few months of writing and re-writing the treatment, while Chiara and Manon looked around for a home for it, and eventually I got a call out of the blue from Chiara that Sky commissioned a pilot!
Probably the first person I told—after my agent—was Lilah, who was already one of my closest friends and is generally just the coolest person I know and she was like, “Remember about last month you were stressing you weren’t going to get enough work and I said enjoy this time because once you’re busy, you’ll be too busy to breathe? Well buckle up, because it’s happening.”
Anyway, I bounced ideas for the pilot off her the whole time I was writing it so by the time we got the green-light—on my birthday!—Lilah was the only person who could have directed it. Her work on her BBC3 show Uncle was such a natural fit, tonally, with what I wanted to do, so she officially came on board and the rest is history!
Given that it’s ten episodes that run around ten minutes, was a feature film ever considered?
IR Bell-Webb: A long while ago, before I’d even pitched the idea of Chiara and Manon, I thought about it—but I love TV and I always wanted to do something more episodic. It’s the fannish nerd in me—TV lends itself to more long-term fandom building than a one-off film would.
Lilah Vandenburgh: We talked about wanting it to feel like a movie in its emotional pacing, but also liked the idea of installments you could watch in bites and look forward to. I love feature film but I don’t think it’s the right format for all stories. Especially for younger folks, I think you can’t really match the immediacy and intimacy of something you can watch on your tablet or phone.
Lilah, at what point in the process did you come on board to direct the pilot and how did you respond to the script?
Lilah Vandenburgh: I’ve known IR for years and we’ve collaborated on projects before and sold a previous LGBTQ genre pilot together. Before they were working with our lovely producers Manon and Chiara on Heart to Heart, they’d worked with them on another project, and they casually mentioned to me over lunch that they were thinking of a story about a dying girl whose heart wants her to find love. I immediately said, “I WANT TO DIRECT THAT.”
IR later pitched it to our producers and I’m very grateful that I was able to come on board because I was really passionate about the idea from the moment I first heard about it. I hope our collective love for it shows.
How were you able to get David Tennant attached to this 10-episode series?
IR Bell-Webb: There were very few big name male actors who I would trust with providing the inner monologue of a young lesbian. Lump says such gross things and there’s a version of that that’s just offensive, you know? Whoever’s voicing him, should be hilarious but not predatory, and that required an actor who didn’t have the gross funk of toxic masculinity rolling off him.
David Tennant was pretty much the only ‘name’ who came to mind who I felt confident was the right fit: smart, funny and sensitive. And in the end I wrote him a letter – with help from Russell T. Davies, who I was lucky enough to be paired with through BFI Flare’s LGBT mentorship scheme years ago and has been an awesome buddy of mine ever since. I also just got lucky that my agent knew David’s agent and could basically walk the script and the letter into her office and be like “Please just let him read it.” And he did and he liked it and accepted to do it! Which made me cry. And then I had to text my friends crying about how I was going to have to explain what a fursona was to David Tennant.
Lilah Vandenburgh: Only the first 2 episodes of 10 have been produced so far but David very graciously accepted the role and I think it’s pretty different from anything he’s done before. We reached out to him in the normal way, through agents, and I think he could see the strength of IR’s writing and the importance of the story we were trying to convey but also the fun and heart. We feel very blessed he connected with the material. We’re also grateful to Russell T. Davies who is a mentor to IR’s (purely based on her talent) and because he’s worked with David before, I think Russell vouched for quality. For me it was a personal treat to have David for a day of sound recording. He’s a consummate professional and very dedicated to giving you what you want. There was no ego.
I felt he stole the show in the pilot episode.
IR Bell-Webb: He was such a class act, bless him. I’m Scottish and always intended for Lump to sound Glaswegian—in part as a tribute to a Glaswegian friend of mine, a cardiology nurse whose stories really helped me during development—and I think David was just pleased to be asked to be Scottish for once!
Outside of David Tennant, what was the casting process like?
IR Bell-Webb: I didn’t have much to do with the casting process but my main stipulation—one I trusted Lilah to enforce and she did—was that the NHS should look like the NHS. The last time I was anywhere near a hospital, literally the only white person I encountered there was the receptionist, who was from Poland. So I was pretty adamant that the nurses and doctors we cast should be as diverse as possible. It’s important to me that any work I have my name on reflects the reality of the modern world, you know? Our NHS—G-d save it—is dependent on immigrants and people of colour. It would be dishonourable of us to portray it otherwise.
Lilah Vandenburgh: I’m pretty sure there were a couple hundred girls up for Liddy but I saw Fern early on and knew in my heart she was Liddy. I’d worked with her before on my show Uncle, and she was excellent, but it was a very different part. Fern is a really special talent and perfectly embodies Liddy’s vulnerability but also gets that humor in IR’s writing. With Kim, we knew we had to find someone who could play this really special combination of funny, sexy, weird and relatable. We didn’t know exactly what she’d be like, it was more like we knew we’d know her when we saw her. Sienna was literally one of the very last people we saw for Kim and I’m so glad we persisted. It wasn’t just about how perfect the girls were individually, but whether you also felt like there was a believable spark between them. And Fern and Sienna had amazing chemistry from the first table read and we all just relaxed into it and knew we’d made the right call. And the rest of the cast is this amazing ensemble of seasoned actresses (like Felicity Montagu, Pooky Quesnel, Nicola Duffett and Jo Martin, who also appeared in Doctor Who and was recently revealed as an incarnation of the Doctor, becoming the first non-white actor to play the Doctor). A lot of the credit for putting this amazing cast together goes to our brilliant casting director, Kevin Riddle, who I had already collaborated with on Uncle.
What should fans expect as the series continues?
IR Bell-Webb: SOOOOO many nerdy queers. Masturbation. Maybe some kissing. Buddy comedy antics. Definitely Lump being inappropriate. A musical episode. GAY RIGHTS.
Lilah Vandenburgh: More romance. More buddy comedy. All the feels. Some big twists. A lot of laughs. And maybe an appearance by Lump…in the flesh…
Sky Studios developed and commissioned the series. What do Americans need to do in order to see future episodes?
IR Bell-Webb: For the love of G-d, yell on the internet about wanting to see more. Tweet about it. Tumble on it. Tik it on the Toks or whatever it is the kids are doing these days. We’ve made two episodes, we would definitely like to make more.
Lilah Vandenburgh: Sky commissioned the 2 episode pilot, but we need a distributor/broadcaster to commission a full series. If fans like it and want to see more episodes, please tell your friends, recommend it, and make noise on social media.
Heart to Heart will screen during Series Fest.