Q&A with Phoebe Arnstein, director of If You’re Happy - Clermont-Ferrand 2024
Sunday 28 January 2024, by ,
A woman struggles with the pressures of motherhood and uses a childish game at a local baby group to vent her fury, sparking an unexpected chain reaction.
The chaos, misery, elation, isolation and general upheaval - positive or negative - generally associated with early motherhood is such fertile ground for visual story-telling that I’m surprised it’s not the focus of many short films. In If You’re Happy, director Phoebe Arnstein utilises the format in the best possible way, taking us along on an emotional roller coaster that culminates in a cathartic moment of explosive rage. Many mothers will identify with Lotte (Erin Doherty) but, that aside, it’s an often humorous, astutely portrayed slice of human life, and a remarkable filming feat with its 8 baby-strong cast.
If You’re Happy is showing at the Clermont-Ferrand International Film Festival 2024.
Where did you get the idea for the story?
Writing IF YOU’RE HAPPY became a refuge during the early days of motherhood. It was a way for me to fight for my visibility and validate the solitary and often surreal moments I experienced as a new mother. I wanted to make a film that reflected the absurdity, the loneliness, the exhilaration, the joy, the physical sacrifice and the emotional resilience that is demanded of a woman when they become a mother for the first time.
How did you get your cast and crew together? How was it shooting with a baby?
I knew Erin Doherty’s work from THE CROWN and CHLOE, however it was when I saw her at the National Theatre playing Abigail in ‘The Crucible’ that I knew she was perfect for this role because of the way she allowed Abigail’s rage to slowly build and spill over. She is mesmerising. The crew were a combination of heads of departments I had loved working with before on other projects, and suggestions from my producers (Sophia Gibber and Scarlett Barclay) who both have great taste and instinct. It was a happy marriage! The hero baby was played by twins to maximise the amount of legal time we could have with them on set. They were brilliant and did everything we needed them to do at the right time – kudos to their mum and my 1st AD who worked our shooting schedule around their routine so we could capitalise on times during the day when they would be hungry, tired or relaxed. When it came to the baby group shooting day however, it was absolute pandemonium! Eight babies on set all with different needs and schedules, combined with the very heavy and intricate camera coverage I needed for those scenes – it’s a miracle we completed the day!
What’s your own background as a filmmaker?
I worked as a Clapper Load (2nd AC) on productions such as THE CROWN and THE WORLD’S END for almost a decade. It was an invaluable period that taught me so much about the process of filmmaking. You can have so many ideas as a filmmaker, but you need to know where to put a camera and understand technically how to shoot a scene. I would shoot music videos and short films in my time off, with the help of friends who I worked with in the industry – the best film school I could ask for!
What are your hopes for the Clermont FF?
I have a four-month baby and a two year-old at home, so honestly I’m just excited to take a solo trip and to reconnect with myself while watching some exceptional films, drinking a little wine and meeting fellow filmmakers. A prize would of course be the cherry on the cake ;)
What are your top shorts recommendations from recent years?
I love BEAT by Aneil Karia, ENJOY by Saul Abraham and WREN BOYS by Harry Lighton.
For more on Phoebe’s work, visit her website here.