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The Laughing King: "It felt as if this film had to be made"

The Laughing King screens at the London Short Film Festival for the first time today (January 12th). It aims to raise awareness of the complex issue of male suicide. Co-writer and Director Lindy Heymann wrote for CALM about why it was a film she just had to make...

Suicide has touched me twice – it took my younger brother Marcus, and my best friend, Shaun from me. As well as the incredible shock, sadness and loss that I felt and still feel, their deaths made me acutely aware of how all of our lives can change from day to day and minute to minute.

In the case of Marcus & Shaun’s suicides - although they both were suffering, I didn’t see either of their decisions to take their lives coming, and, on reflection, I wasn’t entirely certain that they fully did either.

As life moved on, I couldn’t stop thinking about this… I kept questioning whether their choices were pre-meditated or whether it was something they did in the moment. Could anyone have stopped them? Could the doorbell have rung or a stranger asked them the time – would this have altered their course of action and distracted them, connected them, saved them… could life have intervened in some way?

I needed to explore this more and I felt my only way of doing this was to make a film.

Leigh Campbell, my co-writer, had an outline for a short that she was hoping to get commissioned. She asked me to read it & I really connected with the story. I asked her that if she got it commissioned, could I direct it? In fact whatever happened could I direct it? And that’s really how the journey began – for whatever reason, it wasn’t picked up, but we committed to writing a script together & by any means necessary making it ourselves.

I sensed straightaway that we had something special. But it wasn’t until I showed it to people (particularly CALM who endorsed the script) that I fully understood that what we had written was really connecting with people.

Up until now I had always carried the loss of my brother uneasily (he died when he was 19 & I was 21). Often, when people asked me the innocent question, “have you got any brothers and sisters?” I would avoid the truth and say “no, I’m an only child” – in order to avoid making them feel awkward or me feel like I had to get into an intimate conversation with someone I didn’t really know.

Once we showed the script to people, I discovered that almost everyone has been affected or touched by suicide. People opened up to me and I suddenly found myself sharing my experiences with strangers, aquaintances & colleagues alike. Someone that I have worked with for over 15 years shared that he had once nearly taken his own life. I was stunned, I had no idea that he even suffered with depression. People sharing their stories affected me deeply – it was both liberating & life affirming. I was not alone in my experience and it empowered me.

I had envisaged Colin Morgan to play the part of Jake from the beginning; I had even mentioned him to Leigh when we were writing the script. So it was chance or providence that we ended up working on Humans together. Colin generously agreed to read the script and responded almost immediately to say that he was definitely on board.

This was also the case when I sent it to all the cast and crew. Everyone agreed to work on it despite the fact we had no money and they weren’t going to be paid.

The momentum of the film was carrying us forwards. It felt as if this film had to be made. We overcame many obstacles and in the end, the only refusal we got was from a major attraction refusing to let us film there, as they didn’t want to be associated with the film’s subject matter. They felt that “the script was not on message with their family image”. The location of said attraction has one of the highest rates of suicide in the UK and, despite our film ultimately having a message of hope, we could not convince them otherwise – they clearly wanted to distance themselves.

For me, it was a real eye opener to the massive stigma still surrounding suicide and only strengthened my resolve to make the film.

The locals couldn’t have been more supportive – the cafés, the store owners, the arcades, the pier, the general public. People really engaged with the crew whilst we were there.

There was a wonderful moment that happened when we were shooting. In the film, Colin’s character Jake (who appears destitute and very vulnerable) is trying to buy a postcard with a £50 note and the postcard seller tells him he must be joking and laughs in his face… Whilst we were filming a local man (who seemed himself down on his luck) approached Colin mid take and gently guided Colin to a nearby bank as no-one round here would be able to break a fifty. He had no idea we were filming a scene. Everyone was walking past, ignoring Colin, but this fellow stopped to help. It was a very touching moment - just the kindness of a stranger.

I made The Laughing King because I felt overwhelmed and helpless in the face of two suicides by important people in my life. I didn’t know what else I could do but make a film to express how I felt.

The most profound thing for me came when we were filming a scene where Colin walks into the sea. Whilst we were filming I lost my breath. After we cut, I rushed up to him and asked if he was alright. The consummate actor he just turned and asked why, was it not ok? I suddenly realised where we were – that he was just acting… I talked later and some of the crew said they had been in tears… Of course it wasn’t real but for a few of us it was a brief insight into what that critical moment must feel like for someone about to end their life. It was very emotional.

Whilst I hope to show the film in various film festivals around the world, ultimately our intention is to circulate the film as widely as possible in order to draw awareness to the subject of male suicide. I feel strongly that we must engage in the conversation that CALM and other charities have begun and I hope that The Laughing King can in some way contribute to this.

You can get official updates on The Laughing King by following them on Twitter @TheLaughingKing; check out their website and keep your eyes peeled for details of a second screening.