An Interview with Filmmaker Eleanor Yule

Eleanor in Tove Jansson's studio (Helsinki, Finland) with Tove’s friends Boel Westin (biographer and Helen Svensson (editor).

Eleanor in Tove Jansson's studio (Helsinki, Finland) with Tove’s friends Boel Westin (biographer and Helen Svensson (editor).

Lecturer Eleanor Yule came to Falmouth via the BBC, where she produced documentaries on Michael Palin, Moomin creator Tove Jansson, Muriel Spark and Robert Burns. Now Eleanor continues to write, as well as teaching Screenwriting in our department.

Recently I sat down with Eleanor to discuss her path to filmmaking, the problems with fame, and some of her favourite projects.

AC: How did you get started?

EY: When I left school, I wanted to be a theatre director. I went to Freshers week at Glasgow University, where I had been accepted to do English & Theatre, and there was this amazing guy there wearing a jumper with frogs all over it. He was from Film & TV Studies.

I remember just thinking ‘How did I never question this before?’

He asked me what I was interested in, and I said theatre—but his enthusiasm won me over, and by the end of the conversation I was doing a degree in Film.

At Glasgow I studied things like film noir and melodrama, or abstract expressionist films that lasted 32 hours. Psychoanalytic theory was involved, it was questioning ideology and it was quite subversive, because it was looking at things like patriarchy and how that was constructed for example, and I remember just thinking 'How did I never question this before?'

Mostly, my undergraduate degree was theoretical practice. You were writing about films; you weren't making them. So as soon as I graduated, I signed up for a one-year film making course at Bristol University, a nine-month crash-course, and that's where I directed my first couple of films.

Bristol University had a great deal with BBC Bristol, they got to make three student films for a series. I directed two of those.

AC: What are some of your favourite projects so far?

EY: Well, I've worked in many different genres and I would say that every single project that I've worked on has had something about it that I have thought was exciting, apart from one film that I made which was an Insider's Guide to Dundee.

The BBC phoned me up and asked ‘Why are you not doing anything now? Can we tempt you back to come make something?’

Dundee is now amazing, but when I did it, nothing was happening there really, so it was a very difficult film to make. I also found out I was pregnant because I kept being sick and I wasn't expecting it. It wasn't great filming and having morning sickness.

AC: Let's talk about the documentary you made about Moomins and Tove Jansson. What were some of the most interesting things about it?

One thing that was really interesting about that project is that it started in a particular period of time where things were quite turbulent, things were changing, at the BBC particularly, and I hadn't made anything for a couple of years because I was concentrating on teaching and writing.

EY: The BBC phoned me up and asked 'Why are you not doing anything now? Can we tempt you back to come make something?' I went into a meeting and they offered me a number of things, and I didn't take a second when I heard about Tove Jansson, the creator of the Moomin books.

It was a huge project because she was such a polymath, so amazingly brilliant at not just writing children's books, but she wrote fantastic adult fiction and short stories which I hugely recommend. She was massively influential.

Tove was also a brilliant graphic artist who evolved the art form with her divisions. She was a brilliant illustrator and water-colorist and she was a fine artist as well. One thing she wanted was to be a painter, because her father had been a sculptor and she got validation from him for the painting, whereas he didn't really rate the illustrations very highly. It seemed to me such a pity that she didn't realize how amazing what she could do was. The irony is that it was the figurative work she struggled so long to shake was what made her so famous.

One of the worst things that could happen to you is to become famous. You want to just be under the radar.

AC: Do you think that fame makes depleting demands on the artist?

EY: That’s absolutely the case. I've had a lot of experience now over the years into making films about famous people, and it's too much. You can understand how in the past Greeks had Gods. They were not human and only something like a God could take that amount of adulation. Humans weren't designed to be that way.

I've noticed that fame actually causes people to be quite isolated, it makes them feel really lonely in relationships; they find it very hard because people can't see who they really are, they want to be in a relationship with a celebrity rather than the fragile person behind all that brilliant work.

I say this to a lot to my students, but one of the worst things that could happen to you is to become famous. You want to just be under the radar.

I did a film on Muriel Spark, and that was quite interesting because she confessed that once she'd written The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which became a very successful film and West End play, and of course after that people kept asking for another Jean Brodie. She said that it was as if everything else that she did didn't exist anymore.

AC: Can you talk a little about any upcoming projects that you're excited about?

EY: I've just completed a screenplay for my PhD, about medieval female troubadours—the very first females that sang and wrote and traveled and performed.

My aims for the screenplay were to give it sensorial fidelity for the medieval age. So rather than imposing contemporary values on the medieval, which an awful lot of medieval films do, it uses it as a projection for speaking about patriarchy.

I've tried to go back genuinely to that period and really look at women's roles; actually women were quite empowered then. Obviously only particular classes, and working class women were not, but certain women did have more property rights and artistic freedom. That's not really been reported or represented as much.

Also, the film has no dialogue, because I couldn't find any dialogue that was authentic for the period, so I only used either liturgical speech, and song lyrics that had been written down, which in the play are spoken. Most of the film is visually told, as well as with song and ritual.

You can find out more about Eleanor and her work on her IMDB page or on Vimeo.

by Adriana Ciontea