Amy James-Kelly is not only talented but hugely ambitious. Having first come to notable public attention starring in Coronation Street and Jericho, she’s now added the titles of writer, producer and director to her resume thanks to her impressive independent film Last Summer, described as a project “with a history” and one which “addresses current themes and issues.” TITL caught up with Amy to find out more about the production process of the film, the importance of crowd-funding in its creation and what other projects she has in the pipeline.
TITL: Most people will likely know you best for playing Maddie Heath in Coronation Street from 2013-2015, but what exactly made you want to branch out into film-making, producing and directing?
Amy James-Kelly: A lot of my friends have done similar things and because I missed out on the whole going to university experience where a lot of people will do film studies, make their own stuff, that kind of thing and take all that they’ve learned over those years and put them into practice later in life, I didn’t get to do those things.
But I’d heard the story of Last Summer as it was a play my mum had been involved in. This all stemmed from a conversation had with me while she was washing up and she was reminiscing about this play that she did. As she was telling me, I had a mental image of what would later go on to become the last shot of the film. It just kinda happened and I thought ‘I have to do this now.’ It was always something I thought about doing, eventually – having a go at writing, directing and generally film-making – but it wasn’t until that moment that I said to myself that I was definitely going to do it.
TITL: You had a bit of trouble trying to get the backing and the funding for the film. Do you think, given all those problems, now that the film’s done, that you were able to make it at the right time? Do you think Last Summer would have had the same relevance and impact two years ago as it does today?
AJK: I am so glad we did it this time around. The quality’s better – all aspects of the film are better. The script was edited a lot and I feel like by the time Last Summer finally began production, I’d grown as a producer and was more comfortable with that role than I might have been had we tried making this film when we first began looking for backers and funding. I was learning things throughout the whole process, and I’d learnt a lot of lessons from when we first began working on the film before the problems started to arise, which proved immensely beneficial in the long-run. I think it was a blessing in disguise that the film didn’t work out first time round because it has ended up being ten times better.
TITL: How easy or hard was it to bring everyone in terms of the cast and crew back together after the funding and everything fell through first time around?
AJK: I think we managed to get about 50% of the original team back – some were unavailable and a few others simply decided it would be better if we parted ways. I’m really lucky that, myself included, on the team, there are 5 of us that all go to acting school together and we all have a similar interest in producing our own work, acting, writing and everything like that. It’s just really great to see that individuals from acting school, can do and are doing something outside of class to help them grow not only as actors but as people. We all just thought ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ We got together and we were all throwing around different ideas – it’s been really great having that unit of people who are in the same boat as me, so to speak, and who understand what it is I’m passionate about and why.
In terms of finding the other crew members, that wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. There are loads of Facebook groups around these days where, once approved by the page admins, you can simply put a post up explaining who it is you’re looking for and a little about the project you’re working on, and receive responses from people all over the country, including industry professionals with all their own gear, who are willing to jump on board with you. I think social media is going to launch the next generation of film-makers.
TITL: What would you say your team all brought to the creation of the film?
AJK: The film would have been completely different if one member of the team hadn’t been a part of it. I’m so lucky to have worked with them all. We had people who are very much industry professionals and some people who are just starting out, all working together towards the same goal and I think that really comes across in the film as well. The professionals brought their experience and the newer individuals brought their enthusiasm – when that came together, it was amazing to watch and be involved in. It was fantastic to see someone who has like 100 film credits pass on their advice to someone who was standing on their first ever set, or show them how to do something a certain way.
TITL: Last Summer was largely crowd-funded – did you expect the reaction and support that it got?
AJK: After what happened first time around, there was always a worry that the same thing would happen again. I kept telling myself that it was going to work and it does stun me, at least once a day, to think that there are people out there who not only put their own money into this project but also sent me messages telling me they were excited to see it, or who had been following my progress. There were people I hadn’t spoken to for years getting in touch to pass on their well-wishes and support and that touched me, it really did. To think that an idea I had as a result of a conversation with my mum was all-but brought to life mostly by people I don’t even know is mind-blowing.
TITL: How big would you say the impact of social media has been in general in terms of how it helped get the film made and its promotion?
AJK: Social media is and has been an invaluable tool to myself and the Last Summer team, as made evident by the crowd-funding campaign launched to help get it made. People have obviously always made films and started their own production companies etc. long before social media existed, and full credit to them because I don’t know how I’d have done it, but I relied on social media a lot; I relied on people sharing news about the film, posting the crowd-funding link and things like that. I had people who donated to the film living in the States, in Sweden – if social media didn’t exist, there’s no way I’d have had the ability to reach them.
TITL: You wrote on your crowd-funding site that a lot of the money donated by individuals around the world would be going to Reuben’s Retreat. Why that charity/organisation in particular?
AJK: I’m an ambassador for the charity and I’m always trying to champion them whenever I can. They’re a group of people very close to my heart. I always try and do something with and for them every year, be it the Manchester 10K or sorting out their stationary cupboard laughs One if the filming locations, Howard Park, is right beside the retreat, and it wasn’t until I was at the retreat one day just helping out, that I went into the park with Nicola, Reuben’s mum, and I just said “Oh my God, this is perfect.” Everything I’d pictured in my head was suddenly visualised right in front of me, and I knew that, if we were going to work so closely to the Retreat, then we had to give them something back. They helped us out so much – they sorted out our catering on the first two days and I felt bad about seeing them help us as much as they did, but the Retreat team just said to me: “We know you’ll always give something back.”
TITL: You held a screening in Manchester – how did that go?
AJK: It was amazing. It was so great to finally show people the finished product – I’d seen it about four million times in various stages of post-production – and that was the first time the majority of people had seen what myself and the team had put our time, energy and passion into creating. I was nervous…I was so scared, and when I stood up to thank everyone, my mind just went completely blank. I had to type something up later and send it to everyone – I have no idea what I ended up saying.
TITL: So what are the plans for the film now? Are you looking to get it out to a few independent or even major film festivals?
AJK: Film festivals are the main aim, yeah, and I’m also wanting to get it onto DVD for people.
TITL: What sort of message do you want people to take from Last Summer, both in terms of the production and the film itself?
AJK: The film itself is hard to say without giving anything away. There is a message with it, but it would give the story away. As for the production, certainly in regards to people who want to do something like this, I think the main message is that they simply need to tell themselves they CAN do it; that it can and WILL happen. Simply convince yourself that nothing can stop you and that the project you’ve been dreaming about will become a reality. It’s as simple as that. Self-confidence, and confidence in others, in the team you’re wanting to and going to work with, is key.
Absolutely anybody can be a part of this industry – actors, producers, directors, writers – they might all come from different walks of life, but when they’re all set on making something a reality, and bringing an idea to life, none of that does or will ever matter. Plus, the feeling you get when you finally achieve your dream and bring your idea to life is amazing.
TITL: Now that Last Summer is out there and your baby has flown the nest, so to speak, what’s next for you?
AJK: Off the back of Last Summer, people who worked with me on that, or who have just caught wind of the film, have got in touch asking if we can collaborate, and that to me is really, really exciting as I never expected it to happen. I honestly thought that this would just be a little thing that I did, and obviously, I always wanted the kind of reception that it’s had, but I never expected that people would love it as much as they have and to get the reaction and response that it did at the screening in Manchester.
I’ve also had messages from people in my acting classes getting in touch saying ‘It’s so cool to see someone from class doing something…let’s do something together.’ As for what’s next, I’m in the early research stages of a short film I’m currently doing with a friend of mine and I’m producing a short film that one of the guys on the team is doing.
TITL: What do you say to people out there who think actors and actresses should stick to those specific roles, rather than branching out into producing and directing as you have?
AJK: I think that’s really blinkered. This industry is so accessible and everyone works so closely together. It’s so easy to have an interest in another aspect of being on set, and just networking or picking up the skills and knowledge you need to give those aspects a go. If you have an idea and you want to turn it into something, need it be a play, a film…whatever – there is nothing to stop you. I think directors can try acting, actors can try directing…anyone can try anything and no-one should be able to or want to stop them from doing that.
TITL: Now that you’ve found your producing/directing feet with Last Summer, can you see yourself going back to TV in the near future?
AJK: I’m currently working on Harlan Coben’s Safe with Red Productions for Netflix. I think acting is always going to be my first love – I eat, sleep and breathe it and I get a really big geeky kick out of it, but I’m definitely going to continue making projects like this – I’d start one again tomorrow.
To keep up to date with Amy James-Kelly, follow her on Twitter. Header photo credit: Lee Johnson Photography.