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EIFF 2022: Jon Sanders and Anna Mottram on their new film ‘A Clever Woman’

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A Clever Woman had its world premiere at Edinburgh International Film Festival in August. Its Director, Jon Sanders, and star, Anna Mottram spoke to Brig about their forty years of working together on and off the screen.

This thoughtful examination of grief, parenthood, and infidelity centres on two sisters (Josie Lawrence and Tanya Myers).

Returning to their childhood home, the siblings contemplate the loss of their mother and the complicated legacy she left behind.  

On Grief and Infidelity in A Clever Woman

A Clever Woman is not the first time Anna and Jon have explored this topic in their work. In their second project together, Low Tide (2008), a couple tries to repair their marriage while one of them lays on their death bed.

It is not an easy thing to talk about grief. It is even harder to admit that you’re angry with the dead. But for Jon Sanders, the conversation is familiar territory.

“My mother was unfaithful. And so that became a kind of feeling, ‘how did it affect my sister and me?’…it has kind of filtered through the films,” said Jon.

Sanders’ ideas may originate in his personal experiences, however, the emotional impact they cause is completely universal. Anna, who plays Monica, continued by saying:

“Having to deal with life when your parents die is like a very powerful image.”

But how do you adapt raw feelings for the screen? Anna explained that you simply have to find the drama in the mundane:

“Happy marriages are not that interesting. They’re happy, or they are interesting… What is fascinating dramatically is a marriage where a couple are tied together, but they’re not happy. So you’ve got that constant tension, of trying to communicate with each other and failing and all those things, which are perfect, perfect field for improvisations.”

(L-R) Anna Mottram, Jon Sanders and Bob Goody promoting their film Back to the Garden at Borderlines Film Festival. Image Credit: Christopher Preece

On Improvisation

Improvisation is a hallmark of Sanders’ and Mottram’s style. It can make even the most dramatic scenes feel authentic, highlighting the daily tensions in everyday life.

Production for A Clever Woman began with no scripts, just ideas of where certain scenes would lead.

Obviously, this isn’t a new technique, we see it in comedies and tragedies all the time. However, for Anna and Jon this methodology was born out of practicality, Jon explained:

“It takes time is set up a camera. So, we devised a method whereby there would be very few setups and you could do one scene in one take.”

Using improvisation on screen is often labelled as something only professionals should attempt. Yet Anna argued it was child’s play:

“Children do it all the time, they improvise and say, ‘All right, you’re the Daddy, you’re the Mum, and you’re the little boy,” and they go off, they don’t even think about it.

“So, it’s a natural thing. It’s a natural way of playing with ideas. And, I just knew instinctively that actors, if you gave them the chance, could do this really well.”

(L-R) Tanya Myers and Josie Lawrence in A Clever Woman. Image Credit: Jon Sanders Films

Undoubtedly, sound instinct is a large part of what Anna and Jon do. They work with low budgets, small sets and no scripts. They don’t have time to make mistakes, so they have to rely on faith.

However, Jon said that most of the time, doubt doesn’t even come into the equation:

“First of all, Anna has done it many times. Tanya has done it many times. But when you’ve got Josie Lawrence saying ‘I want to be in your film. I can do improvisation’. You say yeah, I believe you.”

A lot of this faith may come down to Lawrence’s time in the Comedy Store Players improvisational troupe, or from her time on the television series Whose Line Is It Anyway? But Jon’s confidence extends to his entire cast.

“It’s not even trust, you don’t even think twice. When James [Northcote] or Josie did the first scene, I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, thank God for that,’ you just knew it would work.”

The Premiere

After the world premiere of A Clever Woman in Edinburgh, the creative duo showed no sign of nerves, Jon calmly said:

“We made it some time ago; we’ve been sitting on it for a while. So it’s like repressed emotion.”

Anna agreed, saying: “It was lovely seeing on the big screen with an audience out and feeling it work. Yeah. That’s what it’s about.”

Anybody that sits down with Anna and Jon can see the passion they put into their work.  They are the type of people that go into projects purely for the love of creating.

Finally, Sanders finished by saying: “We make films without permission, We do what we bloody well want. And that’s what we want to do.”

A Clever Woman premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Learn more about the film here.

Featured Image Credit: Jon Sanders Films

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Film and Tv Editor at Brig Newspaper. Currently studying Journalism and English at the University of Stirling

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