Made with support from The Stroke Assocation, Cotton Wool tells the story of a teenager and her seven-year-old brother, who must rapidly adapt to the role of young carers when their mother suffers a devastating stroke. 

Ahead of its screening as part of our Youth Perspective programme, we spoke to the film’s 18-year-old writer-director Nicholas Connor, about why he is drawing attention to this important issue and how he approaches working as a young filmmaker. 

What inspired you to tell this story?

My grandmother suffered a stroke when my mother was 10. Sadly, she passed away shortly after, but I was interested in what would have happened if she’d have survived, leaving her children to care for her. There are over 243,000 child carers under the age of 19 in England & Wales, 22,000 of those under the age of 9. It’s a side of society that is really unseen in film, so I knew that I had to draw attention to this topic.

What led to the Stroke Association getting involved with the film and how did their support shape the end result?

The Stroke Association came in very early in the process to help me find and then meet up with stroke survivors and hear their experiences. These meetings shaped to an extent the authenticity of the film. I already knew where I wanted the narrative to go but I needed to make sure I was keeping true to the stroke community. The Stroke Association are very busy people dealing with far more important matters than a film so couldn’t get involved to the extent that they were checking scripts, cuts etc, but were incredibly helpful in getting us the support we needed.

How did you approach working with the young actor Max Vento (The A Word), as well as experienced stars like Leanne Best (Cold Feet) and Crissy Rock (Ladybird, Ladybird)?

When working with Max it was making sure he understood everything in a clear and concise way, while keeping things spontaneous and fresh, so it didn’t feel like a planned performance. I’d let him try things and just be a kid in a way, letting him experience the film like his character was important to making it real. Sometimes he’d get very into it, a little Daniel Day Lewis in the making!

Ironically, Leanne didn’t take a method approach; as soon as the camera rolled, she was straight into character and in that emotional state. However, we didn’t feel the need for her to stay in character for the whole shoot. Leanne and I worked well together, we really understand each other, and it really was a collaboration making her character [Rachel] work. Her character says so little, so it’s all micro expressions, a lot of ‘face acting’ and physicality. I would give her lots of room and scope to try things. We had no rehearsal time, so it was all in the moment, which I preferred in this circumstance – the last thing we wanted was something that felt, as I said before, over-planned.

We had a great cast overall and I made a conscious decision that everyone – whether that be Crissy (Rock), Kate (Rutter) or Max – had to act in the moment because the characters in real life would have had very little time to adjust to their new circumstances post-stroke. Making the cast have a similar experience on set was key to the feel of the film.

You are still only 18 and have completed several films as a writer and director. What advice would you give to other young filmmakers starting out in their careers?

My advice would be to make work that reflects you and tells stories you that you feel strongly about. Don’t be afraid of passion. I often worry I have too much, but I don’t think there is such a thing as too much! I suppose we are in an industry where you only truly succeed if you have a huge passion and drive to tell stories that mean something to you.

I’d say to filter advice and feedback you are given by people: don’t listen to everyone – don’t necessarily listen to me – and pave your own way. I’ve been given so much bad advice – and listened/acted on it – and found it to be untrue/unhelpful. You’ll hear lots of things from many different people that often contradict, as everyone comes from different places, positions, experiences. So, as I say, filter.

If you’re young you’ll almost definitely get a lot of people patronising you (even if you have more experience or expertise) but stay happy and treat everyone with kindness and you’ll find your own way. If you end up failing, learn from the experience, as I think failing can lead to the best way to succeed – so fail a lot! I do! 

Lastly, represent the voices of people who haven’t had the chance to speak, whether that’s telling the story through film about a person with a disability, an unrepresented ethnic background, an unexplored area of mental health, maybe even age (where stories are often told the same way about the same demographic, show a different angle). Tell a story that is personal to you because it has touched you. It makes you unique and means you’re telling stories that have never been told before and from your own unique perspective – which is exciting.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve just directed a film at the NFTS (National Film & Television School) called The Narrator and we’ve just premiered at the BFI Southbank to a great response from the industry. It’s very different from my other work and is the first time I’ve worked with someone else’s script, so that was a whole new challenge. I’m excited to see what people think of it. At the moment I’m writing and I’ve got a brand new concept that I really want to get off the ground. But we’ll see…

Cotton Wool is screening in our Youth Perspective programme at CCA, Glasgow on Fri 11 May from 3.30-5pm. Nicholas Connor will join us for a post-screening discussion alongside other filmmakers featured in the programme. 

Youth Perspective is co-presented with Into Film Scotland as part of our Year of Young People 2018 programme.