The Interview: “Winter” Director Heidi Greensmith

Winter film premiere at NYCIFF. (Picture Courtesy of Heidi Greensmith)
Winter film premiere at NYCIFF. (Picture Courtesy of Heidi Greensmith)

Closing out the New York City International Film Festival was the amazing premiere of the film Winter starring Tommy Flanagan, Tom Payne, Judith Godrèche, Jessica Hynes, Bill Milner and Kate Magowan.  The film was written and directed by Heidi Greensmith.

The film picked up four awards at NYCIFF, including Best Drama Film, Best International Director (Greensmith) and Best Actor in a Leading Role (Tommy Flanagan).

Heidi Greensmith was kind enough to do an exclusive interview for on her film “Winter.”

1. First, can you tell us a little about yourself?

I grew up the second youngest of seven children in the south east of England countryside. I have been making films since I was a teenager. I went to the London Film school and studied cinematography. My first job was as an undercover reporter at a documentary production company. I went on to make music videos and commercials at a London production company. I started writing when I had my first baby. I met my husband drummer Dominic Greensmith shooting a music video for the British rock band Reef. We have been together for 15 years and have 4 children. We live in the Somerset countryside.

2. “Winter” is your first feature film, and the writing is absolutely incredible. Can you tell us how you came up with the idea for this story, as well as the characters? Where did you take inspiration from?

Thank you. I was drawn to explore male grief as I believe men process grief in a different way to women. As they find it harder to talk about how they feel it can lead to feelings of depression and anger. I lost my mother when I was quite young and my father coped very badly which had a lasting affect on all us kids. I have three sons and I believe that this generation of boys should be taught and encouraged to be more open with their feelings. They need to learn that it is entirely acceptable to talk and feel and cry and I hope that Winter will help to shine a spotlight on this.

3. Diving into what was happening in the mind of Woods, can you explain how you were able to dive so deeply into a complete mental breakdown and then bring that character out of that darkness?

I have had personal experience to draw upon so I always knew that Woods would be a broken man that would break my heart. Woods comes out of the darkness with the love of his family and his passion for painting which I can relate to also as I think most artists can.

4. Throughout the movie, you break down a lot of stereotypes where people would easily place judgment on someone. For instance, at the beginning, Woods looks like just a regular homeless man. Yet, he’s not homeless. Then we start to believe that Tom is the child of an abusive, alcoholic father. Yet again, that’s not the real story. Then we start to believe that Woods is a neglectful, abusive parent that can’t take care of himself or his children. Yet, once again, that is not what the story is about. Was there a greater lesson you were trying to teach the viewer (as in, don’t judge a book by its cover)?

Yes I suppose so. Every addict, every homeless person they have all been broken in some way. They are trying to avoid life or numb the pain of their memories. People that find themselves in these unfortunate circumstances need help not judgement.

5. Tommy Flanagan did a phenomenal job as Woods. What made you decide that he was the right person to bring Woods to life?

Casting director Des Hamilton suggested Tommy for the role of Woods. I met with Tommy and within five minutes I knew he was Woods. Tommy had already decided he was playing Woods before we met so it was lucky I felt the same.

(Courtesy of Heidi Greensmith)
(Courtesy of Heidi Greensmith)

6. Flanagan’s scene that sticks out most is when he crouches on the stool in front of the canvas. The camera capturing the different expressions going through Woods’s mind was intriguing, frightening, and ultimately beautiful all at the same time. Can you take us through what you were looking for in that moment?

I think I was after that feeling you get as an artist when you are so involved in what you are doing that you step out of reality, like you are in dream. It can be quite scary. Sometimes when I read a script back I can’t remember writing some bits of it.

7. How did you decide which pieces of artwork would be used? What were the meanings behind the different paintings featured? Who was the artist(s) behind each of the paintings? What happened to the paintings afterward?

I went to a Paul Benney exhibition in London by pure chance. I was blown away because I had already written the script and described some of the paintings that I was looking at in that exhibition! I found Paul there and explained to him. He then read the script, called me up and told me he felt a strong affinity with Woods. So, he allowed me to use his Night Paintings exhibition. The art department got all the paintings replicated so that there was no chance of damaging the originals. You can find all the images on Paul’s website.

[Paul Benney’s Website]

8. Tom is the hero of this story. The sacrifices he made to help his father went far above and beyond anything anyone could ask (or not ask) of their child. His understanding of his father’s ‘genius waiting to be unleashed’ and the ‘broken heart’ is something most people would not understand if they were in his shoes, especially at that age. That is what makes his role in this movie so powerful…that love he has for his father. Tom’s story is multi-faceted. Can you describe your development of his character through the writing process? What were the elements you were focused on when you created his part of the story?

I have always found it incredibly heartbreaking, that moment when out of necessity a child becomes the adult in the relationship with his parent. Two of my favourite films are Paris Texas and Paper Moon because of the way the kids have to grow up so fast and develop a whole new relationship dynamic in being the responsible one. I originally wrote Tom and Max much younger but due to our very low budget we couldn’t afford chaperones and reduced working hours minors would require.

9. What are your favorite moments in the film? Do you have any favorite characters?

Obviously I love Woods. Tommy and I have become very good friends since we made the film and we talk about that character with such affection. Old Woodsie. But I love all the other characters too. My favourite scenes are the ice skating scene with Tom and Stacy because you feel so much for Tom right then, just wanting him finally to have a nice time, but at the same time knowing that his dad has gone awol again so it’s super charged, and I love the flashback of Woods walking to the park and finding his dead wife, because you finally get to see the exact moment that his heart broke. Both scenes have the most beautiful score by Dominic too.

10. Can you take us through the timeline of developing “Winter” from start to finish (i.e. how long it took to write the script, create the film, bring it to the screen)?

I wrote the film when I had just had my fourth child. I would write while I was breast feeding at night. It’s really hard making an independent film, working all hours for no money and at the same time trying to dodge the sharks and remain focused and true. We shot Winter all on location in 24 days, edited it in 9 weeks but then it all stopped and lost momentum when the post budget ran out. Thankfully Winter was selected to be the closing night gala film of NYCIFF so everything happened very quickly from then.

11. It is never easy being a working mom, but to be a working mom, wife, writer and a director working on making a dream come true, how were you able to balance everything in order to create Winter?

It’s amazing what I can fit into 24 hours. I have a lot of energy, mental and physical. My husband is always telling me to sit down but I find it impossible. I am so passionate about everything I do that I have to do it full time all the time. I know it can drive the people I work with mad. Sometimes I’ll be writing at midnight or recording music for the score with my husband at 3am. I left home at 16 and have had to work since then, even through film school I had two jobs. I hope I am helping to install a good work ethic in my kids. I think they probably think I’m crazy but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Official Winter poster.
Official Winter poster.

12. There are very few women directors in the industry. NYCIFF showcased several women directors during the festival, including yourself. Can you describe what adversity women are going through in this business? What adversity have you faced to bring your film into being?

I think things have just started to change but for a long time it was very difficult to be taken seriously as a female director and funnily enough I don’t think men were entirely to blame. The most important thing is that things have started to change and I hope that the broadcasters, studios and financiers continue to address the imbalance. The cinema has been dominated by the male voice for too long. I hope that Winter also proves that female writer/director’s can tackle any subject not just subjects relating to women.

13. This site is about people that are out there making their dreams come true. In your own words, can you tell us what bringing this incredible story to the screen means to you?

It means everything to me. All I have ever wanted professionally is to be able to tell a story that moves people. The incredible response the film has had so far is overwhelming, and we’ve only just started!

14. What is coming up in the film’s future? Is there a release date, yet? Is it traveling to any more festivals? Any talks of Oscar considerations? Are there any other projects you are working on that you would like to share?

Winter is at the start of it’s festival run. We are looking at a UK release in the autumn. My next film ‘Bloody Mary’ is in development right now and we have just started casting. It’s a totally different film, dark and very funny with two female protagonists. Very exciting.

If you get the opportunity to see “Winter,” it is a must see film.  It is a film that will move your soul.  You’ll walk out in complete amazement of Tommy Flanagan’s acting, and with a new perspective on life.  What Heidi has created here is something phenomenal.  This is the kind of film you will never forget, because of how you grew as a human being during those moments you spent absorbing the film.

You can read our review of Winter HERE.