Kate Youde visits the set to see the making of Calling Home – a new short film about homelessness, made possible by the backers of Inside Housing’s Reel Homes competition. Photography by Simon Brandon
Dorota closes the bedroom door of her Whitechapel flat behind her boyfriend Mark and takes off her blue silk dressing gown to put on a jumper over her bra. In lifting her arm, she reveals some angry bruises on her ribs. It is a distressing scene.
Thankfully, however, it is just that – a scene. Dorota is a character, played by actor Natalia Kostrzewa, and her bruises were created minutes earlier by make-up artist Hannah Hubbard with a small cube of sponge and alcohol-activated paint.
Inside Housing is on set to watch the first of five days of filming for a new short written and directed by Megan K Fox.
The shoot is being funded by Reel Homes, Inside Housing’s competition to produce a Cathy Come Home for the 21st century to tie in with the 50th anniversary of Ken Loach’s seminal film about homelessness, which was backed by several housing associations, including the Homes for Cathy group.
In May, Ms Fox won the competition – designed to engage up-and-coming film-makers with homelessness and the housing crisis – with her three-minute short Girl about a young homeless woman.
Now, she is using the £15,000 funding provided by Reel Homes’ housing association backers to expand the story in a longer film about a Polish woman who wants to study fashion design and becomes homeless after leaving her abusive partner.
The film was screened for the first time this week at a London event, sponsored by United Living.
“When I heard about the competition – and I’d already made Girl – I thought there could be more of a background behind this character because there’s a story behind every homeless character,” says Ms Fox, 25, who completed a masters in film directing at the Met Film School in west London.
The new 20-minute film, Calling Home, is her sixth short but with the biggest budget yet. It is the first time she has had “a bit of budget” – in part spent on 18 crew members and five actors. Professionally, she hopes the finished short will drive support to allow her to make her first feature film. But she also has a personal goal to show that anyone can find themselves in Dorota’s predicament.
"I wanted to show how someone who you would think is an average person just like you can fall into a set of circumstances that brings them to the point of being homeless,” says Ms Fox, who lives in London but is originally from Dublin.
While there is a tendency for films about homelessness “to look at things from the outside in”, she wants her film to be from the character’s personal perspective. The reaction to the script suggests she made the correct call. “Everyone has said they thought it was very powerful. There were some people who were particularly moved by it,” she says.
“I think it’s really interesting she doesn’t tell her mother and she doesn’t reach out for help because she’s trying to protect her mum and doesn’t want to distress her.”
“One of our cast members was previously homeless so she was quite touched by the script and really wanted to be involved for that reason.”
We are chatting during a break from filming in the flat above the one being used for the shoot. Both live-work units – on the top two storeys of a private block of flats converted from a factory in the shadow of Royal London Hospital – are owned by film director and designer Blair Barnette, who rents them out for shoots.
Calling Home’s main character, Dorota, played by Natalia Kostrzewa
One end of a long white table is covered with trays of food for the cast and crew; the other has a spread of bottles (from ‘blood’ to water), make-up palettes and pots of make-up brushes with different coloured bristles. A high black chair sits in front of a full-length mirror, and it is here where Ms Hubbard will later apply bruises to Ms Kostrzewa’s side and arm.
Ms Kostrzewa, 32, who appears in zombie horror film The Cured with Oscar-nominated Juno actor Ellen Page, was the lead in Girl and is now playing Dorota in Calling Home.
“I like how [Megan] shows that it’s so easy to become dependant on somebody without realising it,” says the actor, who is Polish but has lived in Ireland for 16 years, of the new script. “And it could actually happen to anybody, and anybody could suddenly become homeless,” she says. “When we see homeless people we don’t really associate ourselves with them, which is naive.”
Attendees at the screening of Calling Home at the Mondrian Hotel in London
In her portrayal, Ms Kostrzewa is focusing on Dorota’s relationships. “I think it’s really interesting she doesn’t tell her mother and she doesn’t reach out for help because she’s trying to protect her mum and doesn’t want to distress her,” says Ms Kostrzewa, who has just filmed a scene in which Dorota calls her mum in Poland from the balcony of the flat, London’s recognisable Gherkin office block visible above the treetops. “I think that could happen to a lot of people.”
The storyline got many of the crew thinking. “When Megan sent me the script I was drawn by the issues it was talking about,” says set designer Beatrice Caltabiano, 26, who admires the director’s “delicate” approach.
Ms Caltabiano is responsible for dressing the sets. It is not always glamorous work. In the final scene before the crew breaks for lunch, in which an irresponsible owner fails to pick up after his dog when it fouls in the graffitied alleyway below Dorota’s balcony, she has to repeatedly place fake faeces under the dog’s bottom.
The attention to detail extends to what the (human) characters are wearing. After speaking to Ms Fox about the script and characters, costume designer Filipa Fabrica created a mood board with ideas for Dorota’s style and colour palette before searching through charity and vintage shops for the right clothes. “The most important thing was that [Dorota] wants to apply to a fashion course so obviously she has a notion of style,” says Ms Fabrica, 33, who is ready to tackle any wardrobe malfunction thanks to a black bum bag packed with everything from a sewing kit and a lint roller to safety pins and double-sided tape.
“One of our cast was previously homeless so she was quite touched by the script.”
Inspired by a flashback in the film, in which her mum makes Dorota a dress similar to that worn by Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, Ms Fabrica settled on a blue palette; her boyfriend’s wardrobe features mainly black and white clothes “to show the duality of his personality” – he is both caring and violent. When Dorota becomes homeless, her clothes become dirty and worn out and she layers to keep warm.
“For me, the most interesting thing with this story is to understand how easy it is for someone to find themselves in that situation because something really big happened in their life [like] they lost their family or they lost their house,” says Ms Fabrica.
Q&A after the screening featuring Megan K Fox (with mic)
“She came from a different country so it’s not easy for her to have access to a bank account without having an address. This story is amazing because there’s a lot of issues it tackles: you are an immigrant, you have violence in the relationship and the homelessness.”
Some of the script sounded familiar to sound mixer David Harcombe, from the experiences of his wife Jadwiga, a Polish TV producer and director. “Just the difficulty of being somebody who has come to try and make a life in a different country and you can find yourself in a terrible fait accompli,” he says. “It resonated with the kind of thing she had experienced.”
Calling Home actor Natalia Kostrzewa (left), with director Megan K Fox
Mr Harcombe, 49, believes it is important to “push female voices” in the male-dominated film industry; Ms Fox agrees and aimed to achieve gender parity both behind and in front of the camera.
“I have been working in Women in Film & Television UK for the past six months so it’s something I am very concerned about,” says Ms Fox, who quit her job in the membership body’s events team three weeks before the shoot to focus on film-making full time.
That is her dream. Her character Dorota has another dream – to be a fashion designer. “I think it’s important for this character, and any character, to have clear goals and ambitions,” says Ms Fox.
“It allows us to create a more three-dimensional character than many homeless characters we are used to seeing on screen and helps the audience to identify with Dorota.” Many people, it seems, already have.
In November 2016, Inside Housing launched a competition with the bold aim of helping to produce a Cathy Come Home for the 21st century.
Designed to tie in with the 50th anniversary of Ken Loach’s seminal film about homelessness – as part of Inside Housing’s wider Cathy at 50 campaign – the competition’s central goal was to reach outside the sector and engage up-and-coming film-makers with homelessness and the housing crisis.
The competition was won by Megan K Fox, for her film Girl about a young homeless woman.
Watch the film below:
Ms Fox won the £15,000 prize and expanded the story in Girl into a longer film called Calling Home.