Film Interview: Wendy Morgan – Mercy, Or Animal Farm(ing) Revisited

December 26, 2021

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The powerful docudrama Mercy is British actress Wendy Morgan‘s directorial debut. In the film, she unveils the truth behind the devastation caused by animal agriculture, told though the eyes of a pig named Mercy and those involved with and trapped in the factory farming industry. Morgan‘s international career spans 43 years, working alongside some of the most renowned names in the industry. Her film work includes the role of Mollie in John Schlesinger’s Yanks (Richard Gere) for which she received the Evening Standard Most Promising Newcomer Award; Mrs. Lowry and Son (Vanessa Redgrave); The Reverend and Mrs. Simpson (Julian Glover, Game of Thrones) ; 84 Charing X Road (Anthony Hopkins); Edie (Dame Sheila Hancock); The Mirror Crack’d (Elizabeth Taylor, Angela Landsbury, Tony Curtis); and Birth of the Beatles. The film stars Maria Austin (The Reverend and Mrs. Simpson) in the role of Mercy, as well as Mark Wingett (Quadrophenia, EastEnders), Annette Badland (Ted Lasso, Doctors, EastEnders), John Pickering, Catherine Shipton, and Morgan herself.


Was there a single moment when you first realised you wanted to make films or TV programmes – a specific movie or show in a particular context? What was it that caught your attention?

I always wanted to be an actor from a little girl and I used to watch Hollywood musicals with my mum and brothers on Saturday afternoons and would dance around the room. Then my brother, who became an architect, built me a stage in the back garden under the weeping willow tree and there was no stopping me. I remember going to the cinema all the time in my teens with my friends or alone. For the price of one ticket, you could go in the morning and stay all day and evening in the dark as the pictures ran. I remember going to see Cabaret with Liza Minnelli with my best friend Letitia, who is now a successful line producer, and we would watch show after show with a little break and eat little chocolates like Sally Bowles and smoke cocktail cigarettes! So film was magical to me…to be in as an actor. Mercy was the only time the desire to direct came to me – but I knew the subject, and perhaps that is why and it was my baby and I wanted to see it home.


Do you prefer doing as few takes as possible or as many as are necessary?

Both choices have their pros and cons. I think too many and you have too much to choose from. There seemed to be a zenith after take one or two – after that it wasn’t as totally magical and you were chasing something. Technical issues dictate matters, but performance – my actors were wonderful and pretty much had it in one. Move on! I don’t like to call “cut” – there is magic that happens after the scene. I used a lot of that in the film; totally off-guard moments. Beautiful.


Getting (in conjunction with your team) the exact look or feel you want onscreen: what are the most helpful outside factors for you in this process (from location to make-up or costumes to framing or editing)?

I only have this film as reference. It was all in my head. Which was just as well, as I had no budget for set designer – that was me! I saw it all. I knew it all so well. It was so vivid, so I found the perfect location, a farm that is now arable but had lots of barns and spaces that were worryingly like something more ominous at certain angles. Once I had the location, we were pretty much all set, and just had to get the most basic props, hire some fencing, and then it was about the dark of the gloom of a barn and the shadows, so atmospheric. Then there were the actors and the camera and minimal light set-up, with just occasionally, some clever effects or camera exposure. I knew what I wanted and I just had to explain it ahead of time, or draw it in storyboard and it was done. We tweaked it until it was right. The costumes, I decided, were best to be as simple as possible. At one point, we discussed bodysuits or even nudity, but I decided against those two options as I just wanted it all to look as normal as possible. I thought of framing; how are we seeing this; from what point of view… That was a fun discovery as a team – to find the place. I had firm ideas that we played with on the day, dependent on light. We used natural light and minimal light. Our lighting person Rod Compton was fabulous, being a nature photographer, and our DOP Gemma Ashford so patient and easy to work with. I loved my days with them. When we did general shots on a day near the end of the shoot with no actors, it was beautiful and magical. Waiting for wind on aprons hanging up in the barn for example – beautiful.  The most useful thing, I guess, was to visualise it all and then to communicate that clearly. Our SFX Richard Harwood did wonders with blood!


While everyone is looking to you for guidance, how aware are you of needing to limit what you say or do in order to let the combination of everything in the frame (the location, the lighting, the costumes, your cast) be as effective as possible?

It is a subtle art. I am an actor by trade, but I have been lucky enough to work with such brilliant directors that I felt a little more aware of the exquisite subtleties of working with actors at their most vulnerable and fierce moments. The wrong word or look can dampen, but the right atmosphere or gesture can set an actor free. Casting is all. Then just be there to help them when they fly too close to the sun. To know when to be silent is paramount; to know when to look away. It is important to totally respect and adore the people who are working for you – in that atmosphere they thrive.


The pandemic has created enormous challenges at every level in the film and television industries, but there is still fantastic work being created. What, or who, are the brightest lights in terms of work you have done recently or films or shows you are watching at the moment?

Rob and Sarah Miles set up The Show Must Go Online during lockdown – you can find the whole Shakespeare canon and some other goodies on their YouTube channel. Living alone and being an actor during a lockdown, to have your shows to put on every month or so was a glorious silver lining. I hope they can flourish with the recognition they deserve for their originality. Jenny Hall and her Shakespeare online was beautiful. Rebecca Hall and Passing. Fantastic. I am a sucker for Netflix. I adore their content. There have been some brilliant works done, all over too numerous to mention. I have just finished watching Maid, for example. Grace and Frankie did a few more episodes of a season. The BBC have been brilliant. I mean the brilliance everywhere there seems more content than ever! Which bodes well. I’m available for work – ha ha!


As a director – not just as a fan – what makes you excited about the above?

I have to add as an actor too for that is what I am – the director took me over for Mercy but I still play a part in the film. I don’t know if I will direct anything else, but this was right for me to direct. But I am excited about all the content being made because it just gets better and better. The stories being told, the artists being hired, the projects being made. Actors have to act, writers have to write, Directors have to direct – that there is now more movement it is glorious! It’s exciting, so precious – it is as if we value it even more and as artists we always value the work. Always.


Please unpack your current project? How did you get involved and what is most satisfying about it?

Mercy is like a fledgling bird trying to take flight, and then once it is able to fly on it’s own, my energy will be released. Next, I’m looking forward to being with my director friend and actor colleague for a project that we are wanting to do which is still being finalised, so that will be great. It is exciting – this is all a new venture for me. Acting is still my main love. Mercy has been a unique and daredevil ride through the rapids of the unknown, spurred on by the desperate need for the planet to find a better way. I became involved through my heart. What is satisfying is even before my head knew the way, my heart led me and now I know, my head knows, that my heart was right all along. Trust yourself.

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