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Francesca Brill: A Woman’s Journey with Grief

Francesca Brill is the creator behind the psychological thriller The Drowning, which has a strong female lead who deals with the grief of losing her son. The mini-series starts out with a chance sighting of a young teenager, which convinces the mother that her four-year-old son she lost in a tragic accident is not dead after all. Nine years have passed but the teenager resembles her son Tom very much and a scar in the right spot proves to her that this is indeed him. She now embarks on a pursuit to convince everyone else – her ex-husband and the authorities – that this is her long-lost son, but they all think she has lost it. The series, which takes place in Dublin, Ireland, is about how grief affects the people who are left behind after a tragedy and especially how a grieving mother is treated as delusional when she appears to not be acting rationally. We spoke to Francesca Brill from her home in London about her own personal experience as a mother and the worst fear ever that inspired this series. 


You created The Drowning with Luke Watson. How did you get the idea for this psychological thriller series?

Honestly, it came from something dramatic that happened to me but luckily not as dramatically as in the series. I lost sight of my very small daughter in the supermarket and I probably lost sight of her for about a minute, but that minute could have lasted ten years as far as the panic it induced, and it really made me think hard about what if I hadn’t found her around the corner in the other aisle? Even worse: What if I had never found her. It was such a terrifying moment, basically, my worst fear, and that was the genesis of the idea: A story about a woman in a limbo of grief. As the story developed, we also wanted to look at the aftermath of loss rather than just the drama of the moment and it became a kind of ghost story. The mother, Jodie, needs so badly to exorcise her grief, and guilt and shame that she basically manifests her son.

A young boy goes missing in a lake in what seems a drowning accident. But his mother Jodie (Jill Halfpenny) has not let go and nine years later she is still looking for him. It poses the question: How far will someone go to find a missing child?

Exactly. Essentially, you would do anything. And that’s fertile territory for a story. Once you have a character who is capable of doing anything to get to the truth, you have a character who has a very potent story to tell. And a relatively unusual one because historically it’s vengeful male characters who go on this kind of journey and not female ones.

This one event seems to spiral her life out of control. She becomes a different person, and no one can tell her what to do. What happens to her psychologically?

Despair drives her into a place where finding out what happened to her son is going to make the difference between sanity and insanity and life and death for her. Following a character in extremis is always compelling, especially if her behavior is unpredictable. In this instance, it leads her to a totally unexpected answer.

It is about how anguish can distort the way ones mind works. But it is mainly the mother and not the father who is affected this way. Do you think mothers are a different breed from fathers so to speak?

I would not want to generalize quite that much. Luckily for us as storytellers, human beings are a constantly surprising maelstrom of emotions and reactions, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, or cultural background. In this story, it happens to be the father who has a contrasting response to the mother and tries to rebuild his life by turning his back on the past and creating a new family. The point was not a male/female one, the point was just to explore two opposing responses to the same trauma. And as you say, all the characters’ actions have been distorted by their anguish.

Is grief something that fascinates you and does the psychology behind it make for good storytelling?

Yes, that is a great question because strong emotions are a prerequisite for stories. Grief is a potent motivation partly because we can all relate to it and also because it uproots you, flings you off balance and throws you into an unfamiliar landscape where anything can happen. I’m equally interested in all the other strong, unsettling emotions: guilt, shame, anger, fear, love. Drama requires heightened emotions, but it is also a mirror. If we can understand and relate to how a character behaves in a certain situation perhaps, we can become less judgmental and a little more empathetic in our real lives. I’m obsessed with the balancing act we all perform between our inner and outer lives. It’s on that high wire that both tragedy and comedy play out. 

Will there be a second season of The Drowning?

We’re all completely thrilled by the great audience response the show has had so maybe we should quit while we’re ahead!

You are not only a writer but a director and author too. Talk about getting into the business and the challenges. Is it harder for women you think?

I originally trained as an actor and after a few years of acting on stage and film, I realized I had fallen in love with making stories rather than just being in them. I went to film school and was commissioned pretty much straight after, so that’s been my personal journey, gradually digging deeper into various aspects of filmmaking. The question of whether it’s harder for women is very tricky to answer because this is a tough industry no matter who you are. There are so many variables, but some industry roles are still shamefully biased towards men. The statistics speak for themselves and they make it clear it’s not just harder for women but also for anyone who isn’t a White male. As I said, drama is a mirror of our culture and we have been living in a world that historically gave power to White men but there is a massive shift going on and I think it is incredible how things are changing. I’m proud to be part of the regime change and I’m full of optimism.  

Do you think women write in a different voice from men?

I think the narrative voice is more complex than just gender. There are so many nuanced and individual sensitivities and experiences that inform our work, though I am a female in this world so there must be elements of that identity somewhere in my voice. Actually, I always think about Dustin Hoffman’s character in Tootsie, where he says “I can be anything,’ because I’m greedy to imagine the experience of as many different lives as possible, walk in as many different shoes as possible male, female, old, young. That said I do really love creating complex female characters, fully rounded, flawed, brave characters like the women I know in real life.

The Drowning is very much a womans story. Do you prefer telling womens stories?

I wouldn’t necessarily put it like that, but I do think there’s an urgent need for the stories of women’s experiences to be brought into the light, out of the shadows where they have languished until recently. Telling female stories is a way to publicly validate our experiences. As the Geena Davis mantra says, if she can see it, she can be it.

What is next for you?

I can’t talk about it in detail yet, but I am very excited about my next project. It’s the TV adaptation of a best-selling novel, a thriller. I have so many ideas and projects that I just want enough time to see them through. It is exciting times.