The prolific actress and filmmaker dishes her impressive collection of film and non-profit projects, and the real-life experiences that inspire her work.
April Kelley is a widely-talented actress and producer whose wide-ranging efforts in the industry make her one of the filmmakers and businesspeople to watch in the coming years. A graduate of Arts Ed & the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts (ALRA), April’s first passion is acting, but she’s balanced it with an impressive slate of projects in producing and non-profit efforts.
With business partner Sara Huxley, she’s led production company Mini Productions through a diverse slate of short films, some of which include James Webber’s Soror, Michael Beddoes’ Flotsam, and, most recently, their final short project, Christian Cooke’s Edith, co-produced by Mint Pictures. Alongside those, Mini has also produced for theatre, and they’re now set to embark on a variety of ambitious projects for both TV and the big screen.
Alongside their production company, April and Sara are also the founders of Acting on a Dream, a non-profit organization that raises money for their charity partner, Dreams Come True, through a variety of projects that bring attention to the dreams – both big and small – of people around the world. In June 2016, they’ll travel from London to Budapest as part of the Reel Film Challenge, documenting the continent’s dreams as they raise awareness for their organization.
With the lead role and producing job on a concept TV series, Annie Waits, in the cards for her, and exciting things in the forecast for Acting on a Dream, I was excited to find out more about all of April’s work.
When and why did you found Mini Productions?
It was when I was 21, and I was in my second year of drama school, and we were doing a syllabus on what we will do when we’re not acting that isn’t soul-destroying, and I thought d’you know what? I know that I’m gonna be out of work as an actor, cause that’s the nature of the career, but I’d rather have something within the industry to support my acting career, and I spoke to a fair few people in the industry, and started the company a couple of weeks after the syllabus, and went from there.
And how has the company grown since then?
It’s grown significantly, so I now have a business partner, Sara [Huxley], cause it got to the point where, at the end of drama school, the projects were getting bigger and bigger, and I just couldn’t do it by myself anymore. And our skills compliment one another massively so.
When I started I knew that I wanted to produce several different short films, and we’ve actually just shot our final short film [Edith] before moving on to features and TV. We created a slate of short films to hit a bunch of festival circuits so the Mini Production name and brand was doing different festival circuits around the world, and now that we’ve come to the end of that, we’ve spent the latter part of last year developing our feature and TV slate knowing that we’d have this final short coming, and the plan is to let these final shorts hit the festival circuit while we go on with features.
What can you tell me about “Edith”?
Ambitious Edith. It’s in association with Mint Pictures, and that’s Fiona Neilson and Mat Whitecross; Fiona’s behind things like Spike Island and Hello Carter, she’s wonderful, she’s a powerhouse in the industry, and it’s Christian Cooke’s directorial debut. Christian is a cracking actor who’s making waves out in America with The Art of More, with Dennis Quaid and Kate Bosworth.
Edith is about an elderly man struggling with grief, and that man, Jake, is played by Peter Mullan, and he comes across a woman, Sheila, played by Michelle Fairley, who wants to help him in one way or another. The story takes you on a journey of this man dealing with his grief, which isn’t really recent grief, it’s grief that’s just…when you’re at that age where you’ve been with someone for so long, especially a man losing their wife, they kind of just disintegrate, cause the woman tends to do most things for them [laughs].
So it’s a drama and it’s written by Ray Robinson, who’s a novelist, and it’s his first screenplay, and his novel Electricity was adapted into a feature film last year, which starred Angus Dean and Christian – that’s how Christian got to know the writer. But we’re in post now, and we’ve got a screening at the start of April, and then fingers crossed for festivals.
And what are the next steps for the company?
So we’ve got [tv series] Annie Waits. When we say [Edith]’s the last short we’ll produced, it’s in terms of shorts we’re not in. So if there’s a short film which A. we can be in and B. is a tool in order for it to be developed into a feature or TV, then of course we’ll be open to it; again, you could do short films till the end of time, but you’re not gonna make any money out of them, so you have to bookend it at some point.
But Annie Waits, we’re creating this teaser. It’s under ten minutes, it’s really punchy, it gives you an introduction to this character, and it’s been pitched as a UK version of Girls, with a nod towards New Girl and Love, that type of humor. I’d been developing it with the writer, Chris Anastasi for a good few months, and in the recent weeks we’ve secured a wonderful director called Marnie Paxton, who’s an incredible script supervisor, and I think script supervisors are the unsung heroes, to be honest, because they are somewhere in between directing and writing all the time, and are that alternative eye to a director who’s so focused on their vision that they probably can’t see the wood for the trees, so the skill which Marnie has is so accurate yet broad I can’t wait to work with her.
The character before I really knew it is somewhat based on me, which I’m gonna take as a compliment.
You could do short films till the end of time, but you’re not gonna make any money out of them.”
And you’ll be playing the character as well?
Yeah. What happened was is Chris, he is a brilliant, charming writer, and he sent this script, which is one monologue, and it plays over this whole montage of this twenty-something girl living in London, trying to get her head around relationships, and he approached me for it.
8That was at the backend of last year, and we’re now shooting this teaser at the start of April, and are packaging it for TV already; it’s brilliant cause it speaks to women and men. I’ve had guys read it and have gone “I’m the male version of Annie.”
So what elements of the character are similar to you?
She’s not from London, she’s moved to London for work, she’s trying to make it as a photographer, in the big city, and she’s fiercely independent, not in an isolating way, but she’s career-driven, she’s just come out of education and she’s like, “right, shit me, this is life, o.k., I’ve gotta work this out,” and yeah, she’s normal, she’s not like the one that’s the most pretty that can get in the room and then bish-bash-bosh, her life is made, like you can do in London on some occasions.
She’s trying to network her way, and finds herself in the most ridiculous situations, and I think as creatives it doesn’t matter what creative avenue you’ve gone into, you can find yourself in ridiculous situations. And she just finds herself in the most ridiculous scenarios, which are all based on true stories from women we’ve spoken to, and that’s what we’re trying to draw upon.
And what can you tell me about the features that you’re working on?
So we’re working on a couple of features at the moment. One is a psychological thriller, with a brilliant writer and director, Rob Savage, called 1000th Subscriber, that is hopefully gonna be shooting early next year. It’s brilliant, it centers around the power of social media, and how manipulative it can be, and Rob’s incredible; he made his first feature when he was 17.
The other feature film has again been something that I’ve been developing for about three years. It’s based on my grandparents. The story is that my granddad was a German soldier, and before he got enlisted to the war he was training to be an Olympic rower for the German Olympics team, where he met Hitler, who came down for a training session. And then he got enlisted, as they all did in the end.
He hated it; he was an awful soldier, he jumped out of the plane the first time and got captured by the Americans, straight away. He didn’t have a chance in hell. He got captured by the Americans and brought over to a prisoner of war camp in the UK, and whilst all that was going on, my nan at the time was working for Warner Bros., and in order for her to get there everyday, she’d have to pass the prisoner of war camp. They met between the fences and started sending notes, sending love letters to one another. They fell in love after that and got married.
Wow – like you were saying, can’t believe something unless it’s true. You couldn’t make that up.
Exactly, I couldn’t believe it when my nan was telling me, I was like “this, this is a film, please,” so we’ve been developing that.
You also run a non-profit, Acting on a Dream. What’s the idea behind that organization?
Acting on a Dream stated a year after Mini Productions started, in my final year of drama school. It started because, when I was a child I was very poorly, and there was a stage when I was in and out of hospital, and they weren’t sure if I was gonna ever recover to become healthy enough to achieve my dream of going to drama school. Fortunately, they found the right medication and I was on that up until the start of last year.
In the back end of my second year [of drama school] I decided I really wanted to do something to give back, and I discovered the Dreams Come True charity, who make the dreams of terminally and seriously-ill children come true, and I wanted to raise some money for them. I created a charity ball, and whilst we were creating that, in the middle of the night I called a friend at 3AM, and I was like “what if we got people to share their dream in a cloud, and then we start just posting it on social media, and see what kind of reaction we get.”
So we started doing that in April, and by the time we did the ball in October, we had dreams coming in from all over the world, like Afghanistan, Morocco, Egypt. America’s our biggest fan. it was mental. And the crux of it is, we’ve created this cloud, and we encourage people to just take a moment and think “what the hell gets me up in the morning, why am I rushing about so much?” because, in true Annie Waits style, you’re getting up, you’re living in London, everything’s going past you, you’re so tunnel-vision in everything you want to do, and you think “I need to do this, but why am I doing all this?” And you just take a moment, write it down, it can be as small as “to live by the seaside” and it can be as big as “to win an Oscar,” anything goes.
We encourage people to just take a moment and think ‘what the hell gets me up in the morning, why am I rushing about so much?'”
And off the back of that, middle of last year, we realized that we had something which audiences were engaging with. We’re in a time where even the Huffington Post came out and admitted that it’s the media’s job to not just deliver the bad news, but the good news too, and we thought we’ve got something here, and we’ve got the business structure to actually develop this into a non-profit organization.
So we’re re-launching this year with an online hub; we’re gonna have articles from anyone and everyone around the world sharing their experiences, sharing their dreams, encouraging people, motivating people. And this dream cloud, it’s still travelling, and we’re very fortunate that Channel 4 and 4Talent have picked up on what we’re doing, we go to their events and talk there and we gather dream clouds with them as well.
We’re off to Budapest in June – Mini Productions and Acting on a Dream have been invited to be on a panel of a film festival, the Reel Film Challenge, and as part of it they’ve agreed that we can travel from London to Budapest by car, and document European dreamers, so we’ll ask people all around Europe what their dream is.
What have you learned about yourself through all the work you’ve done?
I let “no” fuel me – I love hearing “no.” If someone tells me “no,” I’m like “I’m gonna do it now!” So I’ve learnt that “no” has to fuel you. I’ve learnt that everything happens for a reason, like ridiculously so. From the smallest things that I now look back six months ago and am like “ah, that happened so that now I can do this exact thing.” I’ve also learnt that you just have work hard, like harder than you ever think, and if you’re gonna be a creative, and you’re gonna be a business owner in the creative industry, there’s no formula to get it right, because the creative industry makes up its own rules on a day-to-day basis.
You just have to trust your skills and trust your gut. I know that sounds so cliche, and I hate to say it, but for what I lack in numeracy and grammar skills, I make up for in gut instincts, and that’s probably what I’ve learned. And also, if someone tells you that you’re doing too much, or that you need to find a focus, especially when you’re in the creative industry, absorb that, take it into account, think about what you’re doing, and so long as you don’t hesitate for that long, throw it away.
I let “no” fuel me – I love hearing ‘no.'”
What would your dream be?
I’ve never answered that question, I’ve always avoided it, I’ve always been like “no, what’s your dream?”