Remembering Julia

Julia Damassa
   Back in 2012, when local VFX artist Carl Cropley - one of the kindest men you could've met - was taken from us too soon, I had to share a few words. It was a gut-wrenching process, but there were two thoughts going round my head which made the process a little easier: firstly, how lucky we were to have known him, and secondly, that I probably wouldn't have to write a similar post for a long time.

   The first thought is still true. None of us have forgotten Carl, and we are still so happy to have had him in our lives. But the second thought was naive of me; not everyone gets to live a long life, even those who are the most deserving of one. This time last year, the local filmmaking community was feeling the loss of BBC Radio Derby presenter Andy Potter - a man who had supported and promoted all of our careers, even when we were just starting out. He was taken suddenly, too soon, and it left us all in a state of shock. All I could think to do was thank him in my Rising Star Award speech at Beeston Film Festival, a few days later; it wasn't enough, it never would be, but I still hope he would've appreciated the gesture.

  And now, we have lost another friend.

  For those of you who weren't lucky enough to know Julia Damassa, here's an introduction. Julia briefly received some media attention after winning a pitch on the television show Dragon's Den - an experience she remained very humble about, when I asked her. With her pitch, as with much of her life's work, she wanted to bring storytelling to children in new ways - and to use storytelling therapeutically. She had been a teacher, but she called herself 'Storyshaper' - a title that described Julia to a tea.

  Outside of her educational career, Julia found a new way to tell stories; she turned to acting. Along the way, she became extremely popular, as a person and a performer, in Nottinghamshire drama groups - including The Actors Workshop, who helped her get a role in Spool's commercial for SEAT Pentagon. It was also through her Nottingham connections that she became involved with Superfreak Media, a horror production company run by my dear friend Liam Banks. Julia was a friend to him as well as a collaborator; they worked together more than once, but most successfully on the short film Mr Creak, which was shown on BBC3's The Fear. Julia had the lead role in the film, and she always spoke of the experience so fondly.

   Having known of Julia's work through Liam, I was lucky enough to start working with her in early 2016. A few of you will know that The Collector - Songbird's witchy antagonist - was originally to be played by Julia, and she threw her heart and soul into the part. She would always turn up to rehearsals and costume fittings with a big smile on her face, and she'd send me long, enthusiastic, eloquent messages about the character in-between face-to-face meetings. 

   She did more than just rehearse; she developed The Collector in a way that I never could've done on my own. I'd explored the character deeply, researching witch characters that had gone before her, questioning which stereotypes to break away from, and which ones to keep. But Julia made the character into a cohesive person; she found the motivations behind the cabaret. 

Still from Julia Damassa's audition for The Collector. It was an incredible, emotional performance that soon turned into a development session for the character.

   Julia loved to perform. She loved to express herself through movement. She would sit and practice ways in which The Collector's hands would move - or any little detail that she could develop in between full-on rehearsals.

  She was incredibly intelligent, and educated, and she loved literature. We discussed Shakespeare and Bronte to find a way to develop the language of the character.

  Julia also had an incredible voice - musical and enchanting, but gentle enough to make you feel so comfortable in her presence. It was Julia who came up with the concept of The Collector 'wearing' the voices that she stole, perhaps because the a character was ashamed of her real voice. Julia gave her lilting tones to Songbird's teaser trailer, quoting Shakespeare, and it garnered a great deal of excitement on the run up to the film's funding campaign (I have now taken the teaser trailer off my YouTube channel, out of respect - but it gained over 700 views while it was live).

  I loved my time working with Julia, as did the other members of the Songbird team. She was the kind of person that made you better by association; she improved the work that you did without ever pushing her opinions on you. There is no way I could've known that we would be the last crew to work with her.

Julia's make-up tests for Songbird
  The last time I saw Julia was during a make-up test. It was a humid summer night, and rain was gently tapping on MUA Charlotte's conservatory roof. Julia was full of ideas as usual - but, for the first time, I noticed that her trademark sparkle had faded a little. I didn't pry, but I know now how ill she had been. She had been struggling in secret for all those weeks, trying to stay in the role that she had helped create. She never sought out pity. It was more than a week later, in August 2016, that Julia had to admit the truth and leave the production. She had Cancer. And now, nearly two years later, that beautiful, brave, selfless woman has lost her battle.

   It's hard to write those words, and it took me a couple of weeks to be able to do so. It just feels so wrong to have to write them at all. There's so much I would say to Julia if I could. We could talk about how unfair it is that she's gone, and how angry I feel about the way she was taken from the world. But all I'd really want to say is 'thank you'. Thank you, Julia, for giving so much to my film (I know that Therese Collins, who stepped in last minute and did a wonderful job with The Collector, would say the same). But above all, thank you for being the incredible human being that you were.

   My opening statement still stands. We will never forget Julia - just as we will never forget Carl or Andy (BBC Radio Derby are preparing a commemorative plaque for him right this moment). When a life is cut short, it is a terrible thing; but we must be so grateful and happy that we had them in our lives, even for too brief a time, and we must hold on to any lessons that they taught us.


   p.s. One final note. Cancer needs to stop. It is a horrendous disease that has taken too many lives and broken too many families. In honour of Julia, please consider donating to the JustGiving page that was set up in her memory:


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