How Having A Baby Made Me Fearless (and Crazy) Enough to Direct My Debut Feature

Everybody has a story about how they made the leap to direct their first movie. Here, the director of Little Pink House shares hers.

Around the middle of our shoot on Little Pink House, one of the actors asked me how I prepared for the battle. I said, “I had a baby.”

A film is kind of like a battlefield. Chaos then peace. Defeat then victory. And constant struggles with weather, time and sleep deprivation.

I’m not suggesting you need to have a baby before you direct your first feature film. Women who’ve never had babies direct difficult films all the time and are total badasses throughout. And new moms often endure much more turmoil than I faced, but I was on the older side, set in my ways, and I had to change almost everything in my life for my son.

I think I needed to go through the hell of the first three months of motherhood to toughen me up enough to direct my first feature film. Or, put differently, I needed the battle of being a first-time mom to prepare me for the battle of being a first-time feature film director.

Courtney Moorehead Balaker directing Little Pink House

It was an experience I needed, but not one I planned for. Having a baby and directing my first feature film in the same year was not my preparation strategy. It simply happened that way.

My husband and I had wanted a baby for a long time. But it wasn’t happening. So we assumed it never would and decided to make two feature films: a documentary directed by my husband and produced by me called Can We Take a Joke?, and a narrative film adaptation of a non-fiction book called Little Pink House that I would write and direct and my husband would produce.

It was when we’d shot and were in post-production on the doc and were about halfway into our fundraising process for Little Pink House that I found out I was pregnant. I was elated and in disbelief: “I’m going to be someone’s mom!”

That’s what I thought during the first five minutes. Then another thought consumed me: “How am I going to make this film with a newborn? That’s impossible!”

However, I put that out of mind as we raised the rest of the funds, decided on our shoot location and put our production team in place. I gave birth to Colin in the fall of 2014, and for the three months after I thought of nothing else other than keeping him alive. It was beautiful. It was horrible. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done.

It was the same for me as with many new moms — barely any sleep, breastfeeding misery, hormones, fear that he’ll suffocate in the middle of the night, fear of anything that could harm his little body.

Everyone said, “Sleep when he does,” but I refused to sleep while he was asleep on me because I feared he’d turn his head the wrong way and get smothered. So I ended up not sleeping for about three months and almost lost my mind. But it toughened me up, and I fell completely in love with him. And the more I fell in love with him, the bigger the fear became.

Colin and I bonded. We survived each other. And, after about 10 months, it was time to make Little Pink House.

Catherine Keener with Courtney Moorehead Balaker on the set of Little Pink House

I was scared to tell my lead actresses Catherine Keener and Jeanne Tripplehorn. Would they think the combination of my first baby and my first feature was too much for me to handle? Would they want to avoid that kind of chaos?

I couldn’t have been more wrong. They both embraced me and my situation entirely. They got it. They’re working moms as well. It was a huge relief.

Little Pink House is also about a battle.

Susette Kelo, a blue-collar paramedic, was starting over. She had just raised five sons, and was leaving a bad marriage. She found a dilapidated cottage with a river view and scrounged enough money to buy it. She fixed it up, painted it pink, and looked forward to coming home – after long days in a screaming ambulance – and gazing at the quiet water.

Soon after she moved in, the city decided something “better” should be built in place of Susette’s neighborhood, and tried to force Susette and her neighbors out of their modest homes so a developer could build high-end condos. However, they fought the case for 10 years, taking it all the way to the United States Supreme Court. Susette lost sleep, time, friends, and the thing she wanted most in this next phase of her life: peace.

Imagine waking up every day for a decade, facing the prospect of getting kicked out of the home you love, facing threats, protests, drawn-out court proceedings, lawyers, bureaucracy, cronyism at its worst. It was a battle. But she wouldn’t back down.

All of the important and meaningful stuff in life is really hard. When I had my baby, my days weren’t occupied with couch snuggles and pumpkin-patch photoshoots. It was usually me breastfeeding my baby on the couch, eating peanut butter out of a jar and watching Netflix, trying not to cry.

Courtney Moorehead Balaker during the making of Little Pink House

Principal photography on Little Pink House began on Colin’s first birthday, and the night before my husband showed me something I’d never seen before — video footage of me giving birth. It was a reminder that I was stronger than I used to be, and I would need to muster up all my strength in the days ahead.

Cast and crew were stressed out as we struggled to make our days. There were 70 speaking roles, dozens of locations, a giant demolition scene and just 24 days to get it all done.

But the whole team stuck together and pulled through, because we had to make this film. We made it to honor Susette and the battle she so bravely fought. Whenever I was on the verge of feeling sorry for myself, I remembered I had it easy compared to what Susette endured.

Susette and Colin showed me what I was capable of being, I’ll never be able to thank them enough for that.

Courtney Moorehead Balaker is an award-winning filmmaker, theatre director, and founding partner of Korchula Productions, a film and new media production company devoted to making important ideas entertaining. She wrote, directed, and produced her feature debut, Little Pink House, starring Catherine Keener and Jeanne Tripplehorn; the film is released theatrically on April 20. Courtney also produced Can We Take a Joke?, a Korchula Productions documentary about the clash between comedy and outrage culture, as well as The Collector, American Pie Presents the Naked Mile and Pulse. Courtney previously served as a producer on the award-winning PBS documentary series America in Primetime. (Picture by Ricardo Hubbs)