It’s not every day you hear of a 9-year-old writing short films, let alone directing and staring in them, but that is exactly what London Houghton is doing with her latest project Breaking Plans. While some kids are making short films for YouTube, Houghton’s dreams are bigger, her support fierce, and her ambitions untethered.

This nine-year-old is no stranger to cameras. Her dad, Paul James Houghton, has been making films for years with his production company Dreamotion Studios in Seal Beach. Watching her dad make films, Houghton found herself drawn to making her own stories come to life.

No Film School met with Houghton at her family’s home in Seal Beach, California, alongside her producers and mentors, Ella Greenwood and Bailey Corona, to talk about writing her short film screenplay in two days, working on set with 40 classmates, and the experience of balancing many hats for the first time.

London Houghton and  Gracelyn Surtees on the set of "Breaking Plans"Courtesy of Dreamotion Studios

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

No Film School: Can you walk me through what inspired you to write this project?

London Houghton: It's about how my parents got divorced and I wanted to write about that to let my emotions out on a piece of paper. Also, he inspires me because he writes films, and I've been on his set it's cool to see how they do it, and I wanted to do that for myself.

NFS: What drew you to make movies? I know that you come from a family that does it, but what if you said, "This is something that I want to try?"

Houghton: When I was on a set, I saw how the actors did it and I liked to learn more about it and I was interested in it, so I decided that I wanted to do it to see if I like it. And then, I wrote little narratives and stuff in school. And I love writing, so I tried writing a script and I just added more to it on pieces of paper, then we moved on to the computer and I started writing it there. And then, once my dad made all the corrections and stuff, we started to have the final script on pieces of paper and then we filmed it. I loved filming it because it was really fun.

NFS: This is your first screenplay that you've written, correct? What was that process like? Have you read a few screenplays to get an idea of what it looks like or how it feels? Or did you just go in with a gut feeling and then start structuring it with your dad?

Houghton: Well, when I was six years old, my dad made his movie From Under the Bridge, and I think it was his second. But I saw how he wrote it, and I saw the structure and I saw how it was placed in different things. And, I saw how the characters... There was... For every new character you had to do the dialogue and stuff, and I love writing stories.

So when I was writing it, I found that you don't just write it in one whole paragraph. You have to break it apart. And, I didn't realize that you had to have the little thing at the front where it's like "There were approximately this many students in the classroom". I'm using mine as an example. And there were a lot of things that I had to start over on, and I made a lot of mistakes. But, once my dad showed me how to structure it, I just went from there. It was a long process, but it took I think two days to write the whole script.

NFS: Something that a lot of people I feel struggle with is telling an isolated story. How did you approach telling this story when you were writing? How did you make it feel complete?

Houghton: I think that I used some characters that... I felt like I put my emotions into the characters, so it's like me inside of the characters. And I used some of my friends' personalities to put into the characters too because I just think that... For Emma, the one that I played, I put all of what I was feeling into her. And then for Drake, the brother, I just feel like my sister, she is pretty young, but she still has a big part in my life and I feel like I can talk to her about anything. And I wanted someone who Emma could talk to about anyone, and how she could count on him to tell her stuff about her family because he was keeping a secret from her trying to help her. So I feel like that's a sibling connection too.

NFS: Ella and Bailey, how did you guys become a part of this process? When you read the script, what made you excited to join the project?

Bailey Corona: I've known London for a little bit before this and I was so proud. I read the script and was blown away because I didn't expect it. She's so talented and she's so young, miles ahead of where many young people are. So I was super excited to co-produce it, and it was so fun to work with all the kids. And, a lot of her friends were in the film, so it was really exciting and I just love supporting her and watching her grow. So it was just a lot of fun, and I was so blessed to have any part of it.

Ella Greenwood: Exactly the same. Known London for a while now and she's got to be on set for projects that we've done before, which was always amazing. And, I could see how much she just loved the process and being on set and being involved in everything. So when I read her script, it was just so greatly written. It was a lovely story. It was just perfect.

I loved getting to be at the auditions and getting to see London act what she'd written and get to see how she worked with the actors and found the people for the right role. London had such a good eye for talent, and that was wonderful to see and to see her connect with those actors. So yeah, it was so fun. I was so happy to be involved.

Ella Greenwood on the set of "Breaking Plans"Ella Greenwood on the set of "Breaking Plans"Credit: Sarah Anarna

NFS: Did you two join the process after the funding was already secured or before it? I'm curious about that.

Corona: I was a part of it before. I did a lot of pre-production with Paul, with her dad and we planned a lot of it. But, the crowdfunding was also huge. Huge surprise and success.

NFS: I would love to talk more about that because you crowdfunded this on Seed&Spark and you hit your goal in three days, which is amazing. Can you talk about setting up this entire campaign?

Houghton: Well, I think that I knew about it when people started donating the stuff where you get to make a video for them. And I started making those videos on my own. And then one of the actors, Sarah, is my best friend Gracelyn [Surtees], she did the videos with me and it just made it a lot more fun. And we started counting down until we hit the goal, and once we made it, it just kept going. There were just more videos to do, and it was amazing to me how there were so many people supporting me because usually, people... I thought that people would just be like, "Oh, it's just a kid's project. She can't do anything". But then I realized there are a lot of people that believe that I can do it and that I can make it.

NFS: That's an amazing feeling. I heard that the founder of Seed&Spark donated to your project and also promoted it. What did that feel like to have such a massive name supporting you in your journey?

Houghton: It felt really good, but it was also kind of surprising because I didn't know that she... She probably has a lot of campaigns there and she chose mine to post on her LinkedIn. Then people started... Because people follow her. A lot of people, so they started donating to my project and then it was a really big help that she did that.

NFS: Going to pre-production, that's a whole different beast. How did you feel approaching it and how did your mentors walk you through all these steps as you're getting ready?

Houghton: It was great because we got to use our local place. It is just right down from my house. It's a tea shop. And for the ice cream parlor, my dad knows them pretty well and we love the staff and everything. It's a really cute place and there's so much room to do everything.

Then, we also used my elementary school and my classroom in fourth grade. My teacher let us use her classroom. And there were so many kids from my classroom that were extras in it and it was really fun. And the locations, we also used that whole school, and my principal was nice and she believed in us a lot. She thought that we could do it, and we did. We got all the way here, so I think that that's cool.

NFS: What is the one thing that you were keeping in mind as you were working with London throughout the entire pre-production process?

Corona: I have to give a quick kudos to London too. She was very involved in pre-production. She told us everything she wanted for the costume, every single asset of what everyone would wear. She had a very clear vision. There were even times on set where she would call somebody out like "Is that clock supposed to be showing? Because I think the time's going to change". She's such a visual person. She had us on our toes as well. But, it was really fun. I think I had the most fun just again, coordinating all the kids and getting all the extras there. Everyone was so excited, and it was so cool to see them all so passionate about something that a young filmmaker just made herself. It was cool. So that was my favorite part.

Greenwood: I've been filmmaking for a bit now and it's always so important to be able to enjoy it. I think hopefully London did enjoy each of the processes. As I said, we had such a fun day casting. It truly was so fun. But, at the same time, we found an amazing cast and London did such a good job at that. It's such a big thing to make a film and to write a script. I mean, that's a huge thing to take on but to be also able to have an amazing time on set with your actors and casting and be able to enjoy the process. I feel like that's something that hopefully we also wanted to make sure was possible.

Corona: Even during the casting process, she was great. She was in the room with all of us. All of us were watching everyone. She was reading alongside the people who were reading for the different characters. She was making judgments, she was giving the calls to the people that got the role and she was just fully involved and spearheading that whole process. It was cool to see.

Houghton: It was really funny because everyone was so shocked when they said that I wrote it because they were looking at Ella. Then when I introduced myself and they were shocked, it was really funny because it was like kind of weird.

Behind the scenes of "Breaking Plans""Breaking Plans"Credit: Sarah Anarna

NFS: As women in film who have been in the industry for a hot minute, what is something that you want to keep reminding London of as you work through the entire production?

Greenwood: Definitely just to have the confidence in yourself. Like you're saying, it's extremely shocking for a nine-year-old to have written and been directing a script, but I think sometimes those kinds of judgments are placed on women as well. And I think it's hard to always have the confidence of, "Yes, I'm ready to do this. I'm ready to direct my first film and I'm ready to write".

I think it's just trying to put some of those fears aside and just being like, "Maybe you'll never a hundred percent feel ready, but you've written the script and you're an amazing actor and you're ready to direct". So I just have that confidence. I think that's something that I always struggle with sometimes as well. Never feeling ready, but always just pushed past that and went through it.

Corona: I agree. I think just having the confidence that you already have to keep doing what you're doing, and I think you'll realize too, that when you are empowering yourself and you're doing things, a lot of young women and just women in general, are looking to you. So just your light shining will help others shine their light as well.

So you don't have to think about that aspect, but, whenever you're doing something great, it is inspiring other people and you should know that. Including your friends. I think all your friends look up to you. All the people around you. You're just so inspiring, and that's a really good thing just to remind yourself and be grateful for.

NFS: What were some of the concerns you had when you were stepping on set and being a director for the first time?

Houghton: Well, I think that I didn't fully trust my dad on what he was doing.

NFS: What was he doing?

Houghton: Well, I didn't know what was happening because it was my first time, so I didn't know if he was doing things wrong or not, but I guess that I didn't know. There were all these times when we had to redo it and it was weird because I've never had to do something so many times. And then, there were so many angles and so many takes and it was really fun, but doing things over and over and over again. It was weird to me how we did that so many times. But, we all needed all those angles and all that to make one take took an hour. Just to get one scene, not one take. One scene took an hour, and then we had to... There were so many scenes and it was really fun to do, and I was really sad that the filming was over because the filming was my favorite part. It was so much fun to connect with all the actors and be on set with them. It was really easy to take off what they were saying because they were just so natural at it that I felt like I could be really natural off of what they were doing because it was easy to understand them. And, they spoke so clearly and it was amazing. Then it saves me time to process what they're doing because they're just really good actors, the people that I worked with.

I feel like he knows me pretty well and he knows... I don't know why, but there are sometimes when I feel like everyone can think inside my brain and they know how I want it to be shot, but then they don't, so I have to tell them. But I feel like he did a pretty good job. Well, Gavin did a pretty good job too. And Brooke Mueller did a very good job.

I loved how it was all girls because it felt like a great community that we had because all my actors were just so nice, and communicating with them was really easy and fun. The shots were really great. There was this one scene, it was my favorite. It was at the tea shop and we had to... There was a call coming in from me that Sarah had to ignore. The character had to be ignored, and I got to use my phone to call it, and then it would show up on the little screen and I was looking at it, and it was really cool.

NFS: That's just a sweet moment. I love that. Was the crew mostly women?

Greenwood: Yeah. Brooke is the director of photography, and she had female technicians, the first AC, and second AC. The men were outnumbered on this set.

Corona: 85% women, I would say.

Brooke Mueller on the set of "Breaking Plans'Brooke MuellerCourtesy of Dreamotion Studio

NFS: Was that important to all of you to have a mostly female cast and crew? I would assume it was mostly a female cast.

Houghton: I think it's easier for me to... for girls because I feel like they just understand me more. So Brooke was really great at understanding what I was writing, and she was amazing. I loved her. Her crew and she were just so... They looked like they'd been very, very experienced in everything and they were perfect. I don't know. They could not have been better. That's what I think.

NFS: Were there any challenging moments on set that you had to step back and be like, "Okay, what do we do? How do I overcome this?" And is that lesson you learned something you would take with you into your next project?

Houghton: I think that when I had to cry at the end, it was really hard to get me to cry because I felt like it was a happy place. Everyone was laughing and I had to just cry. And so my dad had to take me and Gracelyn into another room and tell us "What if this happened? What if this happened?" He had to make me cry. It was very challenging because I couldn't cry. Then, we had to do multiple takes and I could see he was getting frustrated, and then that made me sad, and I cried because he was frustrated at me. Then, I think when I cried, that led Gracelyn to cry. So it was a good scene.

NFS: As producers working on this, did you feel any kind of anxiety about having a first-time writer-director who's also starring in the film?

Greenwood: I did my first short film and I wrote, directed, and acted in it. I'm so glad that I did that. I think I got to know myself as a filmmaker what I wanted, and how I wanted to produce films and write them. And I think that was the best experience I could have ever had.

I didn't study film. I had no clue what I was doing at this point. I learned so much from getting to do these roles and getting to see the film put together from writing, directing, acting, and getting to see each of those parts. So no, I didn't, because that's how I started my career in film, and London is very much capable of doing all of those. So it was just really exciting to be a part of that.

Corona: I wasn't worried at all. It's London. I mean, she is so precocious and ahead of her time and it was very clear from the beginning of the process that she had a vision and she knew what she wanted. So we had her back and she had our back. When we were on set and needed help, we went to her and asked her what she wanted. She had an answer every time. She was more assured than I am at 25 [years old]. So I thought that was super impressive and we had so much support on set.

Ella and Maya, they own... That's her business partner. They own Broken Flames, a production company in London. They were also supporting the kids so much, especially the actors. They were working with them so well on set, and it was so cool to see them as well. So we were also supporting each other and we were assured that it was going to be a really successful shoot, especially because of you, Miss London.

NFS: Were there any challenges that you faced on set?

Greenwood: Bailey did such an amazing job, but there were a lot of children on this set. There were so many. Bailey did an incredible job at coordinating that. There were so many children at one time. So I feel like that was definitely the hardest thing you could have had to have organized, and Bailey just did it so easily and amazingly. Everyone had such a good time on set and they really enjoyed the experience, and the filming went well. Bailey honestly handled all that. I was just there to really enjoy it.

NFS: How many children were cast for the project?

Corona: There actually ended up... We were thinking of only getting about 25. That's not only. We were thinking 25 and there ended up being about 40 on set. Excitement spread and friends of friends came, which was great. And they were so well-behaved. I was shocked. They were well-behaved, really sweet, and really eager to do whatever they needed to do to make the project great. And, they were so excited about making their own characters. And one of our interns, Laura, made sure that all of them had their characters set in their heads, even if they were just extras walking in the background. It was really fun. They were all having a really good time.

NFS: Working with children on sets is normally a difficult task, so the fact that this went so smoothly was–

Corona: It was great.

London Houghton and cast on the set of "Breaking Plans"Behind-the-scenes on "Breaking Plans"Credit: Sarah Anarna

NFS: Is there a scene for all of you that was the most fun to film? What was the most memorable moment from the production?

Greenwood: I loved the ice cream shop one as well, because I got to help Bailey with making the non-ice cream, which looked like ice cream, and I loved that. I feel like getting to even do a bit of production design and all those aspects were so fun. It's an amazing tea shop. And we had London's little sister Haley be a part of that scene. That was... I feel like that was just such a fun thing to film.

Houghton: I think my favorite's probably the tea shop, but I don't know. I think the one where we were working on the project at our house was also really fun because I got to get angry and let all my emotions out. I don't know. No, I like the outside scene where I got to yell at Gracelyn. I'm sorry, but I just gotta let all my emotions out and I knew that it wasn't real, so it was fun.

Corona: I loved all the school scenes, especially the scene where you guys are at the benches and you're telling off Gracelyn. I thought that was great. And just seeing all the kids in the classroom, walking around being extras in the outside portion of those scenes was super, super cool, because everyone was involved. I think that was the highest energy day and that was really fun, I think for everybody.

NFS: What about the editing process are you most excited about?

Houghton: I feel like when it's almost done and then we're adding those final touches, it's going to be really, really fun because then we get to do premieres. I don't know. I was at my dad's premiere and it was fun and I want that to happen in my movie. So I wanted to add the final touches after we get all the editing done. And then...

NFS: What are the hopes for this short film once that final cut is locked?

Greenwood: Like Bailey said before, it's so inspirational that London has made her films, and I think it... I would hope that this would also inspire lots more people to just create their own work. It's a wonderful story that I think will help a lot of people as well when they see it. So to be able to share a story that connected to London and hope that it helps other people with the themes, but also inspires them to start filmmaking too.

NFS: Beyond the premieres and all, what is your hope with this short film?

Houghton: Since I already have a film, more people would know me for the next film I'm hoping I could make. It would be like people would know what I did before and then they would think for the next film, they would know, "Oh, she can do it". Because, I feel like there may be some people that think that I can't, but I want to prove them wrong and I want to show them that I can. And then more films in the future, I can do it, and I am capable of doing that, and I love everyone who's supporting me with that. And for my next film, I know that I'll have so many people that will support me and I just hope that we can get it and then get it out there and people will see it and know that's me.

London Houghton headshotLondon HoughtonCredit: Matt Kallish

NFS: Is there anything that you all are working on that we could expect in the future?

Greenwood: The project that we started working on together with Dreamotion Studios that filmed in London, which put me onto the project in Los Angeles, and London was on set. It's still in post-production, and it's calledOnce Upon a Riot. Hopefully, there'll be more news about that soon.