Natasha Waugh and Jonathan Hughes talk Mother, mentoring and Diva cold shoulders
One of Ireland’s biggest film festivals every year, the Galway Film Fleadh begins next Tuesday 10th July, kicking off a week of fantastic films from at home and abroad. And though it doesn’t happen here in Dublin, we eagerly anticipate many of the festival’s films, not least of which includes Mother, the 2017 Galway Film Centre/RTÉ Short Film Commission. The short, starring The Young Offenders’ Hilary Rose and Lochlann O’Mearáin of Ros na Rú, developed from a script by Jonathan Hughes, directed by Natasha Waugh and produced by Sharon Cronin, has an eye-catching premise. It tells the story of Grace, a mother with an ideal happy family; a loving husband and two wonderful children. But when her husband arrives home one day with a brand new kitchen appliance, she slowly starts to realize that there might not be room for both of them at home. It’s a quirky comedy light on dialogue, with an intriguing dark streak. The project received just under €15,000 in funding as part of the commission, as well as the contribution’s of Script Editor Deirdre Roycroft and director Deabhla Walsh (Penny Dreadful, Fargo, The Punisher, Emmy Award winner for Outstanding Directing for a Miniseries, Movie or Dramatic Special, Little Dorrit) as mentors on the scheme. The short will premiere at the Fleadh next week, and ahead of the Mother‘s big day, we caught up with Natasha Waugh to discuss the production, the mentoring aspect of the GFC/RTE programme, and working with a very unique performer…
Film In Dublin: Natasha, the last time we spoke, you said you might want to take a break from the heavy stuff and maybe do a comedy. Can you describe the kind of comedy that Mother is?
Natasha Waugh: Hmmm…I’m not sure I could compartmentalise it fully, but I often say to people that Mother is Black Mirror meets The Stepford Wives, so I’d say it’s a dark comedy, with some satire too.
It’s about a fridge taking over someone’s life, so it’s not conventional, but it’s laughs are clever, and fun, and bonkers. I think people will laugh, and still be a little baffled.
FID: It’s a short that might baffle people, but it’s got something to say as well. Would you say that it’s in keeping with the other shorts you’ve done, which have been focused on women and the issues that effect them?
NW: Yeah I think it so to an extent. I know Jonathan and I spoke about it being about women’s role’s in the home, as bastions of domesticity, and how that has changed. Mother examines that idea through it’s pastiche. We see what that means to this particular family, and what they want from their their mother and wife. She is reduced to an appliance, something uncomplicated that gives them what they need quickly, and efficiently. It’s pretty sad, as much as it is funny, I suppose. I also remember saying to Hilary Rose on set one day that I had reduced the film down to being about a marriage. What do you think Jonathan?
Jonathan Hughes: The role of women in the home was definitely something I thought about when I came up with the script. I think, to a certain extent, the film is based on my own mother and my own family. Growing up there was always lots of talk of “oh, I’m just a chef to you people! I’m just your cleaner! I’m just a taxi driver to ye”…
NW: Yeah! I think the mother’s roles are reduced to that in a jokey way all the time! This film takes it to the literal haha!
JH: So I guess I wanted to take that idea and run with it to it’s ridiculous and surreal conclusion. What if that’s how just what your whole family saw you as; and what happens if they find something that can do that one job better than you?
FID: Jonathan, how would you compare the kind of humour that’s being put into Mother, to the stuff you’ve done on The Young Offenders, for example? Young Offenders is also pretty sad, as much as funny at times.
JH: The Young Offenders struck a really love blend of both, I thought, and people seem to respond really well to that. The amount of people I’ve had giving out to me that we made them cry was brilliant.
The best kind of comedy comes from drawing from real life and real characters. Adding a layer of heart underneath the laughs makes the comedy even better. You never want something you write to seem one note, or for characters to come across as one-dimensional caricatures. If you can get the audience to feel for the characters, then you know you’ve done your job right, and I think as baffled as audiences might be with what happens to Hilary’s character Grace in the film, I hope audience also feel for her and the awkward position she finds herself in once Fridge arrives.
FID: Of course you’ve written for Hilary before, did that help in writing material for her in this film as well? Natasha, can you talk about your experience working with Hilary as well?
JH: The original first draft of the script started quite a long time ago while I was doing my MA in London actually so I didn’t have an actress in mind when I wrote it. But once the scheme moved ahead and Natasha came on as director, there was only really one person we wanted for the role. Hilary is a good friend at this stage, we had worked on a few things together, and Natasha had directed her in a pilot and we both knew she had exactly what was needed for the role. She’s such a pro. She’s an incredibly versatile performer who can make you cry and make you laugh with the slightest expression. I was delighted she was up for battling a fridge for a few days with us on set.
NW: I’d a really brilliant time working with Hilary. I had actually directed her before in a pilot last year. When I read Mother, she was the first person that came to mind, and the only person for all of us really! She’s great to work with, and really fun too! She has brilliant intuition for character, and she’ll really delve deep into the script and into the part to understand it. I rehearsed her on her own at first so we could get to know Grace better, she was committed to her. It was important to me that the audience believe what is happening to Grace. Hilary gave a really natural performance, so its obvious she embodied that character and fully embraced her situation. That in itself will get people to go along with everything.
I will echo Jonathan’s sentiments there with regards to Hilary’s versatility. Hilary is such a pro – she can go from comedic, to serious and emotional without hesitation. She makes it look so effortless.
FID: One of Hilary’s strengths is that she can communicate so much with just her facial expressions. Mother isn’t a silent film but it is one where the emphasis isn’t so much on dialogue – particularly since the antagonist is an inanimate object! Are there challenges in working on a short without as much of an emphasis on the words?
JH: It’s funny you mention that, but the lack of dialogue was actually a major starting point for the script. I had written a few scripts before Mother and they were all well received and people seemed to like them, but once someone said that when they read the script they knew I had written it. When I asked why, I was told they knew from the dialogue, that I have a specific way of writing dialogue. On the one hand, I was flattered by that, but it also made me wonder if I was relying on dialogue too much to sell comedy in my scripts. So I set myself a challenge to write a film with little or no dialogue and see if I can still get point of view across; and the result was Mother.
NW: Definitely, I have typically done a lot of films that are dialogue heavy. It’s not a silent film, but you’re right it is very expressive. The challenge for me as a director was in the rehearsals. I couldn’t micro-manage pieces of dialogue that the actors had to read. Instead, we went through the script together, and made that we understood the character motivations, and also backstories. When I rehearsed Lochlann and Hilary together, I did an improvised marriage counselling session between their characters. In this way they were able to get to the heart of Chris and Grace’s relationship, and build a foundation themselves, and for me! Then on the day of the shoot, it was all about just setting the scene, and allowing them to play it out.
FID: That approach stands to the characters because they feel ‘lived in’. Is that something you would consider on every project or did it feel particularly apt here?
NW: It’s something I would consider on every project, particularly with Terminal, it was so important that it felt that the two women had lives outside of their current situation. But I do think that I was probably more aware of it here, because even though their onscreen time is really brief, Hilary and Lochlann needed to exude a certain chemistry, one that felt very relaxed, as it would in a marriage. There is a familiarity. The same goes for the kids. The family dynamic needed to be established. I think that comes from the delivery of performance. Lochlann is very laconic in all of his dialogue to Hilary I think that helped in giving us the idea that their interaction was normal, and that the marriage had slipped into the mundane. The fact that there is so little dialogue throughout the film really allows for that idea to be established. They literally don’t talk to each other very much.
FID: Then the fridge comes along to uproot the family dynamic! What was it like getting a ‘performance’ out of the fridge – how did you work with it on set? Jonathan, were there many stage directions for the fridge in the script?
NW: She was very hard to work with. Very demanding…
JH: Fridge had limited dialogue of course, but some definite actions in the script, and she nailed them every time to be fair to her. Giving her a Cast Number on the callsheet every day did help assuage the worst of her diva behaviour.
NW: Well what did we expect? I blame Sharon for giving into her all the time…
JH: Her own trailer was pushing it though. Poor Hilary had to get changed in the bathroom.
NW: THAT was ridiculous.
FID: She gave you the cold shoulder a couple of times then?
NW: Let’s just say we are no longer on speaking terms.
JH: We wish her all the best in her future endeavours.
FID: How do you approach a shot with an inanimate object to personify it? That’s a big part of the humour in the short, there are ‘reaction shots’ etc. for a fridge.
NW: Haha! There are reaction shots. Just placing a refrigerator in real life scenarios, away from it’s purpose, is funny enough. The fridge is all about presence. That was in the writing, in it’s actions. In one particular scene, it feels as though the fridge has snuck up on Hilary. We shot it like a horror, so the low-lit scene and the camera movement help establish the fridge’s threat. The camera moves in toward Hilary, looming, and then later the fridge appears behind her as she turns around. When we were shooting, it gave the rest of the crew the creeps. All of these tricks help ground the fridge into a scary place without it moving. That part is up the audience. What helped was also the score by Natasa Paulberg who wrote us this fantastic piece of music that makes the film a lot more ominous. It really underlines the tone, and punctuates the horror.
FID: Natasha we’ve spoken before about some of the frustrations of getting funding for shorts. Mother is the 2017 Short Film Commission for the Galway Film Centre and RTÉ. Can you talk a little about the experience of pitching the film to their panel?
NW: I met with David Crean from RTÉ and Paula Kehoe who is a filmmaker. They wanted me to tell them how I saw it. I did nothing special, other then go in with my notes, and a very clear idea of how I wanted it to be right down to casting. Thankfully, I was able to give them a good sense of everything, and answer any queries they had, especially when it came to nailing the intricacies of this film. I think what helped the most was that I loved the script, and was able to visualize it clearly. It made answering questions, and talking through the script at that stage much easier.
FID: Mother is the second film that GFC/RTÉ have commissioned together, is it a process you would recommend to other filmmakers?
NW: It’s a great scheme! I think being part of it, and building new skills, and working relationships and getting to make a film at the end of it is brilliant. From my point of view, as a director, its well worth it, as they give you a mentor. I was luck enough to be mentored by Dearbhla Walsh who taught me so much during our time together. That is invaluable.
JH: From a writing perspective, I always had the impression that the Galway Film Centre put a massive emphasis on the scripts and their quality, as part of this specific scheme. I had been involved with a few different schemes and they all have their merits, but what I loved about this scheme was how supportive they were in the development of the script itself before anyone else is brought in. A number of scripts were submitted and then they made a shortlist of three and those three projects were given time to work with (the amazing!) Script Editor Dee Roycroft to rewrite and build on their initial scripts but we had to worry about them being sent out to directors or producers. It’s not a big thing, but those few weeks to polish and work on your script knowing you had been shortlisted were so great and it’s not something I’ve seen in many other schemes.
It also helped that in the end myself, Natasha and Sharon were all selected and formed into this team. All three of us knew each other and had worked together on other things and loved each other’s work, so it never felt like I was giving my script over to someone else to make and my job was done. It was very collaborative. I was (and still am) involved in all stages of making the film and getting it shown, which is really lovely. And the Galway Film Centre were big supporters of that too. So I’d totally recommend the scheme to other writers out there with a script; it’s a really great scheme to be a part of.
NW: Absolutely, they were with us every step of the way. Ramona from the Galway Film Centre was great about keeping in touch. Working with Sharon and Jonathan was serendipitous; we knew we wanted to work together on something, and we were afforded the opportunity to do so through this scheme. The planets aligned for us.
FID: Having Sharon Cronin on board as producer, someone with a lot of experience and who you’re familiar with, must have been a boost to the production?
JH: It really couldn’t have worked out better for us. Sharon is such a pro, and after doing Acorn together a few months before this there was no one I wanted to work with more, so I was delighted she was brought on to this too.
NW: Yes, we were very lucky to have her. I had 1st Assistant Directed her last short, Acorn, that Jonathan had also written, and that’s how I first met them both. I knew when I met Sharon, that I wanted to work with her as a director in the future. I was very taken with her work ethic, and the attitude and enthusiasm she has for the projects she’s working on. Luckily we all work together really well, and will do so in the future.
FID: Getting someone like Dearbhla Walsh as a mentor as well, someone with an Emmy and whose worked with so many TV studios etc sounds like a great experience. What would be one of the main things you might take going forward from being mentored by her?
NW: To be strong and to drive the project. There is so much to be done, and crews are there to facilitate your vision for the film or the TV series. As a director you have to keep everything moving, in every process from pre-production to post. Even when you or someone or something has stalled, or something isn’t working. Dig deep, keep it going, you got this!
FID: Finally, despite some of her on-set behaviour, do you both see big things in Fridge’s future? Could Hollywood be calling?
JH: If we learned anything from her on set, it’s that she’ll do anything for the spotlight. We might agree with her methods, but she’s destined to be in the limelight, for better or for worse.
NW: If she can do for someone else’s film, what she’s done for ours, then she’ll be the Meryl Streep of fridge actors.