Irish horror is having a moment and as big fans of the genre, we’re thrilled to see films like The Hole in the Ground and The Boys From County Hell pick up notice overseas, both for the qualities of the films themselves and for the talents involved in making them. Joining their ranks soon will be changeling chiller You Are Not My Mother, the debut feature film of Kate Dolan, director of Catcalls and many a class local music video on the Irish scene. The film is set for its world premiere later this year as an Official Selection of the Toronto International Film Festival. It will be shown as part of the prestigious festival’s Midnight Madness programme, a raucous night screening the best in action, horror, shock and fantasy cinema. The film is one of only six selected for Midnight Madness this year from around the world.
You Are Not My Mother tells the story of Char, a young woman who lives in a North Dublin housing estate with her mother, Angela and her grandmother Rita. Lately Char’s mother has been unwell and confined to her bedroom. One day, after being forced to drive Char to school, Angela goes missing without a trace. The family fears the worst. However, a day later she returns and seems to be well again. Char, just happy to see her mother well again ignores her mother’s increased strange behaviour until it is too late. Something malevolent has made itself at home. Char must take action before she loses her mother forever. Featuring Hazel Doupe, Jordanne Jones, Carolyn Bracken and more, the film is a highlight reel of some if Ireland’s fastest rising acting talents, and promises scares a-plenty.
The film was funded through Screen Ireland’s POV scheme, a production funding initiative for female filmmakers which aims to foster distinct Irish female voices. You Are Not My Mother is produced by Deirdre Levins and executive produced by Brendan McCarthy and John McDonnell of Ireland’s own Fantastic Films, as well as Screen Ireland’s Celine Haddad.
We first spoke with Kate as she was about to enter into the POV scheme at the end of 2018 and seeing one of Ireland’s rising talents behind the camera go from strength to strength is a vindication of these kinds of initiatives. We caught up with her again just as she finished prepping the film to ship off to Toronto, to talk about Irish myths, reading tarot cards on set and more.
Film In Dublin: How excited are you to be screening the premiere of You Are Not My Mother at TIFF and Midnight Madness?
Kate Dolan: It’s kind of crazy because the film was made through the POV scheme, where your budget is capped at 400K, so you can’t get money from anywhere else really. And when COVID came along, we did get some extra money from Screen Ireland just to cover the COVID cost because it was getting to be quite a lot of the budget. So to make a film for that amount, when all the crew were on capped, reduced rates as well, so that we could make the film for that amount, they all worked really hard and did such an amazing job. So it’s just really rewarding to then have the film be at such a big festival, you feel like you’re like “the little, tiny film that could!” With all the adversity of COVID and everything as well, it’s just mad to me that we are playing at TIFF.
And Midnight Madness also, when I was in college would be reading Bloody Disgusting, all the horror websites and anytime Midnight Madness was on, always paying attention to what films were playing there and knowing that I would definitely want to see them when they came out. So it’s kind of surreal, it’s like a dream come true! I couldn’t really ask for a more fitting premiere as in exactly what I would have wanted, it’s kind of amazing.
FID: The last time that we spoke a couple of years ago, you were just entering into the the POV scheme. To have gone right the way through a production now, what has your experience of the scheme been and how has it been having that support from Screen Ireland going into your first feature?
KD: It was really brilliant because even when COVID was coming along, some of my peers were going in to shoot their features and funding fell through or a financier would drop out because of COVID or there would be a cast change. It sounded like a nightmare and we were really lucky because Screen Ireland said to us well, the money is here. It’s sitting here ready for you, whenever you want to do it, that’s not going to change, it’s never not going to be there. You take it in whatever time you want to go or whenever you want to shoot, we’re not going to force you to do it sooner or later or whatever, and Screen Ireland and all the people involved were just so supportive, especially getting us some extra money for COVID and throughout the process helping us any way that they could.
It was really nice and in general the process creatively was really good too, in that during the development process on POV, we were assigned a script editor which was paid for by Screen Ireland. That was great, to help get this script in shape. And they were never heavy handed with notes on the script or even notes on the edit, while we were shooting they were never sticking their nose in or anything like that. They were happy for us to do what we wanted to do, and they seemed confident that we were making the right kind of film, it was really positive. As a first feature obviously you feel very protected, obviously there was compromises, but it was more coming from budget or the COVID side rather than somebody being like, you can’t cast that person or you can’t have this, you can’t have that, they were more about saying yes to things and making sure that we were all feeling good about it. I thought it was great scheme. I felt very looked after!
FID: In making that step up to directing a feature, was that daunting or was it a case where you felt very confident with all the work that you’ve done in the last couple years?
KD: Obviously it is a bit daunting because there are fallow periods as a writer/director where I was writing that script and writing other scripts that I was getting into development, where you’re sitting at a desk writing, so when you’re not on set for a while you do get the kind of heebie jeebies that once you are finally on set, you’re going to forget how to direct an actor! I had a bit of jitters going into it, but I think the prep on the film was great because every HOD (Head of Department) we had was really dedicated and it just really relaxed me to know that. Narayan Van Maele shot it and Lauren Kelly our Production designer, it was her first feature, she really pulled it out of the bag. Seeing all the prep that they were doing, I was thinking I don’t have to worry, this is going to be fine, all this stuff has worked out.
Myself and Narayan went through the whole house and shot photos, storyboards of all the interiors there, all those little things make you feel, this is going to be fine, I just have to take it day by day. Once we had cast everybody and we had some rehearsals, it was a case where when you get there on the day, you don’t have to worry because all the work is done in a way? It’s just getting through the stamina of the actual shoot that is the hard part. Always things crop up on the day, there are always surprises every now and again that might throw you off, but overall, I think everyone did such a great job prepping that when we get got to shoot, it all felt really good.
FID: The concept of You Are Not My Mother and the idea of the changeling and the place that has in Irish stories and myth, is that something that you had a long-standing interest in or came up during research? What is your own relationship to that aspect of this story?
KD: It’s funny. I was chatting to a friend of mine who’s a UK filmmaker and he was joking, does every Irish filmmaker have to make a changeling movie before they can do something else? Because of movies like Lee Cronin’s The Hole in the Ground, and others that have played on this kind of myth. I think as an Irish horror filmmaker, you can’t really avoid the dark folklore in our history, that we have as a country.
There’s a lot of things in there, fairy stories that I had read. I would be reading them anyway, but when I was writing the script, I got a lot more books that dipped into those mythologies, little things like how fairies love dancing and they can’t stop. You’ll see in the film there’s a dance scene with dancing basically until your feet are like bloody because you can’t stop. There are stories in our collective consciousness as Irish people that you can’t really avoid as a horror filmmaker, maybe? Those things you hear when you’re growing up, very dark fairy tales in a way.
One thing I wanted to do was that I felt like, you know I’m from North Dublin and my granny would have been very superstitious growing up, telling us all these mad stories. She grew up in the tenements in town so we’re not rural at all, as a family. I was always kind thinking hey, why in these movies is it always a cabin in the middle of nowhere in the woods and in rural Ireland? So the film is set very much in the urban and is very identifiably Dublin. Those mythologies and neurosis can exist in that urban setting where you have neighbors all around you, we wanted to have a fresh take on that folklore element so that it can exist in the modern and the urban and you see how that almost makes it more scary in a way, it could be right under your nose, but you don’t really know it.
FID: It presents an opportunity also to explore questions of identity and self-identity. We’ve spoken before about your interest and inclination towards female-led genre stories. How much does the changeling myth, and how closely tied it is to Irish identity, allow the film to be in conversation with Irish expectations of women’s identities, mothers’ identities, who they are and how they behave?
KD: I think one interesting story that I read more into when we were writing the script was about Bridget Cleary. Her husband thought she was a changeling, but she was sick and she was a very independent woman and her husband didn’t like that. When she came down with like a flu he then thought it was basically her being a changeling, this was in 1895. He put her into a fire in the house and burned her alive. I think in every culture but in Irish culture specifically, women get the raw deal in folklore. Even witch trials and all that, it’s a lot of strong, independent women who have their own thoughts, and who usually end up of having a very tragic ending.
I really wanted to explore that with the changeling themes and particularly with mental illness and mental health. In folklore and in the past, these stories that you hear of changelings, normally are people who are going through something big; physical illness, mental illness, and then people assume that something evil is at work. I wanted to modernise that and discuss roles of women. There’s 3 generations of women in the film, a grandmother, a mother, and the protagonist and the interactions between them as these strong women that are slightly magical…not to ruin too much, but they’re strong and they have to make very difficult choices in the film and they’re celebrated for it. Their strength isn’t necessarily punished in this kind of folklore tale that we’re trying to modernise.
FID: The media and festival attention shows the enthusiasm and the appetite that there is for these kind of stories. When you see films coming out like Relic, She Dies Tomorrow, Censor, does that encourage you, how do you feel when you see more stories like this coming out?
KD: The horror genre has always been female led in a way, obviously not behind the camera, but I think that’s one reason horror really appealed to me growing up. You had really strong women who are surviving and not taking shit from the world or a monster or ghost or whatever.
The female led side has always been there, I think now it’s just nice that behind the camera you’re getting more women telling their own stories as opposed to maybe men telling them for women. You’re getting a different perspective, because it’s coming from a very authentic place of understanding certain female neurosis.
I think it’s a really exciting time. I’m always really nervous myself thinking about the film being out in the world, so I don’t know if I’m thinking like yeah, people are going to really love it or more dreading just in case, getting bad letterboxd reviews or something! But no, it’s definitely an interesting time for horror and there’s a lot of experimentation in ways that maybe aren’t in other genres, playing with the medium and getting to do things that are a bit different and crazy and that are not necessarily what you get to do in a drama or a comedy.
FID: It seems that you had a whole crew that are very much pulling in in the same direction on that front, and that in key positions there was a lot of female representation behind the camera as well. In terms of the performers that you’ve been working with, like Jordanne and Hazel and Carolyn, particularly, who are rising stars with a similar interest in projects like this. What was your experience of working with them?
KD: I remember when we were casting, kind of unintentionally just as I was writing the script, you had these three generations of women and then there’s the uncle in the family as well, teenage girls that are in school with Hazel’s character Char and the other roles peppered in throughout the film, the smaller roles, they were all written as women as well. When we got to the casting and we had all the headshots lined up in our unit base, we were looking at them, we were literally saying Paul as the uncle is this outlier of the only man in the film basically! Which was kind of cool because you don’t see maybe a lineup of that many women in a cast, sometimes you do, but it’s kind of unusual and it was exciting.
I think a lot of all the girls were really excited by it, the younger cast members like Jordan and Hazel and Katie and Florence. Hazel said one day, that she wasn’t always used to being around so many young women on set and she was saying ‘it’s really nice because I feel like you all get me’. We were all making each other laugh and telling jokes and stuff and Hazel was saying, normally if she tells a joke on set, people wouldn’t laugh because it would be all older men on the crew and in the cast. She would kind of feel like a child, but she said ‘here I feel like I’m with peers and I’m with people who understand me’. That was really nice, we all got a buzz and they were just all brilliant. Every single member of the cast is really good, the performances are so good and I was just so blessed to have them.
They all brought so much to each character and were invested in it. Hazel is very much into the Pagan and Wicca and folklore, she did a lot of prep and she was really interested, we would be reading our tarot cards on our lunch break and stuff like that. Jordanne as well, she loves horror movies, so she was really buzzed by it all. Carolyn, it’s her first leading role in a feature and I was kind of shaken by the fact that she hasn’t been in anything of this scale before. She was totally open to do whatever because she’s playing this dual character of a kind mother, but then there’s something else going on. She had a lot to do, and she didn’t shy away from any of the scarier stuff that she had to do and was letting herself go. It was phenomenal, such fun. I just love the cast like, I think they’re all amazing.
FID: You’ve had such a long run at this, and then you’re going into post-production and festivals and promotion. As a director are you happy to be constantly push, push, push, working on to the next thing? Or is there ever a moment where you would like to just sit back and say wow, I did this and allow yourself almost a recovery mode?
KD: I’m kind of addicted to working, to my girlfriend’s despair. We went on a holiday and she was saying if you bring your laptop on this holiday, I’ll dump you, that’s it, it’s over. I had to do one holiday where I didn’t bring my laptop at least, so I’m improving! I get such a buzz off working. Doing the film, even writing and the post production, it almost doesn’t feel like work often. You just feel so lucky that you get to do this and it’s your job, because it’s so much fun and it gives you so much energy.
I’m a bit addicted to working as I say, but I think most film makers are. It’s just the kind of personality you maybe have to have. I don’t think you really can stop to have rest. You’ve got to always be thinking of what’s going next and getting ready for that. And with the film as well, there’s all these little milestones you reach, you wrap the shoot and then it’s like picture lock next and then it’s today even going to the cinema to sign it off to send to TIFF.
You have all these moments where you say, It’s over now, it’s over now, but it never really ends. You know what I mean? The film will have a life again, with the festivals and if we get a release out in the world then that’s a whole other thing. Now I’m working on the next thing and seeing what I want to do next myself, you can’t really be resting on your laurels for too long, because you never know what could come around the corner.