In 2018, director Natasha Waugh and writer Jonathan Hughes worked together on short film Mother, an offbeat, darkly funny tale of a matriarchal kitchen appliance. Their latest film, La Tumba is similarly smart, taking what seems like a pure comedy premise and delivering a sincere, emotional story. Featuring lovely performances by the leads, Eloisa Etxebarria and Irish comedian Peter McGann, the short introduces us to oddball park ranger Paddy. When he discovers Pilar, an elderly Spanish lady with no English, at a freshly dug grave, he thinks his fantasy of solving a murder case has finally come true. The more we learn about this odd couple, the more intimate layers emerge in a sweet, affecting connection between two very different characters.
La Tumba was made with the support of the dlr ‘First Frames’ sceheme. Funded by Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council’s and managed by IADT, the scheme aims to support filmmakers in making vibrant and compelling films and to increase awareness of the variety and flexibility of locations available in the region.
After screening to a strong reception at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh, La Tumba has embarked on the festival circuit. We spoke with Natasha, Jonathan and Peter about shooting the film, dipping into Spanish and balancing the bitter and sweet in this unusual but engrossing story of connection and loss.
Natasha and Jonathan, I’m wondering if you could talk first about the First Frames scheme and how that helped to get this project started?
It’s an interesting scheme, they offer some funding, but they’re also very helpful about giving us equipment and stuff from IADT to help along the way, so that’s a really nice subsidy as well, just to have everything at your disposal that you need. They were very happy to support what is a diverse script insofar as it’s half in Spanish, they were willing to take a risk on it. We had a really good interview, they really seemed to love our team between myself, Jonathan and certainly Natalie McCauley, who’s just such a brilliant producer and took us under their wing. It’s a solid scheme for people wanting to get their shorts on the road. Was that your experience Johnny? It was a nice interview for sure.
The interview was oddly intimidating for me because the scheme is co-funded by IADT and that’s were I went to college! I was pitching the film to my old lecturer that I hadn’t spoken to in years and had to come in with my silly little film in Spanish. But he seemed to like it and it turned out to be a lovely interview.
I did not have that luxury of going to IADT! So I was just like “oh it’s fine! Ian Hunt Duffy’s here!” He was on our panel as well so I found that quite comforting. We know Ian quite well so it was like having a nice chat with him, that put me at ease
It’s reassuring when you see those familiar faces. You both have worked together a few times now. What was your experience like collaborating this time and what new things did you discover in your working partnership?
We’ve made a couple of things together now and we’re always cooking up new stuff also. It was weirdly hands off this time around, there’s an inherent trust there built in, I know that Natasha is not going to just run away off my script and turn it into whatever she wants. She’s so considerate when it comes to changes, there’s always a discission. There’s a lovely trust where I felt completely safe giving the script over and letting her do what she wanted with it.
You’ve done work separately and come back together at different points. What makes you know you want to work together on something, Jonathan what makes you think, oh Natasha would be perfect for this script?
Secretly, I think Natasha would be great for all of my scripts! She’s always one of the first people I think of, we seem to have a similar viewpoint, we get a lot of each other references. So if there’s a little thing in the scripts that I think no one’s gonna get, Natasha will know oh, it’s like that scene from that film and it will be exactly what I was referencing. Little things like that, we just seem to have this symbiosis between us.
I think we have a nice shorthand at this point, even outside of working together Jonathan and I are pretty close friends. We’re comrades when it comes to industry stuff and it’s just such a pleasure worldbuilding with Johnny every time we either read each other’s work or work together on the shorts.
I always feel like the two shorts that we have done together are in the same universe almost, they both have this sort of strange, surreal angle to them. In Mother, there’s a woman in a house being replaced by a fridge, meanwhile in the forest down the road there’s a man arresting a Spanish woman because he thinks she’s killed someone. I often joke that we should do a Jonathan Hughes Trilogy, you know? I’m always comfortable talking with Jonathan about if any changes need to be made and involving him in the process. I don’t like turning away writers from production, I like having him around on set and working on things if they have to change. Our sense of humour is similar too, Jonathan sent me a script that was so weird recently, but that I thought was so incredibly brilliant. I’m not going to say what it’s about, but I was just wondering maybe could we work on this together? The weirder the better!
Peter this is a comedic story, but it does have that something different to it. When you were reading the script for the first time what really struck you about it and made you excited to get involved?
Irish shorts can be few and far between in terms of being comedic with a character to play in it, it can be one or the other, or neither! It can be a symbolic, generic enough figure in a fairly miserable setting sometimes.
La Tumba has an actual character to play, a ridiculous character but still one rooted in a logic; even though what he’s doing is ridiculous, you can see his thinking and his own philosophy on things. That was exciting, and the guys’ pedigree speaks for itself. This was about getting to work with people who are serious about the art and the craft. I have made a load of short films, but often with people you have existing relationships with – those can turn out well but you’re not necessarily being pushed. This felt like a good chance to do something where there’s a performance, that’s not just me and where there’s not just comedy, it’s got other stuff as well, there’s a nice balance there.
Paddy is this over the top character but there are still emotional beats to his story – how do you as a performer keep that balance, being funny while selling those emotional moments?
Honestly, it’s probably to do with Eloisa who plays Pilar. Paddy in the script goes from this heightened figure in the first half and then towards the end he starts dropping his persona and letting his guard down, letting himself be vulnerable with her. It comes down to savvy casting, Eloisa is so real and raw, even in the early parts where I’m acting like Elmer Fudd almost with these wacky shenanigans, she’s playing it so emotional. When I start matching that a bit or becoming a bit more naturalistic and when the film slows down, she’s already been the tonal guide for that. It made my job easy in that regard.
At the time I was a bit worried about being too much and then having a bit of whiplash getting to the serious parts, but Natasha reassured me and then when you see the full piece, you realise the Pilar character is the heart of the film and the thing that keeps it from going into total farce at the start.
The chemistry between the two of you is exactly where it needs to be, which can be challenging considering that bilingual aspect. Did you and Eloisa talk much off camera? What did you both do to build that performance between you?
Eloisa lives in Galway, her partner is from there and she’s obviously totally able to converse off camera, but she had never acted on camera before, so a lot of it was putting her at ease about how things operate behind the scenes, getting used to multiple takes, all that stuff. Everyone was good about that, for me I just tried to be laid back and be chatty and a good co-star. We had great chats, I lived in Galway for a few years and my wife is from Galway, so we had a nice point of contact there.
It was great. Her performance is so good, it’s like a Pedro Almodovar character showing up in D’Unbelievables, it gives it such an energy. When she gives her monologue to camera that’s in Spanish, that Paddy doesn’t understand and that I wouldn’t understand only for having read the script, every take I would just be bewitched. Off camera you’re just thinking oh my God, this woman has a presence, she’s phenomenal.
Natasha, what is it like to direct somebody in what is not your native language? Obviously you know what is saying and the emotions that are coming across, but on camera how does it feel working in a language that you don’t use day to day?
That was on my mind for a lot of prep. I don’t speak Spanish obviously and I tried for maybe two months before we shot to learn conversational Spanish on Duolingo, which I forgot almost immediately. Eloisa actually teaches Spanish, and she tried to teach me some phrases when we were rehearsing. Which I also forgot immediately! So I just went with it.
When we met Eloisa first as we were casting her, myself, Jonathan and Natalie had a chat with her about the script. We knew immediately that she understood the role and how it should be performed, with that concept of tradition, preserving tradition and heritage, and also about loss. she’s such a good performer, using that understanding. Peter was saying that made his job very easy, it made my job even easier because I had a trust in that understanding. I realised very quickly with rehearsals, seeing her perform as we went along that the intention is exactly the same, you can tell by the tone what she’s trying to say and trying to convey is the same as you would say to somebody who is speaking in your native language. If she did have any questions it was mostly about her motivation, her goal, her intention for what she was trying to achieve within a scene and her character. In any moments where maybe things were getting lost in translation, my script supervisor Maud Ribbens does speak Spanish and could step in and translate a little bit. It was a real eye opener and it was fun to have achieved that, I just think Eloisa’s performance rocks, it’s really grounding, authentic and nuanced.
The more emotional and bittersweet aspects of the story builds and layers more and more as the short goes on. How challenging is it as a writer to build that Jonathan?
I think you give yourself over to the story a little bit. There were scenes like when they’re eating toast and drinking tea and the compulsion sometimes hit me to bring it back to another joke, but you have to take a step back from the scene and let it sit, another joke would be wasted here. It was a lot of rewriting, editing and taking out lines to find the perfect balance. I didn’t set out to make this big hilarious short with jokes the whole way through, I wanted to write something a bit sweeter about these two lost souls learning to communicate with each other, even though they can’t speak the same language. Going in with that intention, I knew I didn’t want to have it too joke heavy, especially in the second-half. The whole film was an exercise in tone to see could I make the two work. Hopefully I did!
Peter the people you play in your videos have this kind of tragicomic energy to them. Has working on a project like this influenced or informed your own approach to how you write and how you create your characters?
Paddy is almost like a softer, more decent version of some of my characters, he’s definitely more likeable by the end of the short. He is bombastic and brash but it’s all a mask, it’s all on the surface and underneath there’s sadness or frustration and this fragile ego. Going forward maybe I could do something in a similar vein where it is more heartfelt, it doesn’t have to be too lacerating or tragic, it can be warmer.
I approached it the same as my own characters. Reading it I was like oh I’m getting to do what I like, which is a very specific character comedy, in longer form and on a bigger scale. That’s what I want to be doing, that’s the good stuff as far as I’m concerned. For some reason in Ireland that kind of character stuff can be few and far between, the focus is more on the hook of the short. This shows you can have both, you can have a hook and very rich characters and it works in this timeframe.
I noticed the film was shot in Larch Hill. What was the experience like shooting on location in the woods? Is it something you’d be jumping to do more of going forward?
I didn’t mind doing it in summertime! Our first day of the shoot was really beautiful and sunny and warm, so if you can get weather like that in the middle of a beautiful forest in Ireland, then I think you’re laughing. Why wouldn’t you shoot in that area?
You can pick up some spontaneous surprises from any corner of nature, that’s something you can only embrace. I’ve been on shoots as a director or shadowing, when I was a trainee AD, some of the best shooting, the most beautiful cinematography and visual additions to your narrative that you can get can be within location shooting. It’s maybe not the nicest experience to have when it’s in the dead of winter and freezing cold, but at the same time, it’s not to be dismissed either, even some of those colder days can yield something really magic.
Now I’m saying that as a director and thinking we can get all this beautiful, creative stuff in this location, we’ll get this lovely dappling on the trees and this light coming through the woods, but of course from a technical aspect, it is hard to get generators up there. Jaro my DP would maybe disagree with me and point out some troubleshooting we had to do! But I’d definitely do it again, the woods are very special. I love woods and beaches and I haven’t really shot on a beach yet so Jonathan, write something on the beach please!
There is something about the woods that creates this melancholic feeling. Is that something you felt while shooting?
The woods always feel kind of old. They feel like there’s of a certain heritage and energy there, a buried, errant wisdom within the ground. I know that sounds very dramatic but there’s so much life there and I think there’s something quite moving about somebody coming there to embrace deaths in that way, because you feel like it will live on within that space where there’s so much growth. With the changing seasons, there is a constant cycle, there is loss as well. There’s a shot we have towards the end which I love, with Peter standing at the grave and paying his respects, it looks particularly magic. We get this natural look of sunbeams coming through the woods which we didn’t manipulate at all, it was just this beautiful shot at the magic hour which showed the spectacle of the woods and really added to that scene and that moment.
I do have to say how much I loved working with Jaro Waldeck as well, our cinematographer. She blew me away with how much she was able to help me structure the cinematic storytelling between Peter and Eloisa. Half of the film is just a two-hander between them both, but I think Jaro really helped us to convey so much. I think she needs to be worked with by absolutely everybody looking for a Director of Photography in Ireland at the moment, she was exceptional.
Peter for the people in your life, what has it been like for them seeing you do something a bit different?
Well my wife has seen it, she loved it and was surprised by it. I haven’t spread around because it’s obviously doing the circuit right now, but I do feel in a kind of arrogant actory kind of way, “I can’t wait for people to see how good I am”!
No it’s just nice to be doing something where people aren’t rolling there eyes at the end like oh yeah, another mean-spirited sketch. I’m really happy with how it all turned out, especially the latter part, it just feels lived in and real. The other performers you’re with and the direction and the time that was put into it, all that stuff really shows and pays off. I’m excited for it to be seen and for people to experience that shift where it does get serious and emotional. It’s about loss and people have all experienced that, there’s people I know that will be emotional, seeing someone from their life in those moments. The way it’s shot by Natasha, it says more than say if Jonathan had written a whole monologue. Not that that wouldn’t be amazing! But the way that we linger on those final couple of moments between the two, that’s the kind of thing that will get people and I think people will get a kick out of it.
That experience is universal, right Jonathan? Even where there is a language barrier or different kinds of people, we all experience those feelings.
I was hoping I was tapping into something that was so universal, that transcended the language barrier. It’s nice to see people connect with it and go along with the journey. Even though we’ve had to trick them into feeling things by the end of it! We get them in and they think it’s this silly comedy about an old woman being arrested, and then it descends into this heartfelt story between these two lost souls. I think there’s a nice universality to it.
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