Big steps forward for Hannah Mamalis

A writer, actor and comedian, Dublin’s own Hannah Mamalis is no stranger to the festival circuit. On stage, she’s performed here at Dublin Fringe, First Fortnight. For film, her short film Baby Steps has taken off in recent months, showing in Sweden, in Belfast, across the Republic and now at home in the Dublin International Film Festival.  

Her directing debut, the short follows Em, a young woman 7 months pregnant and struggling to connect to the baby growing inside of her. 

One of this year’s nominees for DIFF’s Discovery Award, Mamalis is stepping out bigger and better as a creative force. Developed through the Actor as Creator programme, Baby Steps sees her writing, acting and directing, and Mamalis spoke to us about balancing those roles, working collaboratively and the benefits that attending a festival has to a creative mind.  

DIFF is really big for you this year, what does it mean for you as a creative to get that kind of spotlight at this and other festivals, particularly for Baby Steps?  

It’s mad, I think because Baby Steps was my first short and my first time giving directing a go, it’s just been super encouraging. I’m definitely someone who really thrives on positive affirmation as well, I’m an only child, so unfortunately I really need that “oh, you’re doing really well”! It does a lot for my confidence. And of course you do feel like you’re on the right path when you enjoy doing something and you want to do more of it too. But also it’s just really nice when people go yeah, we agree, keep doing it. You think okay, maybe I will.   

Making the short through the Actor As Creator programme, similarly was it useful to receive that affirmation and support from that, as you’re going into directing for the first time?  

Definitely, I really had wanted to pivot into doing film for a long time. The track that I’ve taken has kind of been one that’s jumped all around the place because I was always trying to grab an opportunity to do stuff. I started out in acting and I did a course in the Factory, now Bow Street and then realized that I would lose my mind if I was just waiting around for other people to give me work, it’s one of the hardest things about acting. I felt I needed to kind of regain a little bit of control over my life and that’s when I started doing a little bit of writing for myself. The easiest way to get that up on its feet was by doing theater, I started writing and performing one woman shows that meant I could actually be working. I pivoted into comedy as a similar thing, you could get up in a week and just do a 5 minute stand up set somewhere and be constantly honing your work.  

But the film aspect of it was something that I really wanted to try and get back to and get into properly. That can be difficult, obviously films, they take a lot of money and other people’s skills and expertise to pull together so it’s harder to just do off the bat. With Actor as Creator, the whole proviso of this is that you are an actor and you can write for yourself so here was an opportunity to make a short. I really wanted to give that the best that I have, to use it as proof that I could do more. 

As part of the scheme you have to write it and you have to be in it and initially I hadn’t really thought about myself directing it necessarily because I hadn’t done that before, but the more I worked on it, the more I was honing it and it was coming together, I just really felt like I didn’t want to give my baby away! I suppose I had the vision for it myself, I knew how I wanted it to look and feel. The more I thought about it, the more I was like, if not now, when? If it’s shite it’s shite, but as it’s not a massive budget you have more freedom to just give it a go. It was difficult for sure, but ultimately very rewarding.  

It’s literally your baby in that sense. When you’re writer, director and acting in something, do you see the project differently from those three perspectives or is it more an overarching view of things that you bring together?   

I’ve been working across many different things for years, so when it came to doing something like Baby Steps, I realized that that’s how my brain was kind of working anyway. It didn’t feel like a massive leap in terms thinking about the other elements of it, I was already doing it for other things. I’m probably a bit of a control freak and I was already thinking about how the different factors tied together.  When I started out just acting, I remember chatting to someone who was very much like, are you doing acting or are you doing writing, pick one or you’re gonna be unfocused, which I think is horseshit advice because actually everything helps towards something else. If you can get experience in as many things as possible, it’s gonna rewire your brain in in such a way that those elements then are always something you consider. That’s how it feels while I’ve been working for the last however many years, that one thing builds on top of the other that then builds on the next and they don’t go away, they stack. The only thing I was wary of in terms of being in the film and directing was that I gave both enough focus, I didn’t want one to fall down because of the other. So the meant just being as prepared as possible, so on the day for the most part, because I had set everything up and my Director of Photography Evan and I had all the chats beforehand and we knew exactly what we were doing, for those moments when I had to act, I could really just focus on that.  

When you are taking on multiple roles it’s great to be surrounded by people that are experience and are as invested as you are, like Evan, like your producer Zoe Brennan-Whitmore, your costars like Tara Flynn. Was it useful to work with people who are very understanding of where you’re coming from and what you wanted?  

Big time. I knew that I could only do it if I had a good team around me, and that I trusted that everyone was doing their job and doing it well. That again is all in the prep and those preliminary chats you have, I could then be confident on the day that they’re all brilliant, so I didn’t really have to worry. It’s a big thing with collaboration, you want to get the vibes right with the people you’re working with. Sometimes I would ask Zoe if she was in the room what she thought, you know, do you think I have that or should I go again, because I trust her opinion. We shot it over 2 days and we just had a really nice time overall. We had made sure that like a lot of the variables were controlled, we were shooting it in my house, we’re shooting it inside, so you’re not dealing with a lot of outside factors, it’s quite contained. It all went relatively smoothly in the end because everyone knew what we were doing and everyone was sound and talented.  

You’ve done comedy work, and you’ve shown how comedy can be used to inform other aspects of storytelling on stage and on screen. What can viewers that are seeing Baby Steps for the first time expect in terms of the tone and the kind of story you’re telling?  

I think the stories that I’m interested in telling and the ones that I like to watch always have a couple of different elements. What I really like doing to an audience and it’s the same with live shows too, is yes, to absolutely to make them laugh, but I also love to make them cry, if I can. It’s pretty manipulative but I get a kick out of it. I like that dichotomy, particularly if you can try in terms of the tone, to flip between them quickly, it can be quite affecting. When you’re finding something hilarious, and then the rug is pulled out from you, that’s really satisfying in something. That’s what I’m striving for. 

Short films have a great capacity to do that because an audience thinks they’re settling into an idea of what they’re seeing and then suddenly they’re seeing something that affects them in a totally different way. For Cantata, were there similar aspects to that short that drew you in to work on that?  

I think Fionn is a comic genius. We’ve worked together on stuff before and on upcoming stuff too. And again it comes down to a matter of trust. The people that you start to realize you’re collaborating with a bit more, you just know that what they make is going to be good, and you want to be a part of it. I thought the script for Cantata was gas. And Dave Fox is a brilliant director and the guys from Take Ten Productions are fab too. A big part of it for is having fun. I only clocked this recently, but when I was a teenager I was obsessed with the Lord of the Rings movies, totally obsessed. I used to watch them on a loop, I’d finish the third one and I’d lash the first one back on, but also all the behind the scenes on the DVDs. And I used to adore seeing how much fun they looked like they were having and how bonded they seem to be. I would always think, man that’s what I want to do. I want to make something good and also just have loads of craic doing it, that just seems like the perfect balance to me.   

When you’re at ease, I suppose you can have more fun with the project and more fun with your career, which is the ideal, really, as long as you don’t break your toe like Viggo.  

Kicking the helmet, yeah. Poor bastard. Also when you work with people you like and you’re filming something together, you know you kind of go for it or do it a different way. You know they’ll  trust you and your choices. It’s a mutual respect thing that that really helps toward making something good.  

With festivals, I’m always curious how much time and how much headspace you have to see other stuff that’s on at the festival when you’re meeting people, you’re running around, showing your work, is there much scope for seeing other work?  

I actually think it’s really important. I find most of what I do is inspired by other people’s work. If I’m ever at a point where I feel a bit stuck or unsure, I just have to go see stuff. That will spark something generally or give me some inspiration. With Baby Steps in particular, I’ve tried to go to as many of the festivals it was showing in as I could and see other stuff as much as possible. 

There’s something nice just immersing yourself in them and seeing what else is on. Having gone to a few festivals now, I’ve really got a lot of respect for the work that a festival team do in terms of curating and putting stuff together, generally, it’s all really good you know, it’s there in the festival for a reason. It’s offering a new perspective or doing something really well, so you’re always generally going to get something out of it. And it’s great being able to see the choices other filmmakers are making. It’s all very inspiring and all of it just constantly sparks your brain. 

Baby Steps screens at Dublin on Screen 1 on 27th February 2024 at 12pm at the Light House Cinema. 

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