'Maudie' Director Aisling Walsh on the Enduring Appeal of Cinema's Collaborative Nature
"You get younger people in to see this movie and they're hugely effected. I’ve heard teenagers walk out saying: “I never knew you could make a film like this."'
Maudie is a moment of fulfillment for director Aisling Walsh, who says: “I always wanted to make a film about an artist.” Written by Sherry White and with Sally Hawkins as the titular artist Maud Lewis, the story of the Nova Scotia based folk artist's romance with the reclusive Everette Lewis (Ethan Hawke) has been guided by a strong female authorial presence.
Walsh made her feature directorial debut in 1988 with Joyriders, which was followed by the true story of violent disciplinary abuse in an Irish Catholic Reformatory and Industrial School Song for a Raggy Boy (2003) and then the horror-thriller The Daisy Chain (2008). Her filmography is populated with a number of notable literary inspired works as a director that offers nuance to her use of alternative source material, with adaptations for the BBC of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith (2005), Henning Mankell’s Wallander (2010), John Braine’s Room at the Top (2012) and J.B. Priestley’s moral play An Inspector Calls (2015).
In conversation with PopMatters, Walsh reflected on her discovery of cinema and the enduring appeal of its collaborative nature. She also discussed the process of adaptation and the pursuit of essence, as well as addressing whether art matters for contemporary society.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
I went to art school when I was 16 and I had two inspirational teachers there. The man that ran that school just allowed us to create and to do whatever we wanted to. There was a film appreciation club at night where you could watch a movie and have a chat about it afterward, and a few of us decided that we wanted to make a film. So it started there and then carried on.
As a child, my father took me to the cinema a lot and his company always had a Christmas party for the children of the people that worked at the factory. At the end of the party, there was always a film. This white screen was pulled down and benches were lined up, and you watched a black and white movie. There was always something hugely magical about that.
So watching and knowing films goes way back for me, and then I went to The National Film School in Beaconsfield, where Bill Douglas, a Scottish filmmaker who came in to tutor the school for a while, was hugely influential. He taught me about filmmaking and writing, and why you wanted to make the particular films you wanted to make. So along the way, there have been a lot of amazing people.
You have spoken of how you believe there is a genuine interest from other actors who want to work with Sally Hawkins. Picking up on your closing remark above, does one of the fundamental needs for creating a film come from the desire for people who want to work together, not just share the common goal to tell a story?
Yes! I was trained as a painter originally and I think the reason filmmaking made sense is that it is a collaboration. I get to work with collaborators that I call ‘fellow artists’, and that's hugely important for me. I often say to the people I work with and to younger filmmakers: “You can't make a film on your own.” It's not like painting or writing. I write and I quite like that kind of thing for a bit, but at the heart of filmmaking is this collaboration of a bunch of people together trying to tell a story, and everyone has their part to play.
If you have written something that you are going to direct, or when you are in the cutting room with your editor, then you have that quiet time. But out there in the moment of making that film, you are with another however many people, and that for me is such a huge part of it.
Speaking with filmmaker and theatre director Alex Helfrecht on the subject of adaptation, she said: “You have to have a strong take on the material, but you have to honour the spirit.” Would you agree that the process of adapting a literary work or telling a biographical story is about finding -- alongside your collaborators -- this essence?
Yeah, we have all got to work together to find that. I have both adapted and made quite a lot of stuff based on true stories, or from biographical material. You have to find the truth of that for you because you can't tell everything.
In the case of Maudie there aren't that many people who knew of them (Maud and Everett Lewis) terribly well, because they were so much on the fringes of that society. But you try to find the essence of what it is, and for me standing in her house, the museum in Halifax where it has been standing as a permanent exhibit, that made sense. I thought: How did this woman create everything she did out of this tiny space for almost 40 years?
There's footage at the end of the film from the half hour documentary I first found three minutes of online one Sunday afternoon. I heard Maud speaking for the first time, saw her moving and heard Everett speak, and I saw those surroundings that were sold in 1965. That for me was a huge moment, the film sometimes made up of these huge moments, and then the understanding that what attracted me to the project in the first place was because I'm female. I always wanted to make a film about an artist. There are so few women recognised for their art and it was the circumstances in which she continued to create.
It was also the portrait of the marriage across 40 years. I've been married for quite a while myself, and so I think I understood that. But they were the two things that fascinated me to try to find the essence of, which was important to (Maud and Everett).
Then you work with an instinct -- how things just feel right in scenes and you have ideas. One of the wonderful things about working with Sally and Ethan, and my DOP (director of photography) as well, because he had to join that party on occasions too, was you do get ideas. You are out at this location for the best part of five weeks and you walk back in the evening and think: It would be nice to do a scene here, and you get a chance to if there's time. With actors like Sally and Ethan, that's the way they work too -- they're continuing to find things along the way.
There is a perspective amongst filmmakers that there are three versions of the script: the script that is written, the script that is shot, and the script that is edited. Do you agree?
If I write something, like Song for a Raggy Boy, which I wrote and directed, then I’ll forget when I'm out there that I'm the writer. When I'm making a film it's a different process, and if I'm working from a script written by somebody else, which I was in the case of Maudie, then you’ve got to respect that work. It's slightly different, but you're making it and that script becomes the images, and those performances become the whole thing -- Sally Hawkins becomes Maud and Ethan Hawke becomes Everett.
Some weeks later you get into the cutting room and then it's a whole different process, and I will actually forget I'm the director. The editor and I are trying to tell the story in the best way that we can with the material we have, going back and looking at the performances. For me, it all comes back and it's an amazing moment at the very end when you've mixed the film, and you sit there and watch it. That’s when everything comes to being one thing for me -- the script, the making of the film and the editing. I look at it and I say: “Right, that's the film I made and I will never see it like this again.” It is a special moment when I can see everything that I've done, and then it goes out into the world.
It's an interesting process, and a lot of people will have joined and left that journey along the way. So that's the end of that collaboration. There are a lot of amazing friendships along the way, and particularly with this film because it is very intimate. For much of those six weeks we shot, it was Ethan, Sally, the DOP, first assistant, boom swinger and myself in that tiny house, with other people coming in and out to do whatever they needed to do. So it was a very intense experience.
I go back to the very first day of pre-production -- there’s John Hand, the production designer and myself in the classroom in St. Johns. We cleaned the room and set up our desks, and that was a special moment because that's the beginning of our journey. I have worked with him a few times, and with this film it was very particular -- there was a huge contribution from the production design because of the nature of the piece. The director of photography, John and myself all worked in one room, and I always try to have us in the same room working away together. It’s a lovely way to work, and then other people will join us. So that collaboration is a major part of my filmmaking, and it always has been.
Maudie finds not only expression through art, but human connection, which the film celebrates...
There were little moments in the film when I could look on her as an artist and work back. The first time I went to visit her house, one of the first questions I asked the curator of the museum was why she never painted a self-portrait. Most artists do that, and most come back to that again and again. Frida Kahlo and a lot of women artists paint themselves. Anyway, the curator said to me: “There’s a mirror at the back of her little table at the window where she painted, and we felt that she must have stood there, looked at herself and painted those flowers around her face. That’s the nearest thing we feel we have to a self-portrait.” That’s why I put that scene in the film. I thought: Well, that's kind of amazing.
Also, her earlier work is of animals and a lot of the Christmas cards that she painted were of children and couples. Then it became quite singular because she painted Everett again and again. I wanted to see that first moment she put him in a picture and the connection with the landscape around her because she never travelled more than 30 miles away from the house. The longest journey she had in her life was probably to get there when she first applied for that job, and when she was driven to the hospital at the end of her life. It was important to have that interior connection with the house and was in many ways why we made the decision to build a house on the side of the road.
When I joined the project, the producer had been trying to make it (the house) for the best part of a decade. During the course of that time, there were various discussions about how are they were going to put this 12' by 12' foot house in a studio, and what they were going to do about the outside. It just made sense that we build a house out there. So what we had then was the house and that landscape, and the actors’ relationship to that was just a whole other element to the film that I don't think anybody had thought about up until that point.
Those are the things that happen when you are working with and collaborating with people you've worked with a few times -- they start to make sense. That's when you understand why directors come back to working with the same people. This is the second time I've worked with Sally and we left Newfoundland saying we wanted to work together again. he same with Ethan. Who you collaborate with is important because when they're right it’s an amazing and freeing experience.
Speaking with filmmaker Terence Davies he said: “In the end, you have to say does it matter, does art make a difference? I don’t know. Sometimes I think yes, sometimes I think no, but I just don’t know.” You’ve spoken of the importance of art for you and Maud, yet does it actually matter to society?
Of course it does. I realise now over the course of the last three months, having had this film screened at festivals, what it does to people. They come out and are amazed by the story and by the filmmaking. So of course art matters. It matters to me because that’s all I’ve ever been.
But I know Terry, I was at school with him and in fact, I worked as a student on the last part of the trilogy with him, and it’s amazing to think back to that time. Really for a lot of artists, for us to live it is so important, and if it’s not filmmaking then maybe it’s something else. But there has to be room for it in this world because when you show a film like Maudie, and I’m sure Terence finds this with his films, you come out of the cinema and people are desperate to talk to you, to talk about how it has just spoken to and effected them. That’s why we need it (art).
There’s a level of filmmaking for me that is kind of insanity, for example, these huge budget films. You look at them and think: I don’t know how they spent that money, but that’s not the world I come from. The world I come from are films that I’ve made and I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to practice that, but there are huge gaps in between because it takes such a long time, and that’s why I’ve made the television films to keep going. But it’s hugely important. That collective response in a cinema is one of the most amazing things, and it will continue to be a powerful medium. People pay their money to see a film and are hugely affected, and there is room for these smaller films. You see these big blockbusters that come out in the summer and actually, there are a lot of people that want to go and see an indie film, to go on a journey to discover something which is what Maudie does for a lot of people.
Every time you screen it for an audience the response is they laugh and they cry, they feel sad and happy, and they learn something about a life that’s really interesting. I think the film also talks about simplicity. Look at the simple life they led -- a 12' by 12' house, no running water, no electricity and no communication with the outside world because they lived very much on the fringes of that society. It’s an interesting world to look at.
I think the world is such a sad place without film, art, music, and theatre, and all of those things are important. You get younger people in to see this movie and they're hugely affected. I’ve had teenagers walk out saying: “I never knew you could make a film like this.” That’s why film is important.
Maudie is in UK cinemas now.