We hope Irish film about domestic abuse brings about social change

A woman who directed two hugely successful movies — Mamma Mia and The Iron Lady — has a new project, a small Irish film about domestic violence. CARA O’DOHERTY talks to Phyllida Lloyd about ‘Herself’
We hope Irish film about domestic abuse brings about social change

Clare Dunne, Molly McCann and cast in ‘HERSELF’, directed by Phyllida Lloyd.

SHE directed the smash hit Mamma Mia and the thundering Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady. She has also directed a host of successful theatre productions including a much-lauded all-female Shakespeare trilogy.

But recently Phyllida Lloyd, a CBE in the UK no less, set her sights on a far smaller Irish production, called Herself. What drew such a high-profile director to the movie, written by first-time feature writer Clare Dunne?

“We were working together on a series of all-female Shakespeare plays set in the women’s prison,” she says. “I got to know what a remarkable actress Clare is, but what I didn’t know was what a gifted writer she was.

“At first, I was just giving feedback as a friend and colleague. I was immediately taken by how a first-time writer of a film seemed to have such an instinct for the relationship between words and images,” said Phyllida.

The decision to direct it, however, wasn’t an easy one.

“I was a little bit shy about saying I’m going to go to Ireland to tell this Irish story, which I knew required real authenticity. I thought, how am I going to bring that to it? I decided the only way was to listen and learn. It has been a powerful passion project,” added Phyllida.

The film tells the story of Sandra, a mother of two young children who lives with an abusive husband played by Ian Lloyd Anderson. After a near-fatal attack, they are forced to flee and rebuild their life.

Although she has been an actor for a few years, Dunne didn’t feel she was up to the challenge of playing Sandra, but Lloyd knew better.

“Clare hadn’t necessarily written it for herself, she just wanted it to get made. The more I read the script and started to imagine the film, I knew Claire had to play Sandra. She knew the character and had the skill to play her. She managed to tell this harrowing story with great humour, originality, and momentum.”

Working with an actor who is also the writer can, at times, lead to conflict, but Lloyd says there was no time for ego.

“There was no time for anyone to be precious. We only had a few weeks to shoot. In a way, it was an advantage. It meant if a line wasn’t working we could improvise. We had a lot of trust between us.

“Most of the cast came from a theatre background and there is robustness that comes from theatre. There’s a fearlessness about a theatre actor on a movie set. My bigger worry was how the hell were we going to shoot this in five weeks? How do you deal with kids who are only allowed to work certain hours a day? They were big concerns.”

It was Lloyd’s first time working with child actors and she says working with the two girls, Ruby Rose O’Hara and Molly McCann, was an eye-opener.

“It was a difficult subject matter. Molly had acted before, but Ruby Rose had never done anything before, but has such an old head on young shoulders. They were remarkable children.

“There was one scene where Molly has to ignore her father. I reminded her that her character was never speaking to her dad again until he said sorry to her mother for what he’s done. She looked at me as if I was an idiot and said, “Is sorry, enough?” And I thought, Oh my God, don’t patronise these children. They’ve read the script. They understand what they are doing.”

One of the big points of the film is how a victim of domestic abuse is treated by the system. Sandra’s husband is viewed as a bad husband for beating his wife, but not a bad father.

According to Lloyd this, sadly, is a universal story.

“We now read the terrifying statistics of the escalation of domestic abuse during this pandemic globally. The court’s demonization of the victim is terrifying. The courts don’t necessarily always ask the right questions and this idea of why didn’t you leave?

“Most homicides occur against women by their abusive partners at the moment when they leave. So that thing of why didn’t you just walk out, aside from putting your life at risk and the lives of your children, where the hell are you going to, where are you going when there is no social housing?.

“What we want for the film is social change. We’re advocating for more support, better understanding, more refuge.”

As a prolific director of female-centred films, Lloyd has seen a slow but steady increase in females working behind the cameras over the last 20 years but admits there is still far to go.

“In the indie world, where the economic stakes are not so high, women have better opportunities. It is when you get into the commercial world where the stakes get economically higher and higher that you see fewer women working. How often do we see women in Hollywood go out and direct blockbusters? We’ve still got a way to go.”

“Taxpayer funding is so important. The funding comes with requirements for equity. Like on this, Screen Ireland said we had to have a 50-50 crew. You think it shouldn’t be too hard, but then you realise that certain departments are very male-dominated in a way that doesn’t necessarily seem logical. You think, well, why can’t we have women drivers on the set or women caterers?

“In certain behind-the-camera departments, women are underrepresented. It was a privilege working in Ireland. It was a very unpatriarchal circle and we managed to get a 50-50 crew.”

Herself was due in Irish cinemas now, but has been postponed until further notice.

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