By Andrea Gronvall

The Gronvall Report: Director Aisling Walsh On MAUDIE

Things are looking up for women filmmakers, with Patty Jenkins’s blockbuster Wonder Woman, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s biopic Megan Leavey, and now Aisling Walsh’s Maudie, an intimate, perfectly scaled life story of celebrated Canadian folk artist Maud Dowley Lewis (1903-1970). The movie gives Sally Hawkins as the title character, and Ethan Hawke as her husband Everett, roles that rank among the best in their already illustrious careers. Their chemistry is true joy.

Maudie begins in Depression-era Nova Scotia, when rebellious Maud, who has been patronized and resented since early youth for the juvenile arthritis that misshaped her body, takes a job as live-in housekeeper for a hardened local fisherman, Everett Lewis, a surly loner who grew up in an orphanage. They each carry a lot of emotional baggage, and have diametrically opposed temperaments, making for some uncomfortably rough going early on. But through patience, persistence, and sweet reasonableness, Maud finds ways to break through his defenses. She brings order and companionship to his existence, and the fact that the post cards and canvases she paints of rural subjects begin to fetch money doesn’t hurt, either.

A multiple BAFTA nominee for directorial work in television, including “Wallander” (2011), starring Kenneth Branagh, and “An Inspector Calls” (2015), starring David Thewlis, Walsh also won plaudits for her 2003 feature Song for a Raggy Boy, starring Aidan Quinn and Iain Glen. The Dublin-born filmmaker is a graduate of that city’s Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology, and of England’s National Film and Television School, considered among the top 15 international film schools. Maudie combines Walsh’s love of painting and of film to serve a romance that blooms in a most inhospitable environment.

The love story genre used to be a staple of the movie industry. Why do you think there are so relatively few now?

That’s a good question. I think what drew all of us to the project was the love story. It’s a portrait over 35 years of a marriage that was quite rare in its time, a story of a woman’s struggles and how she opened up her husband’s life.

Maud and Everett are both outsiders who together find a way not only to survive but also achieve fulfillment. At the beginning you think it’s never going to work out, that they’re never going to fall in love. By the end of the film he’s a changed man, who allowed her to find herself as an artist. They live a simple, modest life under tough circumstances, and yet they’re very happy, despite the fact that they’re not the sort of people who fit into the box that “normal” society would assign them. Instead, they thrive within their own box—a tiny 12’ by 12’ house on an isolated stretch of road. It’s only within the last five years of her life that Maud becomes anywhere near well known, thanks to a half-hour documentary by the Canadian Broadcasting Company, whose crew interviewed her and Everett and showcased the home she so vibrantly decorated with her paintings. Now, 50 years after her death, her art is being looked at again.

Maudie is a painterly film, and not just because it’s about a painter. The lighting choices you and your cinematographer Guy Godfree made are evocative and resonant. How did you draw on your own training as an art student to devise the look of this film?

I just think that it’s more how you relate to the world, how you respond to that particular landscape, and how you respond to people. I’m only five feet tall and my view of the world is often from that height. You find a reference, a photograph, a painting that gives you a feel of what you’re after, and you respond. That location where we shot looks and feels dramatically different on a cold rainy day than it does on a warm sunny day.

I studied color and composition as an art student, but here I also wanted to echo Maud Lewis’s painting and its relationship to that landscape, the view she had from that small corner in her little home of the vastness of the surrounding land and sky. Once they open that door and look out, you go from something intimate to the largeness of the world that surrounds that cottage. If you’re working that far north and the weather is cooperating, sometimes you get great natural light.

For me what was really important were Sally and Ethan’s performances within that cramped home. The house starts out as very dark and dreary. Maud gradually changes it; with her painted landscapes she brings some of the color and vitality of the outside world in, and creates something personal and romantic.

I have to tell you—and maybe this is why I’m not a casting agent—I would never have thought of pairing Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke onscreen. You worked well with Sally on the British miniseries “Fingersmith” a dozen years ago, and over the years had hoped to work with her again. But how did you see Ethan as such a good fit for her?

Sally and Ethan are very similar in a lot of ways. I think of them as being beyond actors; they’re artists who get really excited by a challenge, and transform themselves. I was blown away by the film work he’s done over the last few years, particularly Boyhood (2014). I have always loved him; there’s something in his collected work that made him right. And probably no one else would have offered him a part like this. I just thought he was brave enough; he takes chances. We met in London, and I sensed we could work together and be bold.

How did you know that?

He’s an artist, like Sally. That’s what this film required. It would have been a different film without him; I can’t imagine it any other way.

Without a doubt he’s highly talented, with sound instincts. When he started out in movies, he could have easily gone the “pretty boy” route, but he didn’t—he kept pushing for projects that were edgy or innovative, that broadened his range. Plus, he directs, and has done a lot of theatre, on Broadway and off.

And more: he’s a musician, a composer, a screenwriter, and a novelist. It wasn’t easy shooting in that remote location, withstanding the elements. But you create a reality and make it your own. There’s no room to hide in that 12 x 12 space. He and Sally were fearless.

How long did it take you to develop the film?

I spent about two and a half years, but I joined the film in year 10 of its 13 years in development [after the previous director had departed]. I read the script and knew immediately that I wanted Sally for the title role. A few days later I sent her a couple of pictures of Maud Lewis; Sally wrote back and said “yes.” After that, things moved quickly.

You’ve stated elsewhere that you don’t see any difference between directing films and directing television. But surely there must be some differences between working on a small independent movie like Maudie and making a TV show for some giant media company?

I’ve done a number of one-off films for television, but that’s not like working on a long-running series, where you are looking as your overall goal the return of that series. Working in TV informs your filmmaking.

For example, [J.B. Priestley’s] “An Inspector Calls” was not a stage play familiar to me, although I knew that a screen adaptation had been filmed in the 1950s. When you are approached with a project, you think about who are the people I could make it with? What would a particular actor bring to it? What would be the challenges that I’d face? The same thing happened with Maudie. It’s all storytelling. Without my work in TV I don’t know if I would have made theatrical movies. I’ve been really lucky.

There’s been a lot in the American press over the past few years about the difficulty female directors have getting work in Hollywood. Obviously the Irish film industry has its own structure, but did you face any particular hardships as a woman in the industry on your side of the Atlantic?

Even though I’m Irish, and Maudie is an Irish-Canadian co-production, I went to film school in England and I live in London. But I think it all starts much earlier: you say as a teenager that, for instance, you want to be an astronaut. I come from a family who believed I could do whatever I wanted to; I never thought of myself as a female in a male-dominated world. People have asked me if my directing career would have been different if I had been born a man. I don’t know. Who knows what kind of films I would have made? But given my interests and my methods, I don’t know that I would have done things any other way.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon