Rachel Griffiths, Mothering and Gender Inequality in Film | An Interview with Mammal Director Rebecca Daly

A couple of weeks ago on unusually warm, sunny afternoon, Alan Bennett and I sat down with Rebecca Daly, director of The Other Side of Sleep and Joyriders, to discuss her new film, Mammal..

Mammal director Rebecca Daly - HeadStuff.org
Mammal director Rebecca Daly Source

‘Ultimately, it’s a love story,’ Daly said. ‘It’s about a woman who tries to love her son too late. For me, that loss of possibility is the crux of the [film], along with the mother-son relationship that a lot of people can find a way in to identify with – although, admittedly these things get pushed to quite extreme points in the film. The basic, essential relationship is very identifiable.’  Mammal tells the story of Margaret, played by Rachel Griffiths, a 40-something year old single woman who leads an extraordinarily normal life. Her 18 year old son is missing, but so is her connection to him. She left him and his father a long time ago and is settling for trying to mother everything else, from cats to lodgers. When 18 year old Joe appears injured outside her house, Margaret takes him in and takes a step beyond mothering in a slow-burning, tense tale of redemption, relationships, resilience, humanity, and life.

When asked about of Margaret’s ‘mothering’ tendencies, Daly said ‘Yeah, but with safe emotional distance. With the cats, and then with lodgers – it’s all the outward trappings of a relationship without any emotional involvement, and I think she lives in those liminal spaces of not getting too close and still experiencing, but not fully.’

Exploring what it was about Margaret that caused her to distance herself, Daly said ‘I think in a way it is a result of her choice to leave.’ She went on to explain that this was in direct consideration during the scriptwriting process, as the reason for Margaret to choose to distance herself from others was the very question of her character as she was written. ‘I think a lot of that’s to do with youth. It could’ve been postnatal depression, it could’ve been loads of things. Then when once the decision is made, how do you live with that? Can you go back? By the time she might have wanted, on any level, to go back, it was too late and too much damage was done.’ Expanding on the ultimately ordinary life Margaret leads throughout Mammal, Daly said ‘That’s the other thing. She leaves a family situation to have a really unextraordinary life, I mean it’s just so ordinary, and I think there’s something in that too – that she keeps herself in a space that’s a little bit punishing, or restricting. There’s a fear of what might open up if she became really emotionally connected to something, or someone. She has normal, everyday interactions with people, but I don’t think she’s particularly close with anyone, and Joe sort of throws a spanner in the works.’

Rachel Griffiths in Mammal - Headstuff.org
Rachel Griffiths in Mammal Source

We asked Rebecca about the casting process, particularly about casting Rachel Griffiths as the lead. ‘For me, having Rachel in the role, what is most interesting is just how different she is from Margaret,’ Daly notes. ‘I think it really is Rachel Griffiths like you’ve not really seen her before. It’s a very different character, and Rachel is used to playing these more edgy, verbal, articulate, gregarious, feisty characters, and that was partly what attracted her to [the role]. Margaret is so different – plus she’s a mum herself. [Rachel] is a very frank person, and honest and willing to talk about feelings that are ugly, feelings Margaret would have and which Rachel could identify with, being a mother. There was tension between Rachel’s gregariousness and Margaret’s tendency to be someone who holds secrets, and is mysterious. Makes a lot of sense as some of the decisions Margaret makes at times, to me, seem really immature and a bit impetuous, and I think Rachel really exudes that.’ Daly went on to discuss her first meeting with Rachel, saying ‘I hadn’t met her before I offered her the part, though I just watched everything she’d been in – and I mean everything – especially as it was such a different part for her. She’s a brilliant actress but it didn’t mean she could necessarily play everything, and then we met up in LA for a couple of days and went through the script. We went grocery shopping together and drank margaritas together and really hung out, and by the end we realised we would get along just fine and it would be something that worked. At that point if we’d realised, you know, we’d hated each other or if she’d thought ‘this project is shit’ or whatever, then we could have tiptoed out, but at that point the offer and the acceptance had been made – it was a meeting, not an audition. You don’t get to audition Rachel Griffiths. Or, well I don’t get to audition her, maybe some people do.’ Daly laughed.

Eighteen year old Joe, played by Barry Keoghan, truly threw a spanner in the ordinary works of Margaret’s life. On the subject of his appearance in the film, Daly mused on the importance of his character to the story. ‘Joe brings something really important to Margaret’s life – they teach each other. She teaches him to swim. He teaches her to be young, youthful, carefree; he introduces that to her world. In some ways, they’re not that different. Both missing something. Both of them know about looking to escape from pain, to numb pain, and both understand pain. Both can be cruel at points and manipulative, and also can be tender. Both of them are people who don’t judge other people which is convenient [for them]. They are unapologetic for who they really are and it works for both of them I think.’

Joe played by Barry Keoghan - HeadStuff.org
Joe played by Barry Keoghan Source

As Mammal is gritty and tense, it allows for plenty of character development. Alan commented on how Joe becomes likeable in spite of some very obvious flaws. We asked about the complications involved in balancing that aspect of character development, both as a director and as a writer. ‘As a writer I’m very interested in the psychology of a character and why someone would do something. Some people approach writing from ‘write what you know’ and I don’t come from that at all – I write about what’s going to intrigue me, what’s going to hold my interest and not just through writing, but through filming as well. I think that I’m always trying to say ‘why would they do this, what’s going to happen if they do this?’. Also, human beings do cruel things and lovely things, I just don’t believe in ‘you’re all good, you’re all bad’ and I find it very interesting [to see] what happens when you set up contradictory things, or characters do contradictory things. It sets up a tension in the character, and in the story. I’m all about tension I love tension – in characters, in the story, it’s how things fit together.’ Ultimately, she said, casting Rachel was casting her ‘against Margaret, in a way.’

We asked Daly about her feelings on the ‘good vs evil’ trope often presented in Hollywood blockbusters, where a character can only be one or the other, and if she saw herself working on films in the US. ‘Feelings? Some of them are great, some awful. There’s room in film for all kinds. Some fulfil a purpose; Mammal is not fulfilling the same purpose as a blockbuster, and there’s a place for them all. I’m not anti blockbuster or anything; there’s a reason why characterisation is stripped down in them. They’re action and plot-y so you don’t really have time to develop characters in a rich way. I’d work in the States, yes, and possibly move in a more commercial direction, but working on storyboard after storyboard, i’d lose my mind!’ Daly said.

Last year, just 7% of the top-grossing films from 2015 were directed by women. Reflecting on the serious gender imbalance in the film industry, we asked Daly if she found that people expected her to produce certain kinds of work on the basis that she was female and a director.

Rebecca Daly and Barry Keoghan - HeadStuff.org
Rebecca Daly and Barry Keoghan Source

‘No,’ she said after a pause, ‘But i do think ‘boxing’ goes on; people think if there’s a female protagonist and directed by a woman then ‘that’s a film for women’. I don’t think that’s a thing audiences necessarily think, but that’s the way people in marketing think – ‘put it in a box and that’s the way we package it’. The next film I’m working on, the protagonist is a male, and I don’t feel a compulsion to have always male protagonists.’ Commenting on the imbalance in film, she said that there’s ‘not enough ordinary women who are complex and flawed, not heroic, but just ordinary. You know the federal investigation went on into Hollywood and gender representation, and all these shocking things came to light – how all these women directors weren’t being hired and everyone was suitably shocked. Then pilot season happened in January and out of 40 directors, only 2 of them were women, and one of the women was the creator of the series so I mean if she wasn’t hired, you know?’ She laughed. ‘It’s a long way to go, but I feel like it’s to do with unconscious bias and that has a role to play and goes back to education. It’s to do with the way boys and girls are introduced to what a protagonist is, and that sometimes they’re female as well. I think mixed schools are the way forward; segregating schools is a bad idea and it doesn’t help girls advance at all.’ Daly commented on the perception of there being a ‘female sensibility’ in film-making, saying ‘it makes me really uncomfortable, as filmmaking is different for everyone. My film could be different from another woman’s or a man’s, or the same as some, so that makes me a bit nervous, as do women’s film festivals. Equality would be if we were all on the same playing field and all had the same opportunities, and worked together, and competed together where that’s necessary. I would be a little nervous of a ghettoisation that might happen. I think equal opportunities in the same playing field is the way forward.’

Commenting on Kathryn Bigelow and her Academy Award for The Hurt Locker as the first woman to win Best Director, we asked if Daly thought that Bigelow’s win would signify impending change for women in film. ‘The tides are slow,’ she said. ‘ In Sweden, they said they would get to parity in terms of financing films by female directors over a period of three years, and they did it. They’re not saying ‘this is a fund for women’, they’re saying ‘this is a fund, we will ensure that women get an equal amount’. I think there was a fear that quality of the films would be affected which is very offensive, but in fact their films are performing better at festivals and commercially. Who knows if that’s because of women, but it certainly hasn’t hurt. The head of the Swedish Film Institute was here at a seminar about filmmaking, and obviously the Irish Film Board have announced something similar.’

Talking about gender quotas and whether they had a place in filmmaking, Daly said that unconscious bias definitely had a role to play. ‘It’s not going to fix itself in the generation that we’re in, that’s for a later generation, and I do feel that quotas do in a way have a place because of that It’s a bit different than ghettoising. The question of merit is so subjective, you need to look at who’s deciding what merit is and what their biases might be. It’s a complex issue. You can’t say to the Academy, ‘you MUST vote for women.’’

Rebecca Daly at the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2016 - HeadStuff.org
Rebecca Daly at the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2016 Source

Speaking briefly on this year’s Oscars controversy, Daly said ‘It’s terrible and a disgrace that we’re not seeing more people of colour getting nominations. When [the controversy] happened, at Sundance, Birth of the Nation sold for a record amount – the film obviously deserved it, but people questioning things is only going to change things.’

Returning to the issue of gender inequality, we asked if she felt a responsibility to hire a female crew when working on projects. ‘I definitely would be open to it, but I’m hiring a person on the basis of their ability to do the job.’ She commented .’I’ve just done a short project with Kate McCullough.’ Reflecting on Mammal, she said ‘Mammal had a male cinematographer. They had to be Dutch as it was part of the co-production thing, and no women were offered. When I think back on that now, it’s a bit unsettling.’ She said.

Finally, we asked Daly to give us a run-down of how the funding process worked, from writing to post-production. ‘Glenn [Montgomery, co-writer of Mammal] had the idea of this woman who didn’t know how to mother. We worked together as writer, writer/director with no producer. We do that on every project so we know how to develop. Fastnet came on board and developed further.  We went to Berlin, they have a residency program and Mammal was selected for that, and then was filmed between Luxembourg and Ireland.’ She said, explaining that funding worked on a points basis, which was easier to achieve if parts of the film are shot in Luxembourg. Daly explained that the scene on a waste ground, the inside of Margaret’s house and the back garden was shot in Luxembourg, while the front of the house was shot in Ireland. She described the experience as daunting, explaining that they feared they wouldn’t find anything. ‘We had a lot of great location scouts who found places that looked like Ireland. It was filmed between two countries, and sound post was completed in the Netherlands, while picture post was done in Luxembourg.’ Daly described the hushed excitement in the lead-up to Sundance, saying ‘We heard in July, but weren’t allowed say anything till September. Except, I would get ‘congratulations on Sundance!’ from different people and be like ‘Am I the only person not allowed to say anything?!’

Mammal was released in cinemas on the 1st of April. Check out details of screenings on their Facebook page.


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