Director Interview: Kate Dolan

Recently Hugh had the opportunity to sit down with Kate Dolan, the talented director of You Are Not My Mother. Together they chatted about the power of horror, terrifying Irish folklore and the inimitable stylings of the one and only Joe Nolan…

Film poster for You Are Not My Mother.

Thank you so much for giving us some of your time Kate, it’s really appreciated. I need to start off with the big question that people will want an answer to..

Yeah go on….

 

Where did you get the idea to make Joe Dolan a terrifying addition to the horror cannon?

(laughs) I’m glad you know who Joe Dolan is! He’s kind of a big name in Ireland but I don’t know how far he’s travelled elsewhere.

So there’s a scene with Joe Dolan playing… and it’s really weird and sinister. But when we were in prep, the composer had made a track for that scene which was really dark and very trad with traditional Irish music and instruments playing. That’s what we gave the actress to play to and what we played on set and were working with in the edit.

Then we had a moment where we were breaking for Christmas, me and the editor, and we were going to send that scene to the producers to be like ‘Merry Christmas, here’s the last thing we’ve done, hope you like it.’ But I asked the editor to put on ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’ by Mariah Carey (laughs) as a Christmas joke kind of thing.

But then we were watching it back and we realised that this was actually kind of scary with a song that is kinda upbeat. It’s that kinda happy versus what she is actually doing and a juxtaposition of emotions.

So then we were looking for a track that Granny would have on vinyl, just something in that realm. And I immediately thought ‘JOE DOLAN!’ (laughs).

 

I know Joe Dolan through an aunt who had a love of crooners of a particular vintage. When it came on it made me laugh because it was the last thing I expected to hear (laughs)

(laughs) That’s cool!

 

The music in the film in general, whilst not all Joe Dolan, is really striking and unusual. Did you work with the composer to come up with something so earthy and weird?

Die Hexen, the composer of the film, is a very weird (and I mean that in the most complimentary way you could possibly imagine). She’s a really strange thinker in the way she puts together music. When she came on board she was really drawn to the script and really got the sort of tone I wanted to convey.

Because the Irish folklore is such a big part of it, we wanted to bring in trad elements; musical instruments that felt like they were from that sort of trad space in Irish music, but skewed in a way that you weren’t used to hearing them.

Then Die ordered these ancient instruments that hadn’t been used in years and years and years; using things in a way I’d never heard them used. She’s an amazing composer and I think she is going to be doing big things. She really thinks outside the box and is so experimental in the way she creates sound. She brings a lot of sound design too, sort of sounds taken from scenes in the film to really add to the atmosphere.

 

It really helps lock in the atmosphere.

Yeah.

Two girls playing with fire while a creepy figure stands behind them. Still from You Are Not My Mother.

 

You wrote the film too; what was the writing process like? You mentioned traditional Irish mythology, is that something that you had a lot of knowledge about beforehand?

I think as a young Irish person (and I think like all Irish people) we were told the stories growing up. And they’re told to you as if they’re real, not like they’re fairy tales. You have a good understanding of the great legends of Ireland, and even at school you are taught a lot of that stuff as well.

So I had a good base understanding, but when I wanted to dig a little deeper and get into the pagan and witchcraft aspects of it I read a lot of books. That was really interesting because there were a lot of things I had never heard of before and some really weird stories which then kind of made their way into the script as I worked on it.

 

The horrible tension that runs through the film must’ve been difficult to balance; how did you manage to hold that tone from beginning to end?

I don’t know (laughs)

With the script, we knew we were going to be writing and making the film very quickly. We knew it wasn’t going to be in development for years with like ten million drafts of the script. So as I was writing, me and the producer were very aware of the pace of the film and how to put that together, so that was always at the forefront of my mind.

And then in terms of the tension; the prep was really intense and we shared as much as we could with the cast and crew, so that they knew tonally where we were going and how they could bring their own skills and things to that. Actors can really help set the pace and tone of a production and a scene more so than any other elements. Like, how they even say a line can have such an impact on the pace of a whole scene.

That was massively important just to make sure everyone understood the film we wanted to make.

And obviously me and the editor did a lot of research on our favourite horror films and how they are put together. How did they set up that shot? How did they get that scare?

And the editor has actually been my best friend for years and years so we’ve watched lots of horror movies for years. I think that was a joyful homework to be watching horror movies and asking ‘how did they do that? Amazing!’ (laughs).

We did a lot of homework and looked at the things we admired.

A girl hiding behind plats of wood. Still from You Are Not My Mother.

 

You can really feel the love and affection for the genre in the film. Are you a big fan of the ever-growing folk-horror movement in horror?

Definitely. I think folk-horror is kinda like the original horror. I think the horror genre is kind of based on fairy tales, do you know what I mean? There’s a similar allegorical feel to horror as a genre as to the sort of folk stories that would be told around the fire to scare people.

I think folk horror taps into that in a way that a slasher wouldn’t. It has a real pagan feel; and as an Irish person paganism is such a part of you that permeates the culture. I watched that great folk-horror documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched on Shudder recently and there are just so many great films in that genre.

 

Yeah, folk-horror has become one of my go-to genres and I always get excited when I see a trailer for one. It’s the unknowable terror of folk-horror that really gets under my skin.

Yeah that’s it, unknowable.

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I wanted to ask you about the opening scene in the film with the young child in the pram; it is such a disconcerting and troubling image, and a really striking way to open a film. Was that there in the original draft of the script?

That was the first thing. It was always the opening of the film. No matter how the drafts changed as we went on, that always remained. From the very first time I wrote anything.

Taken from the changeling myth were people feared that their baby had been swapped for something else and they would drown the baby or set the baby on fire because it was the only way to get your child back I found those stories really tragic and just so dark; I felt as a teaser for a horror film you really needed grip your audience to set the tone for the movie. You have to draw them in and I think this really draws them in from the beginning.

I’ve had some people who have babies and they were a bit like ‘Yeah… that was a bit much’ (laughs).

A family sat around a dining table, looking solemn. Still from You Are Not My Mother.

 

The characters feel so lived in, there’s an easy naturalism to the way they interact. Did it take a while to find the character’s voices? And how did the actors approach the performances?

The cast were amazing.

On paper you always hope that the characters will become who you wanted them to be in your mind’s eye and I wanted them to feel so authentic like this was a real family and a real house. For me, the most frightening things are when things feel really down to earth and less overly fantastical. It feels like it could happen in your real life.

The best horror movies I know really draw the audience in and make them love and feel for the characters. Drawing the audience into their world.

And I think it was very important for us to do that in the first half of the film before things really kick off.

And we got so lucky with our cast, they were so open and brilliant at bringing so much to it and really elevating it beyond what I ever thought it could be. They gave so much to the characters and really understood what I wanted to do with them.

 

Carolyn Bracken is astounding in the film, she gives such a physical performance as well as juggling everything going on just below the surface of the character. And Hazel Doupe carries a lot of the film’s emotional heft, she is a stunning talent. Did you have those actors in mind for the roles when writing?

Hazel, we had seen in some things and I knew we needed an actress who could deliver a really internal performance. She doesn’t have a lot of dialogue in the film, so you really needed to know what she was thinking without her actually having to say it. And I knew that Hazel would be able to do that from what I’d seen before.

We were very lucky with her as we approached her directly and she really loved the script. So we were just like ‘phew! We have her!’ (laughs).

Then we started casting the family from there, so that we could make sure it felt as though they were related and that they had chemistry and a history together.

Carolyn just sent in a tape of herself with some other actresses who were auditioning for the role. And in that tape there was something about her where she really captured the duality of the character, do you know what I mean? Where she could just suddenly see her change.

We got her in for a chemistry test with Hazel but you could tell almost right away that they had a real chemistry together and that kind of sealed the deal.

A woman on her knees screaming. Still from You Are Not My Mother.

 

Obviously, avoiding any spoilers whatsoever, what can you tell me about the amazing design of ‘the entity’ in the film? Was it a description taken from Irish folklore?

It’s funny, because with Irish folklore there’s never many physical descriptions of anything, everything is just so ‘unknowable’. Sort of like ‘the thing that has a face!’ (laughs).

The idea behind the make-up was based on that perception of a young person coming of age and your image of your parent is completely destroyed. Your image of them is changed for ever more.

I said that to make-up designer Donna Bambino, that the idea was that the features you recognised a person for a re just melting away, so that you wouldn’t recognise them anymore. I gave her those directions and Madonna is really great and just came up with how that was presented.

It was great to do it all practically too, so you could see the effects on camera and have some fun on set (laughs).

 

In terms of the horror you enjoy Kate, do you lean more towards the sort of slow burning side of the genre?

As I said, I like horror that feels real and feels authentic. That sort of magic in the real world exists. So I am definitely more drawn to that type of film where everything is more down to earth and more grounded.

I love all horror movies though; I’m such a big horror movie fan. I have a lot of respect for the genre and I love it, there’s a wealth of different horror available and as a horror filmmaker you can really let your imagination run wild and create monsters and all kind of things.

I’m excited to be more ambitious with my films in the future because there won’t be such a small budget!

 

Do you have any new projects coming up after You Are Not My Mother?

Well, I have two scripts that are quite far along which are both horror features, and they are both in development with production companies in Ireland. So, I hope it’s not too long before I can make another film.

As a filmmaker you’re always kind of hustling with so many different pots on the boil. I’m not sure what will be the next thing that comes after this, but it will definitely be in the horror space.

 

Kate, thank you so much for your time!

Thank you!

 

By: Hugh McStay

You Are Not My Mother is currently on a limited cinematic release across Ireland and will be shown at this year’s Glasgow FrightFest.