Spotlight: Mum (2017) + Interview with Director

Spotlight

Well, it’s finally here, we are delighted to debut our first Spotlight article. The aim of Spotlight is to shine a literal spotlight on independent and low budget films and the filmmakers behind them. Our aim is to start with domestic films, where we can review, promote or give previews of upcoming Irish releases. While it’s all well and good sitting on our arses and judging films based on what we deem entertaining, we believe that it is important to also show our support for filmmakers and show that we aren’t just a bunch of stuffy bastards.

We are excited to announce that our first spotlight entry is the short film Mum which was recently featured at the Galway Film Fleadh. Not only were we given the chance to review Mum as our spotlight debut we also got the chance to interview writer/director Ann Marie O’Connor.

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In keeping with our love of getting under the hood of motion pictures we used this opportunity to really explore the atmosphere on set, and don’t let this film’s position as an independent project fool you; they have recruited some exceptional talent to get on board.

Incase you haven’t heard, Mum is a film with a trans character at the heart of it, telling a universal story: Kate returns to her family home to an icy reception from her stepfather who hasn’t accepted her transition. It’s evident she hasn’t been home for quite some time and learns that her mother has become ill. While it certainly leads to tensions rising it ultimately becomes a date for Kate and her mother to bond as they did when Kate was younger.

Writer/director Anne-Marie O’Connor’s poignant drama Mum, has been selected to screen at the Galway Film Fleadh this July, if you get the chance it’s absolutely one to watch. And stars talented transgender actress Kate O’Donnell (Boy Meets Girl) along with Lee Boardman (Jack the Giant Slayer, Coronation Street) and Kenneth Colley (Star Wars, Peaky Blinders). As you’ll see below, this is a great paradigm shift to the way transgender actors and actresses are normally portrayed in film and we really enjoyed the chance to explore this evolution of the theme.

This short is a fantastic study in the use of space, light, music and smart editing to convey emotion and a tone throughout. It tells a story that anyone should be able to relate to, the feeling of being misunderstood, left out and wanting to do the best thing possible for those that have cared for you.

For the first time since Dice Lords, we got the chance to speak to the team behind the camera, here’s how our conversation went!

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How did you come up with the premise of MUM?

Kate O’Donnell (who plays Kate in MUM) is a good friend of mine and as a leading trans actor and activist, I’ve always wanted to work with her creatively. We often discuss the way that transgender people are portrayed in film and TV (the fascination with the transition, the no-one-will-ever-love-me storyline, sex workers or outsiders) and we wanted to move that narrative along. To have a transgender central character in a universal story. And so I met Kate and I asked her what story she would tell if she could and it simply came from saying she’d love to go home and paint her mum’s nails – something she used to do when she was younger – but is impossible to do because her stepfather makes life difficult (he’s always been difficult, way before Kate transitioned!) and so we built the story around her own story.

If you could describe MUM in your own words how would you?

A story about a woman who goes home to see her mum only to discover that her mother is sick and no one has told her. After a much-needed argument to clear the air she doesn’t get the day she wanted, but she gets the day she needed.

How did you find the filmmaking process? Did you find it an enjoyable experience? Were there any obstacles?

We all loved the film making process. From the word go, the advice I got from seasoned professionals was to plan it to the nth degree beforehand so that when it comes to the day you can concentrate on directing. Kate Larking (the producer) is meticulous and did a great job of assembling a team who all knew how to do their jobs! Mel Hesseltine the assistant AD made sure we ran on time every day (she worked for Mike Leigh for over ten years so she’s not too shabby at corralling cast and crew!). There were obstacles but both myself and the two Kates are pretty good at finding a creative solution to a problem so there wasn’t anything that was too problematic.

The linking of characters and revelations through the recurrence of Black Velvet Band was a very nice touch, how did you select the song? (Us Irish have a particular fondness for the tune!)

Kate O’Donnell has to take full credit for this. It is the song that her mum used to sing to her as a child. I was trying to get the rights to another song for an age which proved too tricky and in the end, we just went back to Black Velvet Band and it works better than any other song I can think of in its place.

What would you like to see more of in the film and TV industry to create a better sense of identity and remove barriers for transgender actors and actresses?

We all share the notion that trans casting and stories have a long way to go. That until trans people stop being cast and written about with an outside eye, their stories will continue to rely heavily on the fascination with the process of transitioning. So more involvement from trans people in the creative process when bringing a trans character into long running shows and more trans people telling their own stories and being represented on screen.

The role reversal of the daughter looking after the mother was beautifully done, how important was it to convey this theme in the film?

Very important. Even down to the fact that we reversed the position in the bath (Mum behind Little Andrew in the past scene, Kate behind mum in the present day bath scene). I wanted to convey the fact that it comes to us all, looking after the people that cared for us as children.

We were blown away by the pacing and use of different time periods as a character development instrument to create more interesting context/dimensions to the scenes and relationships. Did you experiment with any other editing styles before landing on this one?

Thanks very much! Actually, we had one of the best editors in film working with us, Chris Wyatt (This is England, ’71, God’s Own Country). He edits instinctively. So it is very close to the original script but when we had the first cut we realised that the past scenes were looking more like flash backs and less like memory so we cut two minutes out of it. Also, I often use time jumps in my writing as an efficient way of telling a story over years.

Some very powerful arguments and tense scenes are in this film; as a director how do you get people into that frame of mind on set? Does the atmosphere change for a little while after?

I feel like I direct very much from the heart and the feeling of what is behind the characters’ intent is very important to me so talking through Kate and Graham’s equally valid points of view and why they are so angry was key to the argument scene. The atmosphere doesn’t really change, certainly not for Ken (who played Graham) or Lee (Carl) but I think maybe for Kate there was an emotional overhang after the scene as this is her story and an argument she wishes she could have with her own step-dad!

Getting an award winning film like this debuted in a town you went to university in is a fantastic and what we can only imagine being a very fulfilling achievement, what’s next?

Yes, it is. It was lovely to go back to Galway with MUM and to see how the city has changed since I was there. I’m currently developing a number of projects here and in the US and I’ve written my first feature which I will also direct.

As a filmmaker, what are some of your major influences? Did any films, in particular, inspire MUM?

Definitely. The external shots were influenced by Broke Back Mountain as I love how the sky is used to give a sense of freedom as opposed to the claustrophobia of the internal shots. Colm (Whelan, the DOP) showed me In The Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai) to show me how we could frame shots in order to make Kate look boxed in and framed. Story wise, I love films that look at the things that go unsaid in families and two of my favorite, yet very different films are Sam Mendes’ American Beauty and Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank.

How do you think the landscape for short films is moving in the UK & Ireland lately?

I’m new to it, but from what I can see it’s thriving. I have to say that Galway was a fantastic festival to be involved in and that’s all down to the shorts team there.

Read more about MUM from the official pages here and here and tell us what you thought of the review here! If you know of a project that could be in our spotlight drop us a line at ReelTimeDublin@Gmail.com.

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