Thomas Harris chats with Maudie director Aisling Walsh…
Try your hardest to seek out Maudie, Aisling Walsh’s wonderful biopic of little known Canadian artist Maud Lewis, an arthritic, kind hearted woman who lived with her crotchety husband Everett in a small shack in the snowy wilderness of Nova Scotia.
It’s a film of real warmth; a truly human story and I had the pleasure of talking with director Walsh about the process of making the film, the casting of Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke and Maudie as an artist.
How did you get involved in the project?
It was sent to me. I was in a hotel in Cardiff, I was actually working on something else about to start and the Internet wasn’t working in the hotel terribly well and I’d been sent the script so I thought I’d may as well read it. I remember writing an email to my agent after I finished reading it saying, “what do I have to do to meet these people.”
I knew that if I got a couple of the right people I could do something really nice with it and I was just kind of haunted by it, I was trying to make a film about an artist, another story, and thought about making that as a film-and still am-and I thought maybe this was the painter film I wanted to make. And then of course it became so much more than that.
What was your knowledge of Maud Lewis, I wasn’t even aware of her as an artist…
None, not at all. I got on the Internet that night and Googled her and saw, I probably saw one or two of her pictures a few times before but I knew nothing about her other than that. And I don’t think anybody does. So that was a wonderful journey, discovering her life as an artist and her life with Everett. That whole world of theirs which is really a lovely thing to be able to do on film.
Did you speak to those who knew them? How deep was the research?
There’s a certain amount you can do yourself. I did go see the house, the house is a permanent exhibit and gallery in Halifax Nova Scotia so we went there and spoke to the curator there and the people that knew bits of her art. I’m kind of trained enough to understand it and get what I needed from it.
We filmed in Newfoundland. She wasn’t terribly well known in her lifetime either. Locally she was but there aren’t that many people that got to know them that well because they were quite lone individuals who lived alone in that sort of isolated environment. I met one individual who helped us a great deal who’s an expert in her work because he’s collected it for 40 years and he did meet her and Everett so he was quite helpful. But people didn’t know them hugely well.
Then I discovered the documentary, which was really helpful. Then we had to work back to the beginning of their lives, the beginning of that relationship, her life before she met him. We had the last part but we had to work our way back.
How much did the documentary end up informing the performance of Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke?
Not a huge amount. It as interesting to see, the hear them speak. We watched it quite a few times but then you’ve got to find an essence yourself and a way to work for you as an actor. The way to move for Sally, the physicality of the role was quite a big challenge.
How did Sally achieve that? It’s startling.
She just worked at it. In that documentary, we saw Maud walking and how she lifted a log onto the fire and her painting, they’re just interesting clues. So we just worked back and thought, maybe as a younger woman she had a slight limp and maybe it got worse when she got nervous or quite uncomfortable around people. And we worked out the stages.
Was it always Sally Hawkins?
Oh yes. For me. The first name I wrote down when I read the script was hers. I had worked with her before and I knew what that role was going to be, somehow I pictured what it was going to be. And I remember Googling her and seeing pictures of Maud and thinking “oh my God.” I knew Sally would lose herself in the role and I can’t think of anyone else who would have done it better.
How about Ethan Hawke? It’s a totally different role for him.
Ethan would probably say it if you asked him, the challenge for him was to play that role. It’s not something he’s been asked to play before. It’s silent, it’s always interesting for an actor to play something silent because, you just have to sit in, and he just wanted to sit in on that role and disappear which I think he does.
They’re rather amazing together. The visual thing for me when I read that script and thought about it and she was very small, I’m 5 foot she’s smaller than me and he was quite a tall man. Ethan gives you that physical aspect. He worked really hard to capture that hardness of someone who had worked in snow, had fished for his entire life. And the two of them together was like a scarecrow and a little wounded bird and I wanted to see those two figures walking across the landscape.
Then you think of him and you can’t think of anybody else playing that role either. The two of them together needed to be of a caliber of an actor together. He’s done theatre, he’s written, he plays music, he’s an artist. So I knew he’d lose himself in the role.
How was shooting on location? I understand you shot in chronological order?
We shot for 28 days. We started at the end, one of the first shots was when Sally goes to visit her aunt towards the end, then we shot the hospital scene. Then we worked our way back to the house and shot in chronological order. So you get the sense that you can try something in the early years than you can bring back in the later years, do you know what I mean? We were really fortunate that we could do that.
Sally was in Newfoundland with me for about for weeks, Ethan joined us off another movie. Although we spoke and communicated and all of that, the amazing that he did was join the two of us, two people who had worked with each other before. So it was a brave thing to do to come into an already established relationship.
Thank you Aisling for your time.
Maudie is out today in UK cinemas.