Wednesday 18 September 2019

Irish actress Emily Taaffe to premiere film inspired by WWII disappearance of her great aunt at Tribeca

Imelda Staunton stars in film written and produced by Taaffe

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 29: Emily Taaffe attends the Jameson Empire Awards 2015 at Grosvenor House, on March 29, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Karwai Tang/WireImage
LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 29: Emily Taaffe attends the Jameson Empire Awards 2015 at Grosvenor House, on March 29, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Karwai Tang/WireImage
Aoife Kelly

Aoife Kelly

Irish actress Emily Taaffe is hoping her film inspired by the mysterious disappearance of her great aunt, and starring acting legend Imelda Staunton, will wow at Tribeca.

The short film, Little Bird, is set to premiere at the prestigious New York film festival and Emily could not be more thrilled.

Not only did she write the script but the War & Peace actress also produced and stars in the film, which is a story inspired by her own family history.

“My great grandmother had a sister who left Ireland during the 1940s and was never heard of again," reveals Emily, who originally hails from Louth.

Emily Taaffe in Little Bird
Emily Taaffe in Little Bird

"Nobody ever knew what happened to her. My great grandmother died long before I was born and apparently she used to say, ‘I wonder what happened to our Chrissie.’ 

"A couple of years ago my aunt, who still lives in Skerries, opened the door to a nice tall Englishman who said, ‘Hello, I think we might be cousins’."

Emily's great aunt Christine had gone to England and joined the RAF.  She went to Egypt as part of her service and met and married another man who was also serving.  After her return to England she had two sons.

"She told them she was an orphan and had no family whatsoever," says Emily.  "So they grew up believing that until she died and they found she'd been telling them a lie.  Their entire lives they had this massive extended family."

Christine had joined the women's branch of the RAF but when Emily first heard the story she mistakenly thought she had joined the Wrens (Women’s Royal Naval Service).

"I started reading about the Wrens and it was really like pulling a thread," she says.  "I came across all these fascinating stories of women from all different walks of life and what kept coming through to me in their stories was that for many the war was a means of escape whether that be from an upper class lifestyle and guilded cage, to move up in the world, or an opportunity to broaden their horizons.

"Our story [Little Bird] explores how far one young woman will go to fly her cage and what she’s willing to leave behind."

The 10 minute short has the potential to develop into a full length feature and this is the ultimate ambition for Emily and her Little Bird team - 80 per cent of which is female.

Imelda Staunton in Little Bird
Imelda Staunton in Little Bird

She says it was a conscious decision to tackle gender disparity in the industry "in some small way".

"There were a couple of reasons why I wanted to make a film with a female team," she says, "Firstly it’s a very female driven narrative and I was interested to see what would happen when it was told with that very strong female voice. 

"Secondly I wanted to prove in a very small way that you could fill most of the roles on a film set with women.  It’s a sort of lazy cultural bias to think, ‘Oh well we probably wouldn’t be able to find a woman to do that job, we’ll just get one of the lads that we know.’ 

"I think if you make a bit of an effort and look a bit harder you can do it.  Even on this very small scale I had an 80 per cent female shoot. It was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. It just means, for men and women, to re-jig your thought process a bit and look a bit harder. 

Emily Taaffe in Little Bird
Emily Taaffe in Little Bird

"Then you’re creating those networks that you can go back to [on future projects]."

Landing Vera Drake actress Imelda Staunton for the lead role was something of a coup, and came about thanks to a friend who had worked in theatre with Imelda and offered to pass on Emily's Little Bird script.

“A week later I got out of the shower and I was checking my emails and there was one from Imelda’s agent saying she loved it and would really like to be involved.  I let out a roar!” laughs Emily.

“She was absolutely amazing.  She was totally professional obviously and really an absolute example for me of how I would like to be when I’m a grown up!  She was a real inspiration, really generous with her time and her talent."

Emily admits she was "hugely intimidated" by the acting legend, but adds, "I feel in love with her completely".

Once Imelda signed up the real work began.  The film was financed via a Kickstarter campaign.

"We raised £20,000 in 21 days which was phenomenal," she reveals.  "And as that was going on we were applying for various bits of funding and bursaries and things.  It was hard work but it was worth it.

"I describe it a bit like building a track while the train was coming towards us.  Sometimes it's a good way of doing things.  You can't put anything on the long finger.  You just have to get it done."

Emily has been living in London for 12 years following training at Trinity and then LAMDA and has a wealth of theatre and TV work under her belt.  On this side of the pond she's best known for her TV work which includes appearances in Stan Lee’s Lucky Man, War & Peace, Death in Paradise, Call the Midwife, and Ripper Street. 

She's married to writer Ben Schiffer, although she says they don't mix business and pleasure.

"This was my first writing project and he is incredibly supportive but we don't work together," she says.

"He works very hard and is very good at his job but for the sake of our marriage we don’t work together!  We’d have nothing to talk about.  We keep things separate."

However, she did get his notes on Little Bird, "He’s very honest, sometimes painfully so!  I showed him the script and he loved it and had a few little practical suggestions.

"But I’ve been thinking about this for a very long time.  Before I sat down to write I had been reading and researching the subject for a year and a half before I even put pen to paper.  There was a long gestation period, it’s been bubbling away for a long time."

Emily spent last summer getting married and shooting upcoming Irish horror movie Beast and just before Christmas she wrapped on Paula, a three part BBC drama written by Conor McPherson and also starring Irish actors Denise Gough and Owen McDonnell.

"It's a fantastic script," she says, "I've worked with Conor in theatre a few years ago.  He's a mster.  And it was lovely to film up in Belfast."

It also meant she could spend some time at home with her parents in Louth.

"I love it!" she laughs. "There’s nothing like coming home, drinking Barry’s tea!  Always Barrys, Barrys forever!  I think Ireland produces such great storytellers and I love the atmosphere and hopping up and down on the train to Louth."

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