Meet director Aisling Walsh who reveals how her own training as a painter made her determined to make Maudie
A harsh love story bereft of sentiment, Maudie has been getting strong reviews in America, Britain and here. And though set in the wilds of Newfoundland and based on the true story of a Canadian folk artist, it's an Irish film, in part at least. Its director, Aisling Walsh, originally hails from Dún Laoghaire and has been working with distinction in film and television for decades. But Maudie is arguably the best thing she's ever done, and it's a project that could so easily have passed her by.
"I was in Cardiff a few years back," she tells me, "making a BBC television film about Dylan Thomas when I was sent the script for Maudie. And when I read it, I immediately contacted my agent and said what do I have to do to make this picture. There was just something about it - she was a woman trying to make her way against the odds, and she was a painter."
The 'she' in question was Maud Lewis, an early 20th century Nova Scotian artist who overcame extraordinary odds to become a leading light of the Canadian folk-art movement. Crippled with rheumatoid arthritis, and hidden away from the world by her rigidly conventional family, Maud defied them by answering an ad for a live-in housekeeper posted by a local fish peddler.
Everett Lewis was a misanthropic illiterate with the manners of a goat who lived alone in a remote shack and wasn't initially impressed when Maud turned up on his doorstep. In this unlikely setting, her talent blossomed: she decorated the cabin's drab walls with brightly painted birds and flowers before branching out into boldly naïve seascapes and landscapes that she sold as postcards.
After Maud's work was spotted by a visiting New Yorker, her paintings became fashionable: journalists and photographers began turning up at the shack, and Vice President Richard Nixon ordered two of them for the White House. She and Everett would stay together for over 30 years. This was the extraordinary story that so excited Walsh when she first read it.
"I trained as a painter," she says, "and I'd always wanted to make a film about a painter, so I thought this just might be it. Of course you never know, you get a script like that and the producer could have sent it to another five directors, but I thought, no, I'm going to actually fight to the floor for this one. And by the time I was 15 pages in, I thought of Sally Hawkins."
Walsh and Hawkins had worked together before, on the acclaimed 2005 TV drama Fingersmith. Three days after reading the script, Walsh sent Sally two photographs and a painting, saying she had this script. "She wrote back straight away and said she'd do it."
Before Walsh got involved, the film had been in development for over a decade. "They'd got some money in Ontario, some funding in Newfoundland, and then Bob Cooper became involved and found me, and it made sense to make it as a Canadian-Irish co-production. There's been this strong relationship with the Canadians over the last decade or so, and if you think of TV shows like Vikings, and movies like Room - a lot of these things might not have been made."
Walsh had always wanted Ethan Hawke to play Everett, but initially he wasn't free. "Then, during the 2014 awards season, Sally met Ethan on the circuit and talked about Maudie, and when we sent the script, his wife, Ryan, read it first. He tells the story of how he came home one night from the theatre, and she was sitting in the kitchen crying, and he thought something terrible had happened to one of his kids, and she said 'you've got to say yes to this script', and he said, 'what it's about', and she said, 'just say yes, you're going to do it'. He had hugely admired Sally's work, and that was a big attraction."
Hawke's performance in the film is extraordinary. "I think he has the biggest arc in the film, his is the character that changes the most. Here's a man who's lived in total isolation all his life, he's an orphan, he's illiterate, he finds it difficult to talk to people. It's always interesting for an actor to play a rather silent role, I think that's another thing that attracted Ethan."
Much of Maudie was shot inside a meticulous reconstruction of the Lewis shack, a poky stage that made huge demands on Hawke and Hawkins.
"The weather in Newfoundland is pretty brutal," Walsh says, "they can get snow right into June, and before I joined the project there'd been talk of building a set and constructing the cabin within it. But I thought, why are we doing this, why don't we brave it and put it out in the elements? And I brought in John Hand, an Irish designer who did Song for a Raggy Boy with me, because I knew Johnny could build that house on his own if he had to - and that's what we did."
That decision would make a huge difference to the finished film, which uses natural light and real weather to emphasise the physical harshness of Maud's life, and deepen the wonder of her corresponding happiness.
Maudie was made for under €4m, and is doing well at the box office. "It was a huge success in Canada, and it's been running in America now for four or five weeks, it opened in the UK last week, and there's still Europe. So we're very happy."
Walsh has been working as a director for almost 30 years, but started out with different aims. "I went to the Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art in 1975, when I was 16. I was a bit young - you were supposed to be 18 - but they took me in, and I studied painting. They had a film-appreciation class, which started out with maybe 25 people and ended up with two. I joined that, and then I started making short films there, and documentaries, and experimented with animation.
"I loved painting, and I've recently gone back to it, but I realised that it wasn't for me: it's isolating, and I always wanted to be with other people creating art, and working with other artists.
"When I started out," Walsh adds, "I never really thought about the industry in terms of being a woman because I had always operated in a world where I was in a minority. At art school, there were 20 men and five women in the class, and it was the same at film school."
But while Walsh believes there is a big problem with the number of women directing, she says we must be careful about how we approach the issue of bringing about change, too. "I mean you have this F rating on a movie now to show it was made by a woman, and I know Maudie's one of the first films to get that rating here. But I kind of worry about that slightly, too, because that may turn some men off, and I think we can't do what we're accusing them of doing, we can't exclude. Some of the most decent and most encouraging people in my career have been men."
After moving to England to study at the National Film School in Beaconsfield, Walsh made her first film in 1989, Joyriders, a tense drama about a grieving couple who move to the west of Ireland to start a new life.
That led to a busy career in television, and through the 1990s she worked as a director on shows like The Bill, Doctor Finlay, Roughnecks and Lynda La Plante's groundbreaking crime dramas, Trial & Retribution. In 2003, she returned to the big screen to make Song for a Raggy Boy, one of the first Irish films to directly address the thorny issue of clerical abuse.
"I think it had a big impact," she says, "people here still come up to me and tell me about the effect seeing it had on them."
Her subsequent work has included Fingersmith, and Wallander, and she's just finished what she hopes will be the script for her next movie. She's one of Ireland's foremost film and TV directors, and Maudie is a work of real quality, a film to be proud of.
"I've gone my own road," she says, "and it's been lonely on occasions. I've been out in the wilderness quite a bit I feel, it has been hard at times, but that's okay, that's my choice, and I'm very proud of everything that I've done. I've worked with some great people, I've had some amazing opportunities and I've done, I think, some decent work along the way."
On Tuesday, Walsh will take part in a career retrospective at the IFI. www.ifi.ie