After ‘His & Hers’ won him acclaim, Ken Wardrop took to the manliest state in the US to document the relationships between mother and son, writes Esther McCarthy
n the sublime and moving His & Hers, he told a 90-year-old love story through the collective voices of dozens of different women during various periods in their lives.
Now Irish filmmaker Ken Wardrop is exploring the female psyche again — this time in the relationship between mother and son.
Wardrop is leaving behind Ireland’s midlands for the less familiar terrain of the midwestern US state of Oklahoma. But the resulting stories are no less universal, or touching.
Opening with the famous Oscar Wilde quote: “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his,” Wardrop’s film, Mom & Me, observes their relationships using the springboard of the men’s on-air exchanges with colourful radio host Joe Cristiano.
Given that Oklahoma is officially ‘America’s Manliest City’, this doesn’t always come easily, but what emerges is by turns tender, funny, and heartbreaking.
For the amiable filmmaker, the location came about by accident. “I wanted to construct something around a radio show. I went on YouTube, looking for a radio show host who was small town. Joe was the very first person I listened to. He made me laugh several times. He’s a libertarian, so it was all about government and I had no idea what he was talking about. He’s really quite a clever man. It was all very Italian and I was laughing because to me, he was a real Woody Allen.
“I imagined he was in Manhattan, but then Joe tells me he’s in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He fell in love with a woman and moved there 25 years ago.”
Undaunted and convinced he had his man, Wardrop began to explore the idea of setting the film in this community. “We started to look at Oklahoma as a location for the film and had a eureka moment when we realised it had recently been voted the manliest state in America. That seemed to be appropriate and then the fun started.”
The research did, too, as Wardrop and his production team aimed to find the right people for their movie. “We literally got on the telephone and rang around the state. We called barbers, cattle marts, using the Irish charm,” he says, laughing.
Like His & Hers, Mom & Me is rich in detail and texture as details emerge of the men and their mothers’ lives, challenges, and relationships.
From the mother who is comically ‘encouraging’ her son to marry his new girlfriend, only for it to emerge that she’s recently been diagnosed with dementia, to the son who imagines life without the nightly game of chess with his ailing mum, the film is universal in the hopes and fears of its protagonists.
But culturally, it couldn’t be more different. Whereas His & Hers was tea and scones and slippers and tractors, Mom & Me features stetson hats, rosary beads, and even guns. Did Wardrop worry that such references would have a distancing effect? “I didn’t come at it from this angle, but of course people bring their prejudices to it, and none more so than east and west coast America. You’re representing these people in a way that is not normal. They are normally sensationalised. I touch on guns, but I don’t pass comment,” he says.
“There’s a man who is trying to get his mum to (use a gun to) protect herself. That opens up a big, big question, but I’m interested in their relationship, and this is just a note in that scenario. I could step back from that, because after spending four or five days with these people, I really liked them.
“You might be out at a fast food restaurant and you’d be asked to hold hands, bow your head, and say grace. That is not usual for me, I would feel very uncomfortable in that scenario, but I went with it.
“I knew these people from chatting to them and they were no different to you or me. OK they would show me their cabinet of guns and I could not get my head around it. But that’s their way of life. it’s about their relationships, and I didn’t want to pass comment on this stuff, because that’s another film. I thought it was enough to use it as a backdrop and concentrate on the characters.”
One of the film’s most moving scenes features a prisoner who is anguished over the pain his criminal lifestyle has caused his mother. “We found a character in a prison, Jefferson, with whom we all connected when we met him. He was a very endearing figure but at the same time he did cause his mum a lot of heartache.
“I think what you see is him realising he needs to make amends. It’s very poetic when you hear him speak. One person thought it was scripted but there was no script.”
Wardrop turned to filmmaking in his mid-twenties, garnered early attention for short film Undressing My Mother (the quirkily funny Useless Dog is also worth a look). “I took up film when I was 26. It coincided with my dad dying of cancer and it became the biggest thing ever to happen in my life, losing a parent.
“I think that informed a lot of my filmmaking in those early days. Undressing My Mother was definitely a cathartic experience for both myself and my mum. It’s about her love for her husband, her loss, and how that’s impacting on her physicality.”
It garnered enough attention to enable him to make His & Hers, a documentary daring in its ambition to tell a story of life and love through 70 different women. “It was about the important male characters at that moment in your life, but it resonated with so many people in different ways,” he says of it now.
Wardrop, currently involved in a film project revolving around piano lessons for the Arts Council, says while filming Mom & Me he found the dynamic between these men and their mothers revealing, especially in the tenderness it brought out in the men. “That was an interesting aspect. Not all of them were ‘manly’ but you put them beside their mum, they revert to being a boy. They have this respect, this adoration in many respects, but there was, in general, a real tenderness towards their mums, and a real respect. And I noticed you’d often get more slagging from the mammy than the son, whereas in Ireland it’s probably quite equal.”
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