IT’S BEEN a big year for Irish cinema on the world stage. After viewing Brooklyn in Sundance 2015 critics were running for their laptops while the word on Room was scorching hot from the moment Lenny Abrahamson’s eventual Oscar nominee premiered in Telluride later in September. Paddy Breathnach’s Viva would join Room in Toronto, and at the dawn of the new year, John Carney’s Sing Street and Rebecca Daly’s Mammal would bring the Irish renaissance full circle as both films world premiered in Sundance 2016.
Room scribe Emma Donoghue aside, Daly is the only woman filmmaker of the bunch. Though she says her gender has never been a drawback. “My work has always been supported by the Irish Film Board, which is fantastic,” says the Dublin writer-director whose debut 2011 film The Other Side of Sleep had premiered in Cannes Directors Fortnight. “I’ve never felt any kind of issue there. There’s been the ‘Waking The Feminists’ movement to do with the under-representation of Irish women in theatre and I think that this also is an issue in film. Though I haven’t personally felt that.”
Moreover, with her second film she feels a greater confidence. “There was so much riding on my first film. With this one I could just make it and enjoy it.”
As with The Other Side of Sleep, Daly focuses on a female protagonist. The film opens with a scintillating shot of Margaret (Rachel Griffiths) swimming in a pool as, well, a mammal.
“I had this idea to shoot the opening scene like a National Geographic documentary,” Daly explains. “We wanted people to think about how we are like animals in terms of birth, reproduction and sex.”
Daly worked with her regular co-writer Glenn Montgomery on the film, which follows a single woman who discovers that her estranged son has died. He had been raised by her former partner Matt (Michael McElhatton, far more laid back than as Roose Bolton in Game of Thrones) and she is racked with sorrow and guilt.
“Glenn originated the idea,” Daly explains. “He wanted to write a story about this woman who we discover a little way into the film has not raised her child and is not a conventional mother. We are always interested in a bit of mystery, so there’s this time in the film where you’re getting to know her and you don’t really know what this other layer is or what comes next.”
Griffiths keeps her own Aussie accent to emphasise the character as a fish out of water living in Dublin. Moreover, the natural extrovert, who has played outspoken mums in Six Feet Under and Brothers & Sisters, plays against type.
“I was interested in the tension between Rachel as a warm outgoing woman versus the character who’s introverted and not so verbal and taking these big unexpected decisions,” notes Daly.
An unexpected development comes when the grief-stricken Margaret finds a young man, Joe (Barry Keoghan), beaten up on the ground, she takes him in and offers him her spare room. While initially she might see him as the son she lost and perhaps never really had, sparks begin to fly so that the relationship veers away from being purely platonic. The sex again takes place in water, in a bathtub.
“The bathtub is kind of a womb-like space,” explains Daly. “When they have sex, there’s something a bit foetal about the position of their legs. It’s to do with the idea of creating an essential need in the sex. It’s a soothing thing rather than really sexy sex.”
Griffiths and up-and-coming Dublin actor Keoghan — familiar as a young gangster in Love/Hate — spent a couple of weeks preparing for their roles. It was a challenge for Keoghan as Joe is the character driving the sexual agenda.
“Rachel is so nice and made it very comfortable for me,” Keoghan recalls. “We joked a lot so the chemistry was there and it was a really nice shoot. There were tough moments as it was my first time doing scenes like that, but I just rocked on through it.”
While Daly says that 47-year-old Griffiths was “excited by how different it was from the kinds of things she’d been doing” the idea of being directed by a woman wasn’t such a rarity.
“I had a lot of female directors on Six Feet Under and many of my favourite directors on Brothers & Sisters were women,” Griffiths notes. “I’ve probably worked with more men than women though every person is different. Some are real cutters, some are real communicators and some are kind of squirrels. I think Rebecca is the real deal in that she is actually an auteur. I’m not overly worshipping at the notion of the auteur and a lot of people think they’re auteurs when they’re not. They’re good craftspeople.
“But Rebecca’s vision of the world and her understanding of certain states is so specific and delicate and rare that the movies she makes are utterly unique and cohesive to this very specific lens. And to me that’s the definition of an auteur. When you watch her movies you feel like you’re seeing the world through her eyes and it was incredibly exciting to surrender to that and it’s not something I’ve done. I mean PJ [Hogan, Muriel’s Wedding director] is a real auteur but I haven’t worked with a lot.”
In reality Daly doesn’t have children while Melbourne-based Griffiths is the mother of three kids with her artist husband Andrew Taylor, who all came to Ireland during the shoot.
“It was lovely to share weekends with them,” Griffiths recalls. “We did some great drives and we showed the children Comerford Castle, the castle of my husband’s ancestors. We had some really wonderful adventures.”
Meanwhile Keoghan has determined the indie path is the one he wants to pursue. “I can get to express myself and come off a film and say, ‘That was a journey’.”
He has really been busy and has worked with Brendan Gleeson and Michael Fassbender on the UK film, Trespass Against Us. Acting alongside two of Ireland’s greatest stars was like a dream come true.
“They’re just lads, aren’t they? Like lads from the community. Brendan’s like someone you know already because I come from the inner city so he’s like a lad from the inner city.
“And Michael’s so cool. He’s such a good guy and he looks out for his young actors. He looked out for me a lot.”
Keoghan has already appeared in ‘71 and Stay, and has also completed the UK-Bulgarian-Belgian co-production, Light Thereafter alongside Danish star Kim Bodnia from The Bridge. Watch this face.