Released in Irish cinemas this month, HERSELF tells the story of Sandra (Clare Dunne), a young woman who finds herself struggling to escape an abusive relationship with her two children, and decides to solve her housing problem herself and build her own home from the ground up. HERSELF is one of those rare films that is uplifting, unflinching and feels relatable and real. We caught up with director Phyllida Lloyd to talk about the power of female-led productions, taking matters into your own hands, and how difficult it actually is to build a house.
How did you get involved with HERSELF?
Phyllida Lloyd: Clare [Dunne] and I were working in the theatre together. We were working on a series of all-female Shakespeare plays, set in a women’s’ prison. We worked on the project for about four or five years, and somewhere near the beginning of the project we took the shows to New York, and Clare was going for a lot of auditions for American film and television while we were in New York and really struggling to get hired there. She had been inspired by a friend who had declared herself homeless – a similar story to Sandra’s – and she was sort of possessed on two levels; one, to take control of her work environment, and secondly to reply to what she saw as the inequities in her home town. She started writing the screenplay – she had never written a screenplay before – after a while she gave it to me to read, just for an opinion and I was immediately struck by how, for a first time writer, there was such an incredible flair and instinct for the relationship between words and pictures, which often you would find a first script might be terribly overwritten [but] there was something about her instinctive seeing the story. At that time I wasn’t thinking ‘Oh I am going to be the director of this’ because it’s such a pipe dream you wonder, in a way, how films ever do get made. I felt, at that time, I was just a friend and colleague responding and giving her my feedback. As time went on I began to get more and more emotionally invested in it, but I still thought this should be directed by an Irish director, possibly an Irish female director.
I heard you had to convince Clare Dunne to take the lead herself…
PL: At that point, Clare wasn’t really thinking about playing Sandra herself. She was thinking ‘I am just writing this’ and she might play a small part… At the early part there was a part for a sister in it, and she thought ‘I’ll play the sister’. I overheard someone say ‘Clare really has written a screen role for a great movie actress’, and my ears pricked up and I thought ‘Yeah… Herself’, why are we talking about bussing someone in from the US to play this. I began to think… I didn’t know what sort of leverage I would have, but I dreamt that I would say ‘I will do this, but only on the condition that Clare plays the lead’, and I knew that would make it more challenging for producers to raise the money, but when Ed Guiney, Element Pictures and [producer] Sharon Horgan came on board, they all said ‘Yes this will be a challenge but we’re up for it’.
The story at the heart of HERSELF is a very important one – homelessness and housing – at the moment in terms of the pandemic, and Irish housing. Why do you feel this is the right time for this film?
PL: What’s been potent is, we took it to Sundance, and it was overwhelming to see and feel the reaction of the audience in North America, and the emotional reaction to it. I think there were people in the audience for whom the story really resonated on a deep level. Amazon bought the film to distribute in North America and said to us that they would like to put it on ice until the Fall, and at the time I thought ‘That’s an interesting masterplan. Let’s not be as obsessed by it as we have been for the last couple of years [laughs]. Let’s let it rest’. Then of course, within two or three weeks we were enveloped in a pandemic and during this period, in which we are all overwhelmed by the challenge of isolation and the power of community and the importance of community, inch by inch the story seemed to grow in resonance. It seemed to be a story for this moment, where people in isolation, particularly in abusive households, are supremely vulnerable, and where we are all so conscious of the importance and power of community and neighbours and depending on neighbours. Many things feel like there is a Before Corona – a BC – and an AC [After Corona], but I don’t feel like this film feels like a BC film that no longer speaks. Some things don’t now speak in the quite the same way they did before, but I feel – hopefully – that this will speak doubly because of what people are going through, and will continue to go through. We know the statistics of domestic abuse have escalated in a really frightening way; so to try to put a spotlight on it might help a little.
HERSELF is a film that is led by women; not only with you as director and Clare Dunne as writer, but Sharon Horgan coming on as producer, how important are female led productions?
PL: We are really conscious that, particularly in the film industry, there is a struggle to get parity on a film unit. I was really impressed by how, with Screen Ireland’s push, and our efforts, and my natural instinct to give jobs to the girls where that’s possible [laughs], we managed to get a 50/50 split on the unit, which was really fantastic. I think it is really important; it’s harder in film where women are still under represented, particularly on the technical side. That is still a big challenge. We got a lot of support in Ireland.
Your previous films include MAMMA MIA! and THE IRON LADY, which were much bigger films, shot on location in London, what was it like to work in Ireland?
PL: It was a real privilege to make a film in Ireland, I found the collaborative spirit, the lack of patriarchy amongst the crew and the warmth and humour and efficiency really noteworthy.
How did you find the balance between the trauma and uplifting moments in the film?
PL: It’s a lot to do with the ensemble, and that’s adults and children. We had Louise Kiely, who helped myself and Clare find the ensemble and the children. You are looking for special spirits, with whom you can unlock that special feeling. Setting up improvisations between people who haven’t had that long to get to know one another was very risky but somehow, I think that Harriet Walter who was in our company – Clare and she had played husband and wife, father and son and male warrior enemies on the battlefield – so they had such trust between each other, and the combination of them and Conleth [Hill], who has done a lot of theatre, and a lot of making it up as you go along, risky work; the three of them were able to create an atmosphere in which people felt safe enough to take risks and that unlocked some of the merriment and the spirit.
Sandra sets out to build her own home in the film, what was the construction process like?
PL: The original house was designed by an Irish architect called Dominic Stevens, who was our advisor; he had designed and built it for himself some years ago. It was a huge challenge on film; normally you go to a location and shoot all the scenes you need to do on that location and then move on. We started with literally grass on the ground; then Conleth get on a digger and ploughed it up, so we went from ground zero… It was all in the same spot and we had to build a bit of the house and then we had to go away and let our crew rapidly get the house to the next stage. There was one side, the back of the house, that wasn’t built. We didn’t build everything on all four sides, but it was a design miracle the way they rushed to get it to the next point. We’d had these dreams that we were going to take the house and give it to somebody, but actually in the end, there was quite a bit of smoke and mirrors about the construction of it.
What was it like to get actors to do some of the heavy lifting?
PL: I brought the actors in the week before we started shooting, and we spent a few days learning how to use power tools. Clare and I – a year before – went on a course at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales, and we went on a timber frame building course for a week, and we built a small visitors centre – us and 18 other blokes with beards who were on the course. We learned there, we were really entrusted with extremely dangerous tools and we did a lot of very heavy lifting of solid oak, and learned how to do that in teams. So we were determined that there would be a sense of authenticity about it. The actors came in and everybody learned how to use power drills, all of this stuff was being done for real, so our construction crew trained everybody. That was really bonding and fun, and it seemed important that it felt truthful.
This may seem like a silly question in the midst of a pandemic, but do you know what’s next for you?
PL: I don’t really. I had directed a production of a musical about Tina Turner, which has three different groups of actors who are waiting to return to the stage. We just had our go ahead that we may be able to get our show back in Holland in the next months, so I am hoping to go and help with that. I wouldn’t necessarily think of doing a film straight after a film, but there is probably more hope, at the moment, for film than there is for theatre, in terms of being able to go full steam ahead.
Interview by Brogen Hayes