With Mammal garnering rave reviews, Paul Byrne talks to director Rebecca Daly and leading man Barry Keoghan about hidden emotions, big ideas and the Irish film boom.
Irish filmmaker Rebecca Daly enjoys exploring the spaces inbetween, those moments where nothing is said, and everything is revealed.
It was there in her 2011 feature debut, The Other Side Of Sleep, Antonia Campbell-Hughes sleepwalking through her life as she struggled with loss in a small midlands town. And it’s there in Daly’s second feature, Mammal.
A hit on the festival circuit since debuting at Sundance last year, and co-written by Daly once again with Glenn Montgomery, Mammal centres on Rachel Griffith’s loner Margaret, happy to keep her circle of activity between her second-hand clothes shop, her daily dip in the local pool, and being alone in her home. Margaret hardly moves outside of her daily routines, but you feel that she may be silently running from something. And when her ex-husband (Michael McElhatton) turns up with news that the son she abandoned all those years ago has gone missing, the news sparks Margaret into offering her vacant spare room to Joe (Barry Keoghan), a feral teen she recently nursed back to health after finding him passed out and bleeding behind her shop.
Soon, these two losts souls are swimming ever closer to one another…
It’s a film that offers no crashes or bangs, and only a handful of wallops (well, it is an Irish film, after all), something I discussed with Daly and Keoghan when I met up with them in Dublin…
Paul Byrne: Rebecca, as with The Other Side Of Sleep, you’re dealing with emotional loss once again here. A rich vein to explore, or are you working through issues?
Rebecca Daly: Aren’t we all [laughs]? Apart from my issues, I think emotional loss is a very rich area, because what both those films represent to me is the loss of possibility, the result of death. So, when Margaret’s son is discovered dead, there’s that loss of possibility. And in that space, how a character finds a way out, how they work out how to go on, that’s fascinating to me. Because that’s what they do – there’s no big emotional outburst. They just get on with it. Their emotion is in their actions, and they always get themselves to a better place in the end.
When we first meet you, Barry, in Mammal, you’re lying in a Dublin alleyway, comatosed. Did you know they were making a film?
Barry Keoghan: Yeah, I just woke up, and there was a camera in my face [laughs] – so, I just improvised from there.
RD: And he was so good, we just decided to write his character into the film…
Actually, the real question is how you found working almost entirely within the spaces inbetween – there’s a sensual world at work here, with very little dialogue and lots of glances, signals, teasing…
BK: There was room there to just run with what was going on off-screen too. Rachel and I were just getting to know each other, and Rebecca smartly used that in the film too. So, we were left to explore different ways of just playing a scene, and it meant that the laughter and the uncertainty, that was all there naturally. We didn’t rehearse scenes, so, it meant that it had that fresh sensibility.
RD: What is great is that the two of them are playing that uncertainty out between each other. And it gave them freedom to just come with what was natural about their scenes together.
Your character is quite feral – was Joe easy to tap into?
BK: Yeah, Rebecca said that he wanted Joe to be feral. Having those feral cats in the backyard just added to that sense of danger too, that sense of a mother’s love and a rebellious, potentially vicious child. I found all that fascinating. This is a creature just trying to survive, and his trust levels are low and his opportunistic instincts are quite high.
Was there a spark here for this story when you and Monty began writing Mammal?
RD: It was originally Glenn’s idea, this mother who couldn’t be a mother, and what grew out of that for me was trying to find out her motivation, and how does that choice effect her afterwards. We’re always interested in characters that will keep us interested in enough to want to keep exploring and exploring. And I don’t subscribe to the idea that you should just write about what you know – I’m really interested in exploring worlds and people that I don’t know.
We’re deep in arthouse territory here, even if these are everyday people struggling with everyday issues – is there a commercial consideration when you and Glenn set out to make a movie?
RD: I don’t tend to go into those conversations, and I’m lucky enough to work with people who don’t want to have them. I think the danger is trying to work in both camps, and you end up in an odd place between your instincts and trying to make something that appeals to more and more people. I just couldn’t work that way. And having Rachel in there will certainly help Mammal reach people – there’ll be the joy of seeing this great actress in a very different kind of role for her.
I’d like to think that there would be a surreal Muriel’s Wedding reunion, whereby Rachel’s Margaret and Toni Collette’s Jean from Glassland just pass each other by on a miserable, wet Dublin afternoon. Even if the scene actually took place in Luxembourg, where, thanks to the wonders of film financing, half of Mammal was shot. It’s a city known by some as Dublin’s doppelganger, of course…
RD: Yeah, that’s what they say [laughs]. We did quite a few interior shots there, and we used industrial estates for some scenes as well. I was a bit nervous in the beginning, because their architecture is completely different, but with some good location scouting, we managed to make it work.
It’s five years since The Other Side Of Sleep, despite the fact that you’re one of our hottest young directors. What the hell happened there?
RD: That was pretty much our fault. I did a lot of festivals with The Other Side Of Sleep, and Glenn and I just didn’t get to sit down for a ridiculously long time to write this script. Our next film is being financed now, and we should be shooting it later this year. So, this time, we’re ready. And that’s the kind of gap we’ll be aiming for from now on [laughs].
Do you feel part of this current mini-boom in the Irish film industry, with the likes of Room, Brooklyn and Sing Street…?
RD: I’m busy getting on with my own work, but you can’t but be aware of the good work going on around you. And these things don’t happen overnight – some of these great films come from directors who have been perfecting their craft for years and years. The idea that you get the chance to develop and grow is so important. I even recognised a big difference between shooting Mammal and shooting The Other Side Of Sleep. You naturally get better at these things. Given time.
Met you about a year ago, young Barry, and looking at your CV, it looks like you haven’t been home in about two years, as you move from set to set, throwing in the odd short along the way as a stopover. Has it been non-stop?
BK: After Mammal, there was a gap of about a year, which was frightening. Mammal had such an impact on me, I just didn’t want to work for a while. I had hit my peak, and I knew I could never better it. It made me go off my head.
You also got to see women’s breasts up close in this film – a life-changing moment for you, I’m sure…
BK: Absolutely! The funny thing was, when I was watching the film later on, I looked away when Rachel was naked. I just felt I shouldn’t be looking at her that way – even though I was in the scene with her. I felt embarrassed.
RD: I think he was well able to do that scene. Again and again.
There’s a Love/Hate rep company travelling from film shoot to film shoot around the country – that’s got to help.
BK: Big time. It’s important to mix it up though. Go abroad, do other kinds of roles, show some range early on. As much as I love every gig, I don’t want to get typecast. I’ve just signed in the States with a good team, and they’re on the same page – looking at the indie route, and find other kinds of work. I want to be pushed.
Your next film, Rebecca, is about faith in Ireland. So, a comedy…?
RD: Well, a mixture of comedy and tragedy [laughs]. It’s actually set in a remote woods in Germany, but it’s about faith, and it’s about Ireland, and yet not about Ireland at the same time. If that makes sense…
BK: Faith being a mixture of comedy and tragedy – that makes perfect sense…