Rose Plays Julie – Interview with writer/directors Christine Molloy & Joe Lawlor

Now showing in Irish cinemas, ROSE PLAYS JULIE is the story of a young adopted woman, Rose (Ann Skelly) who makes contact with her birth mother Ellen (Orla Brady), trying to discover who she might have been if she had not been adopted. When Rose meets her mother she discovers that her conception was the result of a violent act, and seeks out her biological father in her search for answers about who she is, and who she might become. caught up with writer/directors Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor to find out more about their intriguing new film, how they went about telling the story, Greek tragedies and working with Aidan Gillen for the millionth time.

Congratulations on ROSE PLAYS JULIE, where did the story of the film come from?
Joe Lawlor: Ideas are a strange thing, where they come from. Certain kind of themes and concerns over the years have cohered for us, one of which is the theme of identity and this idea that you can’t take for granted who you are in terms of how stable you might be, and that there are events and traumas and situations that can possibly blow you off course and blow you into a new direction. I guess we were looking at issues to do with identity but trying to make them as specific as possible for a film. Specificity is important and I guess we wanted to tell a story about a young woman initially, not with anything more attached. Sometimes you are trying to grab hold of a small idea, and the small idea might be the story to do with a young woman and somebody embarking on a journey at a pivotal time in their life, and how she is at the beginning of something and that might have an impact on her later on in life. In our walks from where we live in London down to the Thames and back… it tends to be through the act of walking, you tend to coalesce more around that. We had been doing some research around sexual violence, power, gender, the tensions between men and women – which is a perennial issue if you go back to Greek dramas – and things developed from that. I think we were also mindful of the fact that, on average, a film takes seven years to go from idea to screen, so you need to make sure whatever you are embarking on is something that really drives you and interests you, and is not a fickle or slow idea that will just burn away. You will know fairly quickly if an idea has legs by page 30 of a screenplay. You don’t get many opportunities in your life to make a film so you need to make sure that this is something that you feel passionately about, and I think through this slow growing over time; weeks, months, that the story of ROSE PLAYS JULIE really developed.

The idea of who you would be if a decision had been made another way is an interesting one…
JL: My mother, for example, she was born in New York in the 1930s and her parents put her on a ship at the age of 11 months – unaccompanied, importantly. Alone – so they sent her across to my relatives in Kerry, they were bringing her back to a farm in Kerry and they were at Cobh, as were some reporters so they took a picture of her saying “Helen Dowling, youngest unaccompanied passenger ever to travel across the Atlantic this way – West to East”. We made a documentary five years ago, pondering that very question; her standing on the beach wondering what would it have been like if I had stayed across the ocean?
Christine Molloy: There is always those roads not taken, or the forks in the road, and we can think about that a lot in all of our lives but there are things that happen to some people, and we also think that thinking about adoption, or young people who grow up in the care system who absolutely would have an alternative life or a parallel life, which of course is imaginary but it has a reality as well if you go and try and trace your parents. We knew how we wanted to approach it was through this identity story and through focusing on the impact, rather than the act; making sure that the act itself isn’t clouded by anything that makes it murky and questionable. Each of the three characters know what happened, and it is not under scrutiny, it is what happens next, and it is how violent act has rippled through decades and through generations.

Adoption in Ireland has a fraught history, in terms of the religious institutions, was this something you wanted to address?
CM: Well it’s definitely there, and we did a huge amount of research. We have got our own experiences in families to do with adoption. It is still talking to a situation in Ireland where if a woman got into trouble there’s very few places for her to turn; it was a cruel and difficult country to grow up in as women, particularly women who find themselves in situations like, say getting pregnant out of wedlock, or in [Ellen’s] case the shame of rape and the horror of that, feeling that you have nowhere to turn and no-one to speak to and then the shock that you are also pregnant and how we fail as a society fail on lots of levels to do with rape as a crime; it is practically being decriminalized because it seems impossible to get a conviction and also the fact that we abandon women, in particular, to their fate when something happens to them where they need support most of all. I definitely think it completely speaks to Ireland, the situation in Ireland, it’s both an Irish story but it is also more general than that. Definitely the Irish part of it was there in our thinking, we just aren’t addressing it head on because it is not an issue-based film; we don’t involve third parties like the justice system or the gards, we keep it very much in this archetypal relationship; the child, the mother and the father. As Joe mentioned, in that Greek Tragedy way, there is an inevitability about the journey they are going on. You feel and suspect, and it is there from the beginning, that this has got to be sorted and the three of them have got to sort it out between them. That was important to us, that it’s addressed by them, so that gives it it’s cinematic logic. We are not saying this is the logic of the real world, but it certainly is cinematic if you are thinking about story and storytelling for cinema, that’s there and that interests us the most; trying to tell it in a cinematic way.

It is interesting that you bring up Greek tragedy, because the idea of home is so important in Greek plays, and it feels as though Rose is looking for that idea of home as well. Was this something you were considerate of?
JL: Psychologically, it is interesting the conversations that we had at the outset because someone was like “well she must have come from a terrible home then because she needs to go in search of biological parents” and we were going “why!?”. We know loads of people who have been adopted in wonderful, loving families, however they know they’re adopted. Maybe in the old days people would hold that information back as a secret, I think that is much less the case now. There are pieces of a key jigsaw missing here. It is also the case where people may not want to find out who their biological parents are, and that’s absolutely fine, that’s a hurdle that needs to be traversed; you wouldn’t be ambivalent about that one way or the other, and there are people who go on the search. Even if you go in search of your birth parents and they have passed away, at least you have a picture to deal with. I think when there is somebody looking for answers, looking for meaning, looking to form a complete picture about their identity, that’s a very powerful reservoir that someone is drinking from to propel them forward. What makes the drama, is that it is not so smooth or so easy, that there are some serious hurdles to traverse.

The film uses sound and silence really carefully, can you tell us more about this?
CM: People have said that our films are slow; they are slow and they are really slow to some people who do not like slow films, often I think what they have even more so is a quietness to them, which makes it feel like its slowed down. Working in that way between fuller sound design and music that is specifically placed is something that we have explored in the feature films we have done.
JL: I agree with Christine, it is about the quietness and the contemplativeness of it, so when a dialogue happens in the forest or in Rose’s study room it’s about 30% slower than your average dialogue.
CM: We love working with sound design, and we love working with composition as well. We have worked with [composer] Stephen McKeon on MISTER JOHN and ROSE PLAYS JULIE, and that collaboration is hugely important for us and we love our collaboration with Stephen and we think he is completely brilliant to work with. There are parts of the project that, for us, really begin to find their place later on in the edit, but they become a vital part, so they are always on our minds, even if we don’t really get down to the real business of it until later on. As I am editing, Joe does a lot of temp sound so we can kind of orient ourselves, and begin to feel the world. That is a part of the process of that we really love. Sometimes it gets overlooked.

You have assembled a great cast with Aidan Gillen, Orla Brady and Ann Skelly, how did you go about casting the film?
CM: We have worked with Aidan before, and we first met Aidan years ago in the Dublin Youth Theatre. At the time Aidan was a teenager, so we know him a long time and he came back into our minds again. We cast Aidan in our film MISTER JOHN, and he has a cameo role in our documentary FURTHER BEYOND. It became clear that Aidan was going to be really strong contender; it was a man in his early 50s that we were looking for and then we thought “who are the Irish actors available” … but why even bother looking because we have worked with Aidan before.
JL: And we are lazy! If it seems to work from the get-go… Go.

CM: I know that for Aidan it was a tricky character to play, and he has played villainous characters before.
JL: He said “what I would like to do is play him friendly, open, approachable and charming until he can’t be any more” [laughs]. Like Ann [Skelly], it is very hard to catch somebody who is very innocent and naïve and just starting, and at the same time a real power and predatorial rawness to her, so she is not to be trifled with, which is very hard to get when you also have this slightly angelic face, but she somehow managed to do both.

CM: Ann is absolutely the real deal, we just got very lucky that our casting director put her our way, and I am sure she is going to have a really great career. She is such a pleasure to work with and she is very very funny. Orla [Brady] came to us again with our casting director, who came up with a list of names and you just go through the process. Orla was slightly outside of the character profile; I did not know much about Orla but we became really drawn to her and we talked to her. We requested – and we know it is not really the done thing – a Skype call with Orla, also giving her a chance to say no to us. We got on like a house on fire and also her engagement with the script was exactly what we hoped for, but that was a no-brainer in the end.

You shot this before the covid-19 pandemic and had screened it at festivals including the Dublin International Film Festival before the world shut down, but were you tempted to keep tinkering with it in lockdown?
CM: It’s completely done and to me, this is our film and I have absolutely no doubts. The kind of thing that will be on your mind for the next project is what did we not have to play with in the edit that we would have liked to have had. The edit that we have is the edit that we want. There are one or two things because very late on in the proceedings we had to reimagine our script because the budget was less than we had hoped for, so you do think about that – what we had to take out very late in the day in terms of scenes and what it would have been like if they were still in. You have just got to let go!
JL: Once you have got Picture Lock and you are in post-production, whatever decisions you have made, you will never ever go back. You can look back at films from 10-12 years ago… They never leave you, but in the editing process there comes that crunch moment; this is it, and you need to let go.

Words – Brogen Hayes

ROSE PLAYS JULIE is now showing in Irish Cinemas