Irish Writer/Director Kate Dolan has had a successful career with her shorts films starting in 2014 with, Little Doll, followed by her second short, Catcalls, which won the Best Short Film at the Young Director Awards Ireland in 2018. Now, she’s back again but this time with her feature film debut, YOU ARE NOT MY MOTHER, which premiered at the TIFF Midnight Madness on September 12, 2021.
In YOU ARE NOT MY MOTHER, we follow teenager Char (Hazel Doupe) as something strange has happened to her mom, Angela (Carolyn Bracken), after returning home from an inexplicable absence. Char begins to notice subtle changes in her posture, personality, and appetite, but as her mom’s behavior grows increasingly wayward, Char’s scrutiny quickly turns to dread as a disturbing and titular possibility emerges.
For the World Premiere of YOU ARE NOT MY MOTHER, Nightmarish Conjurings’ Shannon McGrew had the chance to speak with writer/director Kate Dolan where they discussed everything from Irish pagan history, setting the film during Halloween, and more.
Hi Kate! Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. To kick things off, can you talk about the genesis of how YOU ARE NOT MY MOTHER came to be?
Kate Dolan: It’s kind of an amalgamation of a couple of things. In our Irish folklore. There’s a lot of dark stories about people getting taken or swapped and brought somewhere where they never returned from. Also, a lot of knock-ons from those folklore tales are real stories about people in Ireland who put their relatives in a fire because they thought that they were changing. [T]he stories were believed so much that then it became part of the psyche, which is even darker. So, that was definitely something that always intrigued me. They’re such rich myths and folklore and pagan history in Ireland and I guess I wanted to depict that in the film. I felt like Irish folklore or also other kinds of folklore were often in a rural setting – people come and they anger the thing in the woods or whatever, so it was definitely something that I hadn’t seen set in an urban setting. I’m from just outside of Dublin City in the suburbs of Dublin and even growing up, those stories were still a massive part of us growing up. I wanted a story that was in that setting. And then, finally, it’s about coming-of-age and having to deal with a parent who’s mentally unwell and how to navigate that as a young person, and then how does that affect you and how do you overcome the matter? How do you take that on? Those kinds of inherited traumas in family and how they come up again for next generations that are growing up.
That leads right into my next question. The film showcases three generations of women, so how was the process of forming those layers for these characters?
Kate Dolan: In paganism, there’s this idea of three women: the young woman and then a middle woman – I’m drawing a blank on the name – and then the crone, which is the old woman. So, that was kind of a visual idea that I had. Also, I grew up with my mom in my granny’s house and I had these two very strong-minded matriarchs, grandmothers, that were a big part of my life growing up, and then my mom as well, and my aunties and stuff. So, I was around a lot of women who were kind of witchy. That’s my experience of growing up so I think that was always going to be part of it.
I loved that the film is set during Halloween. Was that always part of the story?
Kate Dolan: There were a couple of reasons. In pagan history in Ireland, Samhain is big. I obviously love Halloween and have been obsessed with it since I was a little kid. When I was writing the first draft initially it wasn’t set in Halloween, but basically in Ireland on Halloween night communities will still light big bonfires in their areas and people go and watch and set off fireworks and stuff. [I]t’s a big part of the Irish culture so that just made sense to work in with the ending of the film. And then obviously, it’s such a huge part of pagan Irish history that it just made sense. It’s my debut feature film and I’m like, of course, I’m going to set it in Halloween. I can make that decision and it’ll be fun [Laughs].
Your film has such striking visuals especially with the use of red lights and the mom’s transformation. Speaking on that, how was it executing those scenes with the mom? Was it mostly practical?
Kate Dolan: I’m a big believer in practical effects. I think they just always look better and they feel more tangible and they’re more fun to do on set as well as opposed to like a green screen or something. We tried to do a lot of it as practically as possible, and it was important to me that her makeup felt very tangible and real to make it more visceral. We had a very tight budget, so we were lucky that we had heads of departments, like Narayan Van Maele, who shot the film, and Madonna Bambino, who did the makeup. They were just so skilled that it turned out really well for us.
I can’t wrap up the interview without asking about Hazel Doupe. The film really falls upon her shoulders as we follow her through her terrifying journey. How did you know she was the right actress for the role of Char?
Kate Dolan: I had seen Hazel in a couple of things and you could tell she’s a very special kind of actor. I think she has very great things ahead of her. I think she’s very smart and she’s very thoughtful and mature. And she was 18 when we started shooting, she turned 19 in the middle of the shoot. Anytime we talked in prep or during the shoot, she just was really dedicated and thought about every detail in a way that I hadn’t really experienced before. I kind of got that sense of her from watching her work before, but then as soon as we started talking, it was very apparent that she was just the right person completely. And she had a great love of Wicca and paganism and that kind of stuff. So, she really bought into the whole story we were telling as well, which was really fun. It was the perfect fit.
YOU ARE NOT MY MOTHER had its World Premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
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