Interview: Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy on Stepping Into Another’s Shoes in “Rose Plays Julie”

Nothing is ever really dead in “Rose Plays Julie,” despite the way every character in Christine Malloy and Joe Lawlor’s beguiling third feature is forced to confront the loss of life in their work. It’s an unpalatable part of the college course Rose (Ann Skelly) takes in her training to become a veterinarian, though she doesn’t seem to be bothered by it when learning about how to put down animals allows her to take her mind off of other things in her life, namely following a lead she has on the identity of her birth mother Ellen (Orla Brady) after growing up an orphan. Ellen hasn’t given much thought to what happened to Rose either, reinventing herself in the years since giving up the girl as readily as she disappears into new roles as an actress, which appears as much as a professional pursuit as it is a departure from the days when she flirted with a career in archeology. Rose’s eventual visit leads Ellen once again to do some excavation, an unappetizing prospect under any circumstances, but particularly when it reminds Ellen of Peter Doyle (Aidan Gillen), her onetime mentor in the field who raped her.

While the pain of the moment subsided for Ellen, Rose’s arrival as the product of that assault brings a number of complicated questions in “Rose Plays Julie,” which explores the legacy of trauma with considerable freshness, quite literally sneaking up on its characters as Rose herself, unsure of the details of her conception, uses her unsupervised freedom as a college freshman to start looking into what happened. Lawlor and Malloy show how as the trio are brought closer together by Rose’s investigation, their perspective couldn’t be further apart, not regarding the details of the assault, but how they’ve processed it in the intervening time in different ways, attempting to square the lives they’ve forged separately with an event that was fundamental to leading them on the path they’re currently on. Giving space to the characters as much as the audience with a prevailing feeling of calm, the directing duo lets the film breath as it deals with subject matter that is all too often stifling, not only making for a fine drama but opening up a conversation that usually stops before it can start.

Recently, Lawlor and Malloy were kind enough to take the time to talk about the genesis of “Rose Plays Julie,” continuing to interrogate themes that have carried over from their previous work and how working with actors has loosened up their own approach to the stories they tell.

How did this come about?

Christine Malloy: At the beginning, there were a few things that were on our mind and one of them, it was almost like an itch that needs to be scratched. Where we live in East London, we can walk along a canal that eventually brings us to the Thames, so there’s a sense of destination and it allows us a period of time to just walk and talk to think through some ideas. [This] really went back to “Helen,” the very first feature film that we made, and the central character of that film went on a journey where she wanted to understand if she’d ever been loved. I wouldn’t say it had a happy ending, but certainly a hopeful ending in my mind — she grew up in the care system, so she never got to know who her parents were, and discovers that yes at a point in her life, she was loved by her birth parents. Helen never had the experience of [being raised in] a family home like Rose in “Rose Plays Julie,” who grew up as an adopted child, but I was left with this idea of what if the answer to the [same] question is “No, you weren’t loved or you weren’t wanted.”

We think about material that we’ve worked on before and reexcavate and reexamine and this aspect of “Helen” stayed with me, and I know Joe was thinking about it as well. The other thing was our desire to actually make a film that looked at rape and try to think less so about the act itself, but more the impact of that act over time, so this multigenerational story where the central character was rape-conceived came together bit by bit as we walked and talked for the best part of a year, not every day, but at least once a week as we were slowly trying to put the elements of the story together.

One of the really interesting aspects of this is how you express the past entirely in the present – you don’t use flashbacks and yet you’re showing how they’re processing trauma in the moment. Is that difficult to achieve?

Joe Lawlor: It’s interesting. There was a recent case in the UK where a young woman who was the outcome of a rape tried to bring her case forward so she could be given equally victim status and be recognized as such in the courts. I’m not quite sure what the outcome of that is, but there’s still a process ongoing there, so one could imagine that is long overdue as a recognized trauma. It’s a very unique circumstance in which a crime — an act of violence — can be committed, yet the outcome of that act is the birth of a child and that child carries with it certain scars psychologically. In Ireland, there’s been church/state scandals to do with young mothers, adopted babies and basically the trafficking of children in these laundries that Ireland has been so proficient at supporting over decades, so that too is a trauma for the country still to recognize. It endures and it lives with us, so acts that were created or committed in this particular case don’t diminish in their power.

They can be inherited and understood and realized by the child and in a sense, they take on the mantle of that trauma as well, but it’s shared. We’re positing in the idea in the film “Rose Plays Julie” that the trauma is then shared but because it’s shared, the load can be lightened somewhat and two people can help each other try to come to terms or redress that. We were interested in how psychologically that trauma gets handed on from one generation to each other and that the younger generation in particular becomes braver at facing it in the way that you find the younger generation have continued to prove themselves to be stronger and braver in wanting to bring about social justice in the way that myself and Christine, instead of our parents, wanted to address certain things, one hopes that the next generation takes on the fight but become more successful.

Christine Molloy: Yeah, we know that rape is deeply problematic and as societies, we’ve completely failed to address it adequately. In the UK where we live, the conviction numbers for rape are down even from a year ago, so we’re going in the opposite direction from where we need to be. Often the whole question of rape is so thorny and complex [that] we wanted to remove ourselves from that, for the rape to be a fact and in effect, Rose is the crime scene. She is what conceived from this act and we don’t need to discuss whether therapy happened or not. It did happen and we never wanted Peter Doyle [the rapist] to deny it. He accepts that a rape happened and he actually finds out that as a result of that rape, a child was conceived. It was important for us not to get sidetracked by a problematic justice system that most often lets victims down and clouds or muddies or confuses the issue. Yes, it happened in the past, but the current reality is the revelation of the child that was conceived as a result of that rape and then what she wants to do about it.

You’re very deliberate with how these characters come from very different worlds visually before seeing how they collide – did you have certain environments in mind for the characters?

Joe Lawlor: One of the things that we always enjoy in other films, but certainly was important in this film were the jobs that people do in the film. The work they pursue is not incidental. There’s something meaningful or significant about it, so each are employing the tools of their trade in very different ways to explore or cover up or conceal or reveal in different ways. [For Rose] we started with [the idea of] a zoologist and the more research we did, we realized that vets spend a lot of their time putting down animals and that’s a really core part of their job, so there’s a disruptive nature to that, but there’s also a compassionate nature to it as well, so we were very drawn to the complexity or ambiguity of that. Once you begin to understand what a veterinary scientist does, you begin to understand that they hang out with death a lot, and we used to have it that a scalpel was important, but then laterally we thought, “No, a syringe is a much more interesting device to be dealing with.”

Locations are funny ones because sometimes you have to make a decision where you are going to film and some of that’s just based on finance. Are you going to shoot it all in Ireland or will there be some scenes shot in the UK? Even the UK parts in “Rose Plays Julie” were shot in Dublin and maybe because we’ve been living away from Ireland for a number of years, we weren’t trying to represent Dublin or Ireland in a particular way. It could be anywhere and we liked the generic nature of these locations. A lot of European suburban areas look alike — maybe all of the architects go to the same places and there’s a certain amount of groupthink, so we don’t think about representing the specific nature of a place. We tend not to set scenes in an Irish pub, for example. We eschew all those places and look out for places like forests, parks, roads, housing estates that [where] somehow the accumulation of those locations gives the film a visual identity, but a lot of that’s subconscious. We’d have to visit a psychiatrist to fully analyze that. [laughs]

Christine Molloy: The world of it does narrow down and becomes more interior along the way. There’s obviously Rose’s room in the campus, which is an odd location because normally rooms in campuses don’t quite look like that — I’d move into that room because it was so nice and normally they’re cramped. We wanted her to have space, so it’s a more cinematic version of what a student room could be like. But as the film progresses, things do close in and get darker, particularly when we by the time we get to Peter Doyle’s house. The architecture in that house and the style and the atmosphere is very, very different and we were calling his room the man cave as we were filming because it’s a very strange, dark, odd oppressive space, [with] a lower ceiling and a sense of things coming in on top of you. It’s not that we completely mapped it out in a really conscious way, but as the film intensifies, you get into the darker world of Peter Doyle’s life, so we’re on the side of a mountain, but we end up inside a recently excavated pit at the top of the archeological dig and Peter Doyle and Rose have this very intimate contact. That’s a journey obviously that the film is going on because she’s been pulled into his world.

Of course, the final scene with Ellen and Peter in the car, the fact that she hasn’t seen Peter Doyle since the day he raped her, yet they end up in this incredibly intimate, confined space of the car and that felt to us like a provocation, but completely right. When we were out filming, we decided that Orla Brady and Aidan Gillen shouldn’t see each other until we’re ready to film that scene. It’s their only overlapping scene and it was Aidan’s last day and Orla’s first, and we kept them apart until we filmed that. We did the scene for the first time all in one take, and it was wrong to say it was an exercise, but felt like that so that Orla and Aidan could go through that experience of the withholding and then being together in this very confined and intimate space. One of the instructions as well was for Orla not to look at Aidan until she felt like it was the right time to look at him, so that she’s looking away from him until she turns to look at him. With a different budget, we possibly could’ve used that take because in terms of the performance, it was very intense and incredibly moving to watch, but we only had one camera and the weather was completely atrocious, so we didn’t use that footage, but it completely helped us getting to the place that we needed to be for that moment in the film.

Joe Lawlor: As we’ve made more films, you begin to work with different actors and you allow them to inhabit that [space], so rather than blocking every single moment out, you give actors a moment. Of course, it has to end with an act, but it’s good to not overthink a scene beforehand but to allow actors to own it, so you’ve written it, but it could be played in a number of ways and if you allow actors certainly as good as Orla and Aidan to play it in the way that they want to play it before you feel you need to go in and start interfering, in a sense, nothing will be wrong. Very often you don’t need to touch it, just allow an actor to do their job and that was one of many scenes in which an actor plays it and you just record that moment with a camera. The analogy is really a jazz structure where you hope that the framework that you’ve given the soloist – in this case John Coltrane, you hope it’s the right structure and you just let them play. The tension between those two things if they’re right will work very well together and for us that was very much a motif we worked a lot in “Rose Plays Julie.”

“Rose Plays Julie” is now playing in virtual cinemas. A full list is here.