In “You Are Not My Mother,” there’s a legend around town that Char (Hazel Doupe) was an unwanted child, once left by her mother Angela (Carolyn Bracken) in her stroller in the middle of the street. Car doesn’t know that there’s at least some truth to this, but director Kate Dolan lets you in on it in the film’s opening frames, a surreal image of a baby whimpering at night with no one heeding its calls in a neighborhood where the lights are on in almost every house. It comes up when in her teen years, Char isn’t sure what to make of her mother, often slumped over in her bed and too tired to leave her room, never feeling the urge to ask why until some kids from school bully her about it.
It’s a testament to all involved in Kate Dolan’s chilling debut that you can’t be certain whether Angela is possessed by a curse as some, including her own mother Rita (Ingrid Craigie), may think, or simply checked out, burdened by depression and fatigue and hampered by the side effects of the medications she’s on. Even without this condition, Char was bound to begin looking at her mother in a different way, just as she’s looking at nearly everything with a little more skepticism in her neck of North Dublin in getting older and Dolan has created one of those unique horror films where once certain reveals are made, you start to see things in a whole new light as well. Both a consideration of trauma that’s passed down within a family that refuses to speak candidly about the tragedies that have befallen them and a coming-of-age story set at the precise moment that adults can be seen as human for the first time, the film channels the natural fear of uncertainty into something truly terrifying, just its location in Ireland where Halloween originated as the Gaelic festival Samhain is hardly an accident.
Set to take the Toronto Film Festival by storm where it is making its world premiere in the Midnight Madness section, “You Are Not My Mother” announces an exciting new filmmaker in Dolan and on the eve of the festival, she and the film’s two stars Doupe and Bracken spoke about getting the right vibe for a family both so close under one roof but so distant and how the environment itself set the tone.
How did this come about?
Kate Dolan: The birth of the film definitely comes from a personal place of a time when you’re coming of age and you start to realize that your parents aren’t infallible. They have flaws and they’re complex and they’re human beings that aren’t maybe going to be there for you all the time, particularly if they’re mentally or physically ill. That can be very scary because it feels like you are thrown at the world on your own and dealing with that, but then it’s also about family and generational trauma and how that passes down to younger generations and how come out of that as a fully formed person. What does that look like? Also, a lot of Irish folklore inspired the more scary stuff in the movie.
Hazel and Carolyn, what got you excited about this?
Hazel Doupe: Literally everything from the front of the script to the back of it. I could not put it down. The character arc of Char and the rapport between herself and Suzanne, who’s her spirit guide in some ways — her mother is obviously going through a lot of changes — so it was the entire story and its subtext as well that Kate just went into — the journey from being a child to becoming an adult is really, really scary sometimes and that, in particular, drew me and the folklore that tied it all together. I thought it was an incredible script for a first feature for Kate, and I just got on to my agent and said, “Yeah, I want this really, really badly, so I’m going to do everything in my power to get it,” and I just feel so lucky that I didn’t have to — that they wanted me to.
Carolyn Bracken: When I read the script at first, I had to stay very calm and patient because what I subsequently found out was there were a lot of lovely, fantastic actors up for it, and there aren’t a huge amount of the roles where you get to play the malevolent being, but there’s the opportunity to perform some parallels as well when it comes to mental health, throwing those bits of nuance into a scary character, so I just kept all the fingers crossed that I would be lucky enough to get it, and thankfully, I was.
What was it like to find the tone of this once the actors got on set?
Kate Dolan: That would probably have to come from their perspective rather than mine, but all the actors are amazing. We were so blessed with the cast and the most important thing when casting was just that everyone was very open and eager to try things, not hold back and just not be afraid to kind of have those conversations. We did a chemistry test with Hazel at Carolyn early on and you could just tell in the room, both of them just really got it and that they just worked so well together, so it was just kind of a no-brainer.
Hazel Doupe: Yeah, I’ll never forget the way I felt when Carolyn was kneeling down next to me in one of the scenes that we had done for the chemistry test, and in her malevolent mother way of speaking, she said, “No, everything’s okay. What do you mean?” In a way that made my skin crawl. And Carolyn’s a lovely person and…
Carolyn Bracken: I wasn’t at the time. [laughs]
Hazel Doupe: But I totally agree with Kate, you could tell the moment she walked into the room, that [Carolyn] was it. She completely embodied the character whilst somehow managing to stay sane. That scared the living daylights out of me, but also she was my mom, so she felt like my mom/sister on set and that was a really nice balance to strike. I don’t know how we did it, but we did. When you’re in that with somebody, sharing the same kind of make believe fear and also excitement and happiness together, it creates a really strong bond.
What was it like to prep the house? I understand you didn’t have much more than an afternoon, but it feels so lived in.
Kate Dolan: The trick of being in a house that’s not a set is you’re limited in where you can put the camera, especially in smaller rooms that were quite tight, but I think me and Narayan [Van Maele, the cinematographer] went to the house a week or so before we shot the film and went into every room, went through every scene, and basically said, “What is the best framing for this?” And we created a photo storyboard, so that on the day, we knew exactly what the layout of it would be while still giving room that the actors could move or change where they want us to be within that space as well.
The house was such a find, and it was kind of haunted, to be honest. It was a very cold house, but also it had a lot of character and the house lights would flicker in the middle of scenes, some of which is actually in the film, which wasn’t intentional. Sometimes the lights would just flicker or turn off, which was a pain when you’re shooting, but in the edit, you’re like, “Oh, this actually adds a lot of spooky atmosphere.”
Carolyn Bracken: I remember when I walked into the house for the first time, I thought, “Oh God, they won the lottery with this house” because it was like taking a step back in time. And it reflected the state of mind of the family. It was neglected, and I found that really helped in terms of performance as well, just the way that Lauren [Kelly], the production designer, dressed it. Every room was amazing, and knowing that the bare bones of it was fantastic, but what she did to it in order to get it to what you see in the movie is just incredible. The night before a scene we were going to do, she did this really unsettling painting that features in the dining room scene, and it’s just incredible, and she literally did it the night beforehand. It was absolutely beautiful and very unsettling as well.
From what I’ve heard, there’s other extraordinary things that Lauren helped pull off — is it true that what looks like a very simple scene involving a joint being passed around required a hundred fake joints because of the COVID safety protocols?
Kate Dolan: Yeah, Lauren is brilliant and we were having trouble finding a production designer. She was one of the last that we got on board because production design people were already busy in Ireland at the time, and Lauren had never done a feature before. She was 22, and she absolutely nailed it. I don’t know how she pulled a lot of the stuff off because we didn’t have lots of budget, and [for that scene in particular] Katie McDonough, the standby props person, was my MVP because we had to have multiples for the hand props because of COVID, so she rolled 60 joints or something and had them all in a lunchbox the day we were doing that scene. She was really doing a lot of crazy stuff.
Was there a particularly crazy day of filming?
Kate Dolan: There’s a river scene, which was a little bit demanding for the girls because it was November in Ireland, so it was about five degrees and they were [wading] into a cold, dirty river, so that was intense.
Carolyn Bracken: You know what? I really enjoyed that day. I can still feel the mush under my feet, so it was fun. It definitely wasn’t the toughest day in terms of performance…
Hazel Doupe: It was a bit crazy. We did have hot water bottles everywhere and people pouring the hot water bottles down your back as you got out of the lake and wrapping you up in tinfoil and getting into a warm space. I’ve never really done that kind of stuff before, so that was pretty fun.
Kate Dolan: I think the bonfire as well. It’s a big set-piece that took up a lot of time and especially for Hazel, it was quite an emotional performance and we had a lot to do that day. But I think that was one of my favorite days actually. I really enjoyed the spectacle and setting people on fire. [laughs]
And soon, you’ll set the world on fire with this. What’s it like to start getting this out there?
Kate Dolan: It’s insane. I’m just so grateful to have such an amazing premiere. The films that are at Midnight Madness are my favorite kind of movies, so to have my debut feature there, I still don’t really believe it. I also really felt for a lot of my peers, over the past year, who couldn’t go to their premieres and we’re getting to go to Toronto, so [after] just watching it alone with the editor all the time, to see it with an audience will be really amazing.