TIFF 2023 Interview: Mahalia Belo on a Special Delivery in “The End We Start From”

“I’m not that very good with time. For me, time just kind of flows,” confesses Mahalia Belo, the morning after her debut feature “The End We Start From” premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, attempting to remember at what point the adaptation of Megan Hunter’s novella found its way back to her. Belo had first read the story of a new mother, who goes by Woman in the book, as she braves the fallout from an apocalyptic flood when it was in galleys and the director was making her mark in British television, working on a pair of standout miniseries “Requiem” and “The Long Song,” and while how it came together may all be a blur now, Belo’s ability to summon the pungent emotions she felt upon her first encounter with the character study rather than more mundane details of time and space serves a story in which days and places seem to blur as Woman struggles for survival, carrying her newborn in tow.

Adapted by “Lady Macbeth” screenwriter Alice Birch and starring Jodie Comer, “The End We Start From” sees Belo swinging for the fences as she plunges audiences underwater in its opening minutes and while letting Woman rise to the surface, the constant battle to stay afloat becomes an animating tension. Due to give birth any minute, she worries whether her partner (Joel Fry) will find his way back to their flat as a torrential downpour threatens to turn their home into a swamp, already laying waste to local infrastructure, and once reunited, the two seek refuge with his parents (Mark Strong and Alexandria Riley), who are thought to live in relative safety away from the city, but nonetheless the storm still comes for them. After delivering the baby, the couple separates seemingly for the best interests of the child, but in being left alone to fend for herself while adjusting to her new responsibilities as a mother, Woman has to navigate as many obstacles in her own mind as the ravaged terrain in front of her, coming across kindly strangers (including the likes of Katherine Waterston and Benedict Cumberbatch) as well as people and personal impulses she can’t entirely trust when the experience is an altogether new one.

With Comer as a predictably strong anchor, Belo has the leeway to throw audiences off-balance, employing the widest framing imaginable to express a world that Woman feels a lot smaller in after stepping outside her house and gradually comes to reclaim, as well as a gloriously anachronistic score from “Eighth Grade” composer Anna Meredith that suggests a timeless tale about the issues around new parenthood with its classical string section but finding new gears by way of synths to endure. One is left no choice but to surrender to the full-on immersion that “The End We Start From” is able to achieve in this postpartum moment and while Belo was in Toronto, the director spoke about crafting such a sensitive and sensational drama, taking the unexpected in stride and finally making a big screen experience like the ones that inspired her to become a filmmaker in the first place.

How did you get involved in this?

From reading the novel way back then, it had stuck with me. I read it very close to when I had my first child and it felt so true to that experience. The book [expressed it] in such a beautiful way. Then time passed a bit and and I think it was BBC Films and Leah Clark at SunnyMarch [Films], who asked me if I wanted to do the film and there was a script already, but then Alice and I developed it to make it more in keeping with me as well. I felt like I’d seen the other versions [of this apocalyptic story] before and I didn’t think there needed to be another one of them in some ways, but I was drawn to the subjectivity of the book and to find a way to keep it within the script and articulate that visually was one of the most exciting things.

We were interested in how the camera would connect with her in terms of her interior understanding of what’s going on, so the subjectivity and sometimes the dreamlike quality of it, memory and reality merging together and rooting [the character of] Woman through the language of the cinematography was very clearly central to the whole thing.

It sounded like Jodie was a real partner in this. What was it like getting her onboard?

It was a joy to work with Jodie. She’s brilliant, and she knew what it was when we were talking about it and we knew what we had to protect, so she was completely shoulder to shoulder with me throughout the whole process. The role also demands quite a lot – a whole new set of understanding about being a new mum, which is, in truth, very hard to do, because when you have the first kid, you don’t know what that is, and that’s what makes it so challenging. So she had to go through all of that and figure out what that experience might be and do it justice. And [it took] courage because we tried to make sure she wouldn’t really properly cry until that final moment, and there’s something quite interesting about how she’s managed to hold it [together] almost. She does a lot of research, and she’s got such a nose for truth that it’s just really great working together to root that out and find the most truthful, honest depiction of this character.

To convey a nomadic journey like this, it must feel like you’re moving from one world to the next on a daily basis. Was the shoot set up at all to help with the emotional arc?

We weren’t linear. It was impossible to do that with the very, very tight schedule [we had], much tighter than I’d ever worked on before. But we tried, so as much as we could to keep it so that Jodie wouldn’t be [thrown off] because becoming a parent to an eight-month-old is very, very different to being a parent to a newborn, or a three-month-old, so we tried to do it linearly. We started off the first part of the shoot was in G&N’s house, her partner’s mum and dad. And that was great because we had a collective of actors there and they all came together and communed and we decided we were going to try and make this movie as great as we could. It felt like there was a security in that, these brilliant people being so engaged with the whole thing.

I bet you also were kept on your toes with the various newborns on set. What were they like to work with?

The thing about babies is that they’re not acting, so they change the scenes quite often and change the tone and sometimes it was hard because if a baby was erupting, we would have to take time out, which affected us quite a lot, but for the most part, it actually lent itself to some beautiful, unexpected moments, and I love it when something organic happens [where] you’ve got a plan and you know what it’s going to be and then something comes and it just makes it feel this true, truer than before.

This may not be related to the babies, but was there anything like that that happened that took this in a direction you weren’t expecting or could really embrace?

Yeah, I feel like there’s probably a million of those. Katherine Waterston [for instance] is such an actor who’s really in the present, which is great. If she sees something, she’ll go to it and there’s a moment where Jodie and Katherine have this deep friendship and they’re talking on the bed. about what happened in the past and Katherine just sees an eyelash on her cheek and picks it up and blows it. And [to me] it was just like, “Ah, my friends do that to me.” When we’re that tight [on that shot], we’re like, “What’s this? There’s so much love and tenderness in that one moment, and Katherine gave that to us and when that happens, it’s a gift.

It’s got a really unexpected score as well from Anna Meredith. What was it like to put music on this?

I’ve wanted to work with Anna Meredith for a really long time. I was making a short a long time ago and I found a piece she created with just claps and clicks and I love this kind of modern sounds with a classical background and she can go big. I knew that there was a version in this film that could be like weirdly orchestral and soppy and it wouldn’t have been interesting for me, but when Anna came on board, we talked about instrumentation and the feeling of it and then she ran with it. When she passed things back, it’d be like, “Wow, this is one of those things that completely changes what the what the scene feels like.” There’s one piece in it, and we don’t have names for each track, [but there’s a big emotional moment] when Woman is walking around the house and she sees Mark Strong [after the character suffers a loss] and it’s got a big pulsey, bassy [sound] and a friend of mine had lost someone and saw that and said that that’s exactly how it felt – that feeling that you can’t quite settle, you can’t go anywhere and it’s almost a rage that comes in. There were so many ways to do it and Anna just brought that final piece and kicked it together.

That brings up a broader question when you’re going after these emotional truths and you keep the story relatively abstract. Was it hard to decide on how much you wanted the audience to know about the situation at hand?

Yeah, it was a balancing act. I had a very sparse version at one point and it was just too cold and I needed to bring people in a little bit more, but I felt it was very important that we didn’t overstate everything because I wanted to stay so close to Woman and [having] the audience just know what she knows at any given point. And when you’re away from things, it’s almost more terrifying in a way. Like, is it actually happening? But then she’s got the focus of the baby, and I didn’t want to explain the whole thing. I wanted people to be taken on the flow of the film and let it wash over them and feel it all the way through.

I just wanted everyone just to be pulled into this journey and then you really settle onto land almost at the end when it feels like it’s grounded there. And in terms of the editing, you don’t have time to sit. I think how we move [through life] is quite unexpected all the way through. Sometimes it’s quite rapid and sometimes we settle in, and for me, that was true to what Woman was experiencing in that moment. When she’s waiting, [there’s] that feeling of, okay, is there something coming? And we’ll let that linger, and then at other times when there’s a death, [it’s like] move through, carry on, keep going, head down, and keep that quite quick.

It’s really effective and it appeared to really move the audience here in Toronto. What’s it like having a feature under your belt?

It’s more than just having it under my belt. I’ve wanted to direct since I was a kid. And I have been able to direct, but to be able to sit in that room the other night and watch it on the big screen with everybody and hear them laugh and hear that kind of communal experience and hear people cry a bit as well, it meant everything. That’s the dream that I’ve had. So it’s a strange feeling because it does feel like you get there and you’re like, “Ah, take it all in.” And then you’re like, “Oh, okay, we did it.” I’m only acclimating to it now. But this film, you know, it’s exactly like the title almost for me. It feels meaningful and it’s this journey that we’re traveling on together.

“The End We Start From” will screen again at the Toronto Film Festival on September 16th at 3:45 pm at the Scotiabank 14 and September 17th at 6:05 pm at Scotiabank 8.

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