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God’s Creatures (The FH Interview)

10 min read

For their first venture in co-directing and have certainly made waves with God's Creatures. Starring , , and , God's Creatures explores a mother's nightmare after her son finally returns to their small Irish island and then commits a horrendous crime. The tension is never higher than in such a tight-knit, traditional community, and Brian's (Mescal) actions threaten the status quo, hitting the women involved particularly hard. Filmhounds sat down with Saela and Anna to discuss the making of the film during lockdown, respecting and portraying the local culture as outsiders, and whether it is women who are burdened with the responsibility to make the next generation better.

What drew you to this story, especially a film based in Ireland?

Anna I think the first time we read the script, we read it in one sitting side by side, in our writing space, just the poetry and the potency of the script really drew us in. We're always looking for women we haven't seen on screen before and how to bring those stories to life and Aileen just captivated us. Her story just felt new and old at the same time, and something where we could really explore her interior psychology with the filmmaking itself. We're also drawn to the community of women surrounding the story, Sarah and Erin in particular were really personal connections for us, and their central relationships to a Aileen were some of the most exciting points of connection that we had.

Saela I would say specifically to Aileen as a character there was this opportunity to examine this question of what would you do if someone you loved committed a horrific crime? You know, where would your loyalty stand? And what does that evolution look like? It's a really challenging question. For us, it was a question we wanted to interrogate very deeply and Aileen kind of as the vehicle to do that felt like an incredible opportunity. This story originates from our producer Fodhla Cronin O'Reilly, and our screenwriter Shane Crowley, and they're telling this story that is something that they've read and witnessed in their lives, the place that they were putting the story is Ireland and so for us there was never a question of it being told somewhere else as a starting point. We were excited to go to Ireland, live in that place, and observe and listen and watch and really immerse ourselves in that world.

 

So you co-directed God's Creatures, which in itself makes it a more collaborative process for production, but was everything very collaborative with the cast and crew to kind of nail that atmosphere on a small Irish island?

Anna Yeah, our philosophy as filmmakers is that with this art form it's not like it works best when it's collaborative, it is inherently a collaborative art form. Both Saela and I came up as craftswomen working in service of other directors, I came up in camera and Saela as an editor, and so we know deeply what it means to join the band. And so when we lead we're always trying to be the leaders we want to work for, and to invite everyone into the conversation, and that starts with your core family. That was the process with Shane and Fodhla. It was a very intimate process working on the script for many years, and every single person we folded in felt the same, that they were here to collaborate that their voice was integral to the process, and we have a style of play and experimentation, that's how we find the voice of the film. And we invite everybody into that. But working with the crew in Ireland we were in level five lockdown so it was the most intense isolation, and you hold tighter to each other because you're family, the only people you're really seeing face to face is your film crew. So it was a very close knit group, for sure.

Saela I guess I would add that we also relied heavily on the community. As Anna said, we were in that lockdown phase and that made production challenging at times. Our costume department had access to local shops who were willing to lend clothing to the production, and our art departments basically pulled from family, friends, local fishermen, oyster farmers, and the community overall was just very supportive in the process.

 

Something really striking when watching God's Creatures is the sound in particular, was that something that you guys had a big part in and that you felt quite strongly about, particularly the Irish songs?

Saela The songs were written into the script. And, for us that that element, especially for the character Sarah, was showing how she takes part in the community, but then also how that position changes over the course of the film. We loved we loved the music that Shane wrote into the script and talked a lot about how those diegetic sounds would play into each scene and how it would evolve over the course of the film. For us sound design is a really important element. When we traveled to Ireland the sound is what really moved us, the sound of the wind, the water, the way that the wind kind of like moves through the buildings and sounds like a woman wailing. In all of our work we think about sound first. When we were there we had a Zoom recorder and we would record the sounds of the environment and started talking with our sound designer, Chris Foster, about how to incorporate those elements throughout the film. And we also have a very close relationship with our composers, Danny and Saunder. We think a lot about how to use the sound design and incorporate those elements into the music, and then how does that tell this other more psychological layer of the story? Then the narrative follows that that musical form.

Anna A lot of that sound thinking and designing in terms of metaphor and conceptual placement was something that we really workshopped in the script phase, we were making recordings and talking to Shane, and the evolution of that texture was something we really workshopped so that we knew how to achieve it practically and our sound designer and our location sound recordist were able to talk and get almost all of those sounds on location. We're very site specific, and we wanted that base and that fabric of place and environment to be ever present.

Saela The one song that wasn't in the script was that Lincoln track at the end, and that's a song that Shane sent us. What we thought was really compelling about it is that it's this traditional Irish song that's kind of covered by this band with a female vocalist. I think when we heard it, we knew that that would be the last song of the film kind of lingering over this image of Sarah as she chooses something different for her life.

Anna Yeah, we played around with that, and some of the other traditional songs that are performed live, as well as the song that Brian sings the day of the trial, we really workshopped those once we had our cast. With Sarah, what would sound really good with her voice and Aisling had very distinct ideas about Sarah's singing voice, so we did play around and modify some of those song choices to fit the vocal qualities of our cast as we went. It was a work in progress, but the concept of them was always baked into the script. It was also very, very important to us that Irish was included in the film, and so Aileen sings in Irish to baby Oscar the moment that Brian returns, it is kind of like a spell in a way. And then she's also speaking Irish with Paidi. Including the Irish language was important to us, there are traditional elements that are important to pass on to the next generation and to keep those things alive and sustain them. That just because we're asking questions, and interrogating the powers that be doesn't mean that there's nothing worth holding on to, there's a lot of beautiful tradition that we think should be passed on to next generation. Irish language is one of the things that was really important for us to display, so Sarah and Aileen sing in Irish, and that's really important that those women are going to carry that on with them no matter where they go in the world.

 

I was wondering how much your backgrounds in cinematography and editing affected your approach and also the final film.

Saela I guess being a directing team, and then in the past being craftswoman, I think we recognise those strengths in each other. When we're on set, or in any aspect of the filmmaking process, there is this equal balance. We approach directing as a team, not like divide and conquer, but as a singular unit, and we move that way throughout every phases of filmmaking. I think it's part of our DNA because of how we navigated our careers before the point of becoming a team. I think on set, like Anna sees an image or thinks about the camera, it's not an instinct that we would quash, and then similarly, when I'm on set I'm always thinking about the story, the structure, the edit points, and so it's just a natural inclination to step forward with certain ideas coming from an editorial perspective. So they definitely influenced us separately, and we recognise and support those strengths, but at the same time it is a singular vision that we're putting forward to the world, so we're just always cognisant of that.

Anna We do storyboard quite a bit. Coming up with a vision and building a language that feels like the tone of the film is one of the most exciting parts of the process. We are always aware of tension, and that's something that we talk about with all of our heads of department; how are we building and releasing tension? Where's the breath here? That is a combination of many different tools, and it's not always the same tool that you're using. For example, a shot that is very meaningful to us is the halfway mark in the film, when Sarah collapses and the fungus is discovered in the oyster processing warehouse. We knew that we wanted to use a new type of tension at that moment, and utilize the very long runner and choreograph that entirely. So, knowing the rhythms that we were going to be breaking, the language that we had established, that comes from all of these discussions and really a clear understanding between the two of us and our department heads. Not only “what is it gonna look like, what is a close up gonna look like?” but “what is it gonna feel like, what is the rhythm of the film up until this point?” All of those things are on the table and part of the discussion from the beginning, because that's how we think about film.

 

Within this small town where they do speak the Irish language and preserve tradition, for example, not teaching children how to swim, are you centering the women in the story as having a lot of responsibility to preserve their culture, but also change it in terms of the violence and secrecy almost inherent in the town?

Anna One thing that was really important to us was that there isn't one way to survive, and there isn't one way to show strength, and there isn't one way to heal. Every woman in our film is displaying a different version. For Sarah, that means starting new elsewhere, that's her way of surviving. For Erin, that means staying and raising a son in this community. Those are very, very distinct choices, but they're true to those women. I think it was important for us to show that even with the next generation, there's not one way to look at and challenge norms, that you can embody your own truths and that's just as right as the next person's. We wanted to show a very complex tableau of women and approaches to surviving in the wake of sexual violence.

Saela One thing that stuck out to me in the question was the word responsibility. What we're looking at within these communities are these women who find themselves in these very traditional roles, and motherhood being the center of it, right. I think Aileen as a character has fallen into these roles based on what society did before, and so although it is a choice it's also an expectation. Eventually she's faced with making a decision that is going against all of those traditional values and beliefs. It's not her responsibility to stand up against them, it's her choice. And that is what is so moving about Aileen, that she chooses something different in order to do better, to set a new example for future generations. I think that's what is interesting to us about all of these women, even Sarah choosing to leave to do something different. She's not saying that those traditions are less valuable anymore, but how can her life look different? I think all the women in our film are asking that, what are the traditions we are holding on to and what are the traditions worth breaking?

God's Creatures shows at Glasgow Film Festival 2023, and will be released in the UK on the 31st March