Beyond endless research, painstaking preparations and digging for historical accounts, creating a period piece requires something more than just the knowledge of its time: It requires the spirit of the subject.
For Aisling Walsh, a trained artist herself, that spirit came naturally. Her latest feature Maudie is set in Nova Scotia during the 1950s and follows the life of arthritic folk artist Maud Lewis, portrayed by Sally Hawkins, and the relationship with her husband Everett Lewis, played by Ethan Hawke.
Walsh adapted many aspects of Maud’s life when recreating the film. Not only are they reflected in her chosen color schemes, scouted locations and replica sets, but also in the intimacy of the project itself. Shot within the claustrophobic confines of a scale replica of the house the couple lived in, the limited space allowed for only Walsh, her assistant, her director of photography, sound crewmembers and the actors on set, imbuing the location with an authenticity that otherwise couldn’t exist.
MovieMaker spoke with Walsh to discuss the complexities of creating a period piece, the challenges when scouting locations and what it ultimately means to be an artist, both during the time in which the film is set and now.
Grant Phillips, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Maudie was in development for 13 years. Why so long?
Aisling Walsh (AW): I wasn’t in development through all that time. I joined in about year 10. It’s always a combination of things, I think. Finding the right combination of people, getting the right actor and getting the right actress. I feel really lucky that they found me because for me, it was actually quite short, only three years. But I think it’s the nature of some projects. If you think back to what the script might have been, these small indie films just take time. It’s getting the right puzzle to fit, finance-wise, then getting the right cast and suddenly the whole thing comes together. The last three years were far speedier than the first decade.
MM: How did you get involved with the project?
AW: The script was sent to me about four years ago now by Bob Cooper, one of our producers. I read it in a hotel room and was already in preparation for a film I was making about the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. I read it and I was blown away. It was about an artist; I was trained as a painter and I always wanted to make a film about an artist. The other thing is, it’s the portrait of that marriage. This very odd couple finding one another and then their life together for 35 years in a rather intimate space really excited me. I thought, “Gosh, that’s kind of a challenge.” But going back, I read the script and five minutes after I finished it I was looking up her pictures and found one of her. I wrote to my agent, saying, “What do I have to do to meet up with these people?” I wanted to see if I could persuade them to let me direct the film. So I spoke to Bob Cooper about two days after that and then I had a call with all the other producers a week later. When you’re joining a project that’s a bit more developed, it’s important that we’re all making the same film. We’ve got to sit in a room together and see if we like each other. I offered to fly to Toronto to meet them all, which is what I did. And we sat and talked about it and went from there.
MM: Talk about the process of rebuilding the Lewis’ house.
AW: With a project that’s been in development for that length of time, there are things that had been talked about at various stages. There was a notion at one time to build that house in a studio because the climate and weather in Newfoundland can be pretty brutal. I remember us talking about that. Then on a recce out there standing in the space, I thought why don’t we build a house on the side of the road and take a chance? We build it once and then not have to worry about whether can we open a door or other problems within a studio.
One of the first things I did after that meeting in Toronto was I said I wanted to stop on my way out in Halifax and go see the house. I want to go on my own and just make sense of it for myself. We had to replicate it and so at various stages my production designer, and my DP would go back and figure out a way to do it. And we replicated it as near as we could to that house. But of course that house is what it looked like three years before she died. Nobody knows what it looked like in the beginning. Nobody knows what that first mark was that she made or how the painting in the house developed. Because for me, that’s her greatest work of art. That life together, those walls, that house, it’s really moving when you see it for the first time. We had the information for the last three years of her life, but then had to work back to the very beginning; figure out what the house would have looked like in 1938 when she first went out there.
I also felt it important that we experience that intimate space of those two people living together and what that meant for both of them. He had never lived with anybody, and she kind of starts to invade that space. We were able to move walls out and we were able to shoot chronologically because the nature of the piece. We start in the 1930s, and then painted a bit more, took those walls out, put the next stage in, and that was really helpful. Normally you can’t do that so that was a rather interesting thing to be able to do.
MM: Was that the most challenging part about directing a period piece?
AW: I’ve done it quite a bit. It’s that detail that you’re trying to get, particularly if it’s somebody’s life and based on a true story. Replicating the house, her pictures and how to do that what challenging. It took us quite a few weeks to work out, how to replicate those paintings. They’re much more complex and complicated than you’d imagine. She really was quite a sophisticated artist. They look very simple, but you try and paint those and they’re rather sophisticated. But what would look good on camera, we have to test. Also, finding the right landscape. We weren’t in Nova Scotia, we were in Newfoundland, and trying to find a different landscape that worked with her paintings was difficult. Those are quite challenging. Working out the various stages of the house too—what was the first thing she painted, what did she move on to, what stage are we at now in 1950 when she became a bit better knows. All that detail that you may not have quite so much in a present day film. And then you’ve got costume and design working together. She was from quite a middle class family, so her clothes reflected that, the colors, and then things get really worn as time goes on. Those are the challenges you have with a period piece. But I think the house and where we put it and how we could change that house over time was probably the most challenging thing of all.
MM: The film has a warm color scheme that reflects a lot of Maud’s paintings. What other inspiration did she provide while making the film?
AW: I suppose her spirit as well. You try and imagine what she was like and the fun she had when she started to paint that house, those pretty tulips on the window, suddenly getting that little bit of recognition from Sandra to kind of encourage her along, those little postcards that she first painted which are in real life beautiful. They’re absolutely stunning, so fine and so detailed. You just try to echo that spirit and that soul and that work throughout the film. When she started to paint him, he is in many, many, many of her paintings and always in a red jacket so I wanted to have that. I took a lot of inspiration from that CBC 30-minute documentary. It’s rather special to see, although they’re old, they’re in it. But you can see how they moved, how they lived together, what that space is like, how they spoke. Those things really helped. But [we] just [tried] to echo that color and the seasons. That time in their lives from morning to noon to evening was quite a stretch. I wanted to have winter in the script, too, because she painted a lot in the winter. So we went back some months later to film for two days in snow. It shows the hardships that they had. You think of that house, no running water, no heating apart from the stove, no electricity and it’s minus 35 outside. It was important to have those scenes in the film.
MM: Is there still room for creative freedom when doing a biopic?
AW: Yeah, there’s a lot we don’t know. We know a little bit about her life because of that documentary, that’s how people came to know of her and an article in the Toronto Star a year before. But prior to that, there isn’t a great deal known about her. It’s really useful to have something like that, like a documentary. Then you’ve got to create. You’ve got to imagine what they were like thirty years before, give actors the freedom to create and find those characters themselves and embellish upon that and create the atmosphere and space for all of us to be able to have that kind of freedom. And then a character like Sandra is probably a combination of a few people. She did have a few people who were interested in her as an artist and bought her work and tried to promote her, so we made that one person. And you’ve got to create the drama from that story. It was important to me, for example, to see where he came from. The fact that he came from that orphanage and did some work around the place, it kind of made sense. You knew he was that lone sole who had no family, and she becomes his family in the end. You’ve got to create those dramatic moments as well.
MM: What do you think Maud’s life taught you while making the film?
AW: I think how one can live a very simple life. How to really be content, one doesn’t need a great deal. She had her art. In many ways, she was very fortunate. She painted every day and many people dream of that. It’s a very simple life and how one can be content with that. Selling your paintings outside the house, having enough money to survive the winter. Its all about survival, it brings it back to really basic things. How life revolves around nature and you live in that landscape and how that affects you and how you affect it. It’s very different than the lives we live now where we can’t live without a mobile phone and the Internet; it comes back to being content. They had no radio, no television, no electricity; it’s a very simple life. But really what it is for me, it’s what happens when you meet somebody that brings love into your life. He learned how to love. His life is rather brutal and cold without her. And at the end of the film, that’s what he’s experienced, this sort of human contact, this love that lasts 35 years, which is extremely rare.
MM: Do you ever think about what Maud would have thought about the film?
AW: [Laughs] Who knows? I think one part of her would have been very happy, I think the other part would have felt embarrassed that people thought she was as amazing as she was. But you’ve got to go back to that time. She’s very interesting as a woman because she ended up being able to do what she dreamed of doing as a young woman. She had that feistiness and spirit to seek out and find it. I hope she’d be happy. Sally used to often say on set, I really feel she’s looking down on us, guiding us through the film. Would she have been happy that people knew her work and that there’s now a re-interest in her work? I think that’s rather amazing too. There was a painting discovered a couple of weeks ago of hers in a charity shop in Ontario that was valued at 16,000 Canadian dollars and sold in auction for 45,000. She was selling her paintings for five or 10 bucks. I have no idea what she would have thought of that. MM
Maudie opens in theaters in Los Angeles and New York June 16, 2017, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.