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What Lies beneath

Director Lisa Mulcahy told David Hennessy about the new film Lies We Tell which is adapted from Sheridan Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas and has its UK premiere at the Irish Film Festival London.

Lies We Tell, which is about to have its UK premiere at the Irish Film Festival London, is based on Sheridan Le Fanu’s 19th century novel, Uncle Silas.

Starring Agnes O’Casey,  Lies We Tell is the story of Maud Ruthyn who has just inherited everything after the death of her father.

However, she’s still a minor and, more unfortunately for her, a woman and therefore not fit to make decisions for herself.

Maud therefore becomes the ward of her uncle Silas, played by David Wilmot, until she comes of age.

Keen to honour her father’s wishes and the terms of her inheritance, Maud welcomes Silas to her home even though she barely knows him and that he was once accused of murdering a man to whom he owed money.

Silas makes himself at home, bringing along his son Edward, played by Chris Walley, daughter Emily (Holly Sturton), along with Emily’s governess Madame (Grainne Keenan).

Before long, Silas’s sinister intentions become clear, which include bullying Maud into marrying her cousin Edward.

When brutalising her by proxy doesn’t work, the conspirators threaten to have her committed to an asylum for hysterical women.

Director Lisa Mulcahy told The Irish World: “It’s set in 1864 but it’s an incredibly modern story of a woman trying to find her power and realising that there’s nobody who’s going to help her, and a story of abuse and how we all have a choice in how we react to abuse whether we comply with it or collaborate or withdraw or resist, so they’re very, very modern themes, even though it’s a period drama.

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“I was working on a series called Blood in 2018 and (writer) Elisabeth Gooch contacted me.

“She told me that there was this new scheme that was being run by Screen Ireland, which was to promote women’s voices in filmmaking with directing, writing and producing.

“And she had this idea, she thought it might suit the scheme really well.

“I think that she sent me a very detailed treatment.

“Elisabeth and I had met a couple of years earlier on a writing course and we just really liked each other.

“We kind of kept in touch a bit, knew that we would like to work together, had the same interests and stuff like that.

“So I said to her, ‘Yep, sure, I’d love to be attached and let’s see if we can get anywhere with it.

“There was a big application process between with myself and Elisabeth and Ruth Carter, who’s the producer, were involved in all of that.

“So Screen Ireland financed it completely.

“That’s how it came to me.

“I love period drama, I loved the idea of this story.

“Elisabeth had read all of his books, as well as a huge amount of other Victorian literature and she just really, really wanted to rewrite this book and rewrite the character of Maud and kind of subvert what he had done with that character.”

There is quite a departure from the source material, isn’t there?

“There is in a sense.

“In the first half of the book, her father is still alive.

“She goes to Silas’ house actually, rather than the family coming to her.

“And Maud is very different in the book, she’s just so aware of her frailties and her fears and seemingly just incapable of action.

“It’s really quite a frustrating book to read.

“I did read the book but not until we had really finished on the scripts.

“It was worth reading.

“Anything that a project is based on is worth reading, even if it’s quite different.

“The book was written in 1864 so it was just really interesting tonally.

“She just really wanted to rewrite the character of Maud.

“Maud in the book does find her courage but it takes hundreds of pages to get there so it was worth reading, but I wouldn’t reread it.”

It’s almost a film of two halves, isn’t it? I don’t think I was prepared that, it really ramps up around halfway through.

“It really kind of ramps up once she refuses Edward’s proposal for the first time.

“It’s kind of just a slow burn really up until that point.

“She’s expecting one thing and probably quite quickly we realise how clever a manipulator Silas is and that things are not going to be as she hoped they would be.”

She accepts these relatives into her home but soon finds she has no way out herself..

“She’s trapped and that happens in the book as well.

“Really she has no help, everybody has chosen for one reason or another not to help her, to either collaborate with Silas or to comply, to not resist him.

“And so she is on her own and she kind of realises that if she’s going to overcome her situation, she’s going to have to do it on their own with no help.

“She does, at times, refuse help.

“At the very start when her trustees advise her against accepting Silas as her guardian, whether their kind of their motivations are for their own ends… But she does refuse that help.

“She refuses Ilbury’s help when he says, ‘I’m here for you’, and she assumes that he doesn’t mean in an emotional or personal way.

“She just assumes that so she refuses his help and when Emily says, ‘You know, we could be sisters’..

“We don’t know actually if Emily really means that or if again Silas has sent her to try to get to Maud in another way, so she does refuse some offers of potential help but at that stage she’s not able to trust anybody.”

A note I made watching the film was ‘vultures’ and that is certainly what Maud has to deal with.

I wonder if the trustees’ words were in fact vague warnings about her uncle’s character…

“If Silas had come along very early on, he would have pushed Edward to woo her.

And his plan was that she would move there, she would marry Edward and Silas would get what he wants.

“And he assumed that that would be pretty effortless.

“That Maud, given the time and the period and everything, would just agree and she would go along with whatever Silas wants but because Maud has been so secluded, she isn’t- as Ilbury says- familiar with the ways of society so she doesn’t behave the way she’s meant to according to society. What he regards as a fault is actually her strength, it actually allows her to find her power.”

Is it not a bit strange that Silas wants Maud to marry her own cousin?

“That would have been very normal.

“If you look at the genealogy of the royal family, they all married each other.

“That would be very, very normal and probably isn’t still hugely unusual.

“But yeah, to marry your first cousin would be very normal at that time actually.

“As Silas says, ‘What could be better than to take your own blood to wed?’

“Now we’re all thinking, ‘Don’t do that. Don’t go there’.

“But if you look at the royal family, they’re all interconnected and related.”

Lead actress Agnes O’Casey is the great granddaughter of great Irish playwright Sean O’Casey.

You have directed Agnes before in the BBC series Ridley Road, was she always going to be your Maud?

“I was working in England when COVID struck, I was working on a BBC series so we had to pause that.

“I came back to Ireland and I always knew I was going to make this film after that BBC series and so we decided that while COVID was happening we would cast Maud.

“So we did. We saw a lot of self-tapes.

“We always wanted a new actor for this, not somebody established and we kind of very, very quickly realised how good Aggie was, and how perfect really she would be for Maud.

“So it really didn’t take much discussion to decide on that.

“And then I went back to England in August ‘20 to resume work on the BBC series and by that stage, we had lost our lead actress because she was committed to something else.

“I spoke to our producers, and I said, ‘I think you should see this Irish actress, I think she’s wonderful’.

“The lead in Ridley Road, which was the series, also had this very innocent quality about her but this steely nerve.

“So we got Aggie to audition and we went with Aggie for that part.

“So actually Aggie and myself did Ridley Road  together first, and then we went and did Lies We Tell.

“She was great in Ridley Road and she’s really terrific in this film.

“She carries the whole film, she’s pretty much in every scene.

“I love working with young actors because there’s just a sense of excitement and curiosity and hope for what’s to come for them and it’s just wonderful to be around them.

“Aggie is a lovely person. She’s just a really open actress and she is prepared to go to those places that are sometimes quite difficult so it was really terrific working with her.

“She’s just an absolute delight and so talented.”

Chris Walley, well known for The Young Offenders, is unrecognisable as Edward not only with his thick beard but playing a character that couldn’t be further from Jock.

“Chris is an incredible actor.

“I mean, he went to RADA so he has had amazing training and he’s very, very talented.

“I mean, you wouldn’t have a clue that it was the same actor playing those two parts.

“He did a beautiful audition. He did really quite a wonderful audition for this part.

“And he’s so good in it really, because he’s caught.

“I mean Edward makes his choice. Edward does make a choice to collaborate with Silas but he also is in a very difficult situation.

“He could choose not to collaborate, but he would just be chucked out, he would have nothing.

“He would have absolutely nothing.

“He’s not portrayed as the sharpest tool in the box, but it’s hard not to feel sorry for all of these characters in some way.

“Because even though their behaviour is reprehensible, you can understand, and you can in a way empathise with the situation that Emily and Madame and Edward find themselves in, but it doesn’t excuse their dreadful behaviour.”

You speak about going to places that are quite difficult. Rape scenes are difficult to watch, are they difficult to film as well?

“These days anything to do with intimacy, we always have an intimacy coordinator on set which is great, and is the right thing to do.

“So we rehearsed that scene very thoroughly before we even started shooting at all so that when we came to the day that the actors just knew exactly what they were doing.

“I worked actually with a stunt coordinator and an intimacy coordinator in that scene because really the first half of the scene is the stunt and the second half of the scene is the rape.

“Really, it’s like a dance or a stunt.

“When you’re doing a scene where an actor has physical contact with another of any kind of level, whether it be like a dance or a stunt, you choreograph it, and you choreograph every single move, and you choreograph where the hands are going to be.

“So everything that you saw on that scene, the actors knew exactly what was happening.

“She knew exactly where Chris was going to be, what he was going to be doing, he knew where her hands were going to be.

“So it’s choreographed very, very closely, and you work it out very slowly.

“And obviously, Chris and Aggie were friends and that helped so that both actors are comfortable with what’s happening.

“It’s all about consent really.

“We worked very slowly and once they are familiar with the new moves, then you just speed it up so eventually they’re so familiar with the moves like a dance, you just go at full tilt.

“So although it’s an uncomfortable scene to watch, it wasn’t really difficult for us to shoot it.

“They knew exactly how I was going to shoot it, I told them that I always wanted to focus on Aggie, that I didn’t want to do lots of coverage on it.

“When the actual rape was happening, I shot it in the exact same way. It was just one shot.

“Sometimes the camera moved around a bit, but it was just one shot on Aggie and we shot that scene very quickly, because they knew exactly what they were doing and they weren’t uncomfortable doing it.

“In a scene like that, you have a minimum amount of crew in the room.

“You just have only people that you need so there might have been four of us crew in the room, but some of the crew who were just listening found it difficult.

“When you don’t see something but you hear something, that can also be very difficult because you’re using your visual imagination so for some of the crew to hear what was going on, that was difficult.

“But for us shooting it, it wasn’t difficult, but that’s because we had prepped it correctly.”

About difficult things to hear, that’s true for characters in the film, isn’t it?

I know it’s a big house but it has servants and family members, people heard what happened to Maud…

“That’s why I cut to those couple of shots of the house where we can clearly hear her shouting.

“And then in the next scene then the following day where she says, ‘And I thank you all for your kind sympathy’.

“What she’s basically saying is, ‘You all heard and none of you came’.

“Everybody did hear and nobody came to help her.”

The servants are particularly awkward, they know what went on.

“They’re afraid. They choose themselves. They’re afraid they’ll lose their jobs if they in any way try to confront or conflict with Silas so they just comply.”

We haven’t spoken about Uncle Silas yet brought to life by David Wilmot.

“Yeah, he’s great.

“I had worked with David before on The clinic so we had done two seasons of that together.

“I’ve obviously seen David in lots of things and David has great layers to him, he has this vulnerability and I wanted Silas to have a certain vulnerability.

“He has charm, he has that wonderful voice but he can switch on a penny and so it was really important that the Silas we got did have all of those layers.

“I didn’t just want him to be like a characteristic baddie.

“He was just wonderful in it.”

The film was released in Ireland in mid October, what has the reaction been to it?

“I’ve had lots and lots of very positive messages from it so that was great.

“We’re going to be screening on the 18th of November at the London Irish Film Festival, I’ll be there which I’m really looking forward to.

“It’s really interesting to be in the audience with the film outside of Ireland.

“We were at a French film festival, it was screened four times and all the screenings were completely full.

“It’s just really interesting to see how the French audience engaged with the film.”

“It was just really great how much they engaged with the story.

“The response has been really positive and really interesting.

“I would love the people in London to come to see this film and Irish people in London come to see this film because you don’t often get period films that that are so modern.

“I just encourage people to come see it and I don’t think they’ll regret it. They’ll have certainly strong feelings about it but as I say the overwhelming response has been hugely positive from people.”

Lies We Tells screens at 8.30pm at Vue Piccadilly on 18 November as part of Irish Film Festival London.

Irish Film Festival London runs 15- 19 November.

For more information and to book, click here.

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