Beautiful in its simplicity, Ken Wardrop's masterful documentary 'His & Hers' delights in what is said and left unsaid. Featuring over 70 women of different ages from across the Midlands, talking about the men in their lives, it is sure to have a lasting effect on anyone who is fortunate enough to see it. Padraic Geoghegan talks to the director about bringing the women's stories to the screen.
Padraic Geoghegan: With such a unique idea for a film, where did the idea for 'His & Hers' originally come from?
Ken Wardrop: Up until 'His & Hers' I had been making short creative documentaries. I wanted to find an approach that would allow me to translate this style into the longer format. So I looked for a story that could be told through knitting together smaller stories.
At that moment in time I was a single man. Many of my friends were in committed relationships or getting married. I posed the question - why do we choose to share life's journey at all? I took my mother's life as a template. She's an ordinary Irish woman but for me the most extraordinary one. She married her childhood sweetheart at a very young age and had a happy marriage until my father passed away in his sixties. What might appear to most as an average tale has had an obviously profound impact on me.
So I asked myself if I could construct this simple story through an exploration of different characters at different stages of their lives. Would I be able to make one coherent narrative? Might it appear that we had watched one life or one story pass us by? The thread that would bind all the little moments together would be a woman's relationship to a specific male in their life - father, boyfriend, husband, son. The jigsaw started to become complicated and yet the story remained very simple.
PG: Over 70 women feature in the movie, how did you decide which ones would feature, and how did the selection process come about?
KW: The researchers and I scoured the Irish Midlands for several months. Initially we had open castings in the larger towns like Mullingar and Tullamore, before moving to smaller areas like Clara and Tyrellspass. After these initial searches we became more specific and targeted groups such as Active Age meetings, Mother and Toddler groups, Camogie training, ICA [Irish Countrywomen's Association] meetings, anywhere we thought we might find women gathered.
Casting was complicated because we met many wonderful and inspiring characters. In the younger age categories we had many to choose from. As we got older we had between one to three potentials in each age bracket. The final decision often rested on the constraints of our micro budget and our allocated petrol money. With two cars on the road and two stories to cover each day we needed to find ladies that lived relatively close to one another. Final decisions were often made on this simple fact.
PG: What is particularly striking about the film is the simplicity of how it was shot. How many people were involved in shooting, and over what period of time was it shot?
KW: We shot the film over three months. We took a break after two months so I could spend some time in the edit analysing the material we'd already recorded.
The production crew consisted of four people. Michael Lavelle and Kate McCullough took dual responsibility for the cinematography. From the very beginning we had decided to shoot on Super 16mm film as opposed to digital. This meant a really tough workload for the cinematographers. They did a remarkable job, and their creativity was acknowledged by winning a cinematography award at the Sundance Film Festival back in January.
Andrew Freedman, the film's producer, was also on hand throughout the shoot. It was a very complicated production model and schedule. Thankfully he ran it with military-like precision. Producers are often the unsung heroes of the filmmaking process. Personally I know that without Andrew's vision and commitment to this project, 'His & Hers' would never have been made.
PG: How much did it cost to make the film? How arduous a process was it to get financing etc?
KW: 'His & Hers' was entirely funded under the Irish Film Board's micro budget scheme. The micro budget scheme afforded us the creative freedom that was crucial to producing a project like 'His & Hers'. In many respects it was a creative experiment, with no obvious film to compare it with. We needed the backing of an agency like the Film Board, which is willing to support filmmakers with new ideas and approaches.
The low budget did impose many limitations. Many of these informed our creative choices, which have been subsequently recognised as filmic strengths. For example, we decided we couldn't move the camera. We hadn't the time, the manpower or the money to hire the equipment. Instead we concentrated on our framing and created a coherent visual style. This photography allows the audience time to appreciate the world of our characters. Something that television no longer does, with quick pans, zooms and flick editing.
PG: Critically 'His & Hers' has been an outstanding success, even getting a nod from the acclaimed Sundance festival. How have you, personally, found the reaction to the film? Were you surprised at all?
KW: It's been a rollercoaster of a journey since we premiered the film at the Galway Film Fleadh last year. We had no idea that our little film would have the life it has gone on to have. We were particularly pleased to discover the reaction at Sundance. It was only then that we realised it could have an appeal beyond these waters. This is of course due to the magical characters in the film. I believe there is a particular wit and wisdom that our participants have that can simply charm people of all ages and nationalities. It's perhaps that 'Irish' thing.
Even though the reactions to the film continue to be positive, I am always nervous at screenings. The only screening I have managed to watch was a special screening for our participants in Tullamore last year. I think it's particularly brave of directors to sit through screenings of their films. I'm way too stressed to enjoy or appreciate it, so I hide somewhere with a cup of tea or something stronger.
PG: The film is quite touching in parts. What parts in particular struck you?
KW: It's difficult for me to pinpoint any one particular area of the film that strikes me more than the other. I see it as the love story that I constructed. I see it with those ups and downs, happy and sad times that is any life. I see the extraordinary in the ordinary lives that appear on screen. I see myself, my brother, my father being discussed. As the filmmaker, though, I remember the laughs and tears that I shared on this remarkable journey.
PG: What did you learn most from the film?
KW: This is a very difficult question as I learnt so much during the process of making this film. It's inevitable when you're meeting so many people that you're going to discover new things about life. In particular, I discovered some personal truths that I really hope stay with me. In particular, I learnt not to be such a cynic about love. It's actually out there - alive and well.
PG: Are you planning another movie and what's it about?
KW: My next film is a dark comedy set once again in the Irish Midlands. I'm going to work with a combination of actors and non-actors to create the script. It's an exciting process and hopefully one that allows me to draw down on my documentary experience.
'His & Hers' is now on release.