(Note: Webmaster B., here. Due to B. Alan Orange’s sudden disappearance off the coast of New Caledonia, in the South Pacific, we have enlisted his brother to take over the reigns of OI. J. David Orange is a writer for LA’s new toilet monthly The Sidewalk Mockers, and a press correspondent for Entertainment @ Dawn, KTTS' new after hours party show, shown exclusively in Kent County, Rhode Island.)
The Magdalene Sisters is not the sort of lasting entertainment I’d wander into on my own accord. It’s that certain type of painfully dramatic fare, which gently floats above everything else in its intended class. An artistic poke in the cinematic eye; Peter Mullan's latest project can only be sought out in some hard to find theater on a rainy hilltop, far removed from the bad boy blockbusters of summer. A first chance meeting suggest that this is another arthouse Indie; solely visited by cigarette smoking fags and chubby fat men that have nothing better to do than discuss the immutable ramifications of Dovosky's latest reel-to-reel nightmare. Thankfully, it halts itself at that door. This is an important, sometimes depressing, inherently sad look at what went on inside the Magdalene Laundries of Ireland during the mid-60s.
Thank God for Movieweb. Without their stick-in-the-ribs aggressiveness, I never would have happened upon this one. Now that I’ve seen it, I can only tell you to do the same. The Magdalene Sisters is a thoughtful journey into the lives of four "fallen" women that have found themselves incarcerated by the Catholic Church. Despite the ridiculous notion of Women's liberation and its death-grip on the World at that time; these pretty (and sometimes naked) girls were stripped of their liberties; condemned to indefinite sentences of work in order to atone for their sins. Mind you, this was before Lucy’s and the coin-operated washing machine replaced the musically inclined washboards of the time.
The film was helmed by the pathologic nutter, Peter Mullan, who’s well on his way to becoming the next sought after staple of the DIY set. Once, he overwhelmed us with hypnotic performances in Session 9 and Shallow Grave. Then he got us on our knees in bouts of grievous laughter with the tiny, pitch-black flick "Orphans." Now, he’s got the catholic league in an uproar with this, his latest effort.
Not one to pass up a chance to talk to "Gordon Fleming," I flew into Los Angeles late yesterday afternoon for this half hour Q&A session?
(Contributing sources: Which means that I, J. David Orange, did not ask all of these questions, and that you may happen upon them in some other publication.)
PM: There you go!
OI: Last night (after the screening), you talked about those two weeks in Italy, when you got the prize in Venice and incredibly chastised by the Vatican.
OI: You talked about how the Vatican sent priests to the screening with camcorders, and photographed moviegoers, telling them, "We know who you are, and you’re going to Hell for this."
PM: Yeah, yeah?
OI: What you didn’t say was: How did they react? The moviegoers? What did they do?
PM: They just went in, and they didn’t give a shit.
OI: They just walked past the priests?
PM: Oh, yeah. They just walked past them. I can’t take that. That’s just absurd. Really absurd, high-tech Spanish inquisition. How dumb is that? They’re telling these people, "No. No changes." When we watched it in Venice, I kind of got an indication as to how the film was going by the number of people, particularly women, that would go by me and scream, "Bravo! Bravo, Mullan!" And it was all done with a fervor. At first, I missed the, "Bravo!" I just heard the, "Mullan!" I was like, "Whoa, maybe they don't like the film very much." Then, as it went on, quite literally walking along in Venice, people were jumping out at me that had seen the public screening. It was really heartfelt. Subsequently, I didn’t know how many Italian women had been kept under the crush. For so long. It wasn’t revelatory, to them, what happened in Ireland. It was more that they felt they had something to hoist up the masts, as it were, to display their own frustrations. As far as I’m aware of, there are no Magdalenes in Italy. In terms of the Catholic Church’s treatment of women over the years, there was obviously a real frustration on their part.
OI: How did you find out about this story?
PM: The story I saw; it was a documentary called "Sex in a Cold Climate" on channel four, just before I went to Cannes with my film "Orphans." It was mainly talking heads, and most of the women, by the time I saw the documentary, had passed away. Most of the women that spoke had been diagnosed as having a terminal illness. Stephen Humphries, who made the documentary; when he first went looking for women to talk about their experiences, the women that came forward did so in the knowledge that, if they didn't, they'd go to their graves with that particular injustice, that story, untold. So, that's how I came across it. And that's what really moved me to want to do something about it. Because, the documentary didn’t have a happy ending. They didn’t go off and find a good life for themselves. They hadn’t been getting any recognition. There had been no justice. There certainly was no justice in regards to the babies that had been taken from them, like at the start of the film. And, so, the motivation to make it was that, as a political animal, one might be able to raise public awareness. They might put pressure on the church to start doing, for want of a better word, the right thing. And apologize in actions as much as in words. And to give, most importantly to the women that have lived, a genuine apology. They’re not interested in a written apology. They want a genuine act of confession on the part of the church. To be honest; so they can go back to mass. That’s a big thing. They’re all at a certain age; they want to go back to the church that they know. Most of them have retained their faith, remarkably enough. And that’s really all they’re looking for. Unfortunately, the minute several members of the church...The minute they hear this, they cannot jump on that one. Because it is a financial organization. And they think, "That’s okay. We’ll give you that. Just don’t go looking for no compensation. Don’t go looking for any money from us." Because, already, they came up with a package of 180 million for children that were victims of abuse by the clergy in Ireland. 180 million Euros. And it excludes Magdalene. The reason it excludes the Magdalene women is because they went there voluntarily. So, because it didn’t go through the court system, they’re on a technicality. They’re able to cut the women out of that particular financial package. The only reason there’s been no outcry about it is; the women aren’t particularly interested in the financial package. I think, when you’ve been through an experience like that, and your life’s been screwed up as a result of it, you realize that money isn’t going to solve it. Money’s not going to get back his or her relationships that didn’t work, because you couldn’t relate to someone, because you didn’t understand your own sexuality. No money’s going to cure that. That’s not going to make up for the child you haven’t seen in thirty-five or forty years. I think those women are deep enough to realize that money is of no great consequence. And, unfortunately, that side of the church sometimes takes advantage of that.
OI: What eventually shut down the laundries?
PM: Economics. They ceased to be economically viable around the late-70s, early 1980s. It coincided with the domestic washing machine, and the very slow beginnings of the Celtic Tiger Economy. Ireland’s GNP has had the highest growth in the last seven to ten years of any country in the developed world. It’s running at something like 3 to 4 percent per year. And has been for the last ten years. No other country can claim that. In fact, during the entire nineteenth century, I don’t think there’s an entire country that can claim that over a ten-year period. So, Ireland’s one of the great economic miracles of modern Europe. With that factor coming in, the Capitalists moved there. There was money to be made. On the one hand, you’ve got the domestic washing machine ceasing this very labor-intensive laundry business. It ceased to make that particularly profitable. Simultaneous to that, running parallel is a group of industrialists. Modern, high-tech industrialists. They don’t want no women not getting dressed up. Because then, there’s nowhere to sell the laundry, the shoes, the clothing...They want young women to be reading young magazines. Thus, they consume the magazines. They want the cell phones, they want to use the nail varnish, they want to go out to the clubs and drink their beer. It’s a consumer’s society now. That’s one of the main means by which the church has fortunately nothing like the say that it used to have. In the time of the Magdalenes, they provided a large and cheap workforce. For a young historian, or a new historian, I honestly believe there’s a thesis to be had that could, almost, argue that the modern Celtic Tiger Economy is based upon child slave labor. Because, when you add together the Magdalene asylums and the industrial schools, it’s an enormous unpaid workforce of kids. Well, young adults aged 16 to whatever. If one could simply get that information together, I really think you might have a case. I’m not saying that it is built upon that. But, I reckon you’d have a case to argue with.
OI: Can you tell us how you got into acting, and how it balances with your career as a director?
PM: The acting I got into by doing what we call pantomime, when I was sixteen. And, there were loads of very pretty girls in the show. And I was going to be lead comic. I realized; I found out very early on, that the lead comic gets the girl. So, that was cool. When I went to university, I studied Economic Social History. And drama. That kind of got me into it. My main passion was to make films. It was never to be an actor. At that time, there weren’t many opportunities for a working class Scottish actor. It was kind of an English thing. And it required a certain mannered cerebral acting style that I couldn’t relate to.
OI: You know that Stephen Frears is in the other room (promoting Dirty Pretty Things).
PM: I know Stevie. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah...I don’t know if he'd like me talking about that. I don’t know if you could apply that to his work anyway. I’ll pass on that one. The first I discovered of it was my first year at university; I had a massive nervous breakdown. And, it was about a year and a half, two years later, I did a student production when I was teaching for the university. And in this particular play, the main character had a massive nervous breakdown. And that was a big moment in my life, because I got to play someone after having experienced this just two years previous. Instead of condemnation of people feeling sorry for me, they gave me a round of applause, a pat on the head, and a nice review.
OI: Why did you have a nervous breakdown?
PM: Good question. I found myself working about 16, 17 hours a day for about five weeks. Because it was my final exams. I’d won a lot of class prizes at university. I decided, in that state of stress, that I was the thickest person I knew. I decided I was dumb as fuck. I think, once you do that, in a state of stress, it’s not a particularly good place to be. I went into a self-destructive mood. A very catholic thing. I decided I was undeserving of what I’d achieved. And I decided to punish myself accordingly. I hadn’t quite attended the breakdown. That was just something that happened. But to realize that on a stage, that you could get that out of your system, is what taught me that acting is the greatest job on earth. You can do the most boring jobs. I worked on checkout for about two years as a student. Those things come, and you beat the groceries, or whatever it is you guys call them, and I could dream my life away. As for the women I worked with, that was them, for life. Whereas, I could dream my life away. And one day, maybe even get to live out those particular fantasies. The fact in acting, you can tap into your darkest moments in life to your lightest moments. And people will watch it, and appreciate it, and even engage with you because of that. That’s the greatest job one Earth.
OI: How does that compare with the satisfactions of filmmaking and writing?
PM: Filmmaking is something I have to do. It’s not something I particularly want to do. Acting is a lot more fun. Jesus, you wander around, just spoiled rotten. At the end of the day you go, "See you in the pub." That’s a nice job. And I work in low budget films, so it’s not like we get particularly well paid for it. But man, we can just have a ball. Directing is twenty-four seven. Nobody’s off your fucking case. Everybody wants a piece of you. You’re dizzy by week two. You’re panic stricken by week three. You’re starting to relax by week four. You’re just about having a break down by week five. Then you just finish the film by week six. It’s very masochistic. It’s very wearisome. And you know it doesn’t finish there. That’s the worst thing. You know that a year down the line, quite greatly, you’re going to face you guys, an audience, and your family. And everybody, and the pope, quite rightly has an opinion. And they’re all not going to like your movie. So, it’s much harder than acting. I don’t have a lot of time for actors that mourn about acting. I really don’t. No, you’re insane. Go work for a living. Come on. Acting’s a great job. But directing is definitely the hardest. Writing’s great fun. On a good day, as you guys know, writing’s great. On a bad day, it’s very suicidal. On a good day, you feel you have achieved something, and it might be worth something. Maybe not.
OI: Crispina (Eileen Walsh) says, "You are not a man of God!" twenty-seven times?
PM: Is that how many times she says it? Cool.
IO: Was that in the script?
PM: Yeah. It’s funny. It didn’t happen that way in the script. I’d said that she says, "You are not a man of God!" Like a mantra. And she doesn’t stop. When Eileen came to play it, which kind of took me by surprise...When we first shot it, Eileen maybe said it twice. And that was it. So I said cut. Eileen and I spoke about it. It was about the only good direction that I gave Eileen. I really didn’t have to give Eileen any direction. The only thing I said to her was, "The Words 'You're not a man of God' are stapled to the side of mortar fire. And the mortar is inside your gut. And it's been there for twenty years." So, we have the guy playing the priest run off camera. And I told her; however far he gets is another piece of mortar fire. It’s like a gut contracting. Instead of it coming out shaped like mortar, it came out shaped like; "You're not a man of God!" If you watch her, you can see her head go up, because she is literally firing this anger at this guy. The second take after that, I asked if she could move around more. So that she fired them wherever he went. And it was more; I guess...It was closer to Becket than naturalism. It’s closer to when language can get rolled up in an emotional shell, and then explodes out at someone like a muscular contraction. It was really weird; the funding morons. When they watched the film at the screening, we had one asshole saying, "Ah, there’s too many. There’s far too many." Then you got another wanker saying, "There’s not enough. I’d like to see more. I think you cut some of them out." It was like, "Ah, fuck off. Leave it to me, guys. I will decide how many there are." And, Jesus, everyone is going to have a definite opinion about it. Is it too short? Is it too long? As a director, all you can do is go by your instincts. And go, "Nope, keep going." This is something that has built up in this young woman. It’s like, when you cut a film, often times there is no rational between cutting there, or there. There was a brilliant note the day before we finished cutting the film. We watched another screening of it. And there was a girl that sneaked into the screening that worked in this art theater. She said, "Can I sit and watch it?" We said, "Absolutely." So, she sat and watched the film. And she said, "Amazing, I loved it." Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah...I said; "If you any nuts and bolts to tighten, tell us. Because, we finish tomorrow." She went, "No...Well, there’s one. Just one thing. I don’t think you need Crispina being dragged down the corridor. I think you can cut from upstairs to the nun coming in.? And it was like that, interesting. We’re cutting on avid, so we can do all that stuff in the computer. We went back, and I said to my editor, who was there also, "Let's take this out and see what happens." We cut it from upstairs, with the harsh screaming and the girls crying, to the nuns coming in. Perfect. It was absolutely perfect. It was a beautiful cut. Wow! We were finishing this tomorrow, and it was getting kind of late. And I wanted to go home. I said to my editor, "It works." He said, "I know. It definitely works." I said, "But there’s something worrying me here. We have to watch this film, now, from the fucking beginning right to the end." And we’d watched it a zillion times. We’ve got this film as tight as we can get it. Now, the scene in the corridor was nine seconds long. And there was no way we could screw up the film by taking out that nine seconds. Because, Alison, that was the girl’s name, she was absolutely correct. We watched the film, and the most unbelievable fucking thing happened. That scene, what a dream. We go from upstairs to the nun, blah blah...Just Crispina; she disappears. The end of the film didn’t work. The last scene with Crispina didn’t work. It was superfluous. And I’m so glad I watched that film again, from start to finish, because I loved that last scene. I loved what she was doing. And suddenly you thought, "That has to go." That happens in cutting a film all the time. You take one thing out, and you realize you don’t need that other thing. And you can lose some of your favorite scenes. But suddenly, the whole film takes on a different dynamic. What was fascinating, for nine seconds, we’d screwed up the ending. So, I know for a fact that her cut, for that moment, is much better than the cut we’ve got. But, I also know that nine seconds give Crispina an exit. An exit along a recognizable area, because Margaret leaves there, as does Patricia. They all exit via that corridor. If we don’t have her coming down the corridor, she doesn’t have an exit. She doesn’t mirror the final scene. It’s fascinating how much you can learn simply by taking on the notes of someone else. And seeing what the opposite does. And I have no idea where that came from, but never mind. Have I answered anybody’s question? I just rambled on there. I don’t think I answered a single question.
OI: How much, do you feel, that this is a subject that needs to be talked about right now? And do you feel that there will be more films along this line of subject matter in the future?
PM: I do. I do. And people may rightly get sick of it, and the church will say, "Oh, my God! It’s a new genre." The bottom line is, you’ll know instinctively if some asshole is exploiting this. The audiences will know. They’ll know immediately that this person’s glad that this happened, because they got to make this film. And you’ll know instinctively the one’s that thought the film was important for the people that suffered what they suffered. And to prevent it from ever happening again. But there’s no doubt that people will exploit it, if they haven’t already. It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest. Unfortunately, there are filmmakers out there that, the more a person suffers, the happier they are because they get to make a film out of it, and they get to make money off of it. I think, for those of more genuine intent, if this thing keeps happening, then God forbid you have to keep looking at it. If it doesn’t keep happening, then there’s nothing to look at. The ball’s firmly in the court of the church. They’re going to turn around and say, "Why are you guys making all these films?" It's like, "Well, fucking stop having your feast of abusing people. Then we wouldn’t have anything to make the film about."
OI: You based several of the girl’s characters on real women. Where did your characters of the nuns come from?
PM: I worked for them. I worked for Sister Bridgett when I was 17.
OI: I think I read about that. And she said something to you that you never forgot?
PM: She said many things that I never forgot. When I first met her, she said prayers for these two Scottish lads who’d come down to work with single homeless schizophrenic women, and as we looked up, she had a full-sized portrait of Benito Mussolini on her wall.
OI: Can you tell us about Young Adam and reuniting with Ewan McGregor; you’re working with him again?
PM: Young Adam is Ewan McGregor at his most spectacularly handsome...Ridiculously handsome. He gets something, like, 28 sex scenes. And I get to play this impotent, cuckolded husband. Because, it’s my wife that he has about 10 of these sex scenes with. So, it’s a highly embarrassing part. McGregor, in the film, is astonishing. I’ve seen the film. And he would make Montgomery Cliff blush. He is, honestly, spectacularly handsome. Movie stardom suites him. Some guys, it doesn’t suite. They don’t carry it well. Ewan's getting to be pretty damned unique. Like Connery. Movie stardom suited Connery. Like, much more in his early films, Connery was still trying to be an actor. When Connery realized who he was, it all kind of came together. And he became that phenomenally handsome, sexy kind of guy. A man’s man, and also a guy that women would like to be with. All that. Ewan’s kind of going in that direction. He’s also a very, very lovely guy. He’s a great guy to work with. He acts like a real human being. He’s not some idiotic movie star with the IQ of a daffodil. And he gets all the good sex scenes.
OI: Danny Boyle had talked about reuniting the cast of Trainspotting for Porno. Is that still being talked about?
PM: I don’t know. I don’t think I’d be included in that. I was the one they cut out of the film. So, I don’t know. Maybe they’ll give me a part this time. Maybe I’ll get more than three lines. I don’t know. What is it about? I haven’t read Porno?
OI: It’s the sequel.
PM: I haven’t read it yet, and I love Irvine’s stuff. Trainspotting was Trainspotting. It was A Hard Days Night meets whatever. It’s a good pot film. In fact, it’s a great pot film. It has no relation to the drug problem. But it’s a great pot film. It has no relation to reality in any shape or form. But it would be good to see that lot get back together again.
Educational, and honestly refreshing. Be sure to check out the Magdalene Sisters when it comes to an arthouse theater near you on August 1st.
Dont't forget to also check out: The Magdalene Sisters