4 December 2022 The Irish Film & Television Network
Aisling Walsh Chats With IFTN
10 Jul 2018 : Nathan Griffin
IFTN caught up with IFTA & BAFTA winning director Aisling Walsh to find out about how she prepares & approaches a day on set, what she is most looking forward to following the successful release of her latest feature film, and who from the Irish industry she has been most impressed by in 2018.

A Dublin native, Aisling Walsh began her creative career studying Fine Art at the Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art Design and Technology before developing an interest in film, which led her to later attend the National Film School in Beaconfield, England. Walsh’s early career saw her direct a number of UK television shows throughout the nineties including ‘Doctor Finlay’, ‘Roughnecks’, and ‘The Bill’.  At the same time, controversial films such as ‘Sinners’ & ‘Joyriders’ fed the creative appetite to direct & co-write ‘Song for a Raggy Boy’, which picked up a number of international awards and saw Aisling receive her first IFTA nomination in 2003.

In 2018, Aisling received an IFTA for ‘Best Director’ for her work on Irish-Canadian Co-production ‘Maudie’. ‘Starring Sally Hawkins & Ethan Hawke, ‘Maudie’ is centred on the story of Maud Dowley, the famous Nova Scotia folk artist who suffered from severe rheumatoid arthritis. The film picked up three awards at the IFTA Film & Drama Awards and six awards at the Canadian Screen awards.

Aisling also received a BAFTA for her work on the BBC Mini-Series ‘Room on Top’ back in 2013, having previously been nominated for the prestigious award twice before.

IFTN Journalist Nathan Griffin caught up with Aisling Walsh to find out about the best/worst aspects of working as a director, how she prepares for a day on set, and what she might have done had she not fallen in love with the art of filmmaking.

What are the best and worst aspects of your work?

The Best

“The best aspect of my job is working with the people I work with and going on a journey together. I’ve always loved the loneliness and quietness of writing a script and then the rowdy collaboration that happens when you get to make the film. That collaborative journey usually starts in a room with one or two people. On Maudie it started with my production designer John Hand in a classroom in St John’s in Newfoundland. A week later we were joined by producer Susan Mullen and a week after that by cinematographer Guy Godfree. It’s like a small band coming together to practise some music not quite knowing what kind of music we are going to play. I’ve been fortunate to work with some great people over the years - lifetime collaborators - people that I want to work with again and again. Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke are now firmly on the top of that list.”

The Worst

“Lack of time. When filming there is never enough time in the day. I have a saying ‘once your feet hit your set at the start of your day you’re behind. I try to ignore time when I’m working but at 5 or 6pm one is aware that the day is slipping away. People you haven’t seen all day start to gather around the set. The level of anxiety rises. You start to feel the pressure and it’s hard to ignore that. But I’ve learned over the years that if you stay calm you can create magic and grab the most amazing moments. On Maudie an example of that magic is the scene where Maud gets the screen-door. We were running out of time. The light was going. We rehearsed and shot the scene in under half an hour. Everyone worked together to make it happen It’s a scene that so many people have commented on and one that I had to have in the film.”

Who in the Irish industry has really impressed you in the last 12 months?

“There are two people.

“Frank Berry - For his beautiful film making on MIchael Inside. I saw it at the Galway Film Fleadh last year and was blown away by it. I loved the storytelling. I loved its confidence its boldness and its honesty.”

“Moe Dunford - He’s such an exciting actor. I’ve been a closet fan for some time now. I’m not sure he knows how good he is. “

Can you talk me through a typical day for you when working on a production, and how you prepare?

“My day. If I’m filming my day starts very early. I’m usually up at 5am as I find it hard to sleep. I try and go through the day in my head and down several cups of coffee before I’m picked up at 6/6.30am. I like to travel to set with my DOP and arrive at wherever we are based for the day at least an hour before call time. I go straight to the makeup truck to talk to my cast. It’s good to get a sense of how they are feeling every morning. I’ve often rewritten scenes on makeup trucks or sorted out worries about dialogue,. I’ve run lines, altered costumes, listened to fears about particular scenes. Then I go and have breakfast with my DOP - we talk through the day. If my Production Designer is on set first thing he or she will join us. Often they are working ahead so I see them later in the day. I like to be on set at 7.30 with my DOP. On Maudie we talked through the day in the house each morning. I like cast on set at 8am. I like to be disciplined about this as it starts the day off well for everyone - we’re ready to get going. We talk through the first scene, start to think about how we might achieve it. Blocking evolves.”

“Sometimes there are things that are specific to story that need to be seen - we might have to find a way to get those elements to work and incorporate them. I like my DOP to be there at this stage, usually tucked into a corner somewhere. He or she will be operating too so it’s good for them to see how things are working out. Once we are getting close to being happy I’ll get other crew to join us. At the start of a shoot this is often a moment I dread. You feel like you’re on show but I get over that quickly. I like to keep things free. I like actors to have the ability to change things too so I don’t like to over rehearse. Then somehow we start to turn over. I’m never aware of time again until about an hour before wrap. I just concentrate and keep going. I try to keep my set calm and like it to have a nice atmosphere. I work best that way. Then that last hour arrives and the scramble begins. I like to think my scramble is a calm and focused one, that way I might just grab some magic. I keep turning over until I cant anymore.”

“Sometimes my DOP and myself will stay behind to grab a few shots that we’ve missed out shots that might give the film space. Landscape. Details. Light going down. On wrap I like to have a coffee to let the day go. I might have a chat about the next day before I leave set. I sit into the car. If I’m more than half an hour from wherever I’m staying and alone I might try and sleep. Usually the day flashes through my mind. I try not to beat myself up about what I didn’t achieve. When I smoked I might have to ask the driver to stop for a supply to keep me going through the evening. These days I go straight home. I might call my editor to let them know how the day went. I like to sit in silence for the evening and think about the next day. I try to avoid the phone but inevitably someone calls. I try and get to bed by midnight and if I’m lucky I’ll sleep until my alarm goes off again at 5am.”

When did you last cry watching a film? (Or come close)

“I don’t cry at films very often. If I cry it’s usually standing in front of a painting. That said I was at a screening of Brief Encounter at the Festival Hall in London with a live orchestra on Valentine’s Day a few years ago. I cried the moment Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson kiss on the station platform for the last time. Last week I was at a 25th anniversary screening of The Piano. I had forgotten how emotional the film is. The tension between the characters is breathtaking. I cried when Holly Hunter sinks into the mud after her finger is brutally cut off. She tries to stay on her feet but she can’t . Her black dress balloons out as she sinks slowly in agony. It is a stunningly beautiful image that is somehow just perfect.”

What career do you think you would have if you weren’t in the film/tv industry, and why?

“I’d like to think I’d paint more and finally get good at it. I love history. I met a wonderful historian when I was in my last year at school and thought I might like to do that for a long time. I’d like to drive across America. I did it some years ago with my late husband. I’d like to do it again and revisit some of the crazy places we fell in love with. The other constant thing I do is needlework. Odd I know because people can’t see it fits with me. When I’m travelling, or in a cutting room or in the dubbing theatre out comes the latest piece I’m working on. I’m starting a diploma in technical hand embroidery at the Royal School of Needlework in Hampton Court this Autumn - maybe there’s a future for me in an atelier in some attic in Paris although I suspect the diploma will take me years as I’m doing it very part-time.”

What one thing would you tell someone who aspires to pursue a similar career path to you?

“Film making is a life-long journey with no age limit. Well that is what it is for me. Eleanor Coppola directed her first feature film at 80. Agnes Varda is still making films at 90. Your career as a director is hopefully as long as you want it to be. I’ve always tried to stick to what I call the road straight ahead and not get distracted by the turn offs that often present themselves along the way. I’ve always tried to stay true to myself and only work on projects that feel right and that I care passionately about. Sometimes directing feels like it is the loneliest job in the world so you have to be strong and believe in yourself - and that can be tough some times. Don’t be afraid to commit yourself to a project you believe in. If you believe in it hopefully others will too. Listen. I’ve always been a good listener. I’ve learned a lot listening. It gives you time to consider your options and sometimes that’s very important in our industry.”

What are you most excited about for 2018?

“After travelling with Maudie for a lot of last year I’m excited about being back at the very start with some new projects. Unlike a lot of directors I like development - I like the change of pace and rhythm and I get time to do other things. I’m always excited to be at the start of another film making journey and see where it takes me.”

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