6 December 2022 The Irish Film & Television Network
Directors Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor discuss Rose Plays Julie
17 Sep 2021 : Nathan Griffin
Writer/Directors Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor
Ahead of the nationwide release of Rose Plays Julie this Friday, September 17th, IFTN spoke with the film’s writer-director duo Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor to find out more about the film.

The film follows veterinary student Rose (Ann Skelly), who during a term studying animal euthanasia, decides to contact Ellen (Orla Brady) - her birth mother who gave her up for adoption. But Ellen, who is now a successful London-based actress, doesn’t want to know. Undeterred, Rose will not be ignored and curiosity leads her to discoveries that shake the fragile identity she has built for herself. Instead of allowing the trauma to affect her emotionally, she goes off on a mission to confront the man who may be her father, with jaw-dropping consequences.

Following an extensive career in theatre throughout the late ‘80s and ‘90s, Molloy and Lawlor turned their attention to moving image-based work at the turn of the century. During the ‘00s, the pair wrote and directed 10 acclaimed short films, such as Who Killed Brown Owl and Joy, which were all shot on 35mm.

Helen, their debut feature film, premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2008, and was nominated for a Guardian First Film award. Their second feature Mister John, also premiered at Edinburgh in 2013, and was followed up by the duo’s debut documentary Further Beyond, which released in 2016.

Identity features as a prominent theme throughout much of Molloy and Lawlor’s work. Something that is inescapable in Rose Plays Julie. “We’re not sure why that is exactly,” Molloy told IFTN when asked about their interest in narratives and characters where the central focus is identity under duress. “One day we will subject ourselves to psychoanalysis to find out why it is exactly.”   

Molloy offers two protentional explanations for the origin of their fascination, and in such, how the idea for this film came to be. “The first might have something to do with the fact that we came to the UK in 1987,”Molloy explained. 

The pair travelled to Dartington to study in the college of arts – an incredible place that they believe transformed them both.“As a result, and from time to time, we think about the versions of ourselves we left behind in Dublin all those years ago,” said Molloy. “What they might have been doing right now, what they might have been like.”

“Another response to deepen this further still, is Joe growing up watching his mother cope with her many nervous breakdowns, which would inevitably see her in St. Brendans,” Molloy explained. 

“As a child it was quite something to watch your mother transform into someone totally unrecognizable,”Lawlor recounted. “It makes you think about how stable we all are. How fixed our identities might be and how prone they might be to great forces. How mutable we are. Those experiences never leave the mind and take hold and root themselves deep, deep down.”

Molloy and Lawlor believe there are probably other reasons that they could delve into that might help to explain their “compulsion to return to this endlessly fascinating terrain” of identity under duress: “but it would probably require us getting on the psychiatrist’s chair,” the pair joke. 

During the early stages of developing the script, the pair begin honing the idea over a series of walks to the river Thames from their house in East London, and back. Something they say is pivotal to how their writing partnership works. “In practical terms, writing usually takes the form of starting not with writing but in fact walking and talking,” Lawlor said.

“This is the period when we’re trying to figure out what we want to commit to for the next 4, 5, 6 years of development ahead of us,” Lawlor continued. “Bearing that in mind, it better be something you feel a great passion for as that’s how long scripts can take before any camera is turned over.”

The pair believe that screenwriting is less a literary form and more architectural, which in turn means, a lot of time is spent on building the architecture before any actual writing is done. “Once the writing starts, its usually Joe who does the first draft and then I respond to that and move it on,” Molloy explained. “And that’s because Joe has no real problem when confronted with a blank page, but I do.”

“Over the course of 2014 we began most days with this walk and slowly but surely a story about a young, adopted woman took hold, and as the months went by, we began to tease out the details of the story as well as how we wanted to express it,” Lawlor recounted.

However, the writing process isn’t something that has necessarily always come easy to them. “We have always struggled with the writing process - then again what writers don’t,” Molloy admitted. “In the last couple of years however, and certainly since the pandemic, we have found a certain pleasure in the writing process, we haven’t always experienced before.” 

Lawlor believes that it is because the pair have focused more on character: “as a result, writing has become more… not fun exactly, but something getting on for that.”

Although this writing process takes several years to get the script to production stage, the pair were quick to point out the short window with which the film is made. “By contrast, the directing period is disturbingly short (22 days in the case of Rose Plays Julie) and to be honest, it’s like going into battle,” said Molloy. “Not much time to think. Nuts really - so you better have all your thinking done beforehand.”

An Irish/UK co-production, Rose Plays Julie is produced by David Collins of Samson Films and co-produced by Eoin O’Faolain of Desperate Optimists. The film also has number of Irish Heads of Department including cinematographer Tom Comerford, production designer Emma Lowney, composor Stephen McKeon, and costume designer Joan O’Cleary.

Aside from their responsibilities as writer/directors, Molloy and Lawlor are also credited with editing (Molloy) and producing (Lawlor) alongside David Collins.

We first worked with David on our second feature, Mister John. He was a fan of our debut feature film Helen and expressed a desire to work with us,” the pair told IFTN. “We’re quite fickle and tend to like people who like what we do! So, we’ve been working with David for quite a while now, across several projects.”

“David is great to work with and has a real skill at bringing great crews together, film after all is a collaborative endeavour, as well as skippering a project through to completion,” they added.

As for editing, Lawlor and Molloy admitted they couldn’t really imagine a scenario where they didn’t edit a film of their own. “In many ways it’s the best part of the whole process,” Molloy said. “We’d suggest it’s very akin to the writing process. They both bookend the directing experience and they shape the material in different ways.”

When discussing the editing process, the duo explained that they work closely together across this aspect of the film. “Christine takes the lead, and this comes down to her patience and eye and sensibility, but it’s important that both of us don’t jointly edit so that one has more distance to it than the other,” Lawlor explained. “That sharing out of perspective is important.”

“We also value screenings with family and friends as we go along, to see how various edits are going. What’s working? what’s not? What’s clear? What’s confusing?” added Molloy.

Rose Plays Julie received its World Premiere in London at the BFI London Film Festival last October, and stars Ann Skelly ( Death and Nightingales), Aiden Gillen (Game of Thrones) and Orla Brady (Star Trek: Picard). Casting was handled by Emma Gunnery. “Emma was wonderful to work with,” the pair told IFTN. 

When asked whether they had any of the actors in mind for the key roles when writing the script, Molloy admitted that one such actor had been a target. “Yes, we had Aidan in mind for the role of Peter, but we were very open to who might play the roles of Rose/Julie and Ellen because Orla is such an experienced and esteemed actor, casting Orla was very different to Ann,” Lawlor answered.

“For example, often you tend to offer people like Orla the part straight away, but this felt weird to us, not because we felt she couldn’t do the part, but because we didn’t know Orla, had never talked with her,” Lawlor explained. “We thought it would only be fair to both Orla and us to at least have talked first, so that we could all decide if we would be happy working together or not,”

“The first encounter via Skype with Orla was fantastic and it was so obvious she would be perfect for the part, and she had so many thoughts on how to play the role, that completely chimed with our thinking,” said Molloy.

“We cast Ann Skelly through a more traditional route of self-tapes and auditioning. There are so many wonderful Irish female actors in their early 20s coming through but of course you have to make a decision,”Molloy continued. “In the end, we met 6 actors face to face and it was clear to us, from our encounter with Ann, that she had the very specific qualities that made her an obvious choice for the role.”

Having a good rapport with the three principal actors before the first day of photography is a must for Molloy and Lawlor. “The schedule is so brutal there’s not much time for tensions to build. So, it’s critical the planning is carefully worked out,” they explained. “The focus is always to make sure that actors can do their work to their best ability and the schedule is all about helping that. Orla, Aidan, and Ann were a real pleasure to work with. We got so lucky.”

In terms of what’s next, Lawlor and Molloy have their sights firmly set on the future with the second instalment their 2016 documentary Further Beyond close to completion. “Part two is called The Future Tense,” the pair told IFTN. “We also have a couple of other projects in development, which is a very exciting position for us to find ourselves in.”

Rose Plays Julie releases in Irish cinemas this Friday, September 17th.

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