Kate Dolan has loved films ever since she was a child. Her short film Little Doll premiered at Berlinale in 2016. Her next short Catcalls, won best short film at the Ireland young director awards. Born and raised in Ireland, Kate had a childhood filled with folklore. Her latest film You Are Not My Mother (which I also reviewed), Finds her pulling from Irish folklore and personal experience to create a truly terrifying picture. The passion with which Dolan directs each sequence transcends budgetary constraints to create a horror drama up there with The Babadook in terms of fear factor and production quality. Dolan is a true lover of horror cinema. You can feel that in my interview with her below, which was edited for length and clarity.
Hammer to Nail: How did you first get the idea for this film?
Kate Dolan: It came from a couple of different things I was thinking about. As an Irish person, I’ve always been intrigued by our folklore, it’s always a part of growing up as a kid, you would hear all the stories. They were told to you as if they were real. I was always intrigued by these stories and as a filmmaker, what you could do to bring them to life. Particularly, the Changeling myth. That was really interesting to me, the idea of a doppelgänger. Someone who looks like someone you love, but it’s not them at all. So that’s where I started, but, also, I had been wanting to make something that was about intergenerational trauma. Like, things that happen in the past in a family or a society come back to haunt the generation of age. It felt like folklore was the best way to tell that story. The two ideas became one, and that’s how I started the script.
HtN: Speaking of the script, what is your screenwriting process like? Do you have a routine or is it more sporadic?
KD: I’d like to say I have a routine. The mornings are when I do my best work. I try to rely on the time window between when I get up in the morning to lunchtime to get a few good hours in. The afternoon becomes a bit of a mess. There have been many times when I’ve been laying in bed, it will be 1 am and I’ll think to myself, “oh that’s a good idea to change that scene!” Then I’ll get up, go to my office and fix a scene in the script because I know if I go to sleep it won’t be as fresh in my mind. So it can be a bit sporadic as well.
HtN: How did you find your actors for this film, everyone gives a great performance but Jordanne Jones and Hazel Doupe stood out to me. What drew you to them?
KD: In Ireland, they have been in a few other productions, so I had seen them in things before. Particularly Hazel was in a short film called Ciunas, which is the Irish word for quiet, and it was just this really beautiful short. She gave an understated performance and she did not have a lot of dialogue. It felt like Char in our film. She does not have a lot of dialogue. It’s a very internal performance. So it felt like she would be able to achieve that. We got Hazel first, then we cast everyone else off of her. We got lucky, because of covid none of the other actors had commitments at the time so they were like, “yeah, let’s do this indie horror movie.”
HtN: One of the things I love most about this film is how you helm your scares. When you cut to something horrifying instead of cueing loud music to jolt the viewer cheaply, you let the image sit there in silence, then you cue the music. for example at around the 21-minute mark we get that first scare with the mom’s disfigured face. Tell me about the sound design process as clearly, it was very important for this film?
KD: We did a lot of prep work in terms of the scares. I am a huge horror fan. I religiously watch horror. I am always looking at how good scares are set up. Me and the editor, who happens to be one of my best friends, watch a lot of horror movies together. We’re looking at good scares and how they were set up, what makes them work, what makes them not work. Then I would shoot my girlfriend in my house according to my shot list. He would edit the footage together, then we would play with the sound. When we went to shoot it on set, since we had done so much prep, we knew it would work. That said, in the edit, you always change things and ideas come to you. Before we even went to the sound designer, we did a lot of work to try and build that into our edit. To make sure it would work. We had a great composer, Die Hexen. She’s a bit of a sound designer in her own right. She sent us a lot of music before we were even into the edit. That was good to set the mood and tone as well.
HtN: How did your relationship start with Die Hexen?
KD: I saw a short film she had done some music for. I thought it sounded really cool. I started listening to her on Spotify, they were not scores, it was just her experimental music. I started listening when I was writing the script and I thought it was the right kind of tone. I reached out to her, she’s a very witchy person, she loves horror movies. She connected with the core themes of the film as well. She was really up for it and really excited. She started creating music for the script before we had shot anything. It was good because we could send it to the cast and crew so they understood the tone. We had a great relationship.
HtN: Narayan Van Maele serves as your cinematographer, what was it like working with him? How did you guys collaborate to create the look of this film?
KD: Narayan is so talented. He had only done one feature film before. He has a really great eye for light. I worked with him on a commercial. He can do a lot with very little. We knew our budget was going to be tight so I knew he was the kind of DP that would not throw a tantrum over not having enough lights. He was like, “ok this is what we have, lets’s see what we can do.” That was really great, he was a real team player in that way. Still managed to achieve beautiful images even though we did not have the budget for the biggest equipment. It was really great, I think he’s a real rising star of Irish cinematographers. I am excited to see what he will be doing in a few years.
HtN: If it was possible, would you have preferred to shoot this on film, or do you think the digital camera suits this better? Whatever lens you used had this hazy authentic, feeling that looked great.
KD: Yeah, absolutely, I love film. If we had the budget I would 100% shoot on film. The lenses we used were Narayan’s lenses. They were Cooke s2s. They have this antique feel to them. They do give a very filmic look. For the grade, we tried to emulate film stock as much as possible. The lenses themselves gave that filmic texture. We tried to achieve that as much as possible, but yeah if we could have shot on film I would have done that.
HtN: What percentage of the effects in this film are practical vs special? It was hard to tell at times.Some sequences I have on my mind are the baby burning sequence, the hand in the mouth sequence, and the mother’s final form.
Kate Dolan: Well, the baby obviously, you can’t put a baby near fire, so we had to do that with the effects. All the fire you see is a real fire, sometimes we would put it on black screen so we could use it for scenes. All the fire at the end, that’s real. We set a person on fire. The hand down the throat was our biggest VFX shot. Everything else is pretty much practical. We did it a lot with camera trickery but, her final form, in the end, is all practical makeup. As a filmmaker, I always prefer to see things practically. Number one, you can see it on camera and know it is going to work, but also, for Hazel in that final scene to have the prosthetic makeup, helps her so much more. She can see what it will be and react to it. I am a real cheerleader for practical effects, especially in horror movies. I always prefer them to the VFX shots.
HtN: I love when I watch a film and it is clear that the Writer-Director loves films themselves. That is very clear in this film as each sequence is directed with passion. What’s a film early on that had a large impact on you?
KD: I used to watch lots of films growing up because I never went to bed. It was just me and my mom a lot of the time. She let me stay up and watch movies with her. The first adult movie I remember seeing was The Shawshank Redemption. That really showed me what films could be. Up until that point I had seen kids’ movies. I was like, “Wow this is amazing!” I saw Apocalypse Now when I was 12. I remember watching it and being glued to it. My mom said, “You are really enjoying watching this?” I said, “Yeah this is amazing!” I got her to take me to a cinema screening of it when I was 14. They were showing the Redux one in a cinema. Those big movies that are really cinematic and epic grabbed my attention as a kid.
HtN: I know that Alice Lowe gave you some advice as part of a mentor program a bit back. I was wondering if there are any other directors that have given you important advice? if you had advice for any aspiring directors what that would be?
KD: Peter Strickland, who made In Fabric and Berberian Sound Studio, I met him for a coffee one day. He told me never to get too drunk when I have to do a Q and A. He said never to say anything too personal. My advice for up-and-coming directors is to look to your peers as you’re coming up instead of the big producer who is definitely not going to respond to your email. Make friends with other shorts filmmakers and producers of short films. Go to short film festivals and meet everyone. Those are the people, you are all going to come up together. Some people may come up a little bit faster than you or you more than them. You can always help each other and give each other introductions to people. Looking to peers who are at the same level as you is really invaluable for making those connections.
HtN: Would you ever see yourself directing someone else’s script or vice versa?
KD: Definitely, I would not see myself as an “Auteur.” I love writing, I love generating ideas, I have ideas for films all the time that I would love to see develop, but I am definitely open. I have been reading a lot of interesting scripts recently. Getting someone else’s perspective outside of your own is really nice because it opens up your creativity. I am definitely open to all of that.
HtN: I watched Catcalls and thought it was great. That film has far more camp than You Are Not My Mother. Camp is a tough thing to sell right now because studios are afraid of humor. Do you see yourself continuing down this dramatic serious path? Do you want to do some more comedic stuff?
KD: I would love to do more comedy stuff. I have a feature film project that is definitely more in the vein of Catcalls. It’s irreverent. You Are Not My Mother was an exception. I love irreverent humor, poking fun at the world, particularly in horror it can be fun. I definitely want to do more of that in the future. You Are Not My Mother was just not the kind of story for it.
Hammer to Nail: There were a few chuckles.
KDn: There were yeah! Pretty intense overall though.
HtN: Do you see yourself engaging in other genres besides horror?
KD: I am very happy in horror, for now. I feel very at home with horror. I understand the genre so well. I feel very safe, I understand all the constructs and how they put things together. It’s so creative, it’s such a fun genre to work in. You can create monsters and really abstract things. Things you probably could not do in most other genres. I love David Fincher, I love that kind of thriller. I definitely am not going to pigeonhole myself too much.
HtN: This film has a grave tone, it is effectively eerie and chilling. In order to accomplish something like that, does the set need to be extremely serious, or did you find yourself having a very fun time on this set joking around?
KD: I am not the kind of person that can be super serious on set. I would not enjoy working with people who are super serious. At the end of the day, you are making a movie. It’s not the most important thing in the world. You are not building a hospital or something like that, so I try not to take things too seriously. Especially with a film like You Are Not My Mother , if you are super serious off-screen as well as on-screen, the actors would be spent. During break time on set, we were always laughing and joking. It was really nice to work because everyone was so friendly with each other.
Hammer to Nail: Thank you so much, Kate, I am excited to see what you do in the future!
Kate Dolan: Thank you so much, it was so nice to talk to you!
– Jack Schenker (@YUNGOCUPOTIS)
Magnet Releasing; Kate Dolan; You Are Not My Mother film interview