Mark Noonan’s debut feature You’re Ugly Too stars Aidan Gillen as Will, released from prison in Dublin on compassionate leave to care for his niece Stacey (Lauren Kinsella) after the death of her mother. The pair head to the Irish midlands and struggle in their attempts to become a family.
Film Ireland caught up with writer/director Mark Noonan to find out more about his film.
You yourself were born in the midlands and came to Dublin. In your first film we see the characters making the opposite journey. Can we talk about how the story came about and its use of location.
I was always very conscious about writing about what I know. So the midlands location was what I started with to be honest. I knew I could get those locations for free pretty much – in terms of the skate park in Birr, where I’m from, and the Caravan Park, and I knew it had the qualities I was looking for – the flat plains, the brown colours, the sense of melancholy, all of which I thought would work really well for the movie. I’ve been based in Dublin since I was 18 so I was keen to have that urban element as well, even if for a few minutes at the beginning. Also by casting two Dublin actors there would be that urban undercurrent in the midlands, which is something I was keen to create in the movie. But the midlands was definitely a starting point.
Also, having two Dubliners in the midlands heightens that sense of isolation and alienation that rings through the film.
Exactly. To try and get these characters out of their comfort zone was interesting because I suppose when you’re from an urban environment there’s lots of places to hide. People are surrounding you when you’re in a crowded city and it’s very hard to get that sense of being alone. Whereas here the characters are in the midlands, in a desolate caravan park. There’s nowhere for them to hide so they have to kind of confront each other and the difficulty of the situation they find themselves in and their reluctance to open up to each other. So the midlands provides a sort of limbo environment for the characters, which we were trying to create, where they’ve nothing to do but interact with themselves and the characters of Tibo and Emilia, who they meet at the Caravan Park. The midlands gave us this opportunity for the characters not to be able to run from each other.
Will and Stacey play off each other so well and their banter allows for some moments of understated warmth between them.
Even though there’s a lot of humour – we’re kind of seeing these two characters bounce off each other – there isn’t anyone else around to take them away from each other and so there’s a heightened sense of loneliness and a real sense of pathos I hope between them. Both have this brusque exterior but the subtext between them is quite warm, which we were really keen to get through, the genuine love and warmth between them. They will never say they love each other, which can be typical of Irish people, but reading between the lines it’s there – that’s the feeling we’re trying to generate.
We try to undercut those tender moments between them that might be a bit melodramatic. I didn’t want not to create a false sense of drama and I was always trying to ground it in reality – and in that reality, often, when we talk about love, we use humour as a defence mechanism.
Those subtle moments are reflected in the film’s soundtrack.
The music is very much grounded in the grittiness of day-to-day living – even though it’s a beautiful score, it’s a modest score reflecting these two modest characters, but hopefully with a huge emotional resonance. Working with David Geraghty of Bell XI was a fascinating process. We were both agreed upon keeping things quite modest. We went for a sort of Americana vibe to reflect the American tropes in the film – the trailer park , the guy being released from prison, walking on the railroad. David always wanted the music to fit under the characters, we never wanted the score to overwhelm the visuals, apart from at one point in the movie when it needs that little bit of emotional weight. He’s a very clever composer.
Moving from the sound of the film to the look of the film – what was your approach working with cinematographer Tom Comerford?
We were trying to film the movie in a very organic way. We watched a lot of Dardenne Brothers and as bit of Andrea Arnold and we watched a lovely movie by Lance hammer called Ballast. These movies are quite socio-realist in nature so what we wanted to do was continue that style of filmmaking but also shoot it through with a certain elegance. Tom has a got a wonderful eye for compostion, which he brought to these wonderful locations that were realistic and grim but with a beauty about them. Tom was able to capture that – locations that were rusted, with browns and greys, blues and dark greens. These were the colours that we were looking for to reflect the atmosphere we were trying to create with the Midlands, which was certain sense of melancholia but shot through with a real beauty, which we were very keen to capture. Tom works so beautifully with natural light.
It’s a great tight cast you worked with in the film, but if we could end by talking about Lauren Kinsella, who gives an exceptional performance.
She was quite an unknown – she did have a line in Albert Nobbs when she was 7 – she was 11 when she made this. We found her in Mary Murray’s drama group. It was kind of late in the process. Aiden was telling us that we really have to find a good kid for this, she’s got to be exceptional. The moment we met Lauren we shut down auditions because, after reading a few lines, myself and my producer knew that it was the perfect role for her.
Then with Aiden we didn’t rehearse… we knew that any rehearsing would just take away the freshness that Lauren had, the freshness in their relationship that I wanted to see unfold on screen. From the first day of shooting she was very comfortable and really sharp and smart with an old head on young shoulders. She’s in almost every scene and brings a wonderful quality that works really well with Aiden. Thank God we were lucky with all the cast, who I think really really deliver the goods.
You’re Ugly Too is in currently in cinemas