Áine Stapleton, director of ‘Horrible Creature’

'Horrible Creature', Aine Stapleton

Áine Stapleton introduces us to her film Horrible Creaturewhich screens on Wednesday, 8th January 2020  at 18.30 at the IFI as part of IFI & First Fortnight January 2020.

Horrible Creature is the second part of a proposed trilogy of films about Lucia Joyce. It examines her life between 1915 and 1950 and is filmed at locations where she spent time in Switzerland. The first film, Medicated Milk, was inspired by Lucia’s diaries which she wrote at a psychiatric hospital in Northampton, England, between the 1960s and 1980s. 

Whereas Medicated Milk offers a more disembodied and fluid exploration of Lucia’s memories and dreams, Horrible Creature brings the body to the forefront and follows a linear structure of events. It meets Lucia during her earlier formative years and examines her education, dissension between her parents, childhood friendships, romantic relationships, her professional dance training, and ill-treatment suffered whilst in psychiatric care. It also looks at how memories of traumatic experiences can become clouded, repressed, and stored away in the body, but ultimately these subconscious and unconscious energies find expression through our feelings, dreams, and actions.

I began working on Horrible Creature directly after finishing Medicated Milk in 2015. I moved to Zurich, Switzerland, for one year and researched part-time at the Zurich James Joyce Foundation, which is directed by the legendary Fritz Senn. The Joyce family moved from Italy to Zurich in 1915, to escape the turmoil of WW1. Lucia later trained as a professional dancer in France and performed throughout Europe. She returned to Switzerland for psychiatric treatment in the 1930s, most famously with Carl Jung.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many firsthand accounts by Lucia from this time period. I revised the letters and diaries that I had gathered for Medicated Milk and searched various archives for earlier writings and letters of communication by Lucia, her friends, family, and doctors. I edited these texts to create a film script and a choreographic score. A choreographic score is a detailed language score, that is interpreted by performers through movements and vocalisations. For example, this score was filmed in the church at the Madonna Del Sasso monastery in Locarno – ‘She goes to the garden where she remains inaccessible. The garden is rather sad, but there are some beautiful colours and stained glass inside. She sits in the green like flowers on a grave, and is in sympathy with the present. The light here is wonderful so she can sing at last, and her bird song is a little monotonous. Her song is a reminder of a lifeless place.’

Horrible Creature is a retelling of Lucia’s life through the art form which was her passion and explores the transformative nature of dance. I was grateful to work with a cast of three diverse and outstanding dance artists from different countries – Michelle Boulé (USA), Sarah Ryan (IRE), and Céline Larrére (FR). We began our process by rehearsing in-studio at Dance Ireland, Dublin, and Culture D’arbois, located in the Jura mountains close to Geneva. Over a number of weeks, the performers embodied and reinterpreted the details of the language score. The score was also layered with experimental movement practices, that aim to cultivate present moment awareness. A separate voiceover was performed beautifully by Dublin based actresses Aenne Barr and Rebecca Warner. 

I acted as producer and searched for locations in Switzerland where Lucia spent time. I was provided with some archival materials including Swiss German school books from Lucia’s school years, and an old treatment machine from her psychiatric hospital. The school books contained lesson plans about war and nature. I combined these texts with imagery of mountainous landscapes and the dancers’ bodies, to further reference the effects of violence and human destruction of the natural world.

Lucia’s own dancing was also inspired by nature. She created a stunning fish costume for a performance in Paris, as well as playing the role of a tropical vine in a ballet. I worked with a fantastic Dublin-based Italian designer Ivan Moreno Bonica, to redesign these original costumes and other clothing from Lucia’s early life. 

Director of Photography was Will Humphris from England. Will is an extremely experienced cinematographer and I was thrilled to have an opportunity to work with him – plus massive thanks to Zoe at My Management for her support. It was Will’s first time working with dancers, but he remained constantly alert to the changeability of their movements and fully embraced the style of the project. The nature of the choreographic practice meant that both the dancers’ movements and their use of space altered with each take, so the performers and Will had to be extremely creative in their collaborations during the filming process. 

All of the venues, such as hospitals and schools, are still functioning in their original forms. Due to privacy and access limitations, as well as budget constraints, we filmed with a small crew of myself as director, DOP, and the three dance artists, over a nine-day shoot. We began at Lucia’s psychiatric hospital near Geneva, then drove across to Simplon Pass, a mountainous area where the Joyce’s crossed from Italy to Switzerland, Ticino, and finally up to Zurich and the surrounding districts. We filmed in early February, so both travel and filming conditions were a bit extreme at times. The dancers were exposed to varying weather conditions and environments – as well as my driving skills!. They worked diligently to practice the language score whilst remaining present and open to the energetic textures and histories present at each location. 

It was never my intention to create a solely historical account of Lucia’s life, so I didn’t alter the design of the locations much at all. I wanted to allow for a sense of connection between then and now. The buildings are all really stunning in their present conditions, and at Lucia’s school, for example, there was a beautiful display of student’s artwork from modern-day combined with 100-year-old science posters from Lucia’s school years. 

In post-production, I decided to first structure the entire film as a purely visual piece. I wanted each element of the production to have its own creative space and rhythm, before layering everything at the final stages. For me, this way of working adds a layer of tension to the work, which helps to sustain my interest as a viewer. This was quite a slow working process, and I spent a lot of time picking apart the footage before post-production. I worked on the edit with a good friend and wonderful editor / filmmaker José Miguel Jiménez, who I had worked with previously on Medicated Milk. 

A very beautiful and haunting soundtrack was created by Ed Chivers and David Best, two members of the British band Fujiya and Miyagi. The duo worked from extracts of Lucia’s writings and gained further inspiration from songs that she would have sung or played on the piano. As a choreographer, I’m not particularly interested in dance following music or vice versa, so Ed and David didn’t watch any of the footage until the last stages of their creation process. 

Horrible Creature premiered at the IFI in June 2019, and I’m delighted to present it again as part of the First Fortnight Festival. I’ve had an exciting and ongoing relationship with the First Fortnight team since they presented Medicated Milk at the IFI in 2016. I’m also curating a series of dance and wellness workshops in partnership with First Fortnight, Dance Ireland, and Galway Dance Project for the festival in 2020.

Horrible Creature is kindly funded by The Arts Council of Ireland, The Embassy of Ireland in Switzerland, with additional support from Arts & Disability Ireland, Dance Ireland, The James Joyce Centre, The Ticino Film Commission, Zurich James Joyce Foundation, Tanzarchiv Zurich, and FringeLab. Thanks to everyone who offered advice and support during the making of the work. I’d also like to say a big thank you to Sunniva O’ Flynn and the IFI team for their ongoing support of my film work. 


The screening will be followed by a Q&A with director Áine Stapleton.

Book tickets here.




Interview: Áine Stapleton, director of ‘Medicated Milk’










Irish Film Review: Medicated Milk


Dee O’Donoghue assesses Medicated Milk. Áine Stapleton’s re-telling of the life of Lucia Joyce, daughter of celebrated Irish writer James Joyce.


As Dublin celebrated another Bloomsday on the 16th of June honouring the revered literary giant, a silenced, counter-narrative was being heard in the IFI – that of Joyce’s mysterious daughter, Lucia. Little is still known about Lucia Joyce yet her limited biography points to a controversial, untameable figure, who scholars agree was a clear muse for her father’s work. What is accepted is that Lucia, born in Trieste in 1907 and showed great promise in becoming a dance artist, had her own artistic ambitions abruptly halted in the cutting-edge world of modern dance, yet the exact circumstances remain shrouded in mystery. She was to spend 50 years of her life in a mental asylum, forgotten and erased, owing to the Joyce estate destroying or closely guarding documents, making them unavailable to scholars; any scholastic enquiry met with forthright resistance for attempting to penetrate the sovereignty of Joyce’s work.

Lucia’s biography is not an isolated one when history comes to silencing the creative, female voice – women with ‘high-spirited’ intellect – forced to live in the murky shadows of more respected, literary men (Zelda Fitzgerald was also committed to specialist clinics). While Joyce has cemented his name as one of the greatest literary figures, and his work celebrated annually and globally, Lucia has had her true legacy distorted to protect the myth of the literary hero, a literary hero whose work was hugely influenced by his creative daughter but has inherited no more than an image of a violently deranged woman who was in need of continual confinement – thanks to her own family.

Despite such sparse historic documentation, the mysterious Lucia still ignites a continued interest to unearth a more lucid portrait of her life, her true legacy and her status within the Joyce family. Michael Hastings’ 2004 West End play, ‘Calico’, navigated Lucia’s life and relationships through her mental illness. In Ireland, a 2013 RTÉ Radio documentary, ‘Lucia Joyce – Diving and Falling’ by Leanne O’Donnell, explored the extraordinary backdrop to Lucia’s confinement as the family were at the heart of literary Paris and most recently, Annabel Abbs’, ‘The Joyce Girl’, released this year, delves into circumstances in which the dancer was locked away so brutally for half a decade.

Continuing the artistic quest for answers, it was such creative, female silencing that motivated Irish dancer and filmmaker Áine Stapleton, to take up the mantle and attempt to unearth the unsolvable mystery behind the shrouded Lucia, in Medicated Milk. As with researchers before her, Stapleton was severely obstructed by the lack of recorded documents and therefore much of her film is informed by the American scholar Carol Loeb Schloss’ controversial biography ‘To Dance in the Wake’. Scholss’ biography challenged the customary madwoman figure and after studying 50 unpublished notes used by Joyce to pen ‘Finnegans Wake’, delineates how Joyce loved his creative, independent daughter and they shared a deep creative bond.

Drawing from the biography, Stapleton, whose own narrative mirrors Lucia’s and is interwoven into the film, proffers a unique interpretation of Lucia’s story, through experimental dance and music, to reclaim Lucia from the margins of literary history and give her the voice and image she has been historically denied. Also refuting the long-considered, institutionalised image of Lucia but rather, a creative genius in her own right, Stapleton, in conjunction with director José Miguel Jiménez and supported with an evocative score by Somadrone, fuses dazzling dance sequences, radiant underwater cinematography and graphic scenes of nudity and animal butchery to create a distinctive, yet unflinching interpretation on the loss, trauma and marginalization suffered by both Lucia and the director herself.

Stapleton became immersed in her Lucia mission by discovering Joyce himself three years ago, through her collaboration with the band Fathers of Western Thought, who were devising a musical interpretation of his work. Stapleton’s agenda soon shifted from Joyce’s writings to his daughter, a life publicly framed by mental illness and psychiatric care. Through Stapleton’s research, it soon became apparent that Lucia’s mental illness overshadowed her entire life, a mental illness that was concealing a fuller picture. It was this cover-up and a shared personal experience that motivated Stapleton to drive forward, to give Lucia a narrative and to give voice to the thoughts and expressions from Lucia’s own words.

Fuelled by frustration and ambition, Stapleton acquired copies of Lucia’s few, existing letters from the University of Texas, undertook trips to various locations in France and Ireland and visited the mental asylum in Northampton to shoot scenes for the film. Collectively, existing documentation and Stapleton’s own tireless research result in a brave, provocative and deeply sensual experimental piece, which pays deep tribute to the voiceless daughter of a literary genius.

While Schoss and now Stapleton’s controversial interpretations of the life of Lucia and her relationship with James Joyce are not unheard of amongst Joyce aficionados, such interpretations are rarely explored. And what becomes more compelling about Medicated Milk, is that Áine Stapleton succeeds in giving a voice to a woman from the past through a shared experience with a woman from the future, through the medium that has suppressed women for centuries, the creative arts.

Whether Medicated Milk results in an enraged or an infuriated reaction for its challenging theories and experimental expression, the film has given voice to two silenced female voices, females whose voices might otherwise have not been heard. A must-see.


Medicated Milk screened on Thursday, 16th June 2016 at the IFI as part of Irish Focus, a focus on new Irish film and filmmakers.




























Interview: Áine Stapleton, director of ‘Medicated Milk’

Áine Stapleton introduces her first feature-length film Medicated Milk, which screens on Thursday, 16th June 2016 at 18.40 at the IFI as part of the Irish Focus Bloomsday Programme.

Medicated Milk is a re-telling of the life Lucia Joyce, daughter of celebrated Irish writer James Joyce. One of the first things I learned about Lucia was her passion for modern dance. She trained in France with Raymond Duncan (brother of Isadora) and performed with a group of female dancers called Les Six de Rythme et Couleur. She created her own choreography and received critical acclaim from the Paris Times. Lucia’s career was cut short due to supposed mental illness but the details around this seem very undefined.

I trained in dance at degree level in London and now work in dance, music and film. My work generally explores autobiography, feminism, inequality and abuse, and is my means to vocalise my opinions on these issues.

Being aware of the importance of art in my own life I wanted to know how Lucia went from a seemingly active, opinionated, energetic and inspired creator, to a young woman who’s talent and means of expression was brought to a sudden halt. Not only did her career choice go unsupported by her family, but not long after it ended she was incarcerated by her brother Giorgio. She then spent the remaining 47 years of her life locked up in psychiatric hospitals.

Researching further I discovered that much of Lucia’s writings, including communication between her and her father, were destroyed by her nephew following her death in 1982. I bought her remaining writings from the University of Texas, researched at The National Archives in London, and retraced her steps in Ireland, Paris and St. Andrews Hospital in England. I quickly became frustrated with the repeated description of Lucia as a crazy young woman who had a strange infatuation with her father. The reality for me seemed that her father had too close a hold over her, and that any mental strain she experienced was brought about by trauma she suffered at the hands of her family and subsequently by the medical profession.

The main drive behind this film was to attempt to give Lucia a voice and to further understand what may have happened to her. The title is taken from one of her dream diary extracts, and the film combines imagery and text from her dreams and biography, filmed at some locations where she spent time during the 1930s. Stories from my own life and my Mother’s are intertwined with Lucia’s to help fill in what I think might be some of the blanks in her life story.

To create Medicated Milk I worked with filmmaker and my good friend José Miguel Jiménez. We travelled around Ireland to film at locations where Lucia spent time, in particular Bray Co. Wicklow. José filmed scenes with me dancing underwater and in the ballroom at the beautiful and haunting Bray Head Inn. Locals that I approached for information about Lucia, or with help for the filming process, were extremely kind and supportive, and the whole experience was very fullfilling and at many times moving.

Although it was the first project José and I worked on together the process was very fluid. We shared a similar vision for the tone of the film, its non-narrative nature, and he was completely open to the challenges that the imagery required, which varied from the cold waters of Kerry in the winter to close-up scenes of animal butchery. His style of cinematography for the film and the dreamlike states it helped to create worked well with the ephemeral narrative presented. We collaborated on the structural narrative of the film in the editing process, shared many of the directorial roles and the whole working period was a pleasure.

The film is accompanied by an electronic soundscore created by Neil O Connor of Somadrone, and is based on classical music that Lucia would have sang, played on piano or heard in the family home.

I began working on Medicated Milk in 2013 when I received some funding and a residency to create a staged dance theatre production with film elements, but quickly into the process I knew I wanted to make a film. I then received further support from Dublin City Council to extend the work to feature-length with José. The whole film was created over two and a half years part-time.

I’ll begin researching a second film this Autumn at the Pinea-Linea De Costa A.I.R residency in Spain. This will go further into my own story and that of my Mother’s, combining them with an exploration into dance and ritual as a means for healing in indigenous cultures and contemporary arts practices.

I can’t let Lucia’s story go yet so I’ll continue to look into it and it may feature again. I’m excited to present Medicated Milk at the IFI and to open up new conversations about Lucia.


Medicated Milk screens on Thursday, 16th June 2016 at 18.40  at the IFI as part of Irish Focus, a focus on new Irish film and filmmakers.

Áine Stapleton and José Miguel Jiménez will participate in a post-screening Q&A.

Tickets are available here or from the IFI Box Office or on 01 679 3477