After working as a behavioural psychologist in her early twenties, Mia Mullarkey discovered an interest in exploring the human experience through film. Here, she talks to Izzy Ashton about her winning film Safe As Houses and discusses working with a neurodiverse cast.
Have you always known you wanted to be a director? What do you enjoy about directing?
I got a tape recorder for my fifth birthday and I used to record people and play it back over and over. I made little radio plays with friends and I loved recording weird sounds to insert in the show. As a teen I made short comedy sketches on our family camcorder, which had to be edited in camera, always having to rewind to the precise moment.
I went on to become a behavioural psychologist working with children and it wasn’t until my mid twenties that I decided to become a filmmaker. I borrowed a camera and made a series of mini-docs in Peru of street children for a local NGO. From that point I was hooked. I suppose what captured me is the process of observing and portraying human nature, finding ways to comprehend human experience. As a director I get to explore people’s psychology in the most creative way possible.
Who are you inspired by?
This changes all the time. At the moment I am back watching John Cassavetes and Martin Scorcese. I especially love A Woman Under the Influence. It feels constantly raw and emotional and true. Both directors get such powerful performances from their actors.
Where did the idea for Safe As Houses come from?
Our writer, Sarah Ahern, witnessed a situation where a neurodiverse man was in a swimming pool with children, and the parents misunderstood his intentions and there was a scene. I have an autistic brother so I know these kinds of misconstrued scenarios only too well. Sarah and I wanted to strike a balance between the danger and humour of this dynamic, of people being misunderstood, of the lives of outsiders looking in to see what we don’t see.
Could you tell me about the casting process? Particularly for your two lead roles.
Our producer Claire Mc Cabe, our writer Sarah and I spent six months visiting drama groups for actors with intellectual disabilities. We didn’t want to do the traditional auditions process, but instead wanted to meet neurodiverse actors and participate in workshops and dialogue. It was a learning curve for us, and giving it time felt like the best approach.
We didn’t set out to cast an actor with Down syndrome, but when we met Siobhán Loscher we all loved her instantly. Casting the little girl, played by the wonderful Nova Farrelly, was done the traditional way. Our casting director collected audition tapes, and from there we did in-person auditions. Finally, we did chemistry reads.
Working with young people and handling a sensitive subject, how did you ensure and cultivate a safe environment on set?
We had many conversations with the parents of Siobhán and Nova, so when it came time for rehearsals we were all close and there was a lot of trust. Our producer Claire was especially great at keeping the communication flowing at all times. We invited HODs to rehearsals so our two leads could meet key team members ahead of the shoot. We had briefing sessions with the team on the requirements of working with an actor with Down syndrome, and with a very young actor. On set we had a gorgeous family vibe.
How long did it take you to make the film, and what was the most challenging aspect of its creation?
We had a five day shoot, and an additional day for pick-ups. We filmed during a heat wave, which was actually perfect for our story, but challenging conditions to work in. It sometimes impacted Siobhán and we needed to give her plenty of breaks. Not that she wasn’t an absolute trooper.
We had a great 1st AD, Ger Duffy, who was amazing at accommodating everyone and moving the schedule around. We also had over 50 extras, mostly kids from the estate where we filmed, so all our ADs were flat out. The locals brought so much life and colour to the film. We had a community screening for them after which was a howl.
Were there any standout or memorable moments to you from the film’s shoot?
I’ll pick two off the top of my head. The first is that one of our cards got corrupted. It was a whole half day gone, the first half of the first shooting day. Our production office frenzied to send the card to different places that might salvage our rushes. Meanwhile we scrambled to try to get an extra shooting day, even though we couldn’t afford it and people were busy. On Friday evening, when the shoot was almost over, the producer rushed in to say the footage had been saved. That was a good moment!
The second moment was about 70 people on the green watching Siobhán attack a police officer in a scene. I had completely zoned out all the people from my mind, and only saw what the actors were doing. After Siobhán’s first take, where she’s roaring and hitting the policeman, the crew and extras erupted in cheers and applause. It was a great moment.
What do you feel you’ve learned from making this film? Is this a subject you’d like to continue to explore in the future?
I learned a huge amount about working with neurodiverse actors, the spirit they bring to a project, the challenges of ensuring constant communication between everyone. I learned that I love incorporating real people into drama, blurring the line between story and reality.
Myself, Claire and Sarah are developing this short drama into a TV series. We received development funding from Screen Ireland and have been researching within working class communities in Dublin, learning from people’s lived experiences.
Congratulations for your YDA win. What does it mean to you to pick up this award?
It’s an honour and privilege to win gold at the YDAs in Cannes. After a couple of years working on a project and hoping it moves people, awards are validating. The journey is a roller coaster of trial and error, so I’m truly grateful that the work has been acknowledged in this way.
What are you working on at the moment? And what’s coming next?
I am just about to shoot a TV pilot called Wrapped, written by Tracy Martin and produced by Claire Mc Cabe. It’s funded by RTÉ Storyland. I’ve directed two short dramas, so this is my third in a way, and I’m excited to try out new styles and ideas.
After that I’m directing a music documentary series for TG4 called Cumasc. It’s season two of the show so we’re a well oiled machine. I’ll be developing a couple of TV dramas with writers whom I love, and I’m very excited about the next steps on those two projects.
Interview by Izzy Ashton shots