At home with the midlands muses
KEN WARDROP is getting used to the interview circuit. Billeted in a posh Dublin hotel, the poor man has had to find different ways of saying the same thing to a dozen journalists. Now he greets a 13th, writes DONALD CLARKE
“God, this all so new to me,” he says with a nervy shuffle. “I mean I’ve done interviews before, but not one of these big days.”
This is, perhaps, surprising news. Now 36, crop-haired, with an ebullient, welcoming manner, Ken Wardrop is already something of a cult hero. In an age where every former advertising creative, after helming a comic-book adaptation, somehow earns a lease on that C-word, we have, perhaps, forgotten what the term “creative” used to mean. Not many people know who Ken Wardrop is, but those who are familiar with his work tend to like it a great deal.
Even before he graduated from the National Film School at the Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Wardrop had achieved quiet acclaim for a series of short documentaries that were touching, gorgeously composed and – most significantly – utterly original in tone. His graduation film, Undressing My Mother,a study of his great muse, won an Ifta, a European Film Award, a mention at Sundance and another half-dozen prestigious gongs.
Further films such as Useless Dogand Farewell Packets of Tendemonstrated the director’s singular facility to listen to ordinary people and to turn what they say into neat, warm narratives.
As a result, there was much expectation when his first feature, His & Hers, premiered at last year’s Galway Film Fleadh. The picture is easy to summarise: 70 women from the Irish midlands, their contributions arranged in ascending order of age, discuss the men in their lives. Beginning with a baby, and ending with an elderly lady, this neat, crafty synecdoche allows one story to emerge from many.
“I was interested that the biggest emotional reactions have been from men in their 20s,” he says. “Maybe they are in a situation where girlfriends are talking about getting serious. Mammy is still guarding operations, but granny is still around.”
So it particularly affects men who still have the widest generational spread of women in their lives? “Yeah, something like that. I remember at that screening in Galway, there was this guy who was bawling crying. It was a first screening and we didn’t expect that. Andrew, my producer, always said: ‘Look we are making this on the sort of budget people would normally get for a short, so don’t worry about letting people down.’ So when it went down like that I was delighted.”
Some time later Wardrop gathered his female subjects together for a screening in Tullamore, Co Offaly, and watched, delighted, as the women swooned before the film.
Since then His & Hershas won an award for its limpid cinematography at Sundance, and the audience gong and Dublin Film Critics Circle best Irish film prize at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.
Each time Wardrop screened His & Hers, he waited for howls of outrage at the homogeneity of the film’s vision. There is much sadness, but very little disfunction among the lives depicted. Relatively few of the women have professional lives outside the home. He had his answers prepared, but the questions rarely came.
“I was ready to say: ‘It’s based on my mum’s life. So, forget the fact that, say, there’s no gay couple in it.’ I have tried to hone in on one particular story. The kitchens do all look the same. But I understand there is a richness beyond what I have created. I never wanted it be a comprehensive picture. Still, though I see it in terms of a template of my mum’s life, others do see it as a portrait of the Irish mammy. It’s a hard film to explain.”
The explanation seems pretty lucid. Approach His & Hersas a rigorous survey of contemporary Irish womanhood and you will find plenty to get angry about. But the film never pretends to shoulder that responsibility. Wardrop’s funny, touching film is, rather, an attempt to use the vocabulary of documentary – face-to-face interviews, presented without voice-over – to tell the story of an inspirational third party.
Among the film’s many wonders is the strange way that the men being described – at first dads, then brothers, husbands, sons and grandsons – all seem to merge into a single invisible personality. This many-headed father-son-husband is amiable, a bit clumsy, well-meaning and endlessly lovable. Was that intentional? Did it even occur to Wardrop? “It did occur to me,” he says. “I think I hoped that it would end up suggesting one life. I didn’t have to push it though. By talking about the ordinary things in life – a broken lamp, say – I hoped these extraordinary things would come out. Via a roundabout way, we got into deeper places.”
You can enjoy His & Herswithout being aware it is an essay on the director’s mother, but that knowledge does add another layer of poignancy to the story. Mrs Wardrop is fast becoming both a muse and a key character in her son’s films. I wonder what she makes of it all. Analysed intensively in Undressing My Mother, she could be forgiven for feeling a little embarrassed at all the attention.
“Oh, God no. She is just so proud,” Wardrop says. “My life was all changing. And I thought: ‘Well, my mum fell in love at 17. I should tell her story.’ It grew out of two things: me being a romantic cynic, and my looking at the person who was a daily inspiration to me. Why not try and create a film about somebody who, though she was never a High Court judge, has given me my personality?”
Wardrop was raised in Portarlington, Co Laois. He is not one of those directors who monkeyed about with a Super 8 camera before he could walk. A cinema enthusiast, though never an obsessive, he studied geography and sociology at Trinity College Dublin, but didn’t quite manage to complete the course. Some years later he found himself managing an architecture practice in London. I get the impression that Wardrop – endlessly amiable – could have got by in any profession. It did, however, eventually occur to him that a creative pilot light burned somewhere in his psyche. All he needed was an outlet.
After returning to Dublin, he started helping out an acquaintance with her studies at the National Film School. Increasingly involved with the institution, he eventually decided to make the relationship official and reached for an application form. By the turn of the century he was surprised to find himself a mature student at film school.
“To be honest, when I first got in I thought I was going to be a production designer,” he says. “I had this background in architecture and I thought that’s where my interests lay.”
The National Film School encourages a collectivist approach to film-making. Scan the graduation films and you will discover that the production designer on this gritty documentary is the focus puller on that gruesome horror picture. The lighting cameraman on that knockabout comedy stars as Hood No 1 in this heist thriller. Quite rapidly Wardrop secured his place within the family. Without knowing it, he had been a documentary film-maker all his life.
“I remember going on a holiday in Wales when I was a kid,” he says. “We’d go on these holidays in a mobile home. Actually, we’d often go without a mobile home and my dad would buy one there and sell it later.” Wardrop recalls catching sight of Paul Watson’s ground-breaking The Family, a 1974 study of a working-class Reading clan, while he hid from the rain in one of his dad’s recreational vehicles. The famously tough fly-on-the-wall series seems to have set certain wheels creaking into steady motion.
“I watched that for the whole week,” he says, “and I loved it. That was the first time I remember watching a documentary and being affected by it. Mind you, that might have been me thinking: why am I stuck watching television on holiday? But, though I’ve been asked this, there is no one film that inspired me.”
Few other Irish film-makers have, in recent years, so effectively established a recognisable cinematic voice. We already feel we know what a Ken Wardrop film looks like: real people radiate warmth through their own small stories. On His & Hers, working within the Irish Film Board’s Catalyst Project, Wardrop managed to finesse a collection of voices into one impressively coherent narrative.
Sadly there is only a limited market for such films. If Wardrop wants to shake the money tree (and I’m not sure he does) then he will have to make the move into drama.
Next up, again working with the Irish Film Board, he is developing a project entitled Probable Parent. “I have a template story and I am building on it with the actors involved. It’s about a woman who experiences an early menopause and has to get pregnant.” Wardrop describes his new film as being a “dark comedy”. The adjective is, here, more interesting than the noun. When sadness manifests itself in Wardrop’s films, it tends to take the form of quiet, hooded melancholy. After emerging from a screening of His & Hers, the blubby viewer might reasonably wonder if the director is capable of putting properly unsettling darkness on the screen. A meeting with Wardrop does nothing to shake such doubts. Positivity flies off him like sparks from a Catherine wheel.
Is there a monster in there somewhere? “There will be. There has to be,” he says with a characteristically jolly laugh. “In His & Hersthere is no villain. That’s right. In a sense, that was an experiment. Can I make a film that has no villain in it? But now this is drama, and I need to create that monster. I am scared of that, but I am going to drag it out of me. You’ll see.”
I bet it turns out to be quite a nice monster.
- His & Hersopens next Friday, June 18