Dublin-born screenwriter and filmmaker Aisling Walsh is a storyteller first and foremost. At sixteen, she set out to tell stories through painting, enrolling to study fine art at the Dún Laoghaire College of Art and Design in the late 70s. She soon found herself better suited to film as a means of narrative, training as a screenwriter and director. Her debut work Joyriders (1988) concerns a woman who leaves her domineering husband and the confines of domesticity behind to embark on a joyride with a mischievous new acquaintance across the Irish countryside. Walsh has since made a name for herself by taking on subjects previously unspeakable in an inherently Catholic Irish society, exposing the cruelty of the Magdalene Laundries in her television drama Sinners (2002), and corruptions of power in boys’ institutions in Song for a Raggy Boy (2003).
More recent work includes Maudie (2016), starring Ethan Hawke and Sally Hawkins, which follows the true story of Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis gaining national recognition for her paintings in the face of hardship. Her latest film is BBC drama Elizabeth is Missing (2019), for which celebrated actress Glenda Jackson returned to the screen for the first time in nearly twenty years to star as an elderly woman with dementia struggling to be taken seriously when she catches onto a double mystery. A common thread runs through Walsh’s oeuvre: a commitment to give a platform to muffled voices.
As the national lockdown has largely brought film production to a standstill, Walsh spoke with FRONTRUNNER to look back on her career and to consider how she’ll go forward working within an industry forced to adjust in the face of the global pandemic.
You studied fine art in college but found yourself on a trajectory towards an illustrious career in film. What attracted you to the art of filmmaking?
Yes, I went to art school because I wanted to paint. During my first year there, there was an evening class, called Film Appreciation. We’d just watch a film and talk about it afterwards but out of that class, a couple of us decided we wanted to make a film, and so we made a little film. It was maybe in my second year that another student and myself decided that, rather than do fine art, we wanted to make films. One of the first things we made was a documentary about the school, because it was being closed down at the time.
There wasn’t a film industry in Ireland at all really at the time, certainly not like there is now, by any stretch. I’d heard about a place called the National Film School in Beaconsfield, and I thought that if I went to a proper film school, I’d learn some more. I was lucky I got in the year I applied. At that time, the school was very different to what it is now. Everybody was a filmmaker and you only had about 25 students; twenty English, five foreign; I was one of the foreign students. We learned about everything: directing, camera work, editing, writing. That’s where I first started to write.
You’re based in London these days and often work internationally, with your most recent feature Maudie being a Canadian-Irish production, but how has your upbringing in Ireland influenced your work?
It has influenced me hugely. A lot of films I’ve made have been back in Ireland. My first feature film, Joyriders (1988), was about what was going on in Ireland at the time in the late 80s. It was very much influenced by my having been brought up there, but living away from it. It’s quite interesting to leave a place and look back at it from a fresh perspective. Would I have made that film had I lived there? I may not have, I don’t know. I made a 40-minute short, a graduation film at the school, that I shot and made in Ireland. It’s quite a personal story. I also made Sinners (2002) for the BBC about the Magdalene Laundries. Then, there is Raggy Boy, about the boys’ institutions. So, very much so [my upbringing has influenced my work]. I’ve possibly moved away from that now in the last couple of years, just by the nature of things that have come my way or the projects that I’m developing, actually none of them are in Ireland. But it’s affected who I am as a filmmaker, in the kind of stories that I want to tell, hugely.
What compels you to the stories that you tell in your films?
Things come to me in two ways; one, there are things that I develop and write myself, and then, there are projects already written that come to me. With Raggy Boy, I wanted to tell that story because I thought we needed to hear what happened in those boys’ institutions. It took us a long time to make the film because nobody quite believed that it ever happened. I first wrote the screenplay in the late nineties actually but it wasn’t until 2002 that it was made. Usually, [my work is] to give a voice to stories that otherwise wouldn’t necessarily be heard. Sinners was a project that was written by somebody else but came to me from a producer that I knew and, again, I felt that story needed to be told.
I have a project of mine about an artist that I have been trying to make for a while but sometimes, you have to look at things and say, “Oh, I’ll probably never get to make this, even if it’s a good idea.” Then, Maudie came to me and that story tied in with something I was already interested in [which is making a film about a painter]. Sometimes, you just read a script and instantly, you can see yourself making it. I felt that when I first read the script for Maudie.
The last film I did for BBC, Elizabeth is Missing (2019), was about dementia. I realised when the response to that film was so huge that everybody somehow connected to dementia. It could be your granny, your grandad, your aunt, your uncle, your mother, your father. Everybody has some experience of it. Yet people don’t talk about it very much. Showing somebody struggle with that illness, showing a family struggle with that illness, was something that I wanted to do. The last couple of things that I have been drawn to are novels. I recently finished an adaptation of one novel and I’m starting an adaptation of another now. There are things that you just find somehow, usually a lot of true stories, true stories that lead you to something else.
Yes, you frequently take true stories and adapt them into dramas. Have you ever had any trouble with the response to that, perhaps people getting upset with the fictitious aspect of dramatic adaptations?
Sometimes, yeah, I have. We saw it a little bit with Raggy Boy. That’s the minority of people though and it’s usually to do with something that’s going on with them more so than the film itself. When you’re dealing with serious subjects like that, you’ve got to be able to stand by your work and know that it is very much in the spirit of the piece that you’re trying to honour albeit somewhat fictionalised.
A lot of filmmaking has pretty much come to a standstill right now. Are there any projects you have on the go that you’ve had to put on hold? How is the lockdown affecting them?
Well, I’m writing, so that’s fine! There’s a film I’m supposed to make in the autumn, which is a bit more difficult. We have a call once a week and try to move things along. Usually, at this time of year, we’re focused on Cannes, because it’s a big event not only for showing films but for the buying and selling of films and scripts. Now, I don’t know when or if Cannes is going to go ahead this year. The next big sales event for making films is Toronto in September and maybe that’ll go ahead, maybe it won’t. It’s like anything; you just have to keep going and see what happens when we get out of this lockdown. The problem with our industry is that people work closely together and film crews have to feel that they can do their work safely. There’s a lot of crossover, with equipment, costumes and all of that. 60-80 people on set working very closely together. We have to see when we get to that place [when we can resume production].
While the pace of film production has had to slow down, how else have you been keeping busy during lockdown?
I decided a couple of weeks ago to do these mentoring video calls. It’s more just talking to filmmakers really. The idea was to come and have a virtual dinner date with me on a Friday night except I got so many responses to it that I’m now doing it daily. I call it Coffee and Croissant: we have a coffee and croissant over Skype! I still do the Friday night dinner and I also do an afternoon tea on a Sunday. I’ve been talking to all sorts of people; some are writing their first screenplay, some are trying to move from shorts to making a feature film, some have already made features.
What have you personally taken away from your conversations with other filmmakers?
Well, it’s kind of hard to remember when you were at that stage yourself. I think to myself, “How did I get over that hurdle?” I can’t actually remember now. Honestly, it’s interesting what people don’t know, and it’s made me realise that I actually know quite a bit. It’s been really refreshing to have a conversation with somebody creatively about what they’re trying to do. I try to advise them and help them in any way. People have been really appreciative of it. It’s amazing.
We’re all effectively making history right now by staying at home. Have the events surrounding the pandemic affected the kind of cinema you want to make going forward? Or for the film industry as a whole, do you think this will affect production going forward?
No, I’ve already got about six or eight projects that are ongoing right now, so it won’t change them. It doesn’t change the stories that I’m interested in telling. It’s very easy to be in lockdown, I think it’s going to get difficult with filmmaking when we have some more freedom and we need to figure out how to navigate film production with social distancing in place. When we get a vaccine, then obviously things will change but will it go back to how it was? Honestly, it probably will, knowing this world. I hope people stop and think a little about it. I don’t think we can rush back into making films immediately because people work in such close proximity to one another. I think that’s going to take some time because everybody needs to feel safe. I think that may change things. There’s also the question of travel. Will actors and filmmakers be able to travel for work? Maybe it will localise things a little bit more.
I think it will take the rest of this year for sure for things to get back to normal and possibly into next year as well, because it needs to go at its own pace. Although maybe it will be a different industry; maybe it’ll be more scaled down which is probably quite a good thing. For instance, film festivals. This might make people stop and say, “Actually, does this need to be such a monumental thing? Can we do this on a smaller scale?” Maybe that’s something that will come out of this.