P.O.V. No.23

An interview with Ken Wardrop on
Undressing My Mother

Isabelle Meerstein

Ireland, 2004, 6 minutes, documentary

Director: Ken Wardrop.
Editor: Andrew Freedman.
Director of Photography: Michael Lavelle
Camera Operator: Kate McCullough
Post Sound: Ruth Treacy
Producer: Kristin Brook Larsen
Production company: Venom Film

Awards include: Selection for the International Critics Week at Cannes, 2005; Best Documentary, Tampere Film Festival, 2005, Prix UIP Award, 2005, Best Short Film, Lisbon Int'l Film Festival, 2005; Best Short Film, Irish Film & Television Awards, 2004; Jameson Best Irish Short, Cork Film Festival, 2004; Best Short Documentary, Galway Film Festival, 2004

The film can currently be accessed, though with its original rather than its definitive ending, at:

Ken Wardrop's other films include: Bongo Bong (2006), Ouch! (2004), Useless Dog (2004) and Love Is Like a Butterfly (2004).

Do you have someone you trust to discuss your ideas with?

With a short, you show it to your friends or your family and then you show it in film festivals, but at that stage, obviously, the editing is finished, it's beyond your grasp. You never get a chance to show it to an audience (as is the case for a feature with a so-called sample audience) and perhaps change your film as a response to what people have told you and how they reacted. My friends won't want to hurt my feelings, and they'll say that it's good when they don't think it is.

Don't real friends tell you what they think?

Real friends do…Well, yes!... In that case, I'm lacking real friends! Andrew Freedman, he is the one person I can rely on. But then, Andrew asks other people [their opinions about my films] and then he feeds me with that kind of information, so that's good, too.

During my four years at the Irish National Film School in Dun Laoghaire, I directed six films and co-directed one with Andrew. I have to say that every film is as much his as he has produced and edited seven films, so it has been a massive part of the whole thing.

Here is a telling story about how we took out part of the last shot of Undressing My Mother.

We were at the Hamburg Film Festival. After the screening, there was a questions and answers session. People started to debate the issue about the last shot: some said it was fantastic. Others said it was not needed!

The ending was then like this:

My mother puts back on her clothes and walks out of the room. She has this moment and she looks back and the camera reveals the whole crew. It was done very poetically, very sensitively, it was not done "in your face" as if saying something like: "Now, I break the mould, here!" But for some people, that was too much, they would explain: "I didn't want to know that, I wanted it to be left there and have my thoughts as the credits roll and think about what I've just seen!"

I thought: "Oh, let's just get rid of it so that the controversy, the argument has no chance to exist!" I didn't care to keep that ending because for me the question was: "How am I going to have the biggest impact with this film?" By impact, I mean the emotional impact on the audience.

Well, after that cut was made, nobody has ever objected to the ending, no one has ever said: "Well, I would have liked to see more." That was my decision as a film-maker. I love to get to that part of filmmaking, that stage of not being precious. When you are editing, you are so bloody precious, and you can't see things! So you leave them to rest for a month and you come back and you think: "Oh, my God! What the hell was I doing?!"

And this same thing has just happened to me on a project I was doing for Channel Four's 'Three Minute Wonders' [broadcast in late January 2007]. I had done the interview and then I went straight into editing for the next two days (that is a constraint when working for Channel Four). I didn't have the space [to think], I was still very emotional. That film is about a guy who was paralysed at the age of 25 and all he has now to connect himself with his girlfriend is his kissing. I cried after the editing because I had an emotional connection with this guy and I wish I could do something for him; I felt for him. But it doesn't come across in the film. I'm sure I could have a stronger piece! I think he wouldn't have had a problem if I had taken the film further. I was too emotionally connected.

What is your relationship to or with reality?

Oh, with reality? As a film-maker, I enjoy twisting reality. As a documentary film-maker, I think we all twist reality. I think we propose a reality that suits our films. I mean we hope to put across an unbiased opinion thing. To be honest, I have never made a documentary that had a bias to it. My films are very simple…

The essential thing that struck me about the three minute-long documentary I have just finished was that it was a false reality. That young man - and this is something true because he will read this - told me about the beauty of the kiss and what it meant to him. But the reality behind the story is that he would really say this: "This is fucking horrendously bad! I am 25 years of age, I broke my neck and all I have is kissing. I want to feel a woman's breasts, I want, you know… I want sex!"

So that was the reality behind the story.

But I created a false reality for the sake of him and of his brother. And that really upsets me! It's not the type of thing I want to be doing! And I suppose that with Undressing My Mother, it's sort of the same, in a sense. Only that my family believes that the story with my Mum is honest.

Two years after Undressing My Mother was finished, my sister said to me: "This is not reality, Ken!" And I am like: "What window are you looking through? Because I believe (and my mother was present during this argument) that this is how Mother feels about her body." My sister, in her 40's, could not believe that Mother has this sense of happiness. Well, she is a woman, she is her mother's daughter, whereas I am her son so I can see it differently. I see that if my Mum was that bothered about the size or shape of her body, she would be able to do something to change it. But she is happy. She is happy because her husband was sexually happy with a larger body and this is what made her happy. I am not stringing anybody along with that story, I am not pretending because it is exactly what my mother gave me and that's what I believe to be the fact. Because I asked every question. I had a six hour-talk with my Mum to get this five-minute film! [Ken's mother, Ethel's voice is heard as a voice-over in the film].

How did you approach your mother to get this long conversation?

Initially it was a joke. I said: "Look, I'm doing this graduate film, I'd love to have this bohemian mother who is into the arts and watches movies." She is a country woman, you know, she was laughing and said:"You know, Ken, I could be!" And then, I asked her: "I'm thinking of doing this project - we were laughing over a glass of wine - Would you go naked for me? Because I love your modesty."

She's always been very open with her body around her sons, she never locked the toilet-door. I was always aware of my Mum's physicality. Of her breasts. It was never a shock if I walked in and she was naked. There might have been this little giggle. She is a very cuddly, affectionate, bosomy person. I just said to her: "I just think it would be lovely if I could explore this. The fact that you feel that way." And obviously my Dad passing away the year before, I said to her: "We could explore this together, maybe discover things." And so it was a very combined effort. We talked.

And in the end, I got a slightly different film than I had anticipated because I had thought we would go more towards specific parts of her body. And here we were, talking about how she felt since my Dad had gone! And about her whole sexuality! We explored loads of areas. My Mum is such a rich person who gives so much, and there is a real honesty in her being! She's been through a lot of tough times, simple tough times, but tough to her because she is an emotional character and sees great things in silly things. She had a very bad trauma when she was a child. She has a great outlook on life because her childhood was so bad, and then, as a woman, she got lucky because she met a man she loved. Then everything improved in her life, it went all rosy.

So she didn't enjoy love in her childhood, perhaps, but when she found your father, she found a nurturing love?

It was a nourishment. Something that clicked. They were childhood sweet-hearts: they met when they were 14, so it was one of those huge bonds! She was married at 17. She's never known any other man but she's been very happy.

The reason I'm saying all this is that I could have taken this documentary in so many other ways!

When I was making the film, I also saw this as a great opportunity to have six precious hours recorded with my Mum's voice and story. That was a major part of me doing this film because I was grieving the loss of my Dad. I had nothing left from him. All I had were photographs…And I thought to myself: "Now I am a film-maker, what a great thing to have, this ability to record the people you love! And I am not going to waste this, I'm going to do it!" In these six hours there is a lot of rambling, all right, and I knew it'd have to be. But I also knew that out of all that would come great moments! So we went from her childhood all the way up and we had a great chat. These six hours, I will treasure them for the rest of my life! Behind these six hours, there was my thought-process of getting my Mum onto tape, to have for the rest of my life! We don't collect memories enough, you know! Well, I don't. The reality of it is that as a filmmaker, you need to be more aware of those around you. You forget.

How do you define reality, then? This has yet to be clarified, perhaps…

Reality is the truth. The great thing about the truth is like an honesty. It comes across in film-making and it's pretty straight-forward. You can watch a film and you know this is absolute genuine stuff and it's not through my editing process or whatever. It's genuine sitting and seeing. We can all create stories and mow them to suit ourselves. But honesty is a different thing. It's very hard to cut around that. So reality for me is…If we take the story about the kissing gentleman, I can cut that film into something that is evocative and adds meaning. But the truth is that this was never there! So, it is not a strong film because I never asked the honest question behind it! Why? Because I was too scared. The representation of reality, it's the toughest question to ask a documentary film-maker, isn't it?You can say that it's all a pack of lies as soon as you start to edit something. But I strongly believe that truth comes through.

Now, as a film-maker, I have evidence of both: with my Mum's film, I have the truth. And with the kiss film, I know it is not a representation of the truth, because the truth is a place I couldn't go to, because of that question I didn't ask.

How did you prepare Undressing My Mother? Did you write a script?

I had these six hours of my Mum's voice. I had a vague idea on how to stucture all that. I knew what the opening shot would be. I knew the film would open with a song for my Mum because that first shot would have a little bit of her body in it. And I knew what the ending would be, I knew it would have the pan across her body with the moving light. Those pictures came from the voice-over. But for most of the shots, I didn't know exactly, so it was quite a tough editing. I stepped back and I had to make sure it would not be made in bad taste. Nobody would have seen the film if it had had bad visuals. I got very lucky on all the levels because when you are in college you are working with very little money, you know you can't do much with sound. The cinematographer did a great job because he got it right. There are no special effects done in post-production, We knew we wanted it to fall to black. We knew the space we would be filming in: the attic of the farmhouse where I grew up! It felt perfectly right to shoot the film in my Mum's attic, because, you know, we speak of "the attic of the soul."

In shot No 14, we see your Mother's body partly reflected in a vertical mirror. There is a chair by a window. What we see of the room shows signs of dereliction.

I didn't mean it to be a metaphor. I thought the attic would fit the drama, it would be a dramatic space. I guess, in a sense I knew it would suit the ageing body of my mother. But I did merge it with contemporary stuff.

We shot, and two days later, I was in the edit. I had to go away. I was thinking: "Oh, my God, I can't see my mother like this!" It was a big moment in a son's life to tell your mother: "Ok, Mum, now drop your pants!"

Can you tell me about the shooting crew and experience?

It was a four day shoot. The crew was amazing, they all bonded. There were four of us. The chap who was the cinematographer, we actually went to secondary school together!

Michael Lavelle?

Yes, Michael. He lived with me in London and went home to study at the Irish Film School. At that time, I was not interested at all in film. It's bizarre, then, that he ended up shooting my film.

There was also Kristin [Brook-Larsen], producer and sound person (she was the reason why I was making films). And Kate [McCullough], the other cinematographer, who is lovely and would have met Mum while I was in college.

Kristin's boyfriend was on holidays, he was training to be a doctor. But he also had been a chef. So he cooked amazing food for all of us. My Mum could not wait for lunch, it was great!

[On arrival.] we were all a bit like: "Ooh, ah, er". She was like: "Oh, here we go!"; matter-of-fact. After two minutes, everybody felt relaxed because my Mum made fun of it, she lightened it. And then, she fell asleep. She started snoring. We all started laughing. And we did the whole "front" of my Mum's body. But it wasn't right [for her dignity] so we didn't use it in the edit.

You must have been told hundreds of times that the film is never voyeuristic, always respectful…

It all comes from the fact that my Mum throws light on the situation, and that's the power of the edit.

In the film, we go from behind the screen [shot 1] to immediately the feet shot [shot 2]. And then it goes straight into the body shots where she expresses everything. It gets everything out of the way. And my Mum makes fun of, she has a joke. People are laughing with her as opposed to laughing at her. We can relax with her (…) All the shots are connected [through] the voice-over, but you can see how she walks. We can see how she walks. It's kind of [her saying]: "Oh, God, I'd better get over there!" It's her natural way of living. When she says:"I've got a big bottom", she laughs with it. It's my Mum's ability to out-laugh things. We were very fortunate she gave it to us. If she was not like that, we wouldn't have been able to make the film.(…) That film is only as good as my mother was going to be as a character. My Mum and I are very close.

What does bring up your interest in a character?

As a film-maker, I'm always interested in hearing people talking, telling their stories. A lot of Irish play a game. They have a sense of story-telling anyway, but not all of them have an honest approach to their stories. What interests me is to hear an honest voice. There are film-makers [here in Ireland] who can't get the truth because people don't want to share the truth, they are afraid of what people [relatives and acquaintances, neighbours] will think. In Ireland, people are too connected with one another. It seems to me that the film culture in Denmark is honest: that Dogma-touch.

I'm more interested in human stories of realities that are alive. And for that to happen, I got to be connected with the character. By connected, I mean just at a simple level, there is a bond between us, I have something to share with them, you know, I am interested in their story and they are interested in me and we can share in this experience.

If your mother had not been so generous, you wouldn't have had any film, would you?

Absolutely! when we were talking about the possibility to make a film, she asked me: "Would it help you?" I said: "Yes, greatly!" And she said: "Well, let's do it, then, if it will help you. I'll do it." I don't think she realised then what it meant. And afterwards, it helped her. I got a lot of awards, but that's not the point. It's helped her because she's done this. She did it for herself, too! There are not many people in her position in life, as a farmer's wife I mean, who have done something like that! She has a problem showing the film to her friends. She'd say they would not understand. And I'd say: "But that's not the point! You did it, and now you are really proud." I know she is proud of it, I know it! It helped her! The conversations brought things up. People were willing to ask her things about my Dad. It opened things up, I think, in our family. For my younger brother, it was a lesson. Initially it was good for me, yes. It did help me.

[Once the film was edited] I showed it to her. I was confident it was good enough for everybody to see. She agreed. [The only public screening she went to] was the Cork Film Festival 2004.

I went to consult the Cork Film Festival website on which the names of the selected films are listed. You know, it's a big day for the NFS' students to check if their films have been chosen to be in the Cork Film Festival because it is [in Ireland] our premičre short film festival and we all aspire to get our films shown in there. And I got very excited: not only had I one, but all seven films had been selected! That was so exciting for me and my colleague [Andrew Freedman] since we had made them all together! A few days later, I think, Mick Hannigan [the Cork Film Festival's Director] rang me and said: "Look, we were thinking of showing all of your films together in a special programme because we never had seven films sent in by the same director on the same year." I said that it would be a great opportunity. And then, he said to me:"If there is one film that is your favourite to enter into the the national and international competitions, which one it would be?" I said that, obviously, it would be Undressing My Mother, my graduate piece.

My mother saw the genuine reaction of the audience. They loved it! That was a defining moment. She relaxed, then. That was enough for her to know it was genuine. She's never accepted to travel to festivals with the film. She'd say:"Oh, for God's sake, I don't fit in, I wouldn't be bothered!" And when I would be telling her I had won that big award with the film, she just would not care!

As for my brothers, after a first cringing: "Oh, we can't watch this!" they loved the film. But, you know, they are real farmers. [In rural culture] you never really discuss things. They'd watched the film and they would answer my "did you like it?" question with a short "Yeah." The conversation would not go further. You'd move onto some other topic.

The last shot, shot No 21, is a long tracking shot, camera gliding from left to right alongside Ethel's reclining nudity on her bed. And the light moves in an opposite direction…

It lasts a minute or so… I wish I could take the credit for that shot. That was a suggestion made by a lecturer at Dun Laoghaire's National Film School: to use a light and to pan across it! I thought: "Let's introduce a track at the same time" so that we got a tracking shot and a light going in the opposite direction.

For the opening shot, we had to come up, the cinematographer and I, with an idea. The night before the shoot, we thought: "Let's have Ethel behind a screen."

How do you work with your music? Were some pieces accompanying you during the preparatory stages or was the music done at a later stage?

I don't listen to a lot of music so I draw on a composer. His name is Denis Cloughessy, he is Irish. Denis is happy - unlike most composers - to hear my working music. So I give him a piece of music, and I tell him that this is how I'd like it to be. For Undressing My Mother, I gave him some Satie, some Lizst, and some Shostakovich [as a guide to compose] something similar in pace or in mood. Not necessarily the same instruments. He works to my cut. I'm quite precise with the pace: 5 seconds here, 10 seconds there. Unless he has a very valid argument as to why not to, or a better suggestion. I'm open-minded.

I'd meet him very briefly. He goes and comes back with ideas, Then I just say what I like. Then he goes off and comes back, and that's it!

Denis and I don't talk much. I don't really know if he likes my films. He never says. He is a man of little words but of a lot of music! I really enjoy working with him. Hopefully, he'll do my feature-film.

Your feature film?

I'm still scared shitless - if I can use that word - of the whole business and I guess there are some people who come out and have all the confidence to just go and get it, and do it, but I want to be confident in my story or in my filmmaking before I go and get it. And I haven't had that yet. This has nothing to do with Andrew Freedman because he is ready as a producer; he wants to go after the big thing. While I am still a little less confident in my own ability as a film-maker to really take the bull by the horns. I don't want to get it wrong for the first time out. I want to just take my time and just make sure it's right. Having said that, I'll probably rush it and it'll be a disaster! This is the year, I have to give it a go!

Now Andrew is concentrating much more on the producing. As a consequence, there is almost no involvement of his in the editing [of any of my new work]. So I am trying to find a new editor. You want to make sure you are on the same wavelength with your editor. The next big thing for me is therefore to find an editor to make the feature film with!

But what you've made has been appreciated and recognised!

Well, that's the danger, isn't it? Complacency can set in. As a film-maker, I think, your strengths lie in the acknowledgement of your weaknesses. I am coming to terms with my own weaknesses, realising: "All right, you are never going to be great at this, so don't do this, it doesn't suit you." So a lot of stories I have been developing in my head might be off the mark because going towards that direction of films I like may not be what I am actually good at making.

Is there anything you would like to add?

No, I think you've got enough there for a novel!

Irish Film Institute, Dublin
11 January 2007

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