Scannain Talks Herself with director Phyllida Lloyd

Out this Friday is Irish female-driven drama Herself. The film is directed by Phyllida Lloyd (The Iron Lady) and co-written by Clare Dunne who also stars in what is her feature debut, alongside Harriet Walter (Killing Eve, Succession).

Herself follows the story of Sandra (Clare Dunne), who on the surface of it, is a young Mum struggling to provide her two young daughters with a warm, safe, happy home to grow up in. Beneath the surface, Sandra has a steely determination to change their lives for the better and when it becomes clear that there are no other options left to her, she decides to build it herself from scratch, drawing together a community of friends to support her. Supporting cast includes Conleth Hill (Game of Thrones) and Cathy Belton (Philomena)

Herself was co-written by Clare Dunne and Malcolm Campbell (What Richard Did).  It was co-developed by Element Pictures and Merman and is produced by Academy Award® nominee Ed Guiney (The Favourite, The Lobster) and Rory Gilmartin (Rosie) for Element, together with BAFTA award-winning actress, writer, producer and director Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe, Divorce). Clelia Mountford (Motherland, There She Goes) from Merman, Element Pictures’ Andrew Lowe, BBC Films’ Rose Garnett, Cornerstone Films’ Alison Thompson, Mary Burke from the BFI and Lesley McKimm from Screen Ireland are executive producers. The film was developed with BBC Films and Screen Ireland and production was backed by Screen Ireland, BBC Films and the BFI (with National Lottery funding).

After premiering at Sundance and the Dublin International Film Festival just prior to the Covid-19 lockdown, the film found itselfd in a kind of limbo, but is finally now being released in Irish and UK cinemas on Friday, September 10th.

We sat down with director Phyllida Lloyd to talk about the film and its release.

Scannain: What was it like coming to Ireland to film Herself?

Phyllida Lloyd: I think it’s all about having great producers. I mean, I had an incredible experience working with Element. And Sharon Horgan’s company [Merman], and the experience of working in Ireland, apart from the rain, and even that came and went, was nothing but a beautiful experience. I found the crew amazingly efficient, it was very convivial. We managed to have a sort of 50/50 kind of gender split on the crew, which was quite unusual. And it was just, yeah, there was no machismo, or it was very, just, you know, I really enjoyed it. And as for the kinds of escape moments at weekends, to be able to go to the west coast. You know, get in a car and drive to Galway or to Kerry was a gift.

Element have been on a major roll with the success of their films, but they seem to have remained humble despite the success.

Yeah, no, they are. They’re really good people. I really, really felt nicely at home. They even had let me have a bicycle to, you know, normally, it’d be like, we’ve got somebody to drive you around the city. And I was like, “Well, what if I bought a secondhand bicycle?” And they’re like, “Yeah, great”, you know, just was all very homely.

One of the things I really love about your particular work, on stage and on screen, is how much you want to promote women. But, it seems like you haven’t had the easiest time in doing that.

You know, it’s been an incredible journey. I feel really lucky. That’s how I ended up meeting Clare Dunne. You probably know this, but that we were working with this group of women on the series of all-female Shakespeare plays set in the women’s prison. And, somehow, out of that experience of a kind of an all-female collective came this amazing sort of outpouring of creativity amongst the group of women who had hitherto been actresses. There was something about the extra feeling of entitlement that being in this collective gave them a feeling of possibility. And so that was an interesting thing seeing it expand. Harriet said that, that when she was doing even leading roles, even when she was meant to be kind of, you know, Cleopatra, or something, she always felt that she was only entitled to take up a small slice of the cake in terms of conversation in a working room. And which was kind of astonishing, really, for somebody at her of her seniority. And somehow, it wasn’t that any of us were against men or didn’t love working with men, but it was something to do with when you just went, “Okay, the whole cake is now being offered to the girls just for this period. Just see what happens.” And how people blossomed and felt more hopeful.

It is refreshing to see that we’re moving forward and that we’re at least we’re acknowledging the problem, especially someone like Screen Ireland who acknowledged the problem four years ago and put forward very definite plans. And so now we’re seeing the fruits of that. I had read that you fought for Clare to be the lead in it and you attached yourself to film in order to make that happen.

Yeah, I mean, I’m not saying it was just that, that because I really responded to the screenplay, when I first read it and thought, my God, for a writer who’s never written for the screen before, she’s got an amazing instinct for the proportions of a film, in terms of the relationship between word and image. And so I was excited by her. The gift that was there on the page, but also, what lay behind the story, and the way in which she’d managed to put this story which was really about her, you know, that was born of her outrage at what was going on in her home city. It was born of outrage and sort of a kind of a fury at the situation. And yet, the story was told with such humour, tenderness, and actually surprise. You could say, “Well, this is a well-worn plot of, you know, the woman who digs herself out of a hole and sort of overcomes and transcends the struggle”, but actually it had a real originality to it. And so then, at that point, Clare was thinking while she might play a sister, she’d written a sister character into it. I just began to think, no, no, this woman has to be on screen. I mean, the world has to see her. And yeah, I just became kind of possessed. It overcame all my sort of timidity about whether I was trespassing by thinking I could make a film in Ireland about, you know, an Irish social problem. Because at first, I thought maybe this is the province of an Irish director. I thought in the end, it’s about doing the due diligence and obviously listening to Clare and getting, listening to the city and listening to my colleagues and producers and, and learning. And so I just thought, I’m gonna get this, I am going to get this made, and I’m going to get her and keep her in that place. I feel so proud of her. So excited to see her. To share her with the world. Obviously, she’s known in Dublin, but nobody knew the hell what she had done or who she was when we went to Sundance, but to kind of bring her onto the stage at the end of the screening and see 1500 people stand up when she came on was, you know, it’s just like, it doesn’t get better than that. Seeing your younger colleagues get what they deserve. That is if that is a definition of success. But so I’m excited for her.

The one that another thing that struck me was that Sandra’s always in frame.

The rule I had was when she leaves the room we leave the room. There is one tiny, no two tiny exceptions to that. But on the whole, we stay with her, and that was really the principal for me of the way it was shot was stick with Sandra and in many ways that helped make it possible to shoot it in five weeks. Because by not trying to cover everybody else’s every dimension of every moment we didn’t overshoot it. We really focused on what I wanted to see rather than overshoot. I think it’s very much about somebody who creates their own destiny. Yes, help does come to her but she is the one who is right from the beginning powering the story forward, just driving her life and her momentum.

She’s not a passive character, she never allows herself to be a victim.

I don’t know whether you’ve spoken to her but I know when she went to talk to women’s aid in Dublin. They said to her don’t make a central character a victim. It’s very important that she has you know that she has that werewithall.

The surrounding cast is very strong.

I wanted supporting actors that feel real, yes, I think we wanted it to feel that this is happening. You know, that this is really happening. And the relationship between Harriet and Clare was already very established in the theatre, they played the most absurd number of parts; they played father and son, and husband and wife, and warrior male, warrior enemies, and all sorts. So they really were the kind of centre and also Conleth, all three of them have that kind of that confidence that comes from the theatre, of what’s the worst that could happen. When you ask them to improvise or make changes, or whatever it was, they all had a real response. They’re very, very rooted in their craft. And so we could agree on a kind of the world and the naturalness of the world that we’re trying to create.


There’s a scene towards the middle of the film, when the whole thing changes on a malicious act, that kind of pulls the rug on the audience. How has that been received?

We’ve actually had people in the cinema kind of cry out at that point. It was quite amazing. At Sundance people…American people if they feel something they make a noise in a way that in England if we feel something we repress it and get sick, but there you could actually hear the audience. Which is great.

It’s a great moment, but it must have been a nightmare in terms of health and safety.

It was horrible. Because, you know, we were right in the middle of the city. There was a moment when we didn’t have the money to kind of go on all night doing it. And indeed, after about two takes the visual effects guy said to me “If you go for one more take the house is going to it’s going to collapse”. It was a learning experience for me. Because I was listening to the group, as you know, which is a kind of sensible thing to do in movies, listening to the collaborators, some of whom were saying, “We’ve got to shoot this for real. We have to actually burn the house down.” And others going, “Were you on that movie in Connemara, wherever it was when we did burn the house for real and all that happened was there was massive black smoke? And in about 10 seconds, the whole thing had disappeared. Trust me, if you want this to work, it has to be fake”. Which was interesting.

The film is a damning indictment of our system, but it’s stunning sort of statement to resist it.

I guess we’re sort of where we want social change, we’re urging social change, and more housing or social housing. But we also want individuals to feel empowered, and that’s the message of the individual helped by ‘meitheal’. Forgive me for my pronunciation. And I think that this last period of the pandemic, it’s just weird that, you know, we were at Sundance, Amazon bought the film for America and said to us, “look, we want to actually wait with this film for six months”. So Clare, and I thought “Oh, well, we’ll go on about our business and see you see you in the fall kind of thing” thinking “Well, they’ve obviously got a plan that we don’t know about”, and jump to we’re in a global pandemic, and suddenly, isolation and community are the most important thing. That’s all we’re obsessed by in lockdown, in isolation. Am I a good neighbour? Do I need my neighbours? Should I be a better neighbour? So it’s themes of sort of community are answered of isolation, and it suddenly seemed all the more resonant in a quite curious way. So we feel lucky on some sort of ironic level that we didn’t open it in February.

It has been good to get back out now and to have new moviues in the cinemas. Escape a bit.

We go into this moment with a little bit of trepidation about it but we have to now create art and culture that people feel it’s worth taking a risk for when they go out. So we hope there’ll be an audience out there.