And the first name she wrote down on paper belonged to actress Sally Hawkins.
“I knew maybe 30 pages in that I wanted to do it. It felt right,” says Irish film director Aisling Walsh when asked about her reaction to reading the script for the movie Maudie, written by Newfoundland screenwriter Sherry White. Walsh, speaking to the Tri-County Vanguard in a phone interview from London, England, says she immediately connected with the story of renowned folk-artist Maud Lewis. And she had the strong feeling that others would too.
“You just feel sometimes you’re right,” she says.
She certainly wasn’t wrong.
Asked how she feels about the overwhelming response to the film, Walsh says, “It’s what you really hope for and more.”
In Yarmouth, the place where Maud Lewis (then Dowley) was born, which is also and just an hour from the Digby County site where Maud lived and painted, the film is in its fourth week of showings at the Yarmouth Cineplex, where audiences have flocked for repeated sold-out shows. When Maudie wasn't originally scheduled to open in Yarmouth early on, the public made sure to let the film's distributor Mongrel Media know how much they wanted to see it. It quickly became the #1 film being shown on screens here.
And the film has seen strong response throughout Atlantic Canada.
And not just in Atlantic Canada, but throughout Canada where it has been shown.
“People have really embraced it and responded to it in an amazing way. I’m blown away by it,” Walsh says. “You realize that the story means so much to people.”
WHO WOULD BE MAUD?
Having worked with her before, Walsh immediately knew she wanted Sally Hawkins to play the role of Maud. Within a week of having read the script, she had sent the actress a photo of Maud, taken by Yarmouth resident and photographer Bob Brooks, along with photographs of Maud Lewis’s paintings. “I said ‘What do you think?’ and she wrote back and said ‘Yes, I want to do it.’ She hadn’t even read the script at that point.”
Ethan Hawke – who plays the role of Everett Lewis, a fish peddler who became Maud’s husband (they married in 1938) – came on board nearly a year later after Hawkins had met him during an awards season event and spoke to him about the film. Hawke already had a Nova Scotia connection, as he owns a property near Guysborough. Walsh says the film is as much about the relationship between Maud and Everett as it is a story about Maud herself. Maud started out as a housekeeper for Lewis. But their relationship became much more than that. Walsh calls it a journey that moviegoers not only get to observe but experience.
“He’s the outsider. The individual who’s lived a very difficult life and is cut off from the world. It’s interesting that they share that fate,” she says, noting the audience’s feelings towards Everett evolve as the film does.
In her director's vision for the film, Aisling Walsh wrote:
A broken bird and a scarecrow. An artist and a fish peddler. A mismatched pair. Two souls existing on the fringes of society who find one another and change each other in the course of their lives together. MAUDIE is the intimate portrait of these two people. Maudand Everett Lewis, two outsiders who become a pair. Their journey to discovering love is the dramatic heart of this film.
Maud, on the other hand, you love and admire from the start.
“She brought this colour and love and life into that world and into that house,” Walsh says. “I don't think she would have painted as much without him, he gave her freedom to do that, in a way. That relationship is really interesting, the ups and downs and she’s gutsy enough to really hang in there.”
Walsh calls the portayals of Maud and Everett by Hawkins and Hawke "amongst the best work they've ever done."
"Seeing the two of them of them on screen for two hours . . . you get to see two artists who are really pretty amazing," she says.
Maud suffered throughout her life from rheumatoid arthritis, which left her hands gnarled later in life, making painting hard but not impossible. Walsh says it was important to both her and Hawkins that the film not focus solely on Maud’s condition and the physical deformities she coped with. She suffered from Juvenile Arthritis as a child, in adulthood her body was twisted and hunched over. Yes, it was part of who she was, Walsh and Hawkins felt and knew, but by the same token it was never the only thing that defined her.
“We talked about that a lot. When she’s a younger woman you see her limping a little, as she gets into her middle age, it is more pronounced,” Walsh says. “But there are people who have disabilities, and they still get on with their days and with their lives.”
Maud was one of them, she says.
“She probably didn’t know what it was like not to have pain, but she lived with it," Walsh says.
In preparation for the film, Walsh visited Maud and Everett Lewis’s 10x12-foot house that is on display at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax. From the paintings to the furniture, to all of the other items in between, attention to detail was important to Walsh for when the house would be recreated for the film. She also visited where the house had been in Marshalltown and visited Digby. Much has been said about the fact that the movie was filmed in Newfoundland and Labrador as opposed to Nova Scotia. Walsh is asked why it was this way. She says producers had tried to find a funding partner in Nova Scotia, but weren’t successful. Another producer thought he might have better luck raising money for the independent film in Newfoundland. As time went on, since Walsh and staff with the film are from Ireland, they also got funding from there as well. Money was also sourced from Ontario.
“We tried to find a partner in Nova Scotia and we couldn’t. And then your government, I remember the day it happened, took the tax credit away,” Walsh says. “This film, had we been in Nova Scotia at that time as we were in pre-production, this film would have never been made, because it would have collapsed.”
Still, she thinks the movie will have impacts for Nova Scotia as people will want to see the area that Maud lived in. And they’ll want to she the house at the art gallery in Halifax.
The movie opens in the United States June 16 and will later open in Europe and the U.K. Walsh is extremely pleased the film will introduce Maud Lewis and her work to people around the world.
The director says this film has achieved everything she wanted and more.
“It has brought people back to the cinema, that’s what I think is fantastic. You realize that people do want to go to the cinema and have a nice experience and see a movie and be moved and laugh and cry and go on a journey, this movie seems to do that for people,” she says, feeling thankful to have been involved with it.
“Sometimes you get lucky,” she says. “ I was so fortunate the script was sent to me.”
INTERESTING FILM ANECDOTES: By Aisling Walsh
• Sally Hawkins wanted to be able to paint in scenes. She studied painting in London with a naive artist for months before filming. They met weekly in an old Church Hall.
• The fish in Ethan's Hawke's cart were frozen every night after filming. The fish were sprayed by the prop department just before each take to keep insects at bay.
• Two containers of flies were collected over weeks and were released into the house for the scene where Maud asks Everett for a screen door. One landed on Ethan Hawke's nose during a take.
• The director contributed to the painting of the house by painting the first flowers on the walls in the scene where Maud does Everett's accounts.
• Several people contacted the film's crew and turned up at the production office claiming they had Maudie paintings – all proved to be fakes.
• The scenes on the causeway were shot within a window of half an hour. The camera continued to roll as Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke crossed in each direction. Sometimes they changed costume quickly out of shot and walked back in. Or parked the car and got into the car and drove across.
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