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Maeve Murphy is a name to look out for next month, especially if you are across the pond. As a native of Belfast, Ireland, she’s brought her insight of the discrepancy between Irish and English heritage onto the big screen through her feature films. She kicked off her career over a decade ago with the controversial “Silent Grace,” which tells the story of the Armagh Women’s Prisons in 1980 and the unreported female involvement in the Dirty Protests and hunger strikes. Her second feature, “Beyond the Fire,” followed suit. Winning Best UK Feature at the London Independent Film Festival and Best International Feature at the Garden State Film Festival, “Beyond the Fire” was also met major criticism from conservative Irish organizations for its portrayal of a former priest from Ireland and the life he leads once he reaches London. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian wrote that its “unironic belief in the power of love is attractive.”
Having BBC2, TV3 and Channel 4 pick up her works has garnered her attention from UK television viewers, but it’s her latest project that will please audiences in theaters across the kingdom. Murphy’s third feature “Taking Stock” is a continuation of her short film “Sushi,” which won the Subti Award at the Venice Film Festival 2014. It is a major departure from her earlier works as a dramedy loosely based on the Bonnie & Clyde story. Casting its lead was also a bold decision for Murphy. English pin-up, Kelly Brook, landed the role for the independent film which has already won four Angel Film Awards at its international premiere at the 13th Annual Monaco International Film Festival. UK distributor Swipe Films acquired the UK rights to “Taking Stock” and has announced that it will release the indie feature on February 12, 2016.
Indiewire spoke with Murphy about her directorial visions and upcoming feature.
Your first feature film “Silent Grace” champions female involvement in the dirty protests and hunger strikes or 1980. Can you tell us why you felt compelled to tell this story?
I am from Northern Ireland and was amazed to discover women went through those prison protests and I didn’t know anything about it, as their involvement was largely unreported at the time. I did feel compelled to address that, for reasons of gender equality and for Irish women. It was like they had been written out of history. On a human drama level, I also felt it was an extraordinary story about survival — how do you get through that? The bonds of friendship seemed key. I wrote “Silent Grace” shortly after the Good Friday Agreement, so the arc of the story was influenced by that, reflecting a moment of hope in a hopeless situation, a possibility of change where no change seems possible. As a hunger strike film, it also paradoxically has a profound respect for life at the center of the film. As a Buddhist that was important to me.
How do you think your gender influences the way in which you direct?
I think being a woman influences how I write, in that all my three features have women leads or co-leads driving the story. That is something I do naturally without thinking about it, though I am very happy to create interesting lead parts for women. As a director I come up with an approach and vision of how to tell the story, often first creating a mood board, then finding the right locations and also shooting a small extract or short film to get the feel of it tonally. Then I discuss and expand that vision with the actors.
Your next film “Beyond The Fire” was deemed controversial. Did you expect this when you set out to tell the story?
No, I didn’t. “Beyond The Fire” is a tender love story, sexual love in the wake of sexual violation. Sheamy, the lead man in the film, was sexually abused by a priest when he was a child, but even as an adult, he hasn’t quite faced the truth of it. As he falls in love with Katie, he wakes up to this truth — which creates a crisis in their romance. The film was first released in the UK; eight months later, when it was shown in the cinema in Dublin, Ireland was in the midst of waking up to the scale of the sexual abuse scandal in the Irish Catholic church. For the state broadcaster to say that they felt there was “not much appetite for the subject” when it was in the news and on the front page of the newspapers every day seemed odd. This is what the Irish Independent wrote about and spoke to some survivors who expressed their anger. TV3, the other broadcaster in Ireland, bought it and broadcast it instantly. It was a question of timing, really. The film suddenly had a strong link with current affairs.
Why do you direct?
Interesting question. I tend to write and direct stories that touch me or interest me or delight me personally, but I like to do it in a way that people can relate to on a human/heart level. I like to direct films that create value in some way, in what ever way that is — and that can by raising awareness or entertaining or both.
Leaving Ireland for England is a notion that reappears in your short film “Amazing Grace.”
I was really dipping into the Irish in London or the London-Irish experience: How two total strangers can make an instant connection due to the bonds of their birthplace. So yes, it reflects some of my experience in that when I first moved to London, I would be going to Irish pubs where they played traditional Irish music and Iwould be connecting with people quite fast, simply because they liked Irish music and were from the north or south of Ireland. In fact, I remember this guy who played the spoons and sang very well, who ended up letting me stay in his flat while he went away traveling the world even though I scarcely knew him. So there is a charm in that kind of story.
Do you identify more as Irish or British?
I guess as I have been living in London quite a while now, I am a UK-Irish filmmaker. I think in terms of feature film drama, there is the social-realist tradition in the UK, pioneered by [Ken] Loach and [Mike] Leigh. The very naturalistic, authentic, ordinary people approach. I have a lot of respect for that and I am influenced by it. In “Taking Stock,” we embrace that authentic style, but in an upbeat way. Kate lives in a basic social housing flat in Kings Cross and works in a furniture shop nearby. She is made redundant and dumped on the same day. Though at first at rock bottom, she has an indomitable spirit. I shot the real world of Kings Cross and edited it into the story to reflect that spirit in her world, which like Kate it is also full of life and vitality.
You’re very comfortable with drama. What made you make the departure to a lighter side with your short film, “Sushi”?
There has always been a fun, playful side to me. While I was in university I was very involved with comedy sketches. After doing two very serious features, I wanted to explore the lighter comedic side again and bring that into my film work. I wanted to develop myself as a writer and director and explore a different more joyful approach.
Can you tell us how “Sushi” and your upcoming comedy “Taking Stock” are connected?
“Sushi” is a tiny little extract from “Taking Stock.” In “Sushi,” Kate has just had a lot of bad news and is comically desperate and suicidal. Yoichi saves Kate by feeding her sushi. In “Taking Stock,” Kate and Yoichi have several street conversations after this, where she tries to gain advice from him and he tries to warn her from going down the wrong path. Of course she knows better and doesn’t listen. Really, these scenes are an expression of my appreciation of Buddhism and its spirit of compassion. I have learned that from my mentor, Daisaku Ikeda. I think Junchi Kajioka and Kelly Brook, who play these scenes, do them with a lovely, playful touch.
How does the cast of “Taking Stock” reflect your desired message for the film?
“Taking Stock” is about young London shop assistants who get made redundant from the shop they work in and then, under Kate’s leadership, decide to rob the shop. All the cast are Londoners and young. On one level it is simply a yarn about Kate and a bunch of people coming up with a daft quick fix to solve their situation. We enjoy the fun of watching the non-robbers robbing. On another level, it is connecting in to the anxiety of the austerity era and the lack of opportunity many young people have experienced; it provides a kind of release from that concern. I was very proud when “Taking Stock” won the Independent Spirit Award recently at the Monaco International Film Festival. All the cast without exception have been so committed and supportive. As with many independent films, we have had our fair share of obstacles, so it felt like a victory for us all.
What’s next for you?
I have a couple of potential projects: a short psychological ghost story, a fun but unusual murder mystery, and a few other things bubbling away. So let’s see.