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Published on September 7th, 2003 | by Jay Richardson

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Peter Mullan & Anne-Marie Duff

Actress Anne-Marie Duff and director Peter Mullan discuss making The Magdalene Sisters, becoming Kenneth Branagh and squaring up to Bruce Willis.

Hidden from public view for decades, the terrible story of Ireland’s Magdalene laundries is only now being exposed, and Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters, winner of the Golden Lion at 2002′s Venice Film Festival, is the first feature length film to deal with the subject.

A succession of recent television documentaries had already begun to erode the wall of silence that surrounded abuse in Ireland – Channel 4′s Witness: Sex in a Cold Climate bore testimony to four women’s horrific experiences in 1998, with Irish broadcaster RTE following the documentary Dear Daughter with the States of Fear series in 1999 – but it is Mullen’s film that has brought the Maggies’ story to a global audience and outcry from the Vatican.

Though it remains unseen on Irish television, it was the chilling Sex in a Cold Climate that moved the Scots director to write The Magdalene Sisters. Not long after though, in March 2002, the BBC screened Sinners, the story of Theresa, a young, girl from the west of Ireland committed to a Magdalene laundry by her family for expecting a child out of wedlock. English actress Anne-Marie Duff played Theresa, reprising her role as the penitent Margaret in Mullan’s film.

Anne-Marie Duff

Was it a coincidence that you were cast in both films?

It was actually, a spooky coincidence. I’d worked with the director of Sinners [Aisling Walsh] before, years ago on the first television drama I did. We talked about Peter’s project, which was different to the BBC production because film is a very different medium. I’m sure they had to think long and hard about casting me, so yes, it was a lucky coincidence for me.

Are you playing a similar character?

I’m again playing one of the young women who go into the laundry, and it’s a similar scenario, but they’re different character types. The thing with the film is that it’s split. It concentrates on four girls, each with very different experiences, so whereas the BBC focused on one or two girls, Peter’s film is much more egalitarian. It’s more of an ensemble piece.

How did you prepare for the role of Theresa?

The Magdalene Sisters we filmed in July 2001, but we didn’t film Sinners until November that year. It was just a very quick turnaround that it came on television so soon. So yes, I’d done lots and lots of research.

Did you meet women who had been in the laundries?

For Peter’s film we read widely and watched lots of documentaries, but when I went to Ireland to film Sinners it was different because we were filming in an area that was very steeped in that kind of history, so I met lots of people. We filmed in Kingston in Galway and in an old orphanage that also had a tiny laundry attached. The walls were like big pores that had absorbed all this pain, and I got to meet many people who had experienced it all.

Was it difficult to listen to these stories?

It was, and it reached a point where I was desperately grateful that these women could be so generous and trusting. The great thing about these projects is that the story is much bigger than you are. So your ego’s never engaged, it’s all about telling the story with respect.

Did you get the impression that people wanted their story told?

Oh God yes. In Ireland the response was phenomenal.

Were you sent letters after Sinners was broadcast?

Yes I was, and it’s very touching, so I guess we told it well.

Were you aware of the Magdalenes before you got involved in the films?

Not at all. My parents are Irish so I had vague ideas about it, but it wasn’t until I said I was involved in these projects that members of my family came forward and said I had experience of this, and I knew this girl who … I think it really did touch everybody in Ireland.

Peter Mullan

As an actor Peter Mullan has earned plaudits for his performances in films like My Name Is Joe, Trainspotting, Braveheart, Miss Julie and The Claim. He directed award winning short films, and episodic television before making his feature debut with Orphans. The Magdalene Sisters is his second feature as director.

The power of The Magdalene Sisters is that the audience get wrapped up in it so much that by the end they feel really angry at the injustice of it all.

It makes you furious to hear this doesn’t it? It’s a scandal what they got up to. Beyond scandal. The more stuff that comes out, the more these Magdalene Asylums look like holiday camps compared to some other places we’ve heard about. The only thing I can put them on a par with is the way the KGB acted with impunity in the Soviet Union. And so begins a certain sadism, and I suspect that was true in Ireland, because you think there must have been a fear that they would get caught and yet they did nothing to cover their tracks. They seemed to believe this would never end.

Is this the film you wanted to make?

Yes, but the film’s become blurred now between fiction and what really happened. It was condemned by the Vatican, but by the time it got to Ireland, the silence was deafening. They didn’t say anything at all, though the spokesperson for Archbishop Conti in Scotland recommended the film, saying the Church should show appropriate humility and reflectivity. Not that he mentioned compensation.

How did you first hear about it?

It came about from a documentary was shown on RTE in Ireland in 1993. They put an announcement of a helpline at the end, which was quite a novel thing at the time, and of course they had to keep the line open for four days because of all the people who rang in. That took RTE aback, and of course the papers picked up on it. So the Vatican sent over an envoy who met something like 6 or 700 of the 3000 who phoned in. He reported back to the Pope that he’d never come across a case of mass hysteria quite like it. Such was the impact of this ‘very admirable but misinformed documentary’, such was its impact that people had created false memories of it. Imagine! This is 1993, and this guy declares 700 people are practically certifiable. They’re all nuts, let’s not listen to a word of it. That’s only ten years ago, so what we’re finding out now must mean it’s rotten to the foundation. I think now the anger in equal measure is as much about the fact that these people thought they would simply get away with it.

It must be especially satisfying to you that the film won an award in Italy, a Catholic country, isn’t it?

We got the Golden Lion in Venice. But something some journalists said stunned me. They asked if I’d heard about the priests the night before. I hadn’t, and they told me there were two priests outside the festival screening with video cameras, and as the audience were going in they were filming people, as if to say ‘we know who you are’. They also said that even by watching the film these people were committing a sin. They gave people a chance to leave. This was 2002, and they honestly thought they had a right to do this, to film people and threaten them with their immortal soul.

For non-Catholic audiences what does that mean precisely?

That’s the difficult thing to get across and I don’t know if the film quite achieves it for a secular audience. If you’re a Catholic these people had your soul. You couldn’t go to your lawyer or your policeman, these are earthly powers. They have your soul. If a lawyer got you out, and these people said you were damned, then there’d be no point getting out because you’d only be free in this life. If you’re brought up to believe there’s an eternal afterlife that’s all you live for. And that’s a really tough thing to get across to a secular audience, without it sounding fantastical. The film attempts it, but I don’t know if it succeeds in that regard. Can any film achieve that in 90 minutes?

Most of us will get our views of the church through films like yours and programmes like Father Ted.

The thing I love so much about Father Ted is how each new priest that arrives embodies yet another form of total lunacy. But a dog collar lets you away with it. Take the collar away from him and he’s not going to have four or five youngsters in his company. But with a dog collar, it doesn’t matter how barking mad you are, you get to say to five youngsters ‘come on, let’s go pot-holing’. And they do it. The bottom line is, give them a dog collar and you have someone in authority who may also be completely nuts.

Do you still describe yourself as a Catholic?

I would describe myself as a Catholic but I’m not practising, if that means going to Mass. My daughter goes to a Catholic school, my family are all Catholic, I guess most of my friends are Catholic although they would probably describe themselves as lapsed. But funnily enough, doing this film I realised that I’m not lapsed. My soul was given to the Catholic Church when I was four years old, I left Catholic education when I was 17, so they had me for all those years. You don’t lose that.

And yet some people might accuse the film of exaggerating the brutality for the sake of heightening the drama.

People connected to the church are saying that I don’t understand that these were different times, and corporal punishment was quite common. But we’re not talking about a smack on the ear, we’re talking about institutionalised sadism which in any century, in any context, is inhumane and unforgivable. I remember that society as being much more violent than today’s. Everybody got struck at some point, from school or parents, that happened. But the systematic deprivation, humiliation, rape and abuse of young women, sorry guys you don’t get out of it using the old contextual argument.

Have there been any apologies made?

Years ago there was a really crude attempt, a kind of litigation damage limitation thing. It was an apology for lawyers rather than an apology for victims.

Were you in contact with any Magdalene survivors?

Most of them are of an age now when they’re thinking of death, so they want to go back to mass and communicate with their god in the only faith they know. Money is not the primary motive. They just want individual apologies. And something they all say is this is tip of the iceberg. The film is a kind of user-friendly, digestible account of events. What really happened was a million times worse.

Why did the Irish government not do something?

It’s a really grey area. What’s happening now is that the Church is blaming the society of the time and the state is obviously blaming the Church, claiming they didn’t know what was going on. Which is patently bollocks, because the police brought these girls back if they ever escaped. A lot of them are finding they can’t get compensation now because of the various schemes that have been set up – their get-out clause is that the girls went to the institutions ‘voluntarily’, insofar as they didn’t go through legislature or court proceedings.

What was the reaction of survivors to the film?

Mostly positive, but I would call the film an introduction. I knew from the start you could show an infinitesimally more harrowing story of the Magdalenes in Ireland. I’m not saying someone shouldn’t make that film. But I made a political choice as well as a dramatic choice to try and get something to as wide an audience as possible, to that whole issue of theocracy and imprisonment of young women. There was no way the film could recreate what took place, but it was an attempt to at least try to understand what happened intellectually, physically and emotionally to these women. To me the film is just one brick of a very big and very complicated house. I would never say this was the definitive movie of what happened.

What further research did you do?

I saw the Sex in a Cold Climate documentary on Channel Four and I’d seen a few other things on television, but the programmes weren’t very good in a dramatic sense. The problem was they had spoken to so many people with so many amazing, genuine stories they couldn’t leave anything out for humanitarian reasons. Unfortunately, this hindered the drama. So I thought I would write a script and then show it to two survivors and a nun who had worked in a Magdalene. If they’d said it was bollocks I wouldn’t have made it.

Were people willing to talk?

A lot of people don’t want to talk about it which is fair enough. I deliberately didn’t want to talk to anyone who had been on the documentaries because I thought they had suffered enough and didn’t want to repeat their stories. When I was in New York at a question and answer session it was a bit frightening because it was a 1,300 seater and there were loads of women jumping up at the end saying: ‘I was a Magdalene!’. And I figured they were émigrés from Ireland, but these women were from Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Sydney and Rio de Janeiro. I had no idea there were Magdalene asylums in North or South America. Hopefully, they spoke about their experiences with their families, because I don’t think it’s right to drag these kind of stories out of people.

How did you come to be in the film [as a violent father]?

What a piece of miscasting that was! There was a big speech and we were looking at actors in Ireland, but they really weren’t getting to the essence of this guy. We didn’t have a lot of money and I was the cheapest actor around, ha, ha, ha, so I said I would do it. And I owe the actors an apology, because we rehearsed the scene, just me, Geraldine [McEwan] and Mary Murray, and up to that point I honestly believed it was a really cool speech – on the predicament the parents found themselves in and theocracy. And I was about four lines into it when I realised it was pish. The most appalling piece of writing. It was just a speech with nothing organic or true about it. And I was looking at Geraldine who had told me I looked like Kenneth Branagh, so I started picturing myself as him! Thankfully, because I was director I could cut it on the spot. Now, it just is what it is. To be honest, I don’t think it quite works. It’s too short. But it’s a damn sight better than I wrote.

Was it hard asking the actors go through something so physically and emotionally demanding?

It’s kind of scary how they all managed to do it. None of them thankfully had any experience of that kind of regime, they’re far too young. Obviously though, through the web of society they all knew somebody who knew somebody who was in one of these places or the industrial schools.

The toughest one was the humiliation scene. It was weird because in the morning we filmed Edna, who was cast as a nun basically abusing all these naked girls. And we closed the set, the girls had dressing gowns on, but as an actor Edna wanted to portray this woman as a psychopath. I was desperate though, that this wasn’t going to be the case. Dramatically it’s not interesting, and in terms of humanity it’s not really true. So I asked the girls off camera to silently try to coax her and make her laugh, and I introduced her on camera as a stand-up comedy routine. So she came on, did the horrible stuff you see and the girls just made her laugh constantly. So in the morning we had a really good time, everybody was really chirpy.

But in the afternoon, once we had to take the girls’ clothes off, there was no acting required. It was the worst afternoon I’ve ever had on a film set. Every time I shouted cut the girls were in bits, though we all knew it would be like this from day one. Quite rightly, a lot of actors said they wouldn’t do the film unless that scene was cut out. So a lot of credit has to go to the girls who were the supporting artists and don’t get a lot of money, local girls from Dumfries who were there every second day. They weren’t in starring roles but they were leaving themselves wide open to be slagged off on the streets. For me it was really important that the girls got good nights out after filming, because during the day it was really tough work.

In your portrayal, did you have any compassion for the nuns?

It was a tough one, because the obvious question right the way through was, where was the good nun? I did ask around but I was told there weren’t any. That’s not to say there’s no good nuns. I’ve met and worked with some really nice nuns. The truth is the Magdalene Laundries were factories, a place where girls were made to work, so they sent in the heavy-duty nuns and filtered out the good ones.

But it’s interesting. There’s a shot when Sister Bridget [McEwan] comes back, having dragged away one of the girls, and we did a big, wide shot of her quite small in a frame that was pretty condemnatory. We moved in for a close-up, and I hadn’t told Geraldine what to do but there was a moment’s hesitation on her face. My brother wanted me to get rid of that because he felt it let her off the hook. But I kept it because the doubt was what I liked, just by virtue of being so close to the face. It’s no coincidence that in the history of cinema, there’s few close-ups of villains unless they’re about to commit a psychotic act, because that’s what gives access to the soul. What Geraldine was doing was fascinating: giving a glimpse that she knew what she was doing was wrong.

You do get the impression that it’s not necessarily malice that’s coming across, just a horrible, efficient pragmatism.

Yes. I asked one nun where it all went wrong, how did this begin? There was an absence of doubt she said, a complete absence of doubt. I think virtually all the nuns in these places genuinely believed they were doing the right thing. I don’t think for a nanosecond they understood how sadistic they were being.

I understand you had some problems with the financing of the film and saw your advance disappear.

Yes, at the end of the first week I was told we had gone £37,000 into contingency, which I knew nothing about. I had to give back £17,000 of my wages or they were going to close the film down. Aye, mightily pissed off was my reaction to that one. I was working for 40% of my wages and that went down to something like 29%. I don’t deal with finances, so I knew nothing about it. I do know filmmakers who are doing really good work and trying their best to make films in Scotland, but it’s getting much tougher because they are expected to ‘defer their wages’ and it’s despicable of financers because they’re on full wages. You’re expected to play for the jersey as it were, and you do end up really, really shafted. I only just found out that the film made £4m in Italy alone, and it cost £2m to make. And I will never see a penny of that even if it makes £400m, because it’s sold to them in perpetuity. Now, the governing bodies knew about this, I didn’t and maybe I should have done. So when you find out that in one country all these people involved in distribution and production are literally becoming millionaires, but they won’t even pay you your wages, that makes you really sick. I have three kids and don’t like being away from home, so if I’m running around chasing acting work abroad because there’s only so much here, to discover people have made that kind of money cuts quite deeply to be honest.

But compared to mates I’ve got, I don’t have the same financial problems. If I get a half-decent acting job I can get out of it much quicker than billions of other people, so I never feel I’m hard done by. In terms of making a film though, it just becomes an added pressure. You just think further down the line, is there any way to make the pressure less? It would be nice at the end of 23 months work with no break to just get four weeks off and enough money to last you. The directors I’ve worked with recently, all brilliant young directors, they’re already talking about moving to the States. Because they’ve just spent 15-18 months working flat out and they’re skint. And I’m not meaning down to their last yacht. For God’s sake, they’re signing on after they finish the job. That’s not going to help any industry. They’re not looking to be millionaires, just earn enough to buy them the four of five weeks off they deserve when they’ve been working that long.

Have you any plans to move to Hollywood?

No. I said I was going to make a film in America and someone assumed I meant Hollywood.

Can you tell us who let you down financially?

Yes, it was a combination of the British Film Council and Scottish Screen. It really was a blow them taking the money off me at the end of the first week’s filming, because I thought it had gone really well. It made it very hard to concentrate. So guys, I will come after you to the ends of the earth. I will, because they’ve still not paid me.

You’re not a director for hire are you? You’re never going to make a Bruce Willis picture.

Probably not. Though I was staying at The Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles and this guy threw his car keys at the attendant, right at his face. I was really shocked. And it was Bruce Willis. Bruce Willis had thrown his keys at this guy’s face as I was smoking a fag outside the lobby in my dark glasses. So just as a laugh, I thought, I’ve been a bouncer on Glasgow’s south side, I’ll see what happens. When Willis walks past then, I take my glasses off and eyeball him for about 35 seconds, with him looking really pissed off, as if, why are you looking at me? And I was just dying to say: ‘No tonight sir’.

So he walks straight up to me, and I swear to God, we got as close as that [puts hand up to face], nose to nose. And I was thinking, this is so cool! I was thinking: hit me. If you hit me, that’s $25m! I’m made for life! And what a let-down, because I was staring at him for a good 50 seconds. But he just turned to me and went ‘humph’. And walked! And it was so class, but I’d really hoped he’d whack me. Because I’d have hit that deck like you wouldn’t believe. I’d have made Brazilian footballers look like nothing.


About the Author

Jay Richardson

Jay Richardson is a Glasgow-based freelance journalist. His writing credits include the Guardian, Sunday Times, Herald and Scotsman.


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