Interview with ‘Mammal’ Writer & Director Rebecca Daly
In Rebecca Daly’s new film, ‘Mammal’, the writer-director explores how unconventional circumstances can lead us into a place of understanding. Following Margaret (Rachel Griffiths), a Dublin woman who discovers that her son whom she has not seen since he was a baby, has recently died. Soon after the news, she meets Joe (Barry Keoghan), a troubled teenager who has left his family home, and invites him to stay with him as a lodger. Margaret becomes attached to him and starts to nurture and provide for him. Andrew Darley spoke to Rebecca Daly about the immersive film’s focus on how people deal with grief and the way her characters manage extremities.
What was the initial spark of the story within ‘Mammal’?
It started with the idea of exploring an alternative kind of mother: the one who leaves or who doesn’t know how to mother. The story focuses on Margaret’s initial decision to leave her child and how that impacts her life afterwards and how she interacts with other people. She lives in a liminal space. It’s about the practical ways of caring for someone without becoming emotionally involved with them.
How did you go about capturing the chemistry between the characters of Margaret and Joe?
I think that was based on building up trust between the three of us. They could see what I wanted to achieve from the script. I cast Rachel without meeting her. I watched every film and television programme she’s ever done. I went to LA for a couple of days where we went through the script, went grocery shopping and got to know each other. I did audition Barry but I knew him from before. They’re very open actors and they’re not inhibited people so they were willing to try things.
Grief is an emotion that looms over the film. What did you want to portray about how people deal with it?
Grief is a big part of the film but I’m more interested in people who find themselves in extreme situations, which grief is one example of that, and how they manage it. What happens for Margaret is a loss of possibility of having some sort of relationship with her son. Even though she never pursued it before, the possibility is taken away from her in an ultimate, extreme way. Joe is also very resourceful in how he’s surviving. These characters are flawed and complicated, ordinary in lots of ways. Margaret does things that people may disagree with or judge, yet she’s unapologetic. She is honest in ways that is sometimes ugly.
Although there is the theme of the mother-son relationship, there’s also a powerplay, in that they each have what the other doesn’t. Did you want audiences to question the cultural ideals of mothering, especially in Ireland?
The mother-son relationship is something every culture can identify with. The film probably pushes that to extreme places. In fact, even though he is not in the film, the main relationship is between Margaret and her real son. The Joe and Margaret characters are drawn to each other because of their circumstances – they both have a gap in their lives which each other can fill. Margaret has taken in lodgers before but this is a different kind of relationship. Powerplay makes it sound conscious or planned, and I don’t think it’s that. There are things she does which are questionable, like giving her son’s clothes to Joe, but we always have narratives we tell ourselves in order to cope.
Do you ever consider how you would behave in your characters’ position?
I don’t think about what I would do necessarily but I am psychologically interested in the characters. I don’t have experiences similar to Margaret or Joe. It’s not about writing what I know, I’m writing on what fascinates me and what I’d like to figure out.
The symbol of water has a presence throughout such as the swimming pool scenes, the sea and bathrooms. What do you feel its significance is in the plot and its reflection on the characters?
We wanted Margaret to be a swimmer, as it’s a solitary sport and about pushing oneself to a limit, especially the idea of holding your breath underwater. It allows her to explore something around how her son dies too. There’s a tragic irony in how this woman is a very good swimmer and her son died from drowning. There’s a particular feeling of being in water that seems to work for Margaret.
Joe’s character is quite aggressive and taps into the aggression of teenagers we see every day in Dublin. He acts like a hard man most of the time but there are moments when his façade slips and he’s almost childlike. Was that important to get across?
He does some pretty cruel things in his gang and directly to Margaret. It was important for the audience to empathize with him at certain points. Joe was always meant to be a boy on the cusp of being a man. Barry was perfect because in his body he’s very like a man but his face he has a boyish quality. Joe is also becoming something in the duration of the film.
Do you think there’s a sense of closure for Margaret by the end?
Yes, in as much closure you can get in that space of time. Closure may be the wrong word. I think she feels worthy of claiming her son where before I think she didn’t feel the right to grieve because she didn’t raise him so she couldn’t love him. By the end, I think she reaches the beginnings of acceptance.