Once again Directors Notes has decamped to the capital for the 60th edition of the BFI London Film Festival, and what better way to get things started than with Darren Thornton’s A Date for Mad Mary – a film which sees the titular Mary, newly released from prison, discover that time on the outside has moved on without her. Mary is angry at the world and has a ferocious temper, but at the same time is loveable, making us laugh as she carries us through the film, engrossed in her sad but comedic life. I caught up with Darren during the festival to find out more about his triumphant debut feature.
It’s not so often we interview a director who directed a theatre play and then adapted it into a feature. How did you approach adapting the play with your brother Colin for screen? Were there any obstacles you came up against along the way?
I’d spent a year working on the play and touring it with Yasmine Akram (the Playwright) so that made the adaptation process a lot easier. Also the play was a monologue and the narrative was structured in a way that was already very close to the structure of a film. A lot of the obstacles that we came up against related to tone, how will the comedy sit with the drama and so on. The play was broader in terms of comedy and we found ourselves cutting a lot out when it came to the screenplay because we were more interested in the really nuanced stuff about friendship and growing up and often the ‘reality’ we were chasing was at odds with the broader comedy from the play. So just massaging tone in the script and siphoning stuff out took a bit of time.
Seána Kerslake’s performance as Mary was flawless. How did you come to work with this talented young actor?
I had seen Seana for a short film I was doing a few years before and I really liked her and when the casting director (Louise Kiely) brought her in to read for Mary, straight away we all loved her. I remember auditioning her with the scene where Mary kicks off with the girl in the nightclub queue and when Seana read it you really felt like, yeah she could actually thump someone and do real damage. Then when she read the more intimate stuff and we realised how subtle she could be as well, we knew she was the one.
A Date for Mad Mary feels true and real, Mary is aggressive but loveable. There’s a working balance between the comedic veins of the film and the sadness which runs parallel. How did you find an equilibrium between those two sentiments?
Through Seana’s performance is probably the short answer. A lot of the questions we would have been asking ourselves about tone were answered once she came on board. We knew she was going to give us a really raw and nuanced performance and we knew we wanted to create a space for that to happen in. So we would always just asked ourselves if something felt honest and we did that right the way through, at script stage, once we were shooting and in post.
We knew she was going to give us a really raw and nuanced performance and we knew we wanted to create a space for that to happen in.
Many filmmakers live in fear and endlessly procrastinate before taking the plunge and making their first feature. I know you descried yourself as “fucking scared, holding back.” before making this debut, how did you get over that fear?
I don’t know if I ever did really, that fear stayed with me all the way through it and it’s only now that it’s out and people are looking at the film and appreciating it that I’ve finally let go of that anxiety. I suppose I was always aware of the fact that you really only get one shot at making your first film and if you fuck it up, you don’t usually get a second chance.
What equipment did you use?
We shot on the Amira by Alexa, which is great in terms of the image and the amount of information it captures. I’m always pretty easy going in terms of the camera choice, I tend to be more curious about the lens kit the DP is interested in using and on this we used the Cooke S2 primes, which I thought worked really well. We got these really raw, grainy images. Ole Bratt Birkeland was our DP and he did some really subtle stuff with the photography too. When we shot the scene where Mary and Jess kiss for the first time, he put a thin sock over the lens to create a little more confusion in the image and it worked a treat. One thing I will say about shooting on the Amira is that it can be tricky when you want to shoot handheld in small spaces, it’s a bulky enough camera and I’d love to see a camera on the market that’s smaller but can capture high quality images.
What can we expect to see from you next?
My brother and I are writing our next film, a relationship comedy drama about about a young couple who are planning to get married, but as neither of them have been with anyone else except each other – they freak out and decide to have an open relationship so they can experience what it’s like to be with someone else.