- 30 Jun 10
A documentary about the life experiences of ordinary Irish women? It seems a proasic way to burst onto the movie scene. But for KEN WARDROP His & Hers is the culmination of a lifetime’s work.
When Ken Wardrop burst onto the Irish scene with the award winning short, Undressing My Mother, nobody was more surprised than, well, Ken Wardrop. There was, after all, nothing about his background – a Portarlington childhood, boarding school in Multyfarmham, a stint at Trinity reading Geography and Sociology – to suggest a life in arts and crafts lay ahead.
"I had no real interest in film or filmmaking," Wardrop admits; even time spent as a tape librarian in London's Frame House post-production facilities – his first proper job – failed to ignite his interest in the medium. "My former colleagues still think it's hilarious," he laughs. "I'm the last person they ever expected to make a film."
Returning to native soil, aged 26, with no plans "...other than a desire to do something completely different", Mr. Wardrop befriended a student of Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design & Technology and decided to apply for a course in production. He emerged, four years later as the filmmaker behind Undressing My Mother, an extraordinary six-minute film in which Mrs. Wardrop, Ken's mammy and a farmer's wife for 44 years, considers her body as a map of her life while disrobing.
"I don't have a cool filmmaking story to tell," Wardrop resumes. "I'm not one of those guys who picked up a camera at 12. But I did love listening in my mother's kitchen. And I love talking. So I realised those were the kinds of stories I wanted to tell."
It may only have been a short graduation piece but the film's stark emotional content impressed international festival audiences, took home more than a dozen awards, and sent Irish industry insiders into flurries of excitement. Interests were furthered piqued by the crew; Team Wardrop happens to include some of the brightest young things on the scene: producer Andrew Freedman (Adam And Paul director Lenny Abrahamson's younger cousin), composer Denis Clohessy and ace cinematographers Michael Lavelle and Kate McCullough. It's not a bad line-up for someone who insists he isn't a proper director.
"But I really don't feel like a director," he insists. "So much of it is a team effort. I feel odd taking all the credit. Without Andrew as the driving force I wouldn't have the confidence or the ability."
There is, nevertheless, something impressively distinctive about Ken Wardrop's cinematic voice. His & Hers, the filmmaker's debut feature, continues the domestic intimacy of Undressing My Mother in a series of 70 vignettes. His subjects - all female, all from the Irish midlands, all talking above love - range in age from 4 to 90 and are arranged to form a powerful cradle to grave narrative.
"My mother was the template," he explains. "She had been in love and it was a big part of who she was. She had four children. She has love. At pitching sessions people asked, ‘would you not have a gay couple or an ethnic couple?' but in my mind, the story had to be specific to work as a whole. Those are obviously valid stories but I needed limitations. Our ladies form a big cross section of the community; they're middle class and working class, they run successful businesses, they're nurses and teachers but none of that appears in the film because the story I wanted to tell was my mother's story."
Watching the film, one marvels at Wardrop's rapport with his subjects. However did he get them to speak so frankly about such personal matters I wonder?
"Again, we come back to the team," he says. "They had to warm to all of us, not just me. We had seven minutes of film for each of our ladies so I had to go out and meet them and explain who I was and what I was doing until they said, ‘aren't we supposed to talk about me?' But you know yourself, if you're open and honest with people, they respond in kind."
True to form, the unlikely filmmaker has delivered an unlikely crowd pleaser. His unique conceit coalesces into a genuinely gripping and utterly disarming picture, one that seems to work its charms on the most cynical movie punters. Wardrop admits he's been caught off guard by the public's enraptured response.
"It's strange because I was really scared going in," he admits. "I mean, there's no hero, there's no villain, there's no real drama; nobody had really tried a story arc like this one in a feature before. If the Irish Film Board hadn't had faith in us, it would never have been made."
His & Hers has already proved a worthwhile gamble for the Board, having impressed juries at the Dublin International Film Festival and at Sundance where it scooped the gong for cinematography and was shortlisted for the Grand Jury Prize. His next picture, provisionally entitled Probable Parent, is a dark workshop comedy based around motherhood. Does he mind that this can only cement his reputation as as go-to guy for Irish Mammy flicks?
"Oh, why not?" he smiles. "What could be better than celebrating Irish femininity? What institution is finer than the Irish Mammy?"