By SHAWN MACOMBER
Sometimes you don’t choose the occult–it chooses you. How else to explain the allure that a shelf of books on the supernatural in the back of a library held for Kate Dolan as a young child? Though the future director would be chaperoned into town on Saturdays by her “very Catholic,” God-fearing grandmother, her interests nonetheless trended in a very different direction.
“Anything spooky or scary always appealed to me as a kid,” Dolan confirms to RUE MORGUE. “I dunno why that was–I still have no idea. Then, as I got older, and as I read more about the history of Ireland, I began to discover these very dense books about paganism and witchcraft and all sorts of really interesting stuff.” Did you know, for example, Dolan asks, that there once were herbalist-adjacent faerie doctors who would help Irish families with faerie-related maladies? “So, my interest has flourished over time, but it has definitely always been there in some form.”
“My interest has flourished over time” is, as anyone who has seen Dolan’s striking debut feature YOU ARE NOT MY MOTHER knows, an epic understatement. This is a film (reviewed here, and coming to VOD, Blu-ray and DVD tomorrow, June 21) that deftly weds generational family drama to a beguiling exploration of Irish folklore, allowing viewers to tap into a transcendence that typically exists just on the outskirts of our everyday lives.
“As the script was being developed, I did see it as an opportunity to explore some of these things that I’ve always felt intrigued by,” Dolan says. “I did want to delve into the pagan holidays and beliefs that still impact us in Ireland today. The rituals of the past are still part of us, still come back to us.”
Yet, don’t let the supernatural talk fool you: Some aspects of YOU ARE NOT MY MOTHER originated closer to home. “Most scripts require you to delve into your own psyche,” Dolan notes. “As you get into the wants and needs and arcs of each character, you are slowly answering the unspoken question, ‘Well, what is it about this story that appeals to me as a filmmaker? What connections is it making for me?’ For this movie, I definitely thought about the coming-of-age experience and how that resonates throughout our lives–mine included.”
Dolan cites a pair of horror classics as touchstones for how to tap into YOU ARE NOT MY MOTHER. “In THE EXORCIST, there’s a mother-daughter dynamic that becomes quite toxic and frightening,” she says. “But I love how grounded the first half of that movie is. Long before the head-spinning and puking, there are these really small, delicate moments that are so authentic. To me, that’s why the climax works so well–because William Friedkin did so much world-building around that dynamic to draw us in.
“And then, ROSEMARY’S BABY was all about Roman Polanski’s decision to tell the story through Rosemary’s perspective, which so effectively builds tension and paranoia,” Dolan continues. “The audience, like the character, has to deal with ambiguity–with not quite knowing what is going on. So, YOU ARE NOT MY MOTHER was always going to be through the perspective of Char”–the young daughter portrayed brilliantly by Hazel Doupe–“because we wanted to build a similar atmosphere.”
One interesting tidbit about YOU ARE NOT MY MOTHER is that it was shot in November 2020, a week after the Irish government issued a stay-at-home order. “It was kind of crazy,” Dolan recalls. “You were supposed to stay within two kilometers of your home. So you could, like, go for a walk, but it didn’t seem like we’d be able to make the movie. And then we found out filmmaking was categorized as an essential service, and we got to make it anyway. COVID really didn’t impact us that much, actually.
“I think being a good problem-solver is part of the job description for filmmakers anyway,” she continues. “I mean, we obviously had to wear masks and open all the windows in the middle of a freezing Irish winter between takes, but it just became another part of the process. Some locations fell through in prep because they weren’t open to the public, but we didn’t let that or anything else affect the movie creatively.”
Indeed, the extra time forced onto the production schedule by the pandemic was also put to good use. “I gave Carolyn [Bracken, playing Char’s mother Angela] and Hazel books about witchcraft to read,” Dolan says. “The composer came on very early, so I could show everyone what was happening there. I did loads of Zoom calls with all of the main women in the film in prep during COVID. There were a few months where we could just talk about things or share documents or share ideas, which really helped build up the trust. And nothing was left unsaid, really.”
To realize her vision, Dolan leaned on the trusted collaborators from her other, non-folk-horror life in commercials and music videos. And when it came to casting for complex roles that required such nuance and naturalism, it was a matter of intuition–sometimes you just know. “I feel like part of being a director is just being able to read people,” Dolan says. “I like working with those who are, first, just nice people to be around and then, second, are willing to talk about things very openly. The last thing I want to be is a precious, unapproachable director. I am looking for the actors who will say, ‘Well, this doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.’ I want back-and-forth and different perspectives. That is what makes a film what it can be.”
These days, folk horror is all the rage; one need not look any further than Kier-La Janisse’s magisterial documentary WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED: A HISTORY OF FOLK HORROR (which Dolan adores). Could, then, we see the writer/director return to those Irish-legend roots in another film? “Oh, there are so many interesting characters you could just kind of run wild with in the horror space,” she says. “Think of the banshee! So YOU ARE NOT MY MOTHER is not the last folk-horror movie I’ll make, I hope.”
All it might take is another trip to the library…