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An interview with filmmaker Aisling Walsh

2 August 2017 Will Rathbone

Maudie, the new film by Irish filmmaker Aisling Walsh, tells the story of Maud Lewes, whose bright and beautiful paintings were a million miles away from the reality of her hard life on the outskirts of Nova Scotia. Lewes was crippled with arthritis, and the film details her art as well as her relationship with tough fish-peddler Everett Lewes. It’s a beautifully acted film, and London Calling spoke to director Aisling Walsh about her reasons for making the picture and the filming process.

Aisling Walsh knew no more than most of us about Maud Lewes before she read the script for Maudie. The Irish filmmaker “first read the script in a hotel room in Cardiff, and it haunted me that night. It was my first encounter with Maud Lewes. I didn’t know her story or who she was, but there was so much in that script that really affected me. For a long time I’d wanted to develop a project about a female artist, and there was something about her that made me think ‘maybe this is the story I should tell’”.

Maud Lewes spent the majority of her adult life in a tiny house on the edge of a village in Nova Scotia with her husband Everett Lewes, painting the world as she saw it. The landscape itself was “a huge part of their lives. It’s huge and vast, and it opens the film out and makes them these rather small people living in this huge expanse. Their world is very small inside that 12’ x 12’ room, cut off from the rest of the world and society”. Lewes suffered from juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, and lived a hard life with Everett. Yet her optimism shines out through her self-taught painting skills.


Still from Maudie

Walsh is a filmmaker who delights in telling difficult stories and opening up new worlds with unsung heroes. Why was she so drawn to Lewes? “One of the things that blew me away was that she could look at the world out of this 2’ x 2’ window and use her imagination to create those beautiful, colourful pictures. It was just how she saw the world.” Walsh felt an affinity with Lewes. “I felt that I understood her work and to a certain extent that world. I spent a lot of time as a teenager growing up in the west of Ireland - a really rural part of Ireland - and I know what it’s like.”

Walsh’s own craft as a filmmaker - ostensibly looking through the small window of a camera and using her imagination to create a world - isn’t so different from Lewes’, and is one of many connections between the two that become apparent as we talk. Before Walsh became a filmmaker she trained as a painter, and it was while studying Fine Art at the Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art Design and Technology that she developed an interest in film, later making the move to the National Film School in Beaconsfield. In much the same way that a filmmaker’s life can be seen through their oeuvre, Walsh believes Lewes’ house, which she painted over continuously for decades, represents her finest work of art. “For me her greatest work of art is that house; the walls of the house that she painted on for over 40 years. It’s quite an extraordinary thing to see - the back wall and the wall on the right in particular, which she painted over again and again.”


Sally Hawkins in Maudie

In the film, Sally Hawkins plays Lewes and puts in a performance that has been universally praised. “Her name was the first I wrote down that night after reading the script. She started to work on it a year before we made the film: I got her painting classes, movement and dialect coaches and she came out a month before we started filming and painted every day.”

The shoot was unusual because Walsh created a replica of Lewes and Everett’s tiny cabin in Nova Scotia. How did Hawkins, and her co-star Ethan Hawke, adapt to the circumstances? “I said to them both that we were going to build a house out in that landscape and, although it wouldn’t be comfortable, it would feel so right - and it did. It was a particularly intimate film to make because of the space we were in. We got to know each other really well.” Both actors were totally immersed in the film, and despite joining later in the process Hawke already had an affinity with the setting. “Ethan has a place in Nova Scotia, and he has really gotten to know the people - he goes fishing with them - over the course of the 15-20 years he’s had that house.”


Ethan Hawke and Sally Hawkins in Maudie

The timing of Maudie feels like the culmination of a number of Walsh’s desires as a filmmaker. “The film had been in development for years before I joined, then suddenly the pieces of the jigsaw started to fit together. Whatever life it had before that time, the combination of the people at this time made sense. I really believe that’s what happens with films sometimes.” One can only hope that the connection between Walsh and Lewes continues to be mutually beneficial. The respect and admiration Walsh has for Lewes is clear, and it would seem fitting if Walsh herself received wider recognition through celebrating Lewes’ life and work. One artist scratching another’s back across time and the Atlantic ocean.

Maudie is out now in cinemas nationwide.
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