Kirsten Sheridan is the director of Dollhouse, a film about “a girl breaking into her own life”. Set over one night in a modern mansion in Dalkey, the film is punctuated by a series of five “reveals”, which were known to the director but not her cast, whose acting was improvised and in real time.
What was it like using such unconventional filmmaking methods with a young cast?
We had a fifteen-page treatment, and I knew the plot, so it was sort of “organised madness” but for them it was pretty terrifying, there was no safety net. It took them a while to gel with the idea, and my goal was to make it so that they could just *be*, rather than perform.
Watching the film, and knowing how it’s been made, it strikes one as interesting that the actors were focused on not only maintaining an illusion for the audience, but to some extent also for each other. Was this a difficult tension to negotiate?
Yeah, well in preparation I sent them away for a week together to get to know each other, and each other’s characters, very intimately, so there was a great group bond and trust there before we even got on set. But Séana (Kerslake, who plays Jeannie), of course, would have had secrets that she wouldn’t have been able to share with the others.
Were the characters and relationships predetermined, then, before coming on set?
We had about a two-month period of rehearsals and improvs, with them interviewing one another in character, and me interviewing them in character. I’d be cherry-picking words, phrases and even just looks during this and then firing them back at them once we got on set. It’s funny: Dollhouse is released in Ireland on the same day as Seven Psychopaths, and I was just saying to the cast that this film feels like six psychopaths, in search of an author.
It’s definitely gotten across: that sense of anxiety about purposelessness, or being manipulated, that the characters have. How do you think a conventional methodology would have been deficient, or insufficient, in producing a film like Dollhouse?
I suppose the thing is I was trying to make a film about kids who are quite disconnected from each other, and who don’t have anything really to hold them steady. This is something I think most people can relate to in Ireland at the moment, especially kids from this [working-class] background, even though I think it applies across all classes. So the approach we took had to reflect that, and I as a director gave up some control, while the actors gave up loads of control. You can try to replicate that but I think it would feel as though you’re selling it to the audience. In order for it to feel unpredictable it actually has to be unpredictable. So the actors not knowing the plot, having a 360-degree set they could walk around, with only practical lighting and a very small crew: I think that was the only way you could actually make a film like this. But then I ended up with 100 hours of footage in the editing room, which was pretty painful.
And how long was the shoot itself?
The shoot was 21 days, but a lot of the takes I would have done would have been ten minute takes, and I’d be shouting in ideas as we were going, and it was all very chaotic. It didn’t help that I was seven-and-a-half months pregnant at the time!
What is your next project going to be?
I’m trying to do another Factory film that’s even more “out there” than Dollhouse. I’ll be working with people who’ve never acted before or even thought about it, and developing it with them, and that’ll be, again, in a confined space. I can’t say much more about it than that at the moment though!
Dollhouse is Kirsten Sheridan’s third feature film as director, and the first to be produced by The Factory, a filmmakers collective she co-founded in 2009 with John Carney (Once) and Lance Daly (Kisses).