In a cinematic week dominated by Frozen II, coming up on the sidelines is a film from Down Under that sounds like it should also be for the family – but most definitely isn’t. Judy And Punch, Mirrah Foulkes’ take on the familiar puppet show – complete with sausages and a crocodile – is also her first time behind the camera, after appearances in front of it including Animal Kingdom and Netflix’s The Crown.
The move into directing – she also wrote the script for the film – didn’t represent a conscious decision. “My career as an actor was going well, but there were gaps and they were longer than I would have liked,” she recalls. “I guess I was getting frustrated over the lack of control I had over the kind of work I was receiving, so I started making a few short films out of interest, just sniffing it out a bit. I just wanted some longevity in the industry and to have more control over the sort of things that I was doing and I wasn’t getting that as an actor.”
But she’s quick to acknowledge that her experience in acting has paid dividends when it comes to directing. “It’s a definite advantage. I feel quite confident working with actors – it’s amazing how many don’t. I’ve just spent a lot of time on sets in the past few years, observing different departments, because I never went to film school and was very aware of the fact that I felt I had big technical gaps. I was trying to learn as I went along and I have a lot of friends who are film makers, so I spent a lot of time on their sets, just watching and listening. The biggest thing, though, is having an empathy for what actors go through, which is an incredibly strange, delicate, exposed place to be in and I think if you are able to empathise with that and recognise that on set you’ll get a much more harmonious working environment and much more interesting performances from the actors if they can trust you. I think that’s why it’s quite a natural transition for actors to go into directing.”
Not that Foulkes ever considered casting herself in Judy And Punch. Already the writer and director, she agrees it would probably have been a bit much to ask for her first feature, even though she sees her two roles as merging into one. But, for her, acting and directing are “poles apart. And I can’t imagine how you can do the two. There’s some actors who do it and do it really well, but it wouldn’t be for me. I think I’d take one look at the monitor and get stupidly vain about it all and forget to do my job properly!” She laughs at the thought.
She’s also conscious of tampering with tradition in giving the Punch And Judy show a radical makeover, but acknowledges she’s tapping into a current trend. “There’s an interesting thing happening at the moment where we seem to be taking old tried and tested stories and re-examining them from a contemporary perspective and I think that’s fascinating. I looked into the history of it, to find out where this little puppet show came from, why had it endured for so many years, why was it so popular and why had we never stopped to question whether it was healthy to be showing these explicit scenes of domestic violence to young kids, and I thought it was ready for a bit of a shake-up. It doesn’t discredit the earlier work and I think there’s still something magical about Punch And Judy, but I see my film as a dark, absurdist satire.
“I was very interested in building a world that doesn’t feel like anywhere else, that doesn’t feel like any particular time or place or any other film you’ve seen, so it’s a genre mash-up in a lot of ways. I really set out to make something that felt fun and irreverent, but I also wanted these very serious social and political themes to sit within that black comedy.” And it’s a humour grounded in much of the comedy she watched as a child, English mainly, and especially Monty Python. Although anybody seeing the film can’t ignore a parody of a certain gladiatorial epic.
Foulkes gives the impression that she can’t quite believe her luck in having Mia Wasikowska and Damon Herriman playing Judy and Punch respectively. Wasikowska was the first choice for the role, while Herriman read for his part, alongside a number of other actors and, as she describes it, “he just stole the role. He came in, put it under his arm and ran away with it. I was so delighted I could get him across the line because I wanted to cast the best person and I did that.” Although the two actors don’t have that many scenes together, the dynamic between them was evident. “We rehearsed a lot, we talked a lot, we read through the scenes, we shot test scenes and they did a lot of work with the puppeteers who were working the marionettes. They’re really easy people to work with but they work extremely differently. They have almost opposite methodologies as actors. I’m lucky because back home I have all these friends who are so talents and they wanted to come and work on my movie.”
Mirrah Foulkes was talking to Freda Cooper.
Judy And Punch is in cinemas on Friday, 22 November.