Flixclusive Interview: Kirsten Sheridan (Dollhouse)


[From Mar. 9th to 17th, Flixist will bring you live coverage from deep in the heart of Texas at South by Southwest Film 2012. Keep an eye out for news, features, interviews, videos, and reviews of some of the most anticipated films to hit the festival circuit in 2012.]

Dollhouse premiered at SXSW on Saturday, March 10th. The film is about a group of Irish teenagers that break into a fancy suburban “mansion” with intentions of partying. However, one of the girls in the group, Jeannie, has some secrets she’s kept from the others that eventually leak out throughout the night. If you’re interested in reading more about the film, you can check out my full review.

I met with the film’s writer and director, Kirsten Sheridan, at a cafe SXSW co-opted for the festival called The Hideout Lounge. During our 30 minute conversation, Kirsten and I wax poetic on the serious nature of filmgoers in Austin, life growing up in Ireland, and some insight behind the film itself. The longer, full interview, complete with insight on some of the spoilers will be published when Dollhouse is widely distributed.

Geoff Henao: How was the premiere on Saturday [March 10th]?

Kirsten Sheridan: It was good. It’s a different kind of crowd, because I’ve been in Berlin, but I’ve found everyone pretty open and kind of welcoming, I guess. And they didn’t have any pre-conceived ideas of what it should or shouldn’t be. It was kind of refreshing.

GH: That’s what I’ve noticed about people here. Everyone’s really happy to be watching these movies. The culture here, everyone’s really into films. Back home, it’s not really the same. You have the film crowds, but you know… “Let me ask this director some arbitrary question about the movie.” Everyone here actually cares, they feel it.

KS: Yeah, they really do. And people said that to me, and I was going, “Yeah yeah yeah…” But then you get here and you go, “Oh yeah, it’s true.”

GH: And they have places like the Alamo [Drafthouse Cinemas] where they mandate those super strict rules. It kind of shows… it’s a reflection of Austin as a movie community.

KS: Yeah, exactly. I actually had fun, which is weird for me at a screening because you’re usually just biting your nails. You go, “Is that person walking out or going to the bathroom? Oh, they’re going to the bathroom.” You feel like running out after them, “Are you going to the bathroom?”

GH: About the film, you guys just used an outline for the script?

KS: Yeah, 15-page outline. Essentially, I didn’t want to work with a traditional script because I had been doing that for the previous two years, and I made two other movies very traditionally. I just wanted this to be about a free-fall kind of roller coaster about someone who gives up control. I kind of thought if that’s what I wanted the subject matter to be, I better make the process reflect the subject matter.

GH: That’s good. That’s a really good pitch.

KS: I’m usually a total control freak, but I thought it’d be great to have the characters speak in their own voices and their own words. So we did a lot of improv and I sent them away for a week on their own and gave them a video camera and they had to interview each other every night. They were allowed to answer as themselves or their characters, but they basically just got to know each other and bonded and ask questions that you’d never ask someone you just met the day before. It was like a crazy therapy session complete with a lot of beer.

GH: In your notes, I’m sure you had bullet points for each character’s development.

KS: Well, I didn’t even have it for character development. I only had bullet points for the plot. We kind of built the characters a couple of months before we shot and in this very strange way, they reflected what was in my mind for them, but they came up with it. It was a very strange group dynamic that happened. It was kind of life imitating art and characters crossing over into real life and that kind of stuff. I hope some of that authenticity translates onto the screen.

GH: Can you pinpoint any specific scenes or moments you didn’t have in the outline that helped aid the script? Was there anything they brought to the film that changed it in a positive way? 

KS: Yeah, let me think. One of them turned up one day… he had been in a fight, so he had a lot of bruises, so that became a part of the story. I thought, “Right, we’re going to have makeup issues. Let’s just make it a part of the story.” One of the actors auditioned for one of the parts of the group of kids, but he wasn’t from that area, so I didn’t want to cast him. He had a bit of an edge, so I ended up casting him as the nice boy. So it was good, then, that he was able to turn around and become violent himself. I guess I saw that hint to that in the audition. Then another one of the actors, instead of auditions, I’d go on really long lunches with them. One of them told me about suicide, just about someone close to him, so it all fitted in like a jigsaw. The themes came together. I didn’t take things directly from their lives or what they said, but it kind of circulated it. It circled around for a lot of the themes because it’s a pretty delicate moral line to walk. If someone says, “Oh, something happened to me,” that you put it right in hard and right there, unexposed. So it was more that I try and fit it in, you know, in the background, in the unconscious life of the film.

GH: The movie didn’t really go into backstory a lot. It pointed out certain things, and they did mention Jeannie had run away a year prior to coming back to the house. Did you have a backstory in mind, at least for her character?

KS: At one point, I had a whole idea of a backstory that she had a dead younger brother, and that’s why she runs away, and that’s why her family came apart. I thought if I’m going to do a film that I have a lot of freedom to take risks, then why not NOT do that? Because it seemed a bit neat and a bit easy, you know? I’ve seen it before. And it also made me think you might not like her because you think, “God, don’t be so selfish.” There’s life and death going on, and you kind of really just checked out. I did think at one point she would open the door and we’d see kids toys and kind of know, but then I just thought, “Oh, then it becomes a movie kind of like Rachel Getting Married, a movie about a girl getting over the death of someone,” whereas in actual fact, teenagers are just selfish, you know what I mean? They are just self-obsessed. I don’t mean selfish, I just mean self-obsessed. The whole growing up process can be so delayed until you’re 40. It’s about realizing you’re part of something bigger and things like that. I guess it’s just about my arrested development.

GH: So would you say there are elements of yourself in Jeannie, then?

KS: Yeah, there are elements of myself in every one of the characters. I think that’s the writer’s self-obsession there. But it was more looking at the younger generation and seeing how lost and disconnected they are, and maybe there’s a bit of that in me, too, and I was just seeing the reflection of that heightened in them. Because when I grew up, there were things that were solid, like the government and the church in Ireland. And those things have crumbled completely, so you go, “Where does that leave people that’s on total shifting sands and they’ve got nothing to hold them steady and hold them still?” Apparently, everyone’s really connected through social media and mobile phones, but they’re not connected; they’re totally disconnected at the same time. It’s just a fascinating world and I wanted to dip my toe into it.

GH: There are a lot of scenes where it gets pretty violent amongst the kids. Would you say that’s a product of the partying, or is that just their relationship?

KS: I think a bit of both, really. I think if you’re from a very tough neighborhood and that’s normality… What I find fascinating when I go down to those neighborhoods is how people use language, and they say things like, “Oh, how are you? Do you want a cup of tea? Oh, your man is up in hospital with a broken neck because of that fight. Do you take sugar?”

GH: So it just comes up casually then.

KS: Casual and normal, and you realize that’s their actual life. That’s the same with me having small talk. So it’s that, but when you also put drink and drugs in the mix, I have been at many nights that go from people hugging each other to them fist fighting then to them hugging each other again. There’s no logic, and that’s kind of the point.

GH: Jeannie does come from a very affluent lifestyle and then she is able to enjoy the group, but she’s still not exactly a part of the group at the same time. How does her character mesh along with them?

KS: Well, I think she’s playing a part, and she’s been playing a part for the whole year she’s with them. I think her problem is she’s probably been playing a part for 18 years. So she’s not sure who the hell she is. I think she was trying on this skin for the last year, and I think she realizes she needs to figure out which mask is real or if there’s anything behind the mask. They’re all wearing masks. They all lie to each other. The only thing that’s true is what they do.

GH: So her conflict is internal, whereas everyone else’s is external from where they grew up.

KS: Mmhmm. And that’s pretty tough to play, I think, because you can just seem really ethereal and enigma-like, and that can get on people’s nerves after awhile. So trying to keep the sympathy with her and the empathy was a challenge.

GH: How do you feel about people who externalize their pain versus those who are able to keep it in? Who do you think is stronger of the two groups?

KS: I guess when you keep it in, it’s probably initially stronger, but possibly more damaging for you in the long run because it’s got to come out somewhere, so it’s going to come out in some perverse way if it doesn’t come out directly. I think sometimes the stronger you try and be, the more damage you do to yourself. I guess that’s what the movie is, she has this hidden secret and it insists on coming out. And that’s better for her in the end.

GH: How long did the shoot go for?

KS: 21 days.

GH: Where there any major problems in shooting?

KS: No, the shoot was the most fun, and I never had fun on a set shooting because you kind of feel you’re just, when you have a script and storyboard, that you’re just executing that. Whereas with this it was like, “Well, how are they going to react today to this surprise? Who’s going to freak out?” It was much more fun because it was a live process, but then the edit was hell. You have to pay for it somewhere.

GH: You revealed the twists as they came along. Did you tell them before you started shooting? Or exactly how did that happen?

KS: Kind of like, “Turn over, roll camera, action.” And then the doorbell would ring and they’d all go, “Oh my god, who the fuck is this? What the hell?” So they knew absolutely nothing. It was all on camera, first reactions. They only knew what they were supposed to know in that moment.

GH: Were there any problems with those revelations and having to reshoot because of some technical thing?

KS: Well, yeah. I found it difficult. I shot so much and such long takes that it was cards vs. drives. So that was a nightmare. But for those reveals, we ended up with two cameras, one on the person coming usually and one on the other. But then we’d have to do more takes for the coverage where they knew what was happening.

GH: But it’s hard to catch that initial reaction.

KS: Yeah, with the initial reaction, we were lucky we didn’t have any technical problems with them, but they would do things, like when she came up and said it was her house, they at first were totally shocked, and then they started being like, “Oh my god, you look so nice in that dress,” because they’re actually friends. They’d forget to act, and I’d be like, “Guys!” What generally ended up happening was that we’d use the first half of the first take, and then in the edit, I’d end up using the more constructed, directed [scenes] after the initial blow.

GH: That’s a good way to cover. Were there any SPECIFIC moments you took from your own life? Like have you ever had huge parties like this?

KS: This is the thing, I never have, and I think I wanted to, so I had to do it on film instead. I’m trying to think… In some ways, there are things I think I would do, like if a pigeon flew into a window, I probably would paint all the windows.

GH: I heard that the house you use was your parents’ house. How was that?

KS: That’s how we decided to make the whole story because I had this house and my parents were going away. Me and my Dad were making a movie at the time over here. This is the first movie to come out of a place called The Factory in Ireland, which is a filmmakers’ collective run, by me and two other directors. And I said to one of the directors, “We have this house. Why don’t you make a film in it?” And he said, “Well, it’s your house. You better make the film.” So I’m not from where that house is, it’s from a very affluent suburb, and I’m not from there so I decided I couldn’t write about people I don’t know. So I decided to write about the type of people I do know and have the clash of cultures.

GH: So when you say it’s your parents’ house, were they living in it? Not at the time, but they lived there? So all that destruction you guys caused…?

KS: We had to put it all back and make it nice again.

GH: I really liked the bedroom scene where they flip everything upside down. That was a good touch. What made you think of doing that?

KS: It was inspired by a short story about a breakup where a man and a woman were breaking up and she actually glued herself to the ceiling as a joke because he was saying something about the glue not working. It was just a really small moment, and I thought it was really defiant and yet funny at the same time and really made a good statement. Obviously, it’s symbolic and that she’s turning her world upside down with this night. I just wanted to have a bit of fun, really, because a lot of the movie is intense.