Irish writer-director Carmel Winters discusses her second feature, Float Like a Butterfly, a female coming-of-age story set in the 1970s amongst the Irish Travellers community.
Film festivals like TIFF are often the only place to see thoughtful films about the inner lives of young women. This year’s slate boasts several such coming-of-agers, including the superlative Canadian films Fireflies are Gone and Splinters, the Norwegian film Blind Spot, the British film Gwen, and Irish playwright and filmmaker Carmel Winters’ Float Like A Butterfly.
Set in 1970s Ireland, the film follows Frances (Hazel Doupe), a 16-year-old Irish Traveller who dreams of being a great boxer like Mohammed Ali. It’s a time when Travellers were intensely persecuted — they weren’t even officially recognized as an ethnic group until this century — and sexism is openly felt and expressed. Frances is a tomboy, assertive and outspoken about her interest in boxing, unlike her gentle and sensitive younger brother. That’s accepted within her community, but when her father returns after a decade in prison, his misogyny has intensified: he wants his son to be more manly and his daughter to be less masculine, roles neither of them are comfortable with. Through a journey across country, they find a way to reconnect and her father must reconcile his outdated notions of who his children should be with who they actually are.
Winter creates a gorgeous, lived-in world, from the period details in costume to the very specific milieu of the Irish Travellers. But it’s Hazel Doupe’s sensitive portrayal of a smart, strong-willed and talented young woman, butting up against the expectations of her gender, that give the film its heart and soul.
Before TIFF, I talked with writer-director Carmel Winters about what inspired her to tell this story, how she created this rich world for her characters, and working with Hazel Doupe.
Seventh Row (7R): What got you interested in telling this story?
Carmel Winters (CW): The character of Frances came to me first. I remember I wrote a ‘testimony’ in her voice – where I let her tell me the story of the film. Her inherent heroism was a surprise to me. I am usually drawn to anti-heroes, people whose failures illuminate and inspire compassion for all of our hidden weaknesses.
In Ireland, to have a young female Irish Traveller at the centre of a film, where she is a champion — not a victim — of her destiny is unthinkable for most people. And for her to take on the Muhammad Ali mantle of being ‘The Greatest’ was experienced by some almost as a blasphemy. That’s the kind of challenge that inspires me to make a film. It’s film as magic, making the impossible possible. I wanted to create an image of the future as if it has already happened. And to celebrate the ‘Great Female’ as we did in our ancient past.
7R: The lead actress, Hazel, is remarkable. How did you find her and cast her?
CW: Two years before we shot, casting director Louise Kiely introduced me to Hazel. I was electrified. She was 13 and already a luminous, wholly self-possessed talent. After a few straightforward ‘readings’, we had an intensive day’s workshop in a tatty boxing ring — singing, fighting, and improvising scenes inside the ring and out. Every challenge I presented to Hazel, she didn’t just meet it, she raised the bar for everyone else around her. It was tremendously exciting. Truly great actors are great observers.
I remember talking to Martina, my producer, about her afterwards, saying how she reminded me of a young Jodie Foster. Another actor confided to me that it was like a masterclass in acting, watching her in action. Her access to her instinct is immediate and sure. It is beautiful to watch.
7R: What is your process for working with actors to prepare for the film? Do you do rehearsals?
CW: For me, the most significant preparation is often done during the audition stage. My idea of an ‘audition’ can be anything from a casting workshop, to fortune telling, to a stall at a market where I might be, say, selling a copper water tank for the price of a song.'My idea of an ‘audition’ can be anything from a casting workshop, to fortune telling, to a stall at a market where I might be, say, selling a copper water tank for the price of a song.' - Carmel WintersClick To Tweet
I watch the person/actor and respond, and take it from there, improvising whatever situation feels most enlivening. Once I have cast the actor, I hand over the part 100% and trust them entirely. I see my work then as largely conducive — and directive more for story and dynamic, rather than character.
Before the shoot, I spend time with the actors and see if there is anything they need. If there is, we go about it. I love introducing them to their on-screen ‘family,’ seeing how they relate to their costumes, props, the world they are about to inhabit.Carmel Winters: 'Once I have cast the actor, I hand over the part 100% and trust them entirely.'Click To Tweet
Sometimes, a ‘rehearsal’ will be an encounter with one or more of these elements. Dara sang and played tunes for me on the banjo. Hazel, Dara, and Johnny had silent rehearsals in their family tent. Young Frances and her parents spent a day learning how to be loved by each other. Johnny, 12, slept for one entire rehearsal, (it was his first film and he was delighted to realise that sometimes it really can be as easy as that!) and made friends with his on-screen pet for another.
7R: You really get a sense of the Irish Traveller community — the costumes and the production design feel so lived in. What kind of research went into creating that?
CW: Oh, immense! The film is set in the ‘70s largely because of my love of that visual world. The time is a treasure trove of exuberant colour, intricate pattern, and sensuous texture. Plus, the clan way of Traveller life suggests an infinitely rich and dynamic frame — familiar to me in many ways from my own upbringing. I was raised in the ‘70s, one of 12 children with oodles of horses, dogs, and cousins always around. Even though we weren’t Travellers, we were often assumed to be when we lived in a caravan.
I remember playing with the children at camps when my mother went to wheel and deal in ‘trailers’ with the Traveller men. These early experiences fostered a real sense of affinity and solidarity in me. Going back to research, I soon realised that Travellers themselves had very few photographs of that time. Luckily, many great photographers and anthropologists had recognised the importance of their culture — and recorded it. (I am glad to say there is a process of repatriation going on where images are returned to families.)
I must have studied thousands of images — and absorbed some detail from each — but Chris Killip’s work in particular really spoke to me. His ‘Sea Coal’ series set the bar for what I wanted to achieve. The amount of human and natural drama he captures in a single frame is staggering! He manages to see weather, landscape, and human relationships as a single event. That’s precisely the kind of symphonic unity of vision I was after.
7R: How did you work with your costume designer and production designer to get that authentic look that was true to the characters?
CW: I had two power visionaries in production designer Toma McCullim and costume designer Triona Lillis. They not only thrilled at the same visual elements I had, but also brought charged new ways of seeing to the table. I think it was key that both designers had spent years of their lives living in caravans and tents so they had a keenly felt appreciation of the visual world we were creating.
The props and costumes you see on screen are absolutely the real deal. Toma passionately believes in objects as living embodiments of the past, and her nose for finding physical items that hum with history is extraordinary. Museums, sheds, attics, gardens, and scrapyards were raided.
I remember once we were travelling to a location I wanted to show her, and she shouted, ‘Stop the van!” She jumped out and into the shed alongside — and inside was the most beautiful horse-drawn cart. It was about 100 years old and had recently been refurbished so it was unbelievably road-worthy.
Triona was a kindred spirit, a magician like Toma. She is zealous about the authenticity and provenance of costume. I remember she even went to pawn shops so no actor would wear anything less than real gold!
Her sense of how to build a character through costume was a wonderful asset to me as a director. She doesn’t just dress a character, she gives life to that character in every element of costume she brings to her/him. As a team, we didn’t just create an illusion of a world; we recreated that world. That gave the camera the kind of 360 degree freedom that is rare. And most importantly, when the actors came out of costume and walked on set, they had a world they could believe in wholeheartedly, a world animated with real meaning and stories of its own. (I remember when we were shooting the village fair scenes, the actors kept trying to trade horses even after I shouted ‘cut’!)Carmel Winters: 'We didn’t just create an illusion of a world; we recreated that world.'Click To Tweet
7R: The film’s colours are so rich and beautiful: it really makes you feel the beauty of the landscape and the rich life of the Irish Traveller community. How did you collaborate with your cinematographer to develop the film’s aesthetic? And what were your goals for how it should look?
CW: The director of photography, Michael Lavelle, responded with absolute love for the project from the first day he read the script. He loved the world he was looking at — the children, the animals, the landscape, the wagons, the tents, the fireside singing…
I took and sent him lots of photographs. They were of locations I had found, but also, more often, of things that moved me: visual maps of my way of seeing to ignite his.
We visited locations together and watched them in different weather and light. We shared stories of family, of the contradictions of love and life. I wanted the film to throb with the rhythms of life in all its incarnations, for each frame to tell a story of many stories.
My previous film, Snap, had an aesthetic that was consciously austere and highly controlled. I knew that Float Like A Butterfly should be the opposite — exuberant and generous, leaning towards chaos rather than restricted form. We agreed on a hand-held, kinetic camera style that freed up the action and allowed us to appear to ‘discover’ rather than ‘cover’ the action.
When it came to the colour palette, Toma, Triona and Michael brought a feast of possibilities to the table. I remember the ‘aha’ moment of finding a single photograph that included all the tones that each of the four of us had, individually and collectively, been excited by.
It was an exuberant and daring palette, with subtlety and strong surprises playing off each other. It also meant that, within the film’s style spectrum, there was a home for the variety of one-of-a-kind “found objects” that Toma and Triona would conjure. When I look at the film, I love how the colour we brought to the landscape looks like it could have grown out of it. All four of us married Mother Nature as our ultimate visual collaborator!Carmel Winters: 'It was an exuberant and daring palette, with subtlety and strong surprises playing off each other.'Click To Tweet
7R: The film is told very much from Frances’ perspective. How did you approach where the camera should be and how to keep the focus on her story — especially when her father is so intent on taking the spotlight away?
CW: We knew whose story we were telling, so that always led us. But given that Frances’ struggle is between freedom and belonging, and how to win one without losing the other, it was essential to really feel the world of her extended family and its powerful pull. I was keen to capture a sense of the circle of her life, with Frances as its gravitational centre.
In this film, Frances feels keen and varied responsibilities towards each of her extended family members. They make up so much of who she is and how she sees the world.'Frances’ struggle is between freedom and belonging, and how to win one without losing the other. It was essential to really feel the world of her extended family and its powerful pull.' - Carmel WintersClick To Tweet
Her relationship with her father, in particular, is key to her journey in the film. In many ways, he is the main ‘object’ of her attention, and she is the main agent of the film. I wanted to arrive at a distribution of attention that reflected this. It remained a scene-to-scene discussion point throughout the editing process with editor Julian Ulrich. I wanted the film to feel rich and relational (tribal), rather than slight and narcissistic (individualistic).
7R: Since Frances is an expert boxer, what went into training Hazel to “box” on screen?
CW: Hazel was already an award-winning gymnast when I met her and has terrific physical intelligence. She went to boxing classes and also trained with a local boxer and coach immediately prior to the shoot.
But I think the single most significant preparation was her meeting with former World Middleweight champion Andy Lee. They role-played father and daughter, and before my eyes, Hazel began to take on his incandescent champion quality. It’s not just — or even mainly — a physical thing. It’s mental and spiritual.'Middleweight champion Andy Lee and actress Hazel Doupe role-played father and daughter, and before my eyes, Hazel began to take on his incandescent champion quality.' - Carmel WintersClick To Tweet
7R: How did you shoot the fight scenes?
CW: Prior to the shoot, I scheduled a day with our stunt coordinator Joe Condren. After going through safety protocols and a kind of A to Z of fighting for camera techniques, Hazel and Jamie, (who plays her arch enemy, the Sergeant’s son in the film), were free to fight it out according to their character and situation rather than following a set of technical instructions. This is crucial, I think.
In the film, Frances hasn’t been trained professionally; she’s more a fighter in spirit, than a boxer by training. So I wanted Hazel to know enough about fighting to feel empowered to really play the scene rather than go through ‘routines’. She is a quick learner. Myself and Michael then watched and noted what worked and where the camera needed to be.
When it came to the day itself, this prep was invaluable. The coastal weather was wild and temperamental in true Irish style. Some of the actors had to be wrapped in thermal foil! But the worse it got, the more Hazel rose to the occasion. She fought every bit as hard as her character, and I don’t think there was a person on set who wasn’t awed by her magnificence. Jamie played a blinder, too, as her opponent. How you receive a punch is largely what sells it.
My biggest job was to follow the dance of the fight, making sure the story beats landed in the natural rhythm of it, whilst making sure they didn’t injure each other for real! The footage was so vivid and committed that you could have watched an uncut wide shot of the entire scene — and believed it.
7R: I understand that you’re a playwright who has also directed theatre. What do you see as the differences between directing for stage and screen?
CW: There’s a greater multiplication of elements involved in directing film, for sure. I am very kinaesthetically driven in both (the sense of movement, the communication of how things feel is crucial to me), but in film, my photographic sense expands and assumes prominence over my love of language. In theatre, you are the architect of what you put in front of an audience. But in film, you are also the architect of how the audience sees what you have put in front of them.'In theatre, you are the architect of what you put in front of an audience. But in film, you are also the architect of how the audience sees what you have put in front of them.' - Carmel WintersClick To Tweet
7R: Given your experience with working for film and theatre, what made you want to tell this particular story on film?
CW: I wanted to fill this film with the Irish weather and landscape, with children and babies, with horses, dogs, and chickens, and all sorts of other unruly entities you can’t get inside a theatre! And I wanted to showcase the magic and power of the place and people where I live.Carmel Winters: 'There is something intrinsically dangerous and audacious about making a film — playing Creator, as it were.'Click To Tweet
7R: What do you like about writing for the stage vs writing for the screen (and vice versa)?
CW: Knowing that the play will happen live in front of an audience and will always be subtly or powerfully changed by that audience is wondrous. And playwriting is much, much more about the words you put — or don’t put — on the page/stage, which appeals to the writer side of me greatly. But when I write for the screen, I know I am writing a blueprint for a total experience that includes all the artforms I love. There is something intrinsically dangerous and audacious about making a film — playing Creator, as it were. It’s exhilarating, terrifying, and irresistible!
So many of the best films of the festival circuit in the last few years have been coming-of-age stories about young women. A major highlight of this year’s Berlinale was Supa Modo, a story of hope, grief, and loss set in Kenya. We loved the coming-of-age story of Tom (and her father), Leave No Trace, so much we dedicated a whole Special Issue to it complete with interviews and essays on the film. Last year, some of our favourite female coming-of-agers included Rungano Nyoni’s Zambian-set I Am Not a Witch, the dreamlike Indonesian film The Seen and Unseen, Amanda Kernell’s 1940s set Sami Blood, and the Iran-set Canadian film Ava.