Nadine O'Mahony: Writer & Director - Too Poor for Pride
Updated: Dec 3, 2019
Set in a Victorian Slum, Too Poor for Pride presents the story of an impoverished young mother, and the dilemma she faces of how far she’s willing to go to feed her child.
As part of a continuing interview series with the creatives behind Moosecat, blog writer Edward Lee decided to get to know Nadine’s creative process as a writer and director …
E: With its discourse on class, Too Poor for Pride is quite a textured piece. What were you hoping to communicate with the film?
N: I think the last line and the title of the film says it all, really. While I set it in the Victorian period, a lot of what the film has to say stems from contemporary Britain. Certainly in the last ten years or so, I’ve seen a lot of headlines and articles vilifying poor people as scroungers who live off the state, with this idea being perpetuated that if you’re on benefits, unless you’re covering the absolute basics to survive of food and clothing, then anything else is a luxury that you don’t deserve. These ideas tend to be touted by politicians and journalists who have no experience of what it’s like to live off the budget that someone on benefits does, and have no actual sense of the reality of living that way. So the line and title of Too Poor for Pride is my response to that idea.
There’s also this rhetoric now that if you’ve gone through the benefits system, if you’ve gone through universal credit or jobseeker’s allowance, then you should be prepared to accept any work. That nothing’s beneath you, you don’t have any pride, and you should just be grateful for what you’re given even if it’s exploitative or a zero hours contract and all that kind of nonsense.
So this piece is taking that idea to the extreme. The character Eliza gets to this point where she’s the lowest on the food chain, and she doesn’t have the level of choice, freedom, or pride that money can afford people. She needs to feed her child, the only commodity she has left is her body, and she doesn’t have the class level to decide what to do with her own body.
"For me, dialogue is spontaneous. I always end up polishing and adjusting it over time, but I like to get it out as soon as I’ve thought of it because I feel that mimics speech better."
E: On the topic of the film’s character, while reading the script I found that a lot of what’s happening to her can definitely still apply to the experiences of many women today, particularly with being coerced into sex as payment for rent. Was relating her struggle to those of people in the modern day a major factor in your writing?
N: Yes, definitely. I read something quite disturbing recently that some working-class women are turning again to supplement their income with sex work, in a way which had relatively died down to some degree with social security and things like that. I’m a single mother myself and had to rely on social security, so it’s quite horrifying to think if that safety net wasn’t there then how would I support myself and my child? The problem never truly went away, but unfortunately it’s becoming more of an issue again at this moment of women being unable to support themselves, and feeling forced to supplement their income in that way.
"I like writing women who are angry or apathetic or detached, not necessarily the sort of warm, loving, supportive wives and girlfriends that we see so often in film."
E: With the film’s Victorian setting, what forms of research did your writing process involve?
N: As an introduction, I watched the BBC series The Victorian Slum. Being working class myself, I found it very interesting to learn about the conditions of the working poor in the not so distant past. From this, I read Jack London’s book The People of the Abyss, an example of ‘slum tourism’ from the time where the author lodged with a poor East End family, and I read about the journalist W.T. Stead who wrote very sensational articles about the sexual exploitation of children at the time. These elements all inspired my writing of a piece set in that world of the Victorian slum.
What I found especially interesting was that years back, unconnected to this project, I interviewed a woman who’d worked with sex workers, and she explained to me the ways in which many of them were lured into sex work. More recently, while carrying out my research on the Victorian period for this film, I came to realise that the methods haven’t changed when it comes to trafficking and exploiting young people in the sex industry. It’s insane, techniques still being used today, and that feeds into some of the themes of the piece.
E: Following this research, what was your direct writing process?
N: Too Poor for Pride is a monologue piece, so when I’d completed my research and came up with the idea of the character, I just spoke out Eliza’s speech and recorded it onto my phone. After that I transcribed and polished it, and then I expanded on the writing, so while the final piece is quite different from my original voice notes, the core structure of it remains the same. The match factory, her being kicked out of home, and the last line, it’s all still in there. For me, dialogue is spontaneous, and I find it fresher the first time I think of it. I always end up polishing and adjusting it over time, but I like to get it out as soon as I’ve thought of it because I feel that mimics speech better.
"Rather than imposing myself on the film through flashy camera angles, I wanted to focus on getting a great performance out of Kate and to showcase her."
E: At the centre of this film is the character of Eliza. What kind of character were you trying to create with her?
N: Obviously, there’s themes of motherhood wrapped up in the character. There’s the notion believed by many of maternal instincts and that nurturing and loving comes naturally to women, that you have a baby and feel an instinctive rush of love. While that may be some people’s experience, and it’s certainly my experience of motherhood, this piece and this character explores the opposite of that. Not everyone feels that instant love for their children, and that’s what’s happening with this character.
There’s a high infant mortality rate at the time, and she’s trying to detach herself from her child because she thinks it’s going to die. She hasn’t quite successfully detached herself, but there’s a certain apathy there. That’s the whole point of her not naming her baby, she just refers to it as “baby” because she’s worried that if she gives it a name then she humanises it and makes it more of a person. Of course it’s natural that many people from the Victorian period who lost children were upset, but there was this idea that you could always have more children, with people having large families because they knew not all of the children would survive.
I wanted to write a complicated female character. I like writing women who are angry or apathetic or detached, not necessarily the sort of warm, loving, supportive wives and girlfriends that we see so often in film. So among everything else, Too Poor for Pride is about me exploring that.
E: When Too Poor for Pride was put into production as a short film by Moosecat Creative, you also directed the final film. What was your experience with Moosecat like in the production process?
N: My experience with Moosecat has been great! They’re a truly professional team, and have been very supportive in offering me a full pre and post production support package to help me balance my workload as a freelancer. My producer Michele Lammas was integral in landing the National Trust property of Greyfriars’ House and Garden as our location for the shoot, as well as getting the crew together and in casting our actor Kate Pothecary for the part.
Moosecat’s costume work and heritage research all paid off really well in securing the period flavour on the shoot itself, and it was really useful having Cat Lammas on-set as our Heritage Liaison Advisor because she has that experience of working in Greyfriars. A lot of the furniture of the location was very delicate, and we had to be careful about the strength of the lighting on artefacts and things like that, so it was great to have someone from Moosecat there who had that attention to detail and the property and could tell us of any issues. This then gave me the freedom to not worry about those things and ensure that I could concentrate on the shoot and in getting a great performance out of Kate.
"I like films that are very subjective and from somebody’s point of view, so it’s got a heightened look. It’s about the psychology of the character, and the emotion she’s going through."
E: With the level of creative control on your own writing that you had through directing the final film, what did you want to convey from the piece in its transition from script to screen?
N: Rather than imposing myself on the film through flashy camera angles and things like that, I wanted to emphasise and enhance the psychology of the piece, the language of my writing, and focus on getting a great performance out of Kate and showcase her. I had a discussion with her before we filmed, and she asked a lot of interesting questions. She didn’t want the character to be too one-note, so I explained that while this is a character who’s gone through a trauma, what I didn’t want from the performance was a sense of her being traumatised the whole time. I didn’t want her in a heightened state or on the brink of tears the whole time, but rather to convey that apathy from the character I was discussing earlier.
On a visual scale, I’m interested in things which are linked more towards formalism. We lit the film in a similar way to how we lit you in Flutter, so on Too Poor for Pride we had a one-point lighting setup creating very strong shadows from an unmotivated light source, because for me I wanted to showcase Kate’s performance and the emotional feeling of the piece. I like films that are very subjective and from somebody’s point of view, so it’s got a heightened look. It’s about the psychology of the character, and the emotion she’s going through.
E: To cap things off, what work do you do in the wider film industry?
N: I’m a freelance director and writer, so I work with various production companies such as Moosecat, while continuing to produce my own content. I’m also part of the Back In Film Development Programme, a group funded by Punch Records which supports emerging BAME filmmakers.
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