Patricia Kelly told David Hennessy why her debut feature film Verdigris, about two very different women who strike up an unlikely friendship, is a personal one.
Patricia Kelly’s feature length debut film Verdigris follows the story of middle-class, middle aged woman Marian, played by Geraldine McAlinden, who is trapped in an abusive marriage and takes on a part time job when she forms an unlikely friendship with the young sex worker Jewel who is played by Maya O’Shea.
The film will have its UK premiere at this month’s Irish Film Festival London.
Verdigris has already emerged as a winner of the Best Independent Film award at Galway Film Fleadh, where O’Shea was also nominated for the Bingham Ray New Talent Award.
It also won Best Narrative Feature Film Award at Kerry International Film Festival and the Audience Award for Best Irish Film at Newport Beach Film Festival.
Patricia describes the film as a personal one.
The film sees Marian take on a new job as a census enumerator.
On her tough inner-city route, Marian faces dismissive and abusive locals who flatly refuse to engage in the census. This includes brash and no-nonsense teenager Jewel, who Marian soon realises is living alone with no obvious means of supporting herself.
Marian finds herself striking a deal with Jewel – she won’t report her to the authorities if Jewel helps her get the locals to fill out their census forms. As they walk the streets of Dublin, an unlikely friendship blooms.
Patricia told The Irish World: “The idea actually came from my being a census enumerator in 2016.
“I was living in Dublin’s north inner city- in Jewel’s neighbourhood. And because I was living in Dublin 1, I was given that route. It was a really, really interesting experience.
“I met lots of very fascinating people and lots of lovely people, but also lots of people that were not one bit interested in taking part in the census.
“That really was the germ of the idea, it was such an interesting experience that I thought, ‘At some point, I will definitely write about this’.
“Then it was just kind of left that on the back burner for a few years.
“And then a couple of years ago, I was made redundant from the day job and I thought, ‘God, if I’m ever going to make the leap from shorts to a first debut micro budget feature, this is the time to do it’.
“I knew that I had to write something that was very specifically made for teeny, tiny budget, so I came back to this idea of the census enumerator, somebody who was very much a fish out of water.
“The idea was of a couple of people meeting and changing each other’s lives though originally not seemingly having anything at all in common at the beginning.
“That’s really where the idea came from.”
Although on the face of it Marian and Jewel have nothing in common, they are more alike than they think..
“There’s nearly five decades between them and very often, older people think that there’s no point in having a friendship with younger people, and vice versa.
“A lot of young people think once you’re over a certain age, there’s no point in talking to you at all.
“I really wanted to explore that and explore this unusual friendship and what they can get from each other and their utterly different life experiences not just in age, but the fact that Marian is from a middle class, leafy suburb and Jewel’s a streetwise inner city teen.
“They both have a lot of very different life experiences to teach each other and ultimately discover that their humanity is stronger than anything else.”
One thing they have in common is that they are both being used by men, another is perhaps that they are both unaware of the danger they are in…
“The idea- in terms of Marian’s controlling husband, Nigel- came from a few years ago when I was in the day job.
“A representative from Women’s Aid came into the office and she was talking about domestic violence and coercive control.
“She said at the time that a lot of people have a very mistaken idea that domestic violence or domestic abuse is a working class problem and, of course, it absolutely is not. People in middle and upper classes absolutely suffer from this as well and can be in terrible situations, but there’s kind of a public perception that it’s a working class problem.
“That was something that I definitely wanted to address and to highlight, which is why Marian is the woman who seemingly has the lovely life in the leafy suburb, is well educated and all that kind of stuff but she’s the one that’s actually in the terrible, abusive situation, rather than the inner city teen who was abandoned as a child.”
Although it is clear that Marian’s husband Nigel is overbearing from the start, it becomes clear just how nasty he can be..
“They have obviously had a very unhappy marriage for many decades and it’s one of those things that kind of just built and built and built.
“Death by a thousands cuts, I wanted that.
“That he didn’t come home and hit her all the time, it was just decades of undermining her and controlling her in little, subtle ways that can be difficult to catch and difficult to spot.
“If you were to take any one or two or three of the things that he does and maybe say it to a best friend or something then it would be easy for them to say, ‘Oh he didn’t mean it that way’.
“It would be easy to kind of discount her experience and dismiss her experience but it’s just when you see the accumulation of the things that he does and how he erodes her sense of self- esteem.
“But also the reason that the story is set in this particular time in her life is that she’s been retired from her day job as a legal secretary on her 65th birthday, which happens.
“Now she finds she is just stuck at home with nothing to do whereas before she was able to somewhat ignore what was going on or certainly not be as aware of what was her terrible situation because she was able to just bury herself in her work.
“But now that she finds herself retired, she has no real freedom and no financial freedom, but she then starts to push against the boundaries, the invisible boundaries.
“And that’s when Nigel then starts to react in smaller ways and then bigger ways.”
Did you have to do research in order to write Jewel as a young prostitute?
“I spoke to sex workers and did as much research as I could to get a proper feel for the various experiences.
“One of the main things that I came away with is that it’s not a black and white situation, and I hope that comes across in the film.
“It isn’t the case that every sex worker hates what they’re doing and hates men, is really unhappy and suffers violence.
“Absolutely, lots of them do and some of them don’t.
“Like every aspect of life, there is a huge variety in experiences of sex workers of all ages.
“Again, they come from all backgrounds and all classes.
“There isn’t just one type of sex worker and they don’t just have one type of experience.”
There is that moment in the film when Marian sees Jewel going out to work the streets and realises what she has been doing to survive. Is that something that still exists?
“There is definitely still street work.
“In fact, that was one of the things that surprised me.
“One sex worker told me that they actually find street work to be a little bit safer because you’re one on one with the punter. You get to kind of make a decision straightaway, you get a read of them basically in their car or wherever they are.
“You have more autonomy.
“If you’re in something like a brothel and there are men coming in, and you’re essentially working for somebody else, you have less autonomy and you might be in some circumstances that might even be more dangerous.
“I wouldn’t have expected that before I began research.”
Jewel is part of an underclass of people, if you want to call it that, who would never call the guards even if she was in trouble.
There is that moment when her apartment has been trashed and her friend asks if she wants to call the guards, and then they both laugh..
“Within the sex industry, and in lots of cultures, they(the guards)’re the last people that you’d call.
“There’s many people that feel that the guards are not there to protect them: They’re there to uphold the status quo. They’re there to stand at ATMs when they’re given out money that they shouldn’t.
“They’re there to protect politicians, etc.
“So that is certainly something that I wanted to just have a little bit of fun with, because it is hugely important to have moments of humour in the script.
“And thankfully, with all the screenings that we’ve had so far, I’ve been delighted that it’s been peppered with lots of laughter throughout which is hugely important when you’re dealing with some trickier subjects.”
Marian also offers Jewel the number of her friend who is a guard only for Jewel to laugh, saying many of her clients are guards.
“It’s lovely to see Marian’s reaction when she thinks she’s being helpful to Jewel giving her the name of her Garda friend and it’s thrown back in her face, because it is absolutely the reality as well that police officers use prostitutes, just like so many other people in society.”
In the film Jewel is younger than 18. Did you cast an actress a few years older rather than throw a young girl into such an explicit role?
“In the script she’s 17, nearly 18 and we never find out exactly how nearly.
“I’m not sure of Maya’s exact age, might be 20, 21, something like that but really, when it came to casting, I auditioned a huge number of fabulous actors for all the roles, but in particular for Jewel.
“There were a number of fantastic actors, some who were still under 18 and a fair bit under 18, but Maya just stole the audition essentially.
“When she came in, she just brought a little spark of magic to it.
“I think she’s an absolutely amazing actor.
“She’s just emerging now. She’s only a few years out of college.
“I would be astonished if she doesn’t have a stellar career ahead of her.
“And it’s also true of Geraldine McAlinden who plays Marian.
“The two of them, even though they have such differences themselves, they really kind of gelled as actors together.
“They basically became friends when they came to the audition and that absolutely informs their lovely bond throughout the story.”
The film premiered at Galway Film Fleadh.
“That was great because we were under real pressure to get the film completed in time.
“We always wanted to premiere at Galway.
“It was a wonderful experience to hear and feel the audience reaction.
“People responded really, really positively.
“Then a couple of days later, when they held their awards ceremony, we were thrilled to bits to come away with the Best Independent Film Award.
“It was very sweet.
“It’s just such a help to really small independent films like ours to have festivals respond so positively to our film.”
The film has since gone on to pick up awards at Kerry and Newport Beach Film Festival in America.
“We’re really looking forward to our UK premiere at the Irish Film Festival London, it’s going to be great.”
What made you want to call the film Verdigris?
“A lot of people said, ‘Nobody knows what Verdigris means, don’t call it that. Nobody can pronounce it’.
“Verdigris is that coating that metals like copper get when they’ve been out in the elements for decades.
“I’ve always just loved how it actually looks.
“And to me, it really represented what this story was about, because it’s about Marian who has reached the age of 65 and her day job decided, ‘You’re too old to work here anymore essentially’.
“But she, of course, is still full of worth.
“The idea is that it’s a little bit of an ode to age and wisdom, the idea being that Jewel represents copper. She’s young and shiny and has her whole future ahead of her. She’s newly forged.
“Whereas Marian is like Verdigris, she’s been out in the elements for decades but is nonetheless beautiful or worthy. She has just been changed by her life experience and is just as special as young shiny copper. That’s the idea behind it.”
Like Marian, Patricia has also worked as a legal secretary. She may not know what it is like to be retired but she has been made redundant. Like she says, she was also a census enumerator.
“Verdigris is a hugely personal story, either in that I myself have had many of the experiences, for example, being a legal secretary, or doing the census. I’ve lived in leafy suburbs, and I’ve lived in north inner city Dublin, so all of that is very personal.
“But things that weren’t from my own experience, they were very much from people that were very close to me, one person that’s very close to me had been in a coercively controlling relationship for a long time.
“I was able to take that experience, and then similarly, I’ve known a lot of people who’ve suffered from infertility and the heartbreak that brings them and things like that.
“So really, pretty much everything that’s in the story, if it’s not relating to my own personal experience, it’s relating to friends and family that I’m very close with who have talked to me about their own experiences over the years.”
Verdigris screens at 6pm on Saturday 18 November at Vue Piccadilly, as part of Irish Film Festival London.
Irish Film Festival London runs 15- 19 November, for more information, click here.