Maudern Art: Sally Hawkins plays a primitive painter who defied convention in Aisling Walsh's 'Maudie'

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Being approached to direct a biopic about Nova Scotian folk artist Maud Lewis enabled Aisling Walsh (Song for a Raggy Boy) to achieve a career ambition of making a movie about a painter. The project also provided an opportunity for the Irish filmmaker to reunite with actress Sally Hawkins. “The first time we worked together was ten years ago. Sometimes while reading a script you’ll visualize somebody and I thought of her. I knew that Sally would take on the challenge of playing that all-consuming role and would bring something rather special to it.”

Like Brooklyn and Room, Maudie (released by Sony Pictures Classics) is another co-production between Ireland and Canada. “You wonder one without the other, would these movies happen? Probably not. It’s a lovely way to work together. The stories that we are interested in telling are similar too, particularly with Atlantic Canada.”

A delay in the financing turned into a casting opportunity for the part of Everett Lewis, Maud’s husband. “We needed an actor for Everett who was a creative artistic individual like Sally,” states Walsh. “Initially, when we were going to make the film, Ethan Hawke wasn’t available. Then a year later he was. His wife read the script and said to him, ‘You have to play this part.’ Ethan is an actor I’ve always loved because he’s such an artist.”

Making an appearance at the end of the film are the real Maud and Everett Lewis, courtesy of a CBC documentary. “I came across three minutes of that documentary which was referenced in the script on the Internet one Sunday afternoon. I heard her speaking for the first time. I sat in tears going, ‘My God, I can’t believe that I found this.’” The actual artwork of Maud Lewis also appears on the big screen. “I felt it would be nice on the end credits to have her paintings, so people could leave saying, ‘Oh my God, they’re so colorful, bright and uplifting.’”

Certain discoveries were made while conducting research on the project. “On my first visit to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax, I met the curator there and said to her, ‘It’s interesting that Maud never painted a self-portrait.’ She said, ‘Maud painted this mirror hanging up on the wall at the back of the table where she sat. We feel that’s the nearest thing she painted as a self-portrait.’ She obviously stood and looked at herself and painted all of these flowers around it. I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got to put that in the film.’ So I did. She painted a lot of scenes in the snow and I felt that we needed to see that harshness of their lives.”

Story and landscape are important to Walsh. “Those shots of them wandering across the causeway and back I thought visually connect their house to the town and vice versa. It’s a lovely thing to see over the years.”

Creative contributions were made by Hawkins and Hawke. “There’s a scene in the truck where Maud is walking back after seeing her aunt and Everett picks her up. That scene is quite different from what is written. Things evolve, especially when you have two actors who aren’t afraid to create.”

A pivotal decision was whether to construct the 12 foot by 12 foot house in which Maud and Everett Lewis lived on a stage or out on location in Newfoundland, where the weather is notoriously unpredictable. “We said, ‘We’ve just got to brave it out there and hope that it works,’” Walsh recalls. “If it didn’t, we had a version of the house that could be put into a studio. In a sense, we built the house three times. When Maud goes there in the beginning, it’s dank and miserable. She starts to paint and then it’s half-painted. Then it’s fully painted and all in its glory in the 1950s. It’s shabby towards the end of their lives. Those various stages were painted four times. Four of the walls. Four of the doors. We could have shot it somewhere in the States if we had to, but it didn’t come to that. What you get is this lovely sense of that house in the world because they can open the door, look out the window, walk in and walk out, and that’s their landscape.”

Finding the right location for the house was the hardest aspect of all. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle. If you know where the house is going to be, then you know where you’re going to be for three-quarters of your shoot. Then you can think about everything else and work out a way to do it.”

The paintings of Maud Lewis had to be recreated for the movie. “You have to figure out how you’re going to do it,” Walsh explains. “Maybe there are six versions of one painting because you want to see the various stages of it being created. That takes time and testing. The same with the cards that she painted. We also had to recreate some of her paintings to fit our landscape. You see in one painting the red bridge. I thought it would be nice to tie in that location which is outside down the road from the house.”

Hindering the day-to-day life of the prolific painter was crippling rheumatoid arthritis, which is not the focus of the story. “We talked about it quite a lot, Sally and I. You look at people with disabilities or who are living with pain constantly or looking after someone like that and they live with it. Maud didn’t know life without pain. I felt that’s not what the film is about. It’s about how Maud and Everett lived their life together.”

“One of my favorite scenes is the wedding night where they dance together,” notes Walsh. “That was different from what was written. I thought it might be rather lovely to see that actually this man can dance. He may not be able to read or write, but he can dance. Where did he learn how to do that? It’s a rather lovely, intimate moment. I love the causeway. She walks behind him. He’s pushing the barrel. Now she’s in the barrel. You see that progression of that relationship in one simple shot over the years.”

Walsh asserts, “A whole part of me wanted her work recognized. I’m glad the film has done that, because there are so few woman artists who are recognized. She was self-taught. But my God, she painted every day of her life. Some days she painted two paintings. It’s quite an extraordinary body of work. She loved it. And it was her life. Everett gave her the freedom to do that. To me, her greatest work of art is the house, which has 30 years of their life together painted on the walls. When you see her paintings, they’re even more inspiring.”