Eva Birthistle

Source: @bypip

Eva Birthistle

The transition from actor to director is a path well-trodden – but it’s one that Irish star Eva Birthistle hasn’t rushed. 

For County Wicklow-born, London based Birthistle – whose acting career includes Brooklyn, Netflix series The Last Kingdom and, most recently, Sharon Horgan’s Bafta-winning Apple show Bad Sisters – it has been a 10-year process from initial idea to getting Kathleen Is Here made, her first feature as writer-director, soon to world premiere at Raindance Film Festival.

Birthistle began putting some ideas down about a decade ago linked to mother-daughter relationships, loss and grief, and left the ideas to percolate for five years, in that time embarking on her own motherhood journey and acting gigs. When she returned to the project, it morphed into the story of a young girl obsessed with US reality TV clan, the Kardashians. Her research drew her into the vlog of an American teenage girl going through the foster system, giving candid accounts of her day-to-day life.

“I went down a rabbit hole with the whole thing, and ended up landing on that very precarious time when a young person comes out of care,” recalls Birthistle.

“On an unconscious level, I was working through my own, very personal feelings about motherhood. When I was writing initially, 10 years ago, I was pregnant, and then when I sat back down to it five years ago, it was just before my second child. I was unconsciously exorcising all these worries about how to be a mother.”

The final storyline revolves around Kathleen, an 18-year-old fresh out of foster care, whose leaving care coincides with the death of her biological mother. She returns to her hometown, a made-up setting in Ireland and filmed in Balbriggen, a coastal town near Dublin, to take ownership of her mother’s house.

While the Kardashian obsession has taken a back seat in the story, their presence is felt. “It was the juxtaposition of their crazy world, that has so much abundance, an extraordinary life removed from reality and then churned out to anybody who wants to watch. It’s so far removed from the likes of Katheleen’s world,” reflects Birthistle. 

“I would absolutely not act in the film”

Kathleen Is Here

Source: Raindance Film Festival

‘Kathleen Is Here’

After pulling together a first draft of the script, Birthistle sent it to Irish production company Treasure Entertainment, on the recommendation of a friend. Treasure’s Claire McCaughley, whose previous credits include Galway Film Fleadh premiere Metal Heart, quickly came on board as producer. Birthistle then received a writer’s grant from Screen Ireland for a two-year development process. At the end of the development process, Screen Ireland encouraged Birthistle to make a short, owing to her lack of concrete directing experience.

Kathleen Was Here, a prologue to the feature, was turned around on a two-day shoot, and went on to win three discovery awards at the Dublin International Film Festival in 2021.

The success of the short gave Screen Ireland confidence to fully finance the film, on a €1.5m budget, with Hazel Doupe playing Kathleen in both the short and the feature. The 20-day shoot took place in February 2023.

Birthistle herself does not act in the film. “It wasn’t something I had to think about – I would absolutely not be in the film. I needed to focus on being the director. It was nerve-racking – I didn’t want to dilute it in any way.”

To build a positive atmosphere on set, she drew on some of her own experiences as an actor, most notably in Ken Loach’s 2004 Berlinale title, A Fond Kiss.

“Ken Loach is one of the directors – I don’t work in any way like Ken Loach, I don’t think anyone could  – his atmosphere on set is like a family. That was one of the most joyous [on set] experiences in terms of everyone being cared for, and having a great time, and respected. That comes from him. Everyone he works with is lovely. He sets this tone of complete respect – everyone is treated the same,” says Birthistle.

“That’s stayed with me since I worked with him. I saw him not that long ago, I told him about the film, and being nervous it, and that all I could see was my mistakes. He said, ‘That’s all I see when I see any of my films.’ So if Ken Loach is saying it…”

Kathleen Is Here is being released in Ireland by Break Out Pictures, and will continue a festival run after its Raindance world premiere. Birthistle plans to continue both paths of acting and filmmaking, and is working on another Ireland-set script, that she describes as a “folklore and revenge story”.

She admits she considered taking a step back from acting when getting Kathleen Is Here off the ground, until Bad Sisters fell into her lap. Filming for season two has wrapped, which will hit screens in November. Will the Garvey sisters go for a third?

“I’d love for there to be a season three,” beams Birthistle. ”They haven’t said yes or no – I remain hopeful and optimistic. Sharon [Horgan] will only do it if she really feels she’s got a good story, while a lot of people do things because there’s an appetite for her. We’re trying to convince her it will be. We’d love to do it.”