With her debut feature film, Australian writer/director Mirrah Foulkes turns the classic puppet story of Punch and Judy on its head with Judy And Punch, about a couple who are trying to resurrect their marionette show in a peculiar seaside town on the brink of mob rule. Mia Wasikowska and Damon Herriman star in the film, which Cornerstone sells internationally.
Foulkes previously directed award-winning shorts like Florence Has Left the Building and Trespass, as well as being an actress in hits like Animal Kingdom, Top Of The Lake and The Crown.
Why do you think Punch and Judy are enduring characters?
They’re a very English tradition, but outside of the UK and maybe Australia I don’t think people are very familiar with Punch and Judy. It’s really unusual to me that this collection of inherently violent, simplistic stock characters has survived as long as it has. I think there is something really captivating about puppets but it’s almost like, in the interest of tradition, we’ve never stood back and examined what Punch and Judy says about us culturally, about our love of violence in popular culture and the way that violence is more often than not directed toward women.
Who had the original idea? What did you think when you first heard it and why did you think this was a story you wanted to tell with your first feature?
VICE had bought two of my short films to screen on their VICE shorts channel so they were familiar with my work. Danny Gabai and Eddy Moretti at VICE called me one day and wanted to talk about the idea of making a live action Punch and Judy film, it was an idea that was brought to them by Tom Punch – who worked at Vice – and his sister Lucy Punch. I was familiar with Punch and Judy in a very general sense but didn’t really know a lot about it. I started researching the history and learnt that before it was this strange, violent hand puppet show it was performed with marionettes. It felt to me like a kind of puppet devolution, which I thought was interesting and I had the idea to write a fictionalized origin story. Danny and Eddy were incredibly supportive and just encouraged me to go nuts with it, which is what I did!
How do you describe the tone of the film?
I think of it as a dark absurd fairytale. My intention was to have it catch you off guard tonally; I enjoy films that sneak up on you in that sense. At times it’s totally silly, slapstick, satirical and at others it is pretty disturbing and dark.
How did you cast the film, and what was it like working with Mia in particular?
I knew a lot of the actors I cast before I made the movie. Damon [Herriman] and I have been friends for a long time and I’ve always wanted to direct him in something because he’s amazing. Once we decided we were shooting in Australia I knew I wanted to use as many local actors as possible because there’s just so much talent to choose from. Mia and I knew each other socially but not very well. I sent her the script and she said yes almost straight away, which was fantastic. It was about a year until we actually started shooting and we became great friends during that time so by the time we got to the shoot I really felt like I was surrounded by good mates who were really committed to the movie and that was the best feeling.
Does this feel like a side of Australia or an attitude we haven’t seen on screen before?
I hope so. That was always the intention. It was a world building exercise; I wanted the film to feel like a fable, set in no particular time or place. I anchored it in mid 17th-century Europe and we had some strict rules around that but I never wanted to feel historically bound and we intentionally broke rules all the time, particularly with language.
You’ve had a successful acting career, did you consider acting in this film too?
Absolutely not! I know a lot of people are able to direct themselves but I honestly don’t know how they do it. They are such different jobs and I’m in a totally different head space on set when I’m acting to when I’m directing, I just don’t think I would be able to flick between the two. I never look at the monitor when I’m acting; I don’t like doing that at all so that would be a major hurdle!
Did your short films give you a good understanding of what directing a feature would entail or did it feel like a steep learning curve?
Both I think. I kept telling myself ‘don’t panic, it’s just like making a series of shorts back to back’ and in a way it was but it was also so much more intense than I could have imagined. I’ve watched so many close friends go through the process and been on set a lot as an actor but in a way nothing really prepares you for it. It’s all about the mental stamina; I’d never needed my brain to be so switched on for such a long period of time. It’s mind boggling how many decisions you have to make every day. But I do think you get better at it, you build up the muscles and develop an understanding of what the repercussions of all of those decisions are. I have a feeling it will be easier on the next one; at least I hope it will.
How did you want the film to look and how did you work with your DoP Stefan Duscio?
I had this mantra of wanting it to look and feel like nothing you’d ever seen before, which is tricky because if that’s what you’re trying to do you can’t really reference other films. I’d been collecting reference images for years and came into pre production with a lot of visual material as a starting point. Stefan and I really wanted to shoot on film to get a grimy, old world feeling but it just wasn’t possible financially so we ended up shooting on quite old anamorphic lenses and using Livegrain, which replicates the texture of film and we tried to light with as much natural and candle light as possible.
A lot of the time we had to let our locations dictate the look, trying to make Australia look like 17th-century Europe isn’t easy and we were limited by where we could shoot but often the locations would drive the color palate and we would work with what we had. I wanted the film to feel dark, bleak, dirty and visceral but I also wanted it to have scope and not feel too cloistered so we made sure we shot locations that opened it up a bit and gave a sense of a larger world when we could.
How do you think this particular film represents the kinds of films you want to make?
I’m really not sure. I guess it has similarities to my short films in a tonal sense but I don’t think that was ever intentional. I’m interested in a lot of different kinds of films and genres; I just want to make things that are bold and engaging. The film I’m hoping to make next couldn’t be more different to Judy And Punch.
What will you work on next?
I’ve written an adaptation of an Alice Munro short story called Runaway. She is such an incredible writer and it’s a very delicate and contained story. I really hope I can make that next.