A matter of instinct

Craig David Wallace and Lora Burke on Motherly

by Jennie Kermode

Lora Burke in Motherly
Lora Burke in Motherly

In a big, rambling house in the middle of nowhere, a mother, Kate (Lora Burke), and daughter, Beth (Tessa Kozma), have been sequestered away from the world, hidden because of a horror in their past. Beth is bored, stomping around the place, resentful because she’s been taken away from her friends and she can’t have a proper birthday party. Kate is trying to hold it together for both their sakes, but when she begins to suspect that someone is prowling around the house, she realises that their situation could be about to get a lot worse. With Motherly just released in US cinemas, I met up with Lora and director/co-writer Craig David Wallace to discuss it.

Although it was written beforehand, Motherly is a film which has, in a curious way, benefited from the pandemic. After what we’ve experienced over the past two years, many people can now directly relate to what it’s like to be cooped up indoors for weeks with an angry child. I mention this as we begin, and Lora is quick to pick up the point.

Running for it
Running for it

“You know, I hadn't even thought of it that way, but that's just what Craig and I were just talking about,” she says. “I mean, in the film, Kate was isolated and stuck with her charming daughter, and even as a cast and crew, we were also in isolation though filming as well. So yeah, definitely. I think that resonates with people watching now, too, you know, we're all used to just being in our own bubbles. It’s a very interesting analogy.”

We have to be careful in how we approach our conversation because this is a film full of twists and turns. I ask Craig how he went about structuring it and deciding what to reveal when, so as not to give too much away too soon.

“That's the question that always comes up about the film,” he says. “And I guess, when you're watching a movie, there's this general sense that the entire movie was basically worked out before it was written. But this project evolved considerably over an eight year period. My co writer Ian Malone and I started working on it so long ago. And originally, we just set out to do a film about somebody who's being stalked, we wanted to do a stalker film. And as that started to develop, all these different ideas started coming up about why someone’s being stalked, where it's coming from.

“There's some really infamous murders that happened to Canada around 15 or 20 years ago, the Paul Bernardo murders, and that became a starting point, to a certain extent, because it was somebody who had been convicted of murdering a bunch of teenage girls, but his wife, Carla, was instrumental in getting him in prison. But after he was in prison, it was revealed that she had made a plea bargain, and that she had actually been his accomplice. And around the time we started developing the film, she had been discovered by a journalist, they found out where she was living, and she was living out in the open, she had a new husband, and she had kids. And we started thinking about, ‘Oh, what's the story we could tell with that sort of an idea here, somebody who has this history, what could happen?’ But again, over eight years, things change, things evolve. It was a very, very different project starting out.

In desperate straits
In desperate straits

“So all the twists and turns that you see weren't things that were carefully and deliberately plotted out. They happened more organically as the script developed over time, especially, just in the last couple of weeks before we started shooting. So much of the script changed just based on the farmhouse that we had got. There were so many nooks and crannies in there. But a lot of what's in there in terms of just geography and little secret things that happen inside that house, that all just came up in the last two weeks before we started filming.”

I was curious about that location, which adds a lot to the atmosphere, so I ask how they found it.

“It was really a testament to our producers who set out to find this farm house out in the middle of nowhere,” he says. “We had a very modest budget, so we are very thankful to the owners of the house for letting us in. The house itself was really quirky. The owners are relatively new owners of the property and they were going to completely renovate it, so we kind of snuck in there before it really, really changed. But from room to room, it almost felt like each room was a different era. But just the layout of the house, there's just so many interesting and quirky things about it that the whole script had to change around the geography and the environment.”

It also creates the impression that we might be watching a haunted house film, I suggest. Early on, it’s not clear what kind of horror we should expect. Did he hope to keep audience members on their toes that way?

“One of the challenges of any film is that in order to promote and market a film you need to show a trailer and you need to have a synopsis,” he says, “and inevitably, it's going to reveal more of the film than we really wanted to. That's just the nature of it. But we really felt, going in, it would be great to be going in cold so that you're in aren't sure what kind of a film you're really going to see. And we really wanted it to be, you know, starting off as maybe you're watching a ghost story, it turns into a home invasion story and then it becomes just a very intense drama between two very strong willed individuals. And we want the audience expectations to evolve with the film.”

Trying to stay safe
Trying to stay safe

Managing secrets and revealing things at the right time is also a tricky job for an actor, especially with a character like Kate, who is dealing with a lot of complex emotions. How did Lora handle that?

“Oh boy, this is a long time ago,” she laughs. “You know, I do remember struggling with Kate. To begin with, I'm reading through the script and there are certain points emotionally that I can kind of get into the headspace of where she was at. But I definitely was feeling a lot of pressure because I knew that Craig has been trying to get this film made for eight years. And I'm like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’d better do something good here.’ So I definitely remember I wasn't sure how to get into Kate's mindset. But I have to say, just getting into that environment.” Her face brightens and Craig nods, knowing what she means. “As soon as we got on set, you know, I go find some space for myself. And just being there, with all the work that I've already done, it just elevates it. And I'm like, ‘Oh, this is what I needed.’ Right? Like, just to feel it and see it. So I went in not feeling like I had her but it’s about trusting it, you know, trusting yourself and what you've done. And yeah, I guess, letting it organically happen.”

She has great chemistry with Tessa Kozma. How did Tessa come on board and how did they develop that relationship that we see on screen?

“We did an open casting call for a non-union young actor,” says Craig, “which is certainly a challenge to find somebody who had the chops really to pull off the roll. And it was extremely nerve racking going through that process. But the minute we saw Tessa’s self tape, we just knew that she was the one. And we were really fortunate to be able to bring Lora in to read with her in a casting session, and just the minute they were together, it just seemed like they had been rehearsing it for days.” This did a lot to improve his blood pressure, he notes.

“Yeah, she was great,” says Lora. “I mean, the confidence on her and she just, you know, but she’s very cool, calm and collected. It was exactly what was needed for the role. She was just always great.”

One woman to another
One woman to another

“I've worked with a lot of child actors, a lot of kids, doing TV in Canada,” says Craig, “and the really good ones all have the same traits and they seem like they're already a way better human being that you'll ever possibly be. In between takes, you know, she's just got a really emotional scene, she’s just gone on this really crazy journey with the character, and then she'd be there on her iPad, like, drawing a poster for the film and then doing lessons with her mom or with the tutor. And then, you know, we're out in the cold all night and then she's like, ‘I'm off to dance lessons.’ She’s already eclipsed me in accomplishment.”

“I think I approached it not from her isolation but just the love of her daughter,” Lora says, referring to the way she developed her own character. “I kind of focused on that, like, that's all she has, right? So you know, when you're so tunnel visioned, you put all your energy, all your effort into one thing. And that was more where I came from, like, ‘How can I pour my heart and soul into her because I have nothing else?’”

It shouldn’t be giving to much away to reveal that, partway through the film, there are some torture scenes and things that your character has to go through that are quite extreme. Some critics seem to have approached it as if we see a completely different side to her character then, but to me it just seemed like an extension of that love and commitment.

“It's not a Jekyll and Hyde type situation,” she agrees. “I didn’t approach it that way. I was, ‘What do I have to do to get out of this situation so that I can look after my daughter?’ And it's, you know, by whatever means necessary. The mother bear.”

She’s pleased when I tell her that I found her acting in those scenes more believable than a lot of what I see onscreen.

“I think it's just because Lora’s awesome,” says Greg.

Motherly poster
Motherly poster

“In my film repertoire, I've done my fair share of thrillers,” she notes. “But actually, you know what I did? I actually googled – my Google search history was very interesting for a while – like, how much does it hurt for this to happen? And I started reading accounts of people that had had that done to them. I find if I can find a real life story and read somebody else's perspective on it, I can use that on the day.”

We talk about the witness protection aspect of the story and Craig has an admission to make.

“I could lie,” says Craig, “but I’m just going to say that we just wrote in that she was in a protection programme. I doubt it actually works that way. But one thing that was really interesting about working on this particular film, in a lot of ways, you know, you think about other films with witness protection programme, and I don’t think those work realistically either, but I really like those films.”

He’s mostly done TV before this, and one other film. What was it like transitioning between the two?

“It wasn't terribly different,” he says, “although my film before was an animated film and it was the sequel to a television series, so I really do consider this my first feature. I think one of the things that's interesting is just the notion of scale. I mean, everybody always thinks that television is much smaller and faster, and film, you have a much longer time to really explore a theme. And that can be true in some cases, but just the nature of the production of this film, you know, we had very limited time to do it. I had probably less time than I had on most television series that I've worked on. I had far less resources than I did on television series. But one thing that was really great is that we did have a very small but very dedicated crew, and it really felt like a family, especially when we were all either living in the farmhouse or nearby while we were making the film. And just that sense of intimacy, just among all the filmmakers, and the actors – there was this sense of kind of peace and quiet, which was, I guess, surprising considering the subject matter. But it was a very calm production.

“It wasn't without its challenges, we found out that the pandemic was starting halfway through production, and nobody really knew what to make of that. But all things considered it was it was a much more, I'd say, thoughtful experience, a lot more of a calm, almost meditative experience. Television is so crazy. You're going from one location to another. You’ve got to get this, you’ve got to get that, you’ve got to go, go, go, go, go. Even though we had a small shoot with a small schedule, I never felt like we were really running out of time.”

Alas, I am running out of time at this point – I’ve just been informed that Craig and Lora have to go to another interview – so I thanks them for their time. Before we part, Lora and I briefly chat about her other work.

“ I actually I started doing voice work this year, which was a new thing for me,” she says, explaining that she’s been working on an animated series. “I just like interesting characters, whether it's on stage, TV film, I just love to do it.”

Motherly is in US cinemas now.

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