Fresh from Tribeca Film Festival, we caught up with the Helen O’Hanlon, the director of the beautiful new short film ‘Mirette’ to talk about her work and this charming film.
Helen O’Hanlon’s charming film Mirette brings Emily Arnold McCully’s award winning book Mirette on the High Wire to life, this timeless tale stars BAFTA award winner Miriam Margolyes, OSCAR nominee & TONY winner Tom Conti, and Dixie Egerickx, who is about to star alongside Colin Firth and Julie Walters in The Secret Garden. Jean-Marc Desmond and Victoria’s Bebe Cave also feature in this beautiful tale. Mirette is the story of a plucky young girl, whose unexpected encounter with a fabled wirewalker changes both of their lives
100 years ago in a boarding house in Paris, a young girl’s life is changed by the arrival of a mysterious man, whom she discovers is a wirewalker.
Writer and Director Helen O’Hanlon’s debut film How to be a Villain won a number of awards, including Best Director at the Oscar-qualifying Bermuda International Film Festival and The Forry Ackerman Award for Imagination in Film at the inaugural Silver Scream Film Festival. She has a number of exciting titles in development, including a New York Times Bestseller. In the meantime she is originating a new travel show format with UK comedy legend, Vic Reeves and is developing the feature version of Mirette.
Please can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I am a Director/Writer with a particular interest in magical realism. I am also a proud mother of two daughters.
Why was it so important for you to tell this story?
When I found the book (Mirette on a High Wire) I fell in love with it, the beautiful simplicity of a story that possesses a tremendous cinematic quality to it. I loved that it was a young heroine, a story of how a little girl who seems invisible to the world can suddenly lift everyone up to the stars.
I wanted to make it as a 30 minute ‘live action’ adaptation following on the coat-tails of animated adaptations (Gruffalo, Room on the broom). Features aside, I think there is a lack of extremely high quality live action material for families so in this sense Mirette is trailblazing the format.
Tell us about the casting process.
We began by finding our Mirette. I had several casting sessions before spotting her photo in a very long list my casting director compiled. I knew immediately, just from her headshot, it was Dixie Egerickx. She is a bright young star who I am proud to say we’ll see much more of on our screens as she has just been cast in the lead in the remake of ‘The Secret Garden’ with Colin Firth & Julie Walters. She is going to be amazing. I can’t wait to see it.
I found our lead male actor, Jean-Marc Desmond at the New York Film Festival when our previous films were screened together. When I got him and Dixie in a room they had a beautiful chemistry. Both Dixie and Jean-Marc had to learn to wire walk for real. They devoted themselves to the process over an 8 month period. Here you can see footage of the process: www.mirette-film.com/blog/first-steps-on-the-wire/
As for the great Miriam Margolyes, I saw her at an anniversary talk on one of her films. At that time I had written the character of Mirette’s mother to match the book but it occurred to me it would be better to change the character to be a Grandmother. So I rewrote the role for her and send it to her. You can’t imagine my delight when she agreed. We honestly would not have got the film made without her support.
And Tom Conti is a legend. Incredibly talented, charming and so so funny it was a total delight working with him from beginning to end. With Tom, as with Miriam, we simply sent the script and they loved it. I still thank my lucky stars that it caught their imagination as they crown our film and make it more wonderful than I could have imagined.
We meticulously cast every character in the film (including the extras). For me casting is such a critical element, no compromises can be made or corners cut. It has to be right. A jewel box of characters. We were blessed with the talent we were able to get on board.
Tell us about the location of where the film was shot
We shot our interiors in East London but finding somewhere that could serve as century old Paris for the exteriors was tricky. After a huge amount of research and time spent driving around SW France we literally stumbled into a small town called Périgueux. It is so charming and full of character which infused the film. It was an incredible place to shoot, with 35 of the locals joining the production as extras. We are very grateful to Alienor Pauly and the Dordogne Film Commission for their work in making this all happen. There are wonderful behind the scene photos here: www.mirette-film.com/behindthescenes/
At what point did you fall in love with directing?
My first experience directing for camera came much, much later than most. Although when studying Performance Arts at Uni I loved directing actors and devising theatre, I had no sense of any real opportunity to direct film. Looking back I’m not sure why that is, but can’t ignore the fact that for women this was not a path that seemed particularly open or visible. My early career was in the music industry so it wasn’t until I took time out to have my children that I felt perhaps ready or compelled to try. So at 38 years of age, without formal training, I directed a shoot as an experiment. It went incredibly well and this led me to make my debut film, How to be a Villain (a homage to James Whale and Boris Karloff) ‘Villain’ was my acid test…to make or break me as a director…and thrillingly, it was hugely successful. Through making ‘Villain’ I learned that carving a film out of my imagination, working with incredibly talented people to realise it, feeling those goosebumps at an amazing take, working tirelessly despite all the challenges and obstacles to bring a film to the finish, is the most satisfying and compelling thing I could ever wish to do. I hope to long continue making these kinds of timeless, entertaining films for audiences.
Did you encounter any difficulties whilst making this film? If so, what were they?
Well the scale of ambition for ‘Mirette’ was off the charts. Our actors had to wirewalk for real so erecting tight wires for the shoot was immensely challenging. We needed a specific width, height and ability to be able to transport it to locations and construct it with the right tension, meeting all safety requirements. The amazing people at Aircraft Circus custom made us a rig. We couldn’t have done it without their help and support.
It is also a period piece which presents infinite challenges for a small indie production like ours. For our finale scene, for example. we had 35 extras for a night shoot, all who had to be in period costume, none of whom spoke English nor had been on camera before, plus the limits to hours we could have Dixie our young lead on camera… You need a bit of luck for it all to come together. And it did. The finale scene is breathtaking.
Where can people go to see Mirette?
We are currently in the middle of an exciting festival run. Having premiered at Tribeca Film Festival in NY we are heading to Nashville Film Festival in May and have a number of festivals beyond that we are not allowed to reveal just yet! Our hope is for Mirette to hit screens for Christmas 2018 – to keep up to date on news, follow us on Twitter or FB @mirettefilm
If you had to give advice to upcoming directors, what would it be?
Find a story that compels you, that you are passionate about beyond measure. Find a great producer who believes in you. Collaborate every step of the way. And never, never, never give up.
What kind of message do you want young girls to take away from your film?
While young girls will easily identify with Mirette, and it is a feminist film in many ways, my hope is that boys and girls alike will take away its positive message: That you can do and achieve anything with determination and courage. Dare to dream and devote yourself to your dreams. Believe in yourself. The future is yours.
What are your next projects?
We want to continue making live-action children’s book adaptations and have an NY Times bestseller in development. Plus the reaction to Mirette at Tribeca has been incredible. We are adapting it further into a feature-length film which we will go into production with next year. I have also been creating a unique and hugely entertaining food travel series with Vic Reeves (Jim Moir) called “8 Bites” (www.helenohanlon.com | @helenohanlon)