April 21, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Phyllida Lloyd and Clare Dunne find optimism in ‘Herself’

“Herself,” an intimate, small-budget film about a woman in Dublin who transforms her broken life by building a house, may seem like an unexpected turn from Phyllida Lloyd. But the movie, written by and starring Clare Dunne, is, in some ways, a culmination of the British director’s recent work.

After helming “Mamma Mia!” and “The Iron Lady,” Lloyd returned to the theater, spending several years working on a trio of all-female Shakespeare productions between London and New York. The cast of her versions of “Julius Caesar,” “Henry IV” and “The Tempest” included Dunne, an Irish theater actress who had a small role in “Spider-Man: Far From Home” (as did “Herself” costar Harriet Walter). The duo first met when Dunne auditioned for “Julius Caesar,” and they spent the next six years working in tandem.

“I’ll never forget her coming in and taking this really famous Shakespearean speech of the character of Portia and just literally speaking it as if she was making it up,” Lloyd remembers, in a Zoom call along with Dunne. “As if it had never been spoken before and she was literally composing it in front of your eyes.”

At the same time Dunne had started writing her first screenplay, inspired by a friend who lost her housing in Ireland and had to live in a hotel. Dunne, who first came up with the idea in 2014 and finished her first draft the following year, thought maybe there was a better solution for a single mom dealing with a broken social housing system. It led her to the fictional character of Sandra, a mom of two young girls who is forced into temporary housing after she leaves her abusive husband and decides the solution is to self-build her own home.

“I thought, ‘God, what if she could just bypass the system and get back to basics? What if she could get her hands on some wood and some bricks and build the bloody house if she could find some land?’” Dunne says. “It was like a flash. A woman helps herself and finds the right kind of help, builds a house [and] a community forms around her.”

Dunne never intended to star in the film, which Lloyd came onboard to direct after reading a later draft of the screenplay. The director felt that it was essential for Dunne to play Sandra and says that was one of the main reasons she wanted to direct. Lloyd was also interested in her first film in nearly a decade being a low-budget project that felt closer to theater than Hollywood.

“This all-female collective we were working with [was] very motivated to put women’s stories and women’s voices out there into the culture,” Lloyd notes. “I wanted to make something that somehow aligned more to the work I was doing in the theater and wondered if, for all the pressure of a low-budget movie in terms of lack of time, maybe the fact that it’s a smaller crew could feel more like the work I was doing where everybody on the unit is passionate about what they’re doing and everybody knows why they’re there.”

She adds, “When you do a musical, everybody offers you a musical. You do a biopic, and everybody offers you a biopic. I did try to keep saying, ‘Actually, I want to do something more with its feet on the ground.’ It’s an odd way to go. Usually people are trying to get bigger and bigger budgets, so there’s something counterintuitive to what I was expressing.”

The Amazon Studios film was shot over five weeks in Dublin, with much of the film shot chronologically so that Sandra’s self-built house could take form. Lloyd and Dunne took a course on how to build a timber-frame house and brought in a construction crew to help the cast learn how to use power tools and erect the walls for various scenes. It was an exhausting shoot for Dunne, who is in nearly every scene, and she leaned on the character’s undeterred spirit to get through the long days.

“There were moments when I was following Clare where I thought, ‘This is happening,’” Lloyd says. “She is, in some way, bearing witness for generations of women. There was nothing artificial about it. My job was to stay really close to her and somehow try to make her feel safe enough to dare to go to those edges that she pushed herself to. It was powerful.”

“You’re so concerned about serving these women and men and anyone who’s been through anything like this that you just start to get out of the way,” Dunne adds. “It becomes almost meditative. As much as I could I tried to give to that.”

Despite the dark subject matter of domestic abuse at its core, “Herself” is an empowering, uplifting movie — one that suits the times we’re living in now. Both Lloyd and Dunne recognize its potential to help anyone who feels fragile in their circumstances, especially in a time when we need connection and community.

“I wanted to see a vision, just in a small way, of what could be,” says Dunne. “I wanted to show something of human nature that calls on us that’s bigger than what’s going on right now and all the constant negative buzz of who we are and how our society is.”