Mirrah Foulkes: Proud as Punch

May 13, 2019
With her feature debut, Judy & Punch, the writer/director is chuffed to bring her film home to compete for the Sydney Film Prize after its premiere in competition at the Sundance Film Festival.

Judy & Punch may be the closest film equivalent you’ll have to being part of an audience in an Elizabethan theatre, with all the slapstick, drama, pathos and spectacle. The audience attending the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January certainly responded with gasps of shock, belly laughs and absorption in that oldest of storytelling forms, the fairy tale.

Anyone familiar with the traditional Punch and Judy seaside puppets can witness what happens when they’re brought to life in a disturbing mix of comedy and domestic violence. It’s a particularly Australian sensibility that can undercut and make fun of itself, find broad and macabre comedy in the darkest moment while still having you cheer the long-suffering heroine.

The main impression of the film is that it’s a force of nature with great energy, and dark and slapstick humour. The opening credits set the scene by announcing we are in the ‘town of Seaside – nowhere near the sea’, and it’s downhill from there in a chaotic, slapstick carnival full of shocks and twists that holds up an irreverent and disturbing mirror to some of our culture’s basest elements.

Sundance senior programmer John Nein introduced the film to a capacity audience with a strong Australian contingent of crew and cast in attendance, including writer and director Mirrah Foulkes on her first feature and actors Mia Wasikowska and Damon Herriman.

FilmInk spoke to them before the screening.

Tom Budge, Mirrah Foulkes, Mia Wasikowska and Damon Herriman. © 2019 Sundance Institute | photo by Jovelle Tomayo

Wasikowska brings a quality of fineness to her role as puppeteer Judy, the severely put-upon heroine in the brutal and misogynist world of Professor Punch. “It was great working with Mirrah,” says Wasikowska. “We have a lot of friends in common and Australia is a very small industry, so we’ve known each other a while. It was a pretty classic collaboration. Mirrah was really open to us bringing ideas but the script was so great I didn’t feel like there was much that needed to be changed. The story was amazing and disturbing, I loved it.”

Wasikowska’s roles are often intense depictions of characters under stress. She explains that she always loves a challenge. “Choosing roles, it’s just really fun to do things I haven’t done before and change it up, so I always do that when I get the opportunity.”

When asked what qualities Australians bring to the global film industry she says, “We’ve got a great lot of talent. You’ve got to be particularly ambitious because we’re so far away, so you’ve got to really want to do it.”

Herriman is a thoughtful, pleasant interviewee, poles apart from the sadistic bully he evokes as the irredeemable Punch, leader of a world where the mob and violent, drunken men rule. “Punch is such a detailed rich character,” he tells us. “I feel very lucky to have played him. This film is like nothing people have ever seen before. It’s got qualities of other films, but I’d say ‘fairy tale’ is as close as you’d get to describing what it is. Certainly, it’s a crowd pleaser and people have loved it so far. Filming with Mirrah was terrific; it’s one of the greatest working experiences in my life. She’s an incredible writer, director, human being and this whole cast was a joy to work with. Then the photography, costumes and production design – everything is so well done and the world that’s been created is unlike anything else, and really, unlike any Australian film.”

Herriman agrees with Wasikowska that Australians bring particular qualities to storytelling.

“There’s something about the laconic sense of humour,” he says. “Sometimes it’s an absurd quality that Australians see in things. Certainly, a cynicism and no bullshit kind of thing that I think reads strongly.”

Explaining the history of the traditional Punch and Judy shows, Foulkes told us, “It started in the 17th century with marionette puppets, then what was interesting to me was that over the years it devolved into this seaside puppet show. It was directed to children by then but when you look at it it’s just people beating the crap out of each other! So, I saw it as this kind of devolution of what was quite a beautiful form that became quite simplistic and aggressive.”

Foulkes says she doesn’t feel added pressure as a woman in the film industry. “I just make films,” she explains. “I imagine I have the same difficulties as any filmmaker. But I think it’s a really interesting time at the moment when we’re recognising in all industries that there is a balance that needs to be addressed, so I feel really grateful I’m in this time.

“All the sexual politics sit underneath Judy & Punch,” she continues. “They are really obvious in the film, but I hope it’s a really fun entertaining mad weird world that feels unique and like nothing we’ve ever seen before. All the messages sit under there, but I hope at the end of the day that it’s fun.

“The seeds of the idea were given to me by Tom and Lucy (VICE Media’s ex Chief Commercial and Creative Officer Tom Punch and his sister Lucy Punch), so I was working in those confines. Specifically, they wanted a live action Punch and Judy story and they said we don’t know what it is, we want you to go wild. They really encouraged me. It was a really interesting process because there was a lot of creative freedom and I took it in many different directions before I settled on the story as it is now, born out of years of playing around with what it could become.”

Foulkes’ long experience as an actor (Harrow, Animal Kingdom, The Crown) is useful in her director’s role. “I can both push them a bit more and take care of them more. I feel very confident and comfortable around actors. I know how I like to be directed but every actor is different so in the end it became a really collaborative fun place.

“What Australia has is great training and we’ve got an incredible support in Screen Australia and the state funding bodies. I mean that is huge and can’t be underestimated. We’re so lucky to have that.

“By the way, they say don’t work with children or dogs or babies and we had all of them,” she makes sure to mention before heading off for the next interview.

Judy & Punch is screening at the 2019 Sydney Film Festival

Main Picture Credit: © 2019 Sundance Institute | photo by Jovelle Tomayo

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