Sydney-based writer-director Madeleine Gottlieb describes her short film You and Me, Before and After as a love letter to sisters everywhere.
Her fourth short film – following AWGIE-winning I F***ed a Mermaid and No One Believes Me, Snare and Laura – You and Me, Before and After is perhaps her most personal.
Starring Yael Stone (Orange is the New Black) and Emily Barclay (Mr Inbetween), You and Me was made with a 95% female cast and crew and premiered domestically at MIFF, and internationally at the Toronto International Film Festival [TIFF] this week.
“I wanted to do this film for my sister in terms of healing our relationship emotionally but also as a collective healing to the women in our family, particularly as Jewish women,” says Gottlieb.
The result is a profound story of two adult sisters who love each other while learning how to like each other when getting their first tattoos.
Representing Australia in TIFF’s Short Cuts selection, Gottlieb’s dramedy brings a clever mix of acerbic humour and raw emotion, revealing the sometimes painful history and complex array of feelings that bond two sisters as they share their secrets at the tattoo parlour.
With her successful career, Yael Stone rarely looks at short film scripts. “It’s just not something that’s on my radar. When this came through, I didn’t know Mads at all – it was just entirely based on the strength of the script which was so beautifully written. I am Jewish and I never get to be Jewish on screen so that was also part of it; it allowed me to find my way into Judaism on screen.
“Mads also wrote to me and said, ‘If you don’t say yes, I really don’t know what we’ll do’, which was quite manipulative! At its heart, it’s funny and heartfelt which is my favourite hitting zone. Also, I have a sister with whom I’m super close, so I really wanted to do this. I’m obsessed with my sister, always have been. I like her too much,” she adds.
“I’ve definitely got some softie mama stuff going on, so I was like, ‘Well what are they going to do? This film needs to be made’,” laughs Stone who next up appears opposite Liam Neeson in Blacklight and with Simon Baker and Josh Lawson in Del Kathryn Barton’s debut feature Blaze.
Barclay was likewise moved by the script. “I have a younger sister, so this relationship really spoke to me, perhaps a little too close to home. It really resonated,” she says of Gottlieb’s story about sisters Hannah (Stone) and Rachel (Barclay).
The sisters have baggage which they agree to unpack as they get their first tattoos together. Stuck side-by-side on the beds, with nothing to do but talk, they are forced to confront a shared history that’s as painful as it is hilarious. When their tattoos are finished, we learn, with the gentlest touch, that Rachel has had a double mastectomy and her new tattoo repurposes the scars into something beautiful. Hannah has accompanied her for support. Her own tattoo is a show of solidarity.
Ask the actresses if they have their own tattoos, Barclay admits to having “a whole collection of stupid teenage things which I really thought were cool when I was 19 – and now don’t think are quite so cool.
“Oftentimes, I have to spend two hours in the make-up chair at the beginning of a work day, getting them covered up. I’ve had a few matching tattoos with friends which are special and I really like,” says Barclay whose films include Babyteeth, Baby Done, The Light Between Oceans, Love Birds and Suburban Mayhem.
Stone will own up to three tattoos. “I have three – including a lightbulb tattooed on my skull – which is badass. It was really quite opportunistic just because I had a shaved head, and figured that while I had no hair at all, I should probably wack something on it.
“But I enjoy the feeling of getting tattooed which is probably a little masochistic,” she adds.
On set, the actresses bonded, not so much over the pain of their mutual tattoos but more about the pain of childbirth. “We basically talked about our own disastrous home births for about six hours,” laughs Stone. “I ended up watching a video of Emily’s son being pulled out of her innards. It got intimate pretty quickly!
“I think we both thought that, just because we’ve had a couple of tattoos, that might help deal with the pain of childbirth – but that turned out not to be true.”
Filmed over two-and-a-half days, pre-pandemic in January 2020, Gottlieb’s greatest challenge was editing remotely.
When originally researching the script, the writer-director had no idea about the burgeoning business in tattooing mastectomy scars – displayed to full beautiful effect in her film. “There are tattoo artists who specialise in mastectomy scar beautification or re-purposing. We found a wonderful tattoo artist called Jemka who operates out of a studio called Tora Sumi. She specialises in these tattoos which are often very floral and beautiful but with an edge. It’s a long collaboration between her and her clients deciding what they want,” she says.
For Barclay, whose character’s breasts are tattooed, this was no easy feat. “I have to give massive kudos to Emily because she was breast-feeding at the time, so it was quite uncomfortable for her. But she was such a good sport. It was quite complex with the FX, using pigskin for the close-ups of the actual tattoos,” explains Gottlieb.
Discussing her evolving relationship with her own younger sister, Gottlieb says, “There’s trauma in our blood – metaphorically and literally. We come from a big Jewish family. Our mother’s side has been touched by cancer for generations. All four of our grandparents are Holocaust survivors.
“Jews don’t talk – we yell. We don’t hug – we push. We don’t accept – we judge. And yet somehow, there’s just as much love in the yelling, and pushing and judging than I’ve ever seen in the quieter, more composed homes of my goyishe friends. I think that’s because when there’s no more yelling to be done, we laugh. Hard.”
Ultimately, she hopes that You and Me, Before and After is a film about healing and family. “It’s about sisterhood and trauma, and it’s about the meaning we find in the spaces between the words. The things we do for one another that bridge the gap,” she says.
“The whole point of me making this film is that it’s never too late to change a relationship or try and heal a relationship. For me, blood runs deeper.”
Adding her own take on the themes, Stone says, “For so many families, the landscape of loving each other is long, if you’re lucky, and the geography of it changes all the time. It’s good to be reminded of that and there’s something about family that, if we hang in there, that allows us to change and morph and you can grow into each other. By the same token, you can grow out of each other too, but that landscape of loving is really long and doesn’t have to look conventional. It’s something very precious, particularly with siblings.”
Barclay agrees: “Often the road to healing and reconciliation is rocky and non-linear and you do kind of have to come together and go apart. It changes all the time.”