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“We pushed it to areas that are more heightened”, co-director Nathan Fagan discusses Mud Queen
21 Aug 2023 : Luke Shanahan
Mud Queen
We caught up with co-director and screenwriter Nathan Fagan, following the North American premiere of his latest short film Mud Queen at Rhode Island International Film Festival 2023.

Nathan Fagan sat down with us to discuss Mud Queen, the latest short film from Luna (AKA directing duo Nathan Fagan and Luke Daly). Luna have directed a number of commercials and music videos together, as well as six short films, with Mud Queen being their most recent creative collaboration. He spoke with us about where the initial idea for the screenplay came from, working with child actors and taking creative risks.

Mud Queen follows a young boy named Ryan trying to celebrate his 12th birthday, all the while his mother’s unpredictable behaviour threatens to derail the night.

The film stars Clare Dunne (Kin), Senan Jennings (Wolf), Emmy Nolan, Ben Carolan (Sing Street), and Helen Behan (Barber). It is produced by Emmet Jones (Bad Sisters) and Seamus Waters (The Invisible Boy).

The film had its world premiere at Dublin International Film Festival earlier this year, and recently had its North American premiere at Rhode Island Film Festival earlier this month.

“It's great to just see the film getting that kind of reception, and in the US as well,” Fagan said about the film’s most recent premieres, “We had a good premiere in DIFF last March, it was nice to win the Audience Award and know it’s really resonating with audiences.”

We spoke about the origins of the project, and Fagan explains there was a combination of inspirations, but primarily it was a conversation with a friend who spoke to Fagan about his experiences growing up with a mother with undiagnosed bipolar disorder that first sprouted the initial idea for Mud Queen.

“He had told me stories about his experiences of that, but the thing that really struck that I’d never really thought about was this point he made that it’s not really the manic phases that are most difficult, they’re kinda fun. You’re getting a side of them that’s really heightened, but they’re really present, and you’re getting caught up as a child in the madcap energy of it.”

“I'm trying to show in this film how exciting that is as a child, and the lingering awareness that as you're enjoying spending time with your mother that the other side of this is when she’s gonna go into her low phase. Maybe spend time in hospital, or become bed bound. In the case of my friend, his mother would be almost catatonic with depression for months. Then suddenly reality would kick in again.”

Fagan explains that he was also able to draw from his own experiences of being raised by a single mother as a way into this story, and develop the characters from there.

“I was mining my own memories of being roughly the same age as the kid in the film. I grew up with a single mum as well. I remembered my own experiences of feeling alienated for the same reasons as this kid. He’s trying to figure out his identity.”

“I watch a lot of queer cinema and that really interests me, but as well, I didn't want to beat the audience over the head with that element because the protagonist, Ryan, is so young. I didn’t want to draw too fine a line under it. It's not necessarily that he's gay, or that he's got it all figured out, but that's what’s going on with the character.”

“Combining those two things was really interesting for me. We have this kid who's growing up with a mother who’s struggling with her mental health, and then at the same time she’s the one providing the only outlet to express himself and feel comfortable.”

Fagan and Daly had worked with child actors before on commercial work, but putting two children at the centre of a narrative short was a new experience for the directing duo. Fagan points to the work of Sean Baker (The Florida Project) and Hirokazu Koreeda (Shoplifters), who encourage their child actors to improvise and not stick too rigidly to the script, as points of reference for their approach to the work. For the character of Ryan, a notably reserved role, Fagan and Daly needed an actor that could communicate the boy’s depth to the audience, which they found in Senan Jennings.

“We auditioned loads of young boys around his age. His audition really stood out. He seems kind of wise and mature beyond his years, which I think makes sense for the character. He’s been forced to kind of take on the responsibilities of an adult. He’s at a really strange time in his life where he still wants to be a kid, but he has to navigate a complicated home life.”

Fagan then explains how Emmy Nolan’s character acted as a foil to this.

“As a counterpoint, we wanted his little sister to still be caught up in this world of imagination and childhood. With Emmy, we auditioned lots of little girls, and there were a few really great ones but Emmy stood out immediately because of that confidence she has. She walked into the audition room and started bossing us around. Improvising and riffing. It actually took us a long time to cast the film, just trying to find the right cast.”

Joining Jennings and Nolan in the core trio of the film’s cast is Clare Dunne as Ryan’s mother, Sue. Fagan says they had Dunne in mind for the role from the very start.

“We really want to make sure that we got it right. There was always a risk there, because she’s such a larger than life character but then there's a lot of complexity there. We needed to cast the right person. I’d seen her film Herself which she’d written and starred in, and I just thought it was an incredible experience. She was someone we always had in mind. We just got really lucky. We just reached out and basically she was very enthusiastic about the script.”

“There is just this ineffable quality to certain people that you just want to watch on screen, and you can’t fully explain it. She's just got this thing where you're immediately engrossed in what she's doing.”

In order to bring us into the environment that Sue creates for her children, Fagan and Daly used all the filmmaking tools available to them to bring a lively, colourful world to the screen. Fagan explains that initially they planned on taking a handheld social-realist approach to the short, which they ultimately decided against. Their cinematographer Miguel Angel Viñas, who has worked with internationally renowned DoPs such as Emmanuel Lubezki on Biutiful, helped them to go further stylistically.

“The style of the film definitely evolved, and when Miguel came onboard we developed it with him in a really interesting way. We were very lucky to get Miguel, he’s just incredible and super experienced. He brings a level of creativity that’s really interesting. With our previous work, we’ve jumped around a lot with styles, largely because we like experimenting with styles. Our initial impulse with the script was to go with a social realist style of filmmaking, which would be handheld and have muted tones.”

“But what’s interesting about the story is it’s through Ryan’s eyes, so early on but also after conversations with Miguel we decided to take a more classical approach to the cinematography. We’re not relying on handheld shots to create intimacy or energy until that’s called for.”

Production design, wardrobe, and bright colour palettes throughout played an important role in realising their vision.

“The world Sue creates for Ryan is colourful and rich, so we wanted to reflect that in the production design and use of colour. It was a risk, but we’re alright with that. It's a serious subject matter, but we wanted to show that there’s joy and light in the complexity of any family, even when they’re confronting difficult situations. A big part of how the film looks was down to our production designer Noelle Slacke, and Sarah Flannagan who did the styling and the wardrobe. We worked in tandem to decide the look of the film, and we pushed it to areas that are a little more heightened, until reality kicks in at the final scene.”

Having shot Mud Queen last summer and successfully getting it on the festival circuit, the directing duo are now looking to shoot another short later this year while they cook up plans for future projects. 

“We have a few potential short film scripts that we're thinking about. I'm also writing a feature as well, so we're hoping to continue writing that this year. The goal is very much to try to navigate [Mud Queen] to long form.”

Mud Queen is set to have its UK premiere at Aesthetica Short Film Festival in November 2023.

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