18 April 2024 The Irish Film & Television Network
Director Sinéad O’Loughlin discusses Oscar-qualifying short Lamb
11 Dec 2023 : Luke Shanahan
Éanna Hardwicke in Lamb
We spoke with director Sinéad O’Loughlin to discuss her latest short film Lamb. The film is eligible for the Best Live Action Short Film category at the 96th Academy Awards.

In 2022, Lamb had its world premiere at Tribeca Film Festival, chosen out of 7,200 short film submissions. The film received an IFTA nomination for Best Live Action Short Film earlier this year. Other accolades include the Best International Short Film award at the 2023 Bengaluru International Short Film Festival, First Prize for Best Screenplay at the Flickers’ Rhode Island International Film Festival, and Best Irish Short at the Dublin International Film Festival.

The short film takes place in a rural home on an ordinary summer’s day, when a mother and her child receive an unwelcome visit from a stranger. 

Lamb was written and directed by Sinéad O’Loughlin, and produced by Lara Hickey (Copper Alley Productions). The film was supported by Screen Ireland as part of its Focus Shorts scheme for emerging filmmakers. The cast includes Aoife Duffin and Éanna Hardwicke, as well as twins Evie and Faye O’Sullivan.

We caught up with Sinéad O’Loughlin to discuss what inspired the scenario presented in Lamb, how the project developed from script to screen, and what she’s working on next.

IFTN: I’ll start by asking the question all writers hate, where did the initial inspiration for Lamb come from?

SINÉAD: “The short version is I was at my family home for a weekend a few summers ago and my parents were away so I was there alone. I realised it was the first time I had ever been there alone for so long and I was really annoyed that I started being more conscious of my safety, whereas normally that would never cross my mind.”

“In the summer we always leave the back door open. I wasn't comfortable doing that and it bothered me. I had the door open and at some point I was doing something with my back to the door, and I just thought, ‘Imagine if I turned around and someone was standing there?’.”

“As a writer it's always about the story and the characters first. Lamb contains themes similar to my other work or things I am very interested in exploring. I think there's been huge change in rural areas over the last 20 years and there's so many stories there. There's new communities, greater diversity, yet a lack of services, isolation etc.”

“I have also been interested in the policing of women's behaviour in public and private spaces for a while now, so I think that definitely influenced the story in its own way. The psychology of the situation and how a person responds in that situation is really interesting to me. As a woman, we navigate through a world where violence is a very real and present threat.”

IFTN: The scenario Lamb presents is grounded in reality, but there is also something surreal in the short’s tone. Was that atmosphere there as you were writing the script, or did that come later in the process of making the film?

SINÉAD: “The surreal quality was something that came out when my director’s hat went on and I started having conversations with Dan Keane, our cinematographer. I always wanted it to be summer because of that idea of the open door, daytime, sunny weather and the stunning landscape juxtaposed with this awful thing happening.”

“We talked about the film Funny Games, how the lightness and brightness of the kitchen just gives this surreal quality. I also think the reality of this situation would be completely surreal for anyone to experience. I always knew I wanted the audience to experience Aoife's perspective so that was a big part of the look of the film but also the sound design. I wanted that quality of her senses being in overdrive but outwardly not letting her words or actions betray her feelings.”

“It's that idea of the ‘fawn’ response, she's trying to appease him as a way to survive, in the hope that he'll leave without hurting them.”

IFTN: When working on a film like this in which the story is told through the subtext in the dialogue and what isn’t said, do you prefer to rehearse with the actors in advance of production or find those nuances in the performance while shooting?

SINÉAD: “I always prefer to rehearse with actors, but it's not always possible with budget or availability. Thankfully with Lamb we had a day of rehearsal in advance and then another day on set to work a little more on blocking before the shoot which was so useful for finding those moments. My background is theatre so it's quite funny to me that essentially I created a stage for them. The great thing about film is being able to highlight particular moments or perspectives and tell the story through those choices, something you can't do in theatre.”

“Rehearsal is great because I like to leave space for performance. You have no idea how a line is going to work until an actor takes it and makes it their own. We would have still tweaked lines in rehearsal, for example, and I would have observed different gestures or impulses that both actors had that were great to work with. It's also just such a pleasure to have that time to work with actors before the practical mechanics of a film set impose on that aspect.”

“It's time that I am completely available to them just to work on performance and it's also really fun to watch them work.”

IFTN: The film features brilliant performances from Aoife Duffin and Éanna Hardwicke. At what point did they come onboard the project, and what made them right for their respective roles in your opinion?

SINÉAD: “I was very familiar with Aoife's work in theatre, I had seen her in so many things, she's just such a great performer, and for me it was that she has this great mix of vulnerability and strength. She really reminds me of women that I grew up around. In particular I saw her in Christ Deliver Us directed by Wayne Jordan in The Abbey, The Crucible directed by Conall Morrison in The Lyric, and A Girl is a Half-formed Thing directed by Annie Ryan in The Samuel Beckett Theatre. I knew she would be great in the role and I was thrilled when she wanted to be involved.”

“The process for casting Paul was different, initially when I wrote the piece I had this idea Paul would be in his early 30's. Then as the piece developed, it made more sense to me that he would be a younger guy. It also added to the audacity of his behaviour that even as a younger guy he would have that sense of entitlement to walk into her house and try to take control. I was less familiar with actors in their early 20's so I have to give full credit to our producer Lara Hickey, she suggested Éanna and when I met with him (online due to covid) he really impressed me by how much thought and engagement he had put into the character already even though it was just an initial meet.”

“Casting was challenging because it was during Covid restrictions but we managed to get them both in a room with a camera for a chemistry read and they were both so good it really was an easy decision.”

IFTN: Lamb also features a great performance from infant twins Evie and Faye O’Sullivan as Lucy. How did you find the experience of working with such young actors?

SINÉAD: “I can't take any credit for that, they were so young it's not so much about directing as trying to create an environment where they can be comfortable as much as possible. Our first Assistant Director Niall Owens was great at working with their mother and aunt so we adapted the shooting schedule around their nap schedule, and of course Niall monitored the duration they were on set for as the rules are quite strict around their working hours.”

“The other thing that made such a difference was that Éanna was incredibly good with them. He was playing with them before scenes so they were comfortable being around him and then as soon as we started shooting he would just drop into character and go. As I hadn't worked with babies before I was very fortunate that all those elements were there and that's what I would make sure of if I were to do it again. Their mother Annie in particular was so lovely to work with, she ended up being a stand-in for Aoife for an important shot as well which we really appreciated.”

IFTN: How did you approach designing the soundscape of the short with sound designer/composer Die Hexen?

SINÉAD: “Our producer had suggested Die and I was really excited to work with her. She was so open to everything I was saying and interpreted it all with her own unique approach so it was great, I don't have huge experience working with a sound designer or composer but it was really important for the piece. I wanted the sound to reflect Sarah's auditory perception in the moment.”

IFTN: Do you have any upcoming projects we should keep an eye out for?

SINÉAD: “I have finished my first full length feature script draft with Copper Alley Productions so we are going to continue developing that. I'm really enjoying it and I am working on an adaptation of a short story which I am loving but it's early days in the project. I'm focusing on writing at the moment which is great, I am hoping to start on a new feature script in January as it's an idea I have been toying with for a while. I also co-directed an Ardán/RTÉ commission short film with director Aisling Byrne called Misread which just started its festival run.”

The 96th Academy Awards shortlist will be released on December 21st, 2023.

IFTA Q&A Series: Joanne O’Brien on Costume Design
IFTA Q&A Series: Eleanor Bowman on Cinematography
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