May December screenwriter Samy Burch joins Mia and Gemma to for a chat, fresh from her New York Film Critics Circle win for Best Screenplay. We also welcome our London crew to give us the lowdown on their attending the British Independent Film Awards, including its big winner All of Us Strangers.
God’s Creatures star Emily Watson on growing up without television, the filmmakers who are changing the map and what she watches with her children.
“The strongest building block we have in society is the bond you form with your parents as a child and it’s the most devastating thing in a movie when that is broken.” —⁠Emily Watson
Emily Watson didn’t grow up with a television but, these days, you’d be more likely to find her leading a television series now than to see her headlining a film. The English actress has starred in many indie features since the 1990s, with lead Oscar nominations for her debut in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves and again for Hilary and Jackie. She elected to pass on starring in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 film Amélie—a role originally written specifically for her and initially entitled ‘Emily’—but has continued to make her mark in memorable supporting parts.
Choosing between her contributions to her many iconic films is like asking the mother-of-two to name her favorite child. Watson spotlights Punch-Drunk Love, Gosford Park and The Proposition as “incredible experiences with great people, all having the added bonus that the film came out quite interesting as well.” She considers herself one of the lucky ones for the opportunities she has lately had on the small screen as well, telling us, “I was on the right side of that wave of change in television. There’s been really juicy interesting roles for women my age—not playing just somebody’s mum, but really complex, real women. That’s been very rewarding.”
For her first leading film role in over a decade, Watson stars in God’s Creatures alongside rising Irish actor Paul Mescal. Directed by The Fits filmmakers Anna Rose Holmer and Saela Davis and written by Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly and Shane Crowley, God’s Creatures follows Aileen (Watson), a mother who is wrestling with her decision to shield her troubled son Brian (Mescal) from rape allegations in the secluded community of a remote fishing village. When talking about the film’s origins, Watson notes that it “belongs to the tradition of Irish theater. All those great playwrights deal with the ties that bind us, and when you break that bond, it’s like letting off a nuclear bomb.”
God’s Creatures premiered at Cannes this year, with Letterboxd members in attendance finding much to contemplate. “I love a film with a slow burn first half that explodes and pays off intensely in the second,” writes Lauren of the “drama that came off as a horror.” Aisha agrees with those genre elements, adding: “I spent a lot of it feeling like I was wading through water, trying to see through fog. [...] There’s a rhythm to the film that makes you fall into its steps and drags you into a dance with Aileen and Brian.” Watson is frequently mentioned as a particular highlight, as Chris Feil quips: “If Emily Watson looked at me inquisitively, I would crumble to ash.”
We spoke to Watson about the films that devastate her, the movies her parents took her to see growing up and what she’s showing to her own children now.
What were the first films that made a big impression on you?
Emily Watson: I grew up without a television so I’d never really seen anything on screen except sneaking round a friend’s house occasionally. The very first film I saw [was when] my parents took me at age four to see The Wizard of Oz and it was a very profound experience because I became so terrified of the Witch. I remember it so distinctly, going to the kitchen and saying to Mum “can I have some milk?” She said “yeah, go and get some out of the fridge”, and about half an hour later my parents came to find me because I was literally standing petrified in the dark and could not move. That was my first experience of the power of film.
They took me to see films like Les Enfants du Paradis [Children of Paradise] and I fell in love with the whole idea of being in the theater with the passion of it and the love story, and the very, very cool Frenchness. I think I was actually the right age for Chariots of Fire. I punched my hand through my school photo like when he won [the race]. I loved Ian Charleson as an actor. I thought he was the most beautiful personification of, I don’t know, something.
You’ve starred in many devastating films. What are the films that have devastated you?
My daughter is sixteen so she’s starting film studies and we’re revisiting lots of things. The other day we watched Cinema Paradiso, which is such a beautiful love letter to film, and the scene where he stands as an adult and watches them demolish the cinema—we sat there in a row as a family and sobbed. Yeah, that’s a brilliant film, and it also has the most beautiful music imaginable.
In the spirit of Aileen, who is the first film character that comes to mind when you think of a “mother who will do anything for their child”?
Gosh. I’m not thinking about a mother here but I’m thinking about a connection with the parents at the end of The Railway Children. When I watched it again recently—and in places it’s a bit of a ropey old movie—there’s something about the emotional power of that connection when she runs through the steam of the train and she sees her Dad who’s been released from prison: “Daddy, my Daddy!” I find it overwhelming even now talking about it. It’s the most powerful thing, being separated from your parents and being reunited.
I think it’s been a theme for me in my film career, with films like Oranges and Sunshine, which is a film about reuniting people who thought their families were dead. They’ve been forcibly repatriated as vagrants to other countries and [my character Margaret Humphreys] reunites them with their parents. The strongest building block we have in society is the bond you form with your parents as a child and it’s the most devastating thing in a movie when that is broken. Bambi! You know—it’s Bambi.
My all-time favorite film is Synecdoche, New York, in which you have an important part. The first time I saw it, I watched it four times in a row to decode it. What movies do you like to watch over and over again?
There are a lot of movies I’ve seen many, many times because I’ve got kids. I actually find watching the Ghibli films with them can take so much examination—the physical beauty of them, the observation of life, the brilliant acting that they manage to get in that animation, and the editing that doesn’t tell you what to think or lay anything out for you. It’s very un-Western in that way. It’s always about examining a part of yourself, watching those movies. They’re desperately poetic and romantic, and I find them endlessly fascinating.
What films about sex, in any form and context, feel the most honest to you?
I love the sex scene in Parasite. It’s absolutely brilliant when they’re having sex on the sofa. It’s very specific and slightly weird, and then there’s the family hiding under the table, that’s just genius. I think actually the TV show that Paul [Mescal] did before we did this—Normal People—is a very beautiful and honest portrayal of the discovery of sexuality as a teenager and what that’s like.
What was the first film that resonated with you for its politics?
I remember watching Doctor Zhivago, which is an epic David Lean love story and a very beautiful film. [There is a brief] history about the fall of the empire and rise of communism in Russia—and it’s obviously a very storybook chocolate box version of it all—but I remember a line when they come back to Moscow and their house has been taken over. [Yuri Zhivago’s] parents are living in a commune and somebody says to him, “there was room in this house for thirteen families”. We live with that disparity of wealth everyday. I remember as a teenager just being really shocked by what that meant to me.
This question is inspired by a Letterboxd list and by a prominent theme in your films: what are movies that make you think about religion?
Chariots of Fire was a very formative film for me. I grew up in a very religious, slightly culty—long story—situation, but I remember [the character Eric Liddell] saying, “when I run, I feel His power”, talking about God and just that sense of when you do something for faith, it’s very powerful and gives you permission to do it. In a way, that film is one of the reasons I became an actress. [It allowed] me to put my faith into storytelling and acting and withdraw from other faiths. I don’t think I would have been able to take myself out of that situation had I not had acting to go to.
Thank you for talking with me about sex, politics and religion. That’s a dinner party faux pas trio. To end on a lighter note, can you tell me your fondest memory of showing a film to your children?
We’re really going on a journey with all of that. I’ll tell you what we rewatched the other day that they absolutely loved, Do the Right Thing. It was a bit of a revelation for me because I thought they might find it a bit self-contained and wordy but they absolutely loved it.
‘God’s Creatures’ is in US theaters and on digital platforms now via A24.