Creating Mum: Director Anne-Marie O’Connor and Actor Kate O’Donnell on Their Award-Winning Short Film

To say that the relationship between a child and parent is fraught with emotions, most of them far from easy to put into words, is putting it lightly. Yet this is the subject of Mum, a short film that captures a visit from a trans woman to her aging mother. Having already won a handful of accolades, it began screening as part of New Irish Shorts 3 at the Galway Film Fleadh just this past Thursday, July 13th.

Mum is the creation of many talented individuals, chief among them being director Anne-Marie O’Connor and actor and star Kate O’Donnell. In addition to being able to review the short film I was also offered an interview with the two of them that allowed me to gain a better understanding of how this particular work came to be.

First off, congratulations to the both of you on the awards that Mum has won so far, at both the London Independent Film Festival and Global Shorts. To springboard off of that into our first question, as it’s screened as part of “New Irish Shorts 3” at the Galway Film Fleadh, what helps to make this an Irish film outside of the talent involved?

O’Connor: The song that is played and sung throughout the short is Black Velvet Band. It was important to me for this to link the film as it was a song that Kate’s mum used to sing to her and a song that my dad used to sing to me as a child. And although geographically it isn’t set in Ireland, the relationship between Kate and her mum feels very Irish to me and in writing this I felt that Linda was second-generation Irish and that Kate was a product of that upbringing.

I noticed in the credits that Mum was created by the two of you, but that it was only written by Anne-Marie. Could you both go into some detail regarding the creative process?

O’Connor: Kate and I are good friends and have been for years, and as she’s a leading trans actor and activist I’ve always wanted to work with her creatively. We often discuss the way that transgender people are portrayed in film and TV (the fascination with the transition, the no-one-will-ever-love-me storyline, sex workers or outsiders) and wanted to make a short that didn’t fall into those familiar tropes, to have a transgender central character in a universal story.

So I met with Kate and I asked her what story she would tell if she could and it simply came from her saying she’d love to go home and paint her mum’s nails; something she used to do when she was younger but is impossible to do because her stepfather makes life difficult (he’s always been difficult, way before Kate transitioned!). And so we built the story around her own story. It was very important for both of us that Kate was acknowledged in the creative process. So that is why it is created by both of us.

How significant is it that Kate, in the film, and Kate the actor share the same name?

O’Connor: It’s autobiographical, so Kate is playing more than a version of herself, she’s playing herself living out a fictitious day that she cannot have with her own mum because of the given circumstances.

For Anne-Marie specifically, there were a number of beautiful shots in Mum, with one breathtaking moment where Kate is sitting alone thinking back on her past. How did you use the camera to convey a lot of what must be left unsaid given the short run time?

O’Connor: This is down to our fantastic DOP [Director of Photography] Colm Whelan. Kate was framed in every shot where she was under pressure and unframed when she was free (for example, as Little Andrew in the park and Kate on the wall). I’m very concerned with character and story but Colm taught me to let the camera help convey that as well.

A few of the things I wanted to do when we first set out to storyboard the film was to use the sky to denote freedom, and that when Kate dressed and put makeup on at the beginning it was symbolic of her arming herself.

For the two of you, what was the importance of having the two of Kate’s past selves be played by trans actors? 

O’Connor: Very important. We wanted the actors that played Kate to understand her experience and thought, and what better way than to cast trans actors. And we wanted the film to be trans positive and felt that trans casting was a big part of that.

For Kate, it should go without saying that Laverne Cox has broken a lot of ground for transgender actors in Hollywood, and earlier this year was cast in a role where that part of her identity does not come into play. After Boy Meets Girl, and now Mum, I was wondering if you were hoping your career might follow a similar path.

O’Donnell: I think casting trans actors is positive and adds a new dimension to story and gender and it’s good that that further step has been taken to cast a trans actor in a role where her trans-identity doesn’t come into play. But trans-visibility is still low and rests on a few shoulders like Cox.

As for me, I have thoroughly enjoyed being in Mum but I am more known for my theatre work. Recently I played the fool in the Royal Exchange’s critically acclaimed Twelfth Night as a trans woman and this brought something people hadn’t seen before in what has always been a “gender bending” play. I am about to premier my new one woman show, You’ve Changed at the Edinburgh International Festival. My theatre work is gently political and is written for queer and trans people but happily happens to have appeal with a wider audience but I’m happy to take every opportunity that comes my way. I’m a 52-year-old trans woman. If someone had told me five years ago that I would be offered such great roles and also creating work for myself, I wouldn’t have believed them.

Lastly, and this is for you both once more, could you share your own takes on the final shot of the film? It’s not a specific callback to the character’s past with her mother, which made it stand out that much more for me.

O’Connor: I wanted to leave the film with a powerful image of a mother and a daughter curled up together. As a mum myself I was concerned with the stages of life we experience with our children (and reversing that when Kate realizes how ill Margot is), and to curl up with a child in the foetal position is a very natural thing. To reverse this and have Kate taking on the role of the nurturer seemed the right ending to me.

O’Donnell: It is a lovely scene and one that I imagined on the day would be very emotional to shoot. But the reality was very different. We were up against time to get some of the kit back to the supplier and the DOP was in an awkward position on top of a ladder, so what looks like a serene moment was anything but… The moment Anne-Marie called cut everyone started rushing around and dismantling lights and everyone ignore me and Margot lying on the bed. That’s showbiz for you!

Thank you so much for your time, and for allowing me to watch and review this film.

O’Connor: No problem. Thanks for taking your time to review it.  

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