Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor are chatting away over Zoom. The Irish film-makers, who are married, have worked together since the late 80s, when they were part of the experimental theatre scene in Dublin. In 2008, they made their first film, the micro budget Helen, about a young woman taking part in a police reconstruction. Shot in long takes at glacial pace, it featured non-professionals speaking their lines with a highly stylised anti-realist delivery. It was so unnerving, it pushed even lovers of art films out of their comfort zones.
So I’m braced for an intellectual barrage. But they turn out to be anything but austere or po-faced. Molloy, speaking from the front room of the London flat they share with their 18-year-old daughter, is thoughtful and wryly funny. Lawlor seems the more extrovert, wisecracking, effing and blinding, and name-checking Euripides.
He’s in the flat of their upstairs neighbour, the actor Denise Gough, which he uses to write in when she’s away. He jokes about seething with envy watching a Martin Amis documentary, seeing the writer leave his home, saunter up the road to a flat he’d bought to work in: “I’m thinking, ‘You jammy fucker. I would love a place to go to write.’”
Well, who knows? Their new film Rose Plays Julie is their most accessible yet. “It’s a tiny bit more conventional than in the past,” Molloy says with a note of caution. “We wouldn’t make a decision to make something more audience-friendly per se. But we also want to reach bigger audiences. We’re not into making work that’s so obscure and niche and difficult that no one wants to see it.”
Some of the reviews of Rose Plays Julie describe it as a #MeToo thriller channelling the current mood of female rage. But actually, the idea came to the pair back in 2014. They hammer out plots for films on long walks around London. The film is set in Ireland, where student vet Rose, who is adopted, daydreams about the different life she might be living as Julie – the name on her birth certificate.
But when she tracks down her birth mother, Rose discovers that her conception was by rape. Then, disguised in a wig and calling herself Julie, she approaches her biological father – a celebrity archaeologist and sexual predator played by Game of Thrones actor Aidan Gillen – who also starred in the couple’s second film Mister John. Molloy says he initially wasn’t keen on playing a rapist: “He carries all these weirdly nasty characters on his back”.
At a development meeting, someone suggested making Gillen’s character more of an obvious monster: “So that maybe he had a basement full of sex toys and torture implements,” says Molloy with a raised eyebrow. But actually, Gillen’s skin-crawling mix of narcissism, charm and menace makes the character horribly believable.
Other directors might assemble the ingredients of Rose Plays Julie into a mainstream revenge movie. But that is not how Molloy and Lawlor operate. “I would say that we have a real curiosity about cinema, the language of cinema. How to use the tools, the grammar at our disposal,” is how Molloy explains it. So instead, the pair peg the story out on to the framework of a Greek tragedy: these three characters – mother, father, daughter – locked together in a destiny they can’t escape.
While the film is an icy suspense thriller, cold and calculating, it’s not what you’d call pacey – which is a signature of their style, and a problem for some viewers. When they were working on Helen, Lawlor asked his sister what she wanted from a movie. She answered: “A bit of pace.” He laughs. “I was thinking, ‘This film is fucked.’ It’s almost like the most radical thing you can do is to fuck with pace. We found more pace since but not much more. This film is still very slow.” What does his sister think of the films? “They’re not her cup of tea,” he giggles.
Even 10 years on, they smart at descriptions of the “flat acting” in Helen. The problem, says Lawlor, is that British films are obsessed with social realism. “So Helen is out of a different playbook. And because it’s not from southeast Asia, you will get your ass kicked. And we did get our ass kicked.”
The pair grew up together in the suburbs of Dublin and became a couple young. To the mortification of their parents, they lived together before getting married – and then not in a church, but a register office. “It was all very fraught, very emotional, difficult,” Molloy says with a grim smile. “I’m sure that doesn’t make any sense to people who grew up in Britain. But in Ireland back in the 80s, this was a big bloody deal.” They left to study at Dartington College of Arts in Devon, worked in community theatre and made a series of shorts, the Civic Life series, before directing Helen in 2008.
How did raising their daughter fit in? “It had its ups and downs,” says Molloy, diplomatically. Lawlor blurts out: “We’re fucking stupid. No one in their right minds would do this. It’s thick. We only realised how stupid we are in the past few years.” One of the drawbacks of working together as a writer-director duo is that they only ever get paid as one person, so money was always tight.
Flying their daughter Molly, aged eight, out for two months to shoot their second film, Mister John, in Singapore, while sharing a hotel room, was their family’s nadir. “We’ve struggled because we are both working together at the same time, and yet we’ve got all these responsibilities to our child. It’s worked reasonably well at some times, and sometimes not well at all. And we’ve paid the price as a family. But you know, no one’s making us do this.” Though for a lot of the time they’re at home writing or editing.
Molloy has also experienced sexism on set: men on the crew looking past her, focusing on Lawlor, asking him to check a scene. “There was a moment in Rose Plays Julie, where I took the crew member aside and said, ‘You talk to both of us. I don’t want any more fuck-ups like that.’ It’s bad habits. I think it will change.”
Chatting to Molloy and Lawlor for an hour, I’m struck by how well they seem to get along, for a couple who’ve lived and worked together for 30 years. What do they argue about? “Anything and everything,” says Molloy. Who wins? “The one who has the stamina,” says Lawlor. But Molloy has the last word: “We’re quite argumentative. If we weren’t working together we’d be arguing anyway. The Irish are terrible arguers.”
• Rose Plays Julie is released on 17 September