By MICHAEL GINGOLD
A gritty, graphic crime thriller that edges into horror territory, A GOOD WOMAN IS HARD TO FIND is the breakthrough movie by British filmmaker Abner Pastoll, who gave us some good words on the movie and its striking star turn.
The third feature by Pastoll, after 2004’s SHOOTING SHONA, a number of shorts and 2015’s Barbara Crampton-co-starring ROAD GAMES, A GOOD WOMAN IS HARD TO FIND becomes available on virtual cinemas (see info here) and VOD/digital platforms this Friday, May 8. Sarah Bolger, previously seen in THE MOTH DIARIES, THE LAZARUS EFFECT and EMELIE, plays her most adult role yet as Sarah, a young mother trying to raise two young children in a crime-torn Irish city following the murder of her husband. A chance encounter with a local thug named Tito (Andrew Simpson), who has stolen a bag of drugs from crime boss Leo Miller (Edward Hogg), brings the violence into her home, eventually leading her to take drastic, violent action to protect herself and her children. Charged with street-level drama and shocking, gruesome moments, including a particularly nasty bit toward the end (which won’t be revealed here), A GOOD WOMAN IS HARD TO FIND is a true discovery that has won praise (see our review here) and awards across the festival circuit, including Montreal’s Fantasia, where this interview took place.
Sarah Bolger is a revelation in this film. How did she become the lead in A GOOD WOMAN IS HARD TO FIND?
When I first read the screenplay by Ronan Blaney, who was an Academy Award nominee and won a BAFTA for his short film BOOGALOO AND GRAHAM, Sarah was the only person I could picture in the role. When I joined the project, we felt like the script was already in a place where we could move straight into casting and financing and production. We didn’t need to spend much time in development, because Ronan had already been working on it independently. So we offered it to Sarah, and within 24 hours, she got back to me and said she loved this script and this character and wanted to do it. This was before we had financing or anything, and it took about another 18 months before we got into production. So in a sense, she lived with this character, and we discussed it, for a year and a half before filming. We did tweak the script and minor details about the character, and she brought her own ideas, and it was during that process that I think she really took ownership of the character.
She went from playing a babysitter in EMILIE to a mom in A GOOD WOMAN—quite a jump. It’s the most mature and complex role she’s done so far.
I believe so too, which is another reason I thought she would be so good for this role. I felt like she always had the potential for this, but that she’d never had the chance to show it. She looks quite young, and always seemed to play characters younger than herself; she was 25 or 26 when we were shooting the movie, and this is her first role where she played her actual age. She has that youthful face and energy, so into her 20s, she was still playing 16-year-olds. I believe that was another thing that attracted her to the part: She could finally play her own age.
What did she contribute to her character?
There are certain elements that were not as apparent in the script as they are visualized on the screen, and one of the biggest things was how she portrayed Sarah’s grief. She makes that obvious on screen, that she’s going through this process of mourning the loss of her husband. You can see it in her performance, whereas it was not so obvious that that’s what the film is about in the script. That was her biggest contribution to the role, how much of that she’s going through.
Did she enjoy the bad-ass turn Sarah takes as the movie goes on?
Oh yeah, she loved that [laughs]. I mean, who doesn’t love that? It was fun to play with; the evolution of the character was something she was very much excited about playing with, going from this meek, vulnerable mother to a strong, independent woman. It’s a very subtle transformation throughout the film, because of everything that’s thrown at her, that she has to deal with.
There are indeed some very intense scenes of violence involving Bolger’s character; how did you work with her to get through those moments?
That’s a good question. We just ensured that the environment we were working within always felt safe. Those kinds of scenes are always difficult to approach; the most important thing was that the two actors got along well, and we set boundaries, and it looks uncomfortable and tense just because we choreographed it that way. When we were actually shooting it, it was not as extreme as you would imagine, but when I was looking back at the footage after shooting, I was like, “Oh my God, that is intense!”
The thing about the violence in this film is, you see less than you realize. There’s not so much shown on screen; a lot of it is in the audience’s head. You get glimpses of it, and overall it’s the feeling of the violence that affects you.
There’s a long tradition of British crime films, but very few with a woman at the center. Were you looking to intentionally subvert that tradition?
Yeah, and that’s very much what attracted me to the project. It was something I was looking to do anyway, so when I found this script, I knew I had to do it. What I look for in my projects is strong female characters, and I like the idea of subverting any genre, to go against expectations. At this point, so many things have been done, and it’s actually quite hard to do something new, so any little detail you can put a fresh spin on is exciting to me.
It’s also interesting that you don’t have the obligatory flashback to her husband’s murder.
No, because the film is not about him, it’s about Sarah, so to have that kind of flashback would almost take the emphasis away from her character. Yes, she wants to avenge his death, but this is about the woman, not the man who was her husband, right? So you don’t really see him, and you don’t really know anything about that.
Were you inspired by any past genre films with strong female leads? There’s one sequence that’s reminiscent of MS. 45.
[Laughs] It’s funny, because I love MS. 45, and when I was going through visual references with my director of photography, I did use a couple of those images. But I wouldn’t say that I drew too much inspiration from that movie; I guess it was in the back of my mind.
What went into the casting of your bad guys? Leo has kind of a mild-mannered look, with a high-pitched voice, that goes against the grain of the usual movie crime boss.
Again, it was about subverting expectations. You expect there to be this overpowering, scary crime boss, and I thought, well, what if we cast somebody who seems a bit meek, and like this not very scary guy, who actually turns out to be quite a psycho? It was just about changing things up a little bit, creating a character who, from the outside, doesn’t seem like this imposing guy, but he is truly insane.
For Tito, Andrew Simpson was the lead in my previous film ROAD GAMES. He is originally from Belfast, where we shot the movie, and Tito was written as a Northern Irish character, and he was basically the first person I thought of when I was casting the movie. He’s so funny, because when he read the script, he said, “Abner, this character, this is me.” I was like, “OK… [Laughs] What do you mean?” He was comparing to the part he played in ROAD GAMES: “This is much closer to who I really am.” I didn’t know exactly what he meant by that, so that was pretty funny. And obviously, we had that shorthand, so it was very easy.
Actually, it was the same with Edward Hogg, who plays Leo. He’s one of my best friends, he’s been working in the industry for a long time, and I thought of him for this role because he’s got that slightly high-pitched voice. And again, it was about having that shorthand on set, because we had such a limited time to make the movie, I wanted to make sure I had the right cast I could get along with. And since I’d been working with Sarah for 18 months before the shoot, at that point I felt like I was surrounded by friends, and we were focused on creating the film we all wanted to make.
Can you talk about working with makeup effects artist Dan Martin, especially on that one gag at the end?
It was great to collaborate with him, and it was amazing how excited he was at the prospect of creating this prop. It was pretty straightforward, because he’s so experienced at prosthetics, and that key prop was the one thing in the whole film that we couldn’t cut any corners on in terms of budget or anything else. We had to make sure that it worked.
Were there any especially difficult days on the shoot?
Honestly, every day was so difficult, because it was such a tight schedule. We shot the movie in only 16 days, which is kind of crazy to think about. And when you ask if there was any one tough day in particular, I can only think of one day that was not as stressful. That was the day when we shot the cemetery scene where she’s visiting her husband’s grave, and a couple of others where she’s in the hardware store. It was one of the lighter days, and everyone was a bit more relaxed. It was about halfway through the shoot, so we had gotten into a rhythm, and had made it through a bunch of really, really intense stuff. Then we had that very sort of casual day filling in those scenes, and then it got really intense again until the end.
One thing I enjoyed about the movie is that the title doesn’t really resonate until it comes up at the end.
It was actually my decision to have no opening titles. That was a stylistic choice for me; I did the same thing on ROAD GAMES. I don’t know if I’ll always do that, but I actually prefer it. I don’t like it when there are those lengthy opening title sequences in movies. On the films I make, I just want to go straight to the story and characters. I don’t want to distract people with those names; they can see them afterward. These days, they can look them up on-line!
You’ve done a couple of thrillers now that edge into horror territory; are you interested in doing an all-out horror film?
I actually am working on one right now with Ronan Blaney, the same writer. We’re doing a new take on vampires, and I can’t say too much about that, but it’s in the vein of movies like NEAR DARK—a Western/vampire mix, but Irish!