Filmed in a mere six weeks and set almost entirely in a tiny house in mid-19th century Nova Scotia, Maudie recounts the life of folk artist Maud Lewis, played by Sally Hawkins, and her relationship with longtime partner Everett Lewis, played by Ethan Hawke.
The biographical drama, directed by Aisling Walsh, captures the sense of freedom that creative expression can bring and the beauty of raw emotion that comes with simple living. At a special New York premiere, Walsh, Hawkins, Hawke, and Kari Matchett, who plays one of Maud’s first patrons, speak about what drew them to story, what it was like to work on the film, and more.
Why did you decide to direct a film based on the story of Maud Lewis?
Walsh: Well, one, because it’s a story about a woman who’s a painter and that struggle to be the artist, and also the portrait of that marriage of those two people together. They’re the two things that drew me to it. I was trained as a painter, so that. Also, it’s so rare to see those films that are simply about a relationship and marriage that lasts over a period of time.
As the relationships among the characters and the nuanced emotions that run through them are so crucial to the film, how did you go about casting to achieve the right dynamics for this dimension?
Walsh: The night I wrote the script, I wrote Sally’s name down. We’ve worked together before, and we’d been trying to find something to do together. That seemed to be the one, and I sent her two pictures of Maud, and she wrote back and said, “Yes, I do.” Some months later we got Ethan.
Was it difficult to recreate the setting of the tiny house in Nova Scotia where Maud and Everett lived?
Walsh: We visited the house. It’s housed in the museum in Halifax, so we had a great reference. The real houses there were replicated on as near to that world as we could and put it in a landscape that was as near to the world she would’ve lived in. That’s what you do with a period film. It’s a lot of details.
What do you hope that audiences will get out of the film?
Walsh: I hope they’ll see something that they recognize in their own lives and understand what it is to have that kind of lifetime relationship and the struggle to create art and the simple kind of life that’s not tied up with the business of what this crazy world we live in at this time. I’d like to kind of reflect a time to get involved with the emotion, that very strong story of that relationship
What made you decide to be a part of Maudie?
Hawkins: It’s very inspiring, really. I’ve worked with Aisling before, years ago, so we’ve wanted to work together for a long time again. It just sort of came out of left field. She sent me a picture of Maud towards the end of her life, and she had this incredible smile. It’s so beautiful, it sort of shines out, and surrounded by her artwork—I didn’t know about her work, and I was just inspired by that. When I replied to Aisling, she sent me a couple examples of her work, and there’s no way you can really turn that down. It’s a gift, and the fact that she came to me, I feel very humbled by it. It’s huge, so you just want to do that justice. The more I learned about Maud, the more I fell in love with her story, and what she had to deal with—an incredible pain dealing with juvenile arthritis. I mean, it’s extraordinary, really, and despite all that, it’s such a wonderful life of her making. That whole story, it’s like that incredible human spirit despite all that she will overcome, and I found it very moving. Aisling then sent me the script. It’s weird when you think back to that time when you’re sort of just the “oh, what it could be,” and now we’re in New York and it’s being celebrated. It’s a real honor. It’s one of those films that’s more intimate, low-budget, and almost mainly taking place in that tiny hut which we created, so it’s beautiful, very powerful. It’s one of those films you want to be a part of, and having people wanting to talk about it, it’s why I do what I do. It’s really nice.
What was it like having to work in such a limited setting and to try to convey the depth of Maud and Everett’s relationship over the years?
Hawkins: You want to get it right. You don’t want it to be romanticized or sentimental, and to strip all that away and make it real as possible. Relationships are complex and weird, and they hurt each other, and that’s the nature of love. Everyone’s dealing with different things, and they’re really strange circumstances. You never quite know if it’s going to work or not, whether it’s believable, and also keeping it alive when you haven’t got pyrotechnics or lots of action shots and it’s very intimate. It’s all about the chemistry, and sometimes it works, but you never quite know. Ethan is extraordinary, and I’ve loved him for years and always to work with him. He’s a gift.
Did being a fellow artist help you relate to Maud?
Hawkins: Yeah. I mean, she just wanted to paint. I think when you’re expressing your art, there’s no greater feeling than having the room to do that, and there’s nothing more important than that. I feel very lucky to be doing what I love and making money for it. That’s all she wanted, really. She didn’t really chase fame. She wasn’t interested in that. She was interested in surviving and having an outlet, and Everett enabled her to do that, to paint. She just wanted to paint, and I think that’s creativity—despite anything, you’ll just keep going. Sometimes the world catches on to your voice, and sometimes it’s just about creating in a small way, but however you do it, it’s important to do it, whether that’s baking, whether it’s putting it into the home you live in, creativity is what makes human beings great.
What compelled you to get involved with Maudie?
Hawke: I guess first and foremost, Sally Hawkins. I’ve always thought she was a tremendous actress, and I wanted to work with her. The idea of her part was very, very fortunate. I thought her acting and this role were going to intersect in a pretty incredible way, and I was right.
What challenges did you face in portraying Everett?
Hawke: It’s completely challenging because it’s an unorthodox love affair. It’s extremely unorthodox. He’s a very complicated, unlikeable person in a lot of ways, so to tell a love story where everybody isn’t always likable is one of those challenges.
What was your favorite part of working on the film?
Hawke: Getting close to that art. I had a good, world-class scene partner, and when you have a really three-dimensional, rich character, and a great scene partner, and also a director who really cared about acting—acting is really important to her—and so that elevates acting to a very high place in the set. Sometimes the most important thing in the set is the special effects, sometimes it’s the cinematography, sometimes it’s, you know, various different things, but this director cared a lot about the acting.
Why did Maud Lewis’s story appeal to you?
Kari: I’ve been a fan of Maud Lewis for years. I spent some time in Nova Scotia shooting something, and that’s when I got to know her and that’s where she’s from, and of course Nova Scotians love Maud. I kept seeing these productions of what I found out was Maud Lewis’s work, and I was really drawn to her. I’ve loved her ever since, so when I found out they were making a movie about her life, I really, really curious, and my interest was piqued, and then I read the script, and the script was one of the most beautiful scripts I’d ever read in my life. I had to be a part of it.
What was the most challenging part of filming Maudie?
Kari: There weren’t a lot of resources for the film. We were shooting in Newfoundland, and the weather was a challenge. It’s always the illusion of creating time when you spend the time because in the film world time is money, but luckily Aisling, who is a wonderful director, directed this film, and Sally and Ethan created a world that was really easy to slip into.
Was the setting in Newfoundland accurate to the 1930s Nova Scotian landscape where Maud lived?
Kari: They found the right spot. It’s not too far away from Nova Scotia, but it’s far enough in that it’s really different. They found some good pastoral landscapes that look really similar to Nova Scotia’s.
Do you have any personal experience with painting?
Kari: Yeah, I do actually. I painted a beautiful rendition of a bird when I was in grade five, and I still consider it my best work. I do like to draw stick figures with my son, and I love a blue, blue sky and green, green grass.
I guess anyone can be a painter.
Kari: Anyone can be a painter, it’s true. What’s interesting is I actually look at my son who’s four and the freedom that he has with painting, you know, that’s one of the beautiful things about Maude is that she doesn’t have any formal education. She really did because she needed and wanted to do it. It was her way of expressing all the stuff that went on, and she made the world a better place because of it. I think the freedom of her expression is the greatest expression.
Maudie premieres in U.S. theaters on June 16th.
Header image by Toronto Film Festival
Photos by Reyna Wang