There are many Canadian painters worthy of celebrating during the country’s 150th birthday celebrations, but one of the names at the top of that list would have to be Nova Scotian icon Maud Lewis, subject of Irish filmmaker Aisling Walsh’s biopic, Maudie, which opens in select Canadian cities this weekend.
The diminutive Lewis was born in 1907 with a nearly crippling form of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis that would cause her to hunch, slouch, and generally move slower than everyone else around her. Her school years were hard thanks to her physical disabilities, and the loss of her parents made her life even harder. In a bid for personal independence, Maud would answer an advert from local fisherman Everett Lewis, an almost hermetic orphan from Marshalltown, Nova Scotia who had been looking for a housekeeper. In 1938 at the age of 34, Maud would marry Everett and continue to pursue her most passionate hobby: painting bright and colourful depictions of the world she saw right outside her door. The paintings and postcards she created basically on scraps of paper, wood, and canvas quickly became a sensation among locals, and Maud and Everett began selling them directly from the front of their home. Lewis would go on to provincial, national, and international acclaim for her unusual, warm, and evocative works, even getting a commission from then U.S. President Richard Nixon (whom she demanded pay her up front) and participating in a documentary about her life before she would pass away in 1970.
For Maudie, veteran film and television director Walsh cast a pair of powerhouse international talents to play Maud and Everett Lewis and portray their lives together from 1937 to 1970: British actress Sally Hawkins, who has been vetted as a potential early Oscar contender for her work here (and whose artistic parents had already instilled in her a love for painting and drawing), and American character actor Ethan Hawke. While watching the film, it’s hard for the viewer – and indeed for Walsh herself – to imagine anyone else in the parts, but mostly because it’s difficult to convey Maud and Everett’s relationship of few words. These were people who rarely travelled, kept their success at an arm’s length, and never dwelled upon Maud’s status. Most of their relationship is a series of unspoken agreements, something a filmmaker like Walsh would need great collaborators to pull off credibly.
“We think that if we travel the world, then we see more, but as Maud Lewis proves it’s also what you know, and I think that’s interesting, too.”
“There’s a great deal of trust between filmmakers and actors on a project like this, and I come from that place of thinking when I write myself,” Walsh said during a telephone interview last week about how her admiration for Maud and her cast were born from similarities to her own artistic processes. “I start from silence and nothing, and I work up from that. The first sentence that’s written is what the other characters have to respond to or not, and I think that’s how performance goes with a project like this. I think Ethan and Sally come from that place, too. They have a real ability and delicacy to play silence so well. Maud and Everett’s world was quite silent. They had a radio at one point, but they never had television. They were isolated, but they were with each other every day. They didn’t have to say much to each other to communicate. Everett was a man who lived on his own for more than thirty years before he would even meet Maud, so he was already quite a quiet individual before he met her. I think that’s interesting in a film; to watch people just observing each other and not having to be told what the other person is thinking or feeling.”
“I read the script [by Sherry White], and the first name I wrote down was Sally. We wanted to work together, and I was trying to find something for her, and I can’t think of anyone else who could have played her role. The two of them together are extraordinary. You’d have to ask them, but I think what helped them was us building that house out there on the side of the road as close to how the house would have looked originally. Those things became very important for me because I knew if we gave them the tools like the range, stove, hats, and just the overall layout of the house, it would make it feel real for them. At any point, they could walk out the door, walk around the house, and still be able to stay in that state of mind. It gives them great freedom as performers. Very early on, when I joined the film, as one does, we always have that discussion as to whether for not we’d build it in a studio or not, but that would be a very different film. The brave thing to do would be to build it out in the elements and just go for it and see whatever happens. The weather can be quite tough out there, as you know, and we all had to agree that we would embrace that, and that on any given day the two of them would be out there in the wind and rain trying to play a scene, but they really liked the authenticity that gave to a scene.”
“You have to see Maud in the same way that she sees the same things right outside her door. That’s how she connected to her painting, and that’s how we have to connect to her in the same way.”
Recreating that sense of authenticity for her period piece might have been easy for performers as seasoned as Hawkins and Hawke, but an entirely difficult undertaking for the project as a whole. To put herself and the cast and crew into the headspace of Maud and Everett, Walsh found it necessary to try to recreate the minuscule 10 X 12 cabin where the couple lived their entire lives, located on a rural road in Nova Scotia. The problem with such commitment to authenticity, however, is that such locations in modern day Nova Scotia are almost non-existent today. Walsh and Maudie production designer John Hand would eventually recreate the Lewis’ shack with the immense help and input of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (who currently care for the original, restored domicile at its new location in Halifax) in Newfoundland.
“It was tough on this film,” Walsh chuckles about her film’s lengthy process of pre-production location scouting and research. “I come from Ireland, as you know, and to find a location like this in Ireland, you can find one at every turn in a rural community. That’s still a part of Ireland, but it’s difficult to find any location anywhere that’s devoid of a sense of modernity. It’s a culture now where people don’t really like to hold onto anything hugely from the past. They knock down and they rebuild. To find a location like that took a lot of doing; travelling out to places, and then obviously, I went and had a look in Nova Scotia, and I went to the site in Marshalltown where the house was originally located, and we photographed that and hoped to get something as close to that as we could. We also had to find a location that was still a reasonable distance to a town that can facilitate a crew full of people on location for the filming. It took quite a while to find it, and it was amazing that we did. Once you have that location, you then have to realize that you have to build the geography of a whole town. Where’s the local store? Where do they end up when they cross that bridge? Then you have to identify the kind of house that a woman who comes from New York that goes to the rural world for a few months in the summer would likely live in. It’s got to be rather spectacular. In fact, the house that we used for the character of Sandra [played by Kari Matchett], the woman from New York, was spectacular and used by someone else for the same reasons. It was owned by a woman from Toronto who came out to Newfoundland every summer for two or three weeks, and she’s done it every year for thirty years. (laughs) Those things took a lot of time and putting together over four or five trips to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.”
“There’s a great deal of trust between filmmakers and actors on a project like this, and I come from that place of thinking when I write myself.”
When asked if such decisions about location were vital for the production to get inside of Maud’s headspace, Walsh emphatically and affirmatively answers that everyone on the cast and crew was willing to put in as much work as was needed to make Maudie the most authentic depiction of the artist’s life possible.
“You really have to do that. I think part of you sort of becomes that person. It’s always interesting when you start and you have certain thoughts about what that kind of person would be like to be around, and then your production designer comes on, and then you have your DP, and everyone fights for Maud in their own way, and that’s when the truly interesting things happen. I knew that we were going to be very confined when shooting particularly in Everett’s house because we recreated it just to barely bigger than its original dimensions. The landscape around us, however, was huge and vast, and that had to factor into it because a lot of the landscapes she paints are quite wide, and I wanted to see that from her perspective. In that respect, you have to see Maud in the same way that she sees the same things right outside her door. That’s how she connected to her painting, and that’s how we have to connect to her in the same way.”
The hard work to bring Maud Lewis’ life to the big screen also made Walsh realize that while the circumstances of her famous subject’s life were quite extraordinary, her story is a universally recognizable tale of artists who draw a wealth of inspiration from the things they witness and observe outside their own door. Walsh saw a bit of herself in Maud Lewis, and she thinks that many other creative types will recognize traits that mirror their own creative imaginations.
“[Maud’s way of looking that the world] is quite close to my own process, actually. I think that’s how Maud saw the world and imagined it, and if you’re as confined as she would have been – she never travelled more than twenty miles around that part of the world – what she saw was enough to provide a lifetime of work, and that’s extraordinary. We think that if we travel the world, then we see more, but as Maud Lewis proves it’s also what you know, and I think that’s interesting, too. She knew art in her heart and soul, and she painted the same things again and again, like a lot of artists tend to do. One of the first things I asked the first time I went to the art gallery in Halifax was about that. A lot of painters tend to paint themselves, but Maud never did, and what I found out about her is something I used in a scene in the film where Maud paints the flowers that are around them. For her, that was the closest thing to a self-portrait, and that’s why I put that scene in the film. I think her world was always just enough to keep her inspired, whether she found inspiration in the birds on a biscuit tin or on any of the number of calendars that she collected. I think regardless of where you are as an artist, you can find that inspiration and beauty in anything.”