Film director Macdara Vallely came to the Bronx from Northern Ireland and quickly decided he wanted to use the Boogie Down as the canvas for his next film, Babygirl, which will make its theatrical debut this Friday, October 4th at the Quad Cinema in Greenwich Village. I met Macdara through some mutual friends, and immediately I understood that he was deeply interested in telling a good story, and that to tell it right, you had to go for a serious commitment to authenticity. The screenplay for Babygirl is all about that–real characters, real dialogue, real feelings. He passed it around to lots of folks (including me, and after that he graciously asked me to be the film’s Music Supervisor), his fabulous wife Vanessa (Boricua de pura sepa) helped him edit it, and then all there was left was to shoot it.
The photos here are from an all-day shoot at Morningside Park in Harlem, standing in for the Bronx, I’m imagining it to be Bronx Park East, in the shadow of the White Plains Road el. I couldn’t tell then, but what Macdara did was coax even more humanity out of the actors, the colors in the air, the claustrophobic drama of urban apartment buildings, the eyes and mouths of his actors. That’s what a great director does, and that’s what makes this film work.
Here is a brief Q&A I recently did with Macdara, reflecting on Babygirl and beyond:
Ed Morales: How did you come to embrace the Bronx and write the screenplay?
Macdara Vallely: I like the Bronx. I suppose because I grew up in a working-class part of Ireland, a part of me feels most at home in this most working-class borough of the city. The film was inspired by events that I witnessed first hand on the 2 train one day. Basically, I saw this twenty-something guy giving a teenage girl the glad-eye, she dissed him, so he turned his attentions to the girl’s thirty-something mother. Much to this poor girl’s horror, the mother and this guy hit it off. All three got off together at the next stop. I was left with the question “what happens next?”
EM: What are the parallels between the choices young people make in this film and your previous one, set in Northern Ireland?
MV: Well, my previous film, Peacefire, was about the practice of punishment shootings. Where hoods as young as 14 in Ireland used to be given the choice of exile from their community or making an appointment to have their kneecaps shot off. Babygirl is a much lighter movie. But I would say that the lead characters in both films reject what they see to be corrupt social norms of their time and place, and fight hard to maintain a sense of dignity.
EM: How exciting was it for you to work with New York City as your canvas? What logistical problems did you encounter?
MV: The Bronx is a treat to shoot in. The crowds give the place a great visual energy. The visual interfaces – concrete stacked up against luscious parkland. The thumping soundtrack – cars banging out reggaetón, salsa. Languages from all around the world. Off course, it’s also a feckin’ nightmare. Never do a unit move between the Bronx and Queens. You will want to throw yourself off the Throggs Neck Bridge.
EM: How would you describe your directing style and what are your influences?
MV: I have very broad tastes. Everything from de Sica to the Coen brothers. I like well-made movies. I don’t really buy into the auteur tradition. I don’t take a “film by” credit anymore. It takes a group of people, working together to make a movie good. And as a friend of mine is fond of saying: “If you want to win the sled race, you had better get yourself some good huskies.”
EM: How do you think Flaco Navaja handled the role, which asked the viewer to feel attracted to and repulsed by this sleazeball with heart?
MV: Flaco is one of the most dedicated, courageous and honest performers I know. He opened up his heart to the character of Victor. For the film to work, Lena (and the audience), need to fall in love with Victor – otherwise, he’s just some creepy dude on the train! I think it really helps that Flaco is also a writer himself – he gets it.
EM: Did you want a first-time actress for the part of Lena? How surprised were you by her performance?
MV: Yainis Ynoa walked into the open call for her audition off the street. She didn’t come recommended to us. She had never been in anything up until then. She started reading the part of Lena. I looked over and I saw my wife, who was reading with her, had tears in her eyes – I knew that she was the one. She has such great range, and a beautiful subtle touch. It doesn’t hurt that that the camera loves her – she pops.
EM: Is adolescence the most dramatic moment in life? Did you feel your two female leads took turns being adolescent and adult?
MV: I’m not sure if adolescence is the most dramatic moment in life, but it can certainly feel like that at the time. Yeah, I think the single-parent, child relationship can often fall into that pattern. It’s hard enough being a parent when you have the support of a full time partner. I can’t imagine what it must be like to do it on your own…
EM: What are the similarities between Latino culture and your ancestral culture?
MV: Apart from the obvious (partying, dancing, drinking etc.), I think that the Irish and Latinos both place a big emphasis on family. A never ending source of joy and pain.
EM: How do you see the future of independent film in the US?
MV: There’s a future. Tell me more… Seriously, I don’t know. The business model is broken. The market is crowded and unless you have stars in your film it’s going to be really hard to get national distribution. On the upside, people will always want to see films that hold an honest mirror up to life….there’s way too much bullshit out there.
EM: What are you working on these days and what will be the next project that will be released?
MV: I just shot a doc for Irish TV (in Irish) and that will be released later this year. I’ve several scripts at various stage of readiness, including one that is set in New York State. Watch this space…..