Celebrated Nova Scotian Folk artist Maud Lewis’ triumphant story comes to the big screen this week with the release of the much-anticipated film “Maudie”. Maudie (played by the exceptional Sally Hawkins) tells the tale of how Maud was born into a life of tribulation, and suffered with severe juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Yet her profound need for independence, and her passion for painting while she held her brush with committed fortitude brought her joy, capturing a child like essence to her art.
Maude even falls in love with the reclusive, rather cantankerous fish peddler Everett Lewis (played brilliantly by Ethan Hawke) along the way. Maud was able to carve out a life of art, find the joy in the simple things, and somehow find beauty when faced with much adversity. Travel Maritimes chats with the film’s director Aisling Walsh.
TM: How did you hear about the film? How did “Maudie” come into your hands?
Director Aisling Walsh: The producers had been in development for quite a while. Maudie came to me from one of the producers Bob Cooper. He came on board the project to try and get all of those parts in place that one needs to do when your making a film like this. I read a draft of screenwriter Sherry White’s script and decided that I wanted to do it. Then I came to Canada and met everybody, that’s how I became involved.
I think what spoke to me about the project was the fact that Maud was an artist, because I was trained as one myself. Somehow things speak to you sometimes and it was one of those scripts that I had to do. When you get a script at that stage there are often people in the running, so who knows what stage things are at. But we met and I think we all figured we were making the same film, and started to work on it from there.
TM: Was the casting already carved in stone prior? Sally Hawkins performance is just outstanding in her role as Maud Lewis. The nuances and the complexities of the characters really took me into their world. Did you think of Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke when you were talking about whom to cast with the producers?
Director Aisling Walsh: When I read the script the first person I thought of was Sally. I wrote her name down; I had worked with her before. We had been trying to find something to do together. She was attached to another project of mine at the time, and I thought this would be a really great project for her to do. Then a year sort of past between Sally agreeing to do it and the time we started filming.
Ethan Hawke wasn’t free that first time, but he was free the second time. So that year delay kind of brought the two of them together. It’s difficult with these films and all the pieces of the pie you have to fit together financially. Those things take time to pull together and in that year we got Ethan he was free. Sally had met him before at the Oscars. I think that most actors want to come out and work with Sally. The role of Everett was a huge challenge for Ethan and it was something he wanted to take on. We were just so lucky that we got the two of them.
TM: Did you spend any time at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax, where Maud’s original home has been restored and is on display prior to filming?
Director Aisling Walsh: Yes, I was there several times. That is where I started, when I came out to Canada first. I said to the producers I want to stop there on the way and have a look at it to try and get sense of the house and who they were, which you get a really good sense of in the museum.
Then at a later stage I drove to Digby and Marshalltown, where the site of the house was. I brought my photographer to see it, because we had to recreate that in as near a way as we could. That was so important to replicate her work and all those things took time. Meanwhile back in London Sally was working with an artist painting. That is the kind of detail that goes into a project like this.
TM: What was one of the biggest challenges for you as a director filming the movie?
Director Aisling Walsh: The challenge initially was to put everything in place, to get the film to work – that’s always a challenge. And deciding to make the film in Newfoundland and trying to recreate that world of Nova Scotia, not so much exactly but in feeling, and then the house! How to build that house and where to build it; It was twelve foot by twelve foot.
There were days in the house that were quite challenging, working in such a small space. But then you get that intimate feeling because of that. We decided to work within the site of the house, and not move walls and not change the footprint of the house. Then the weather can sometimes be quite a challenge out there.
TM: When you started to delve into Maud more as a person and her story, how do you think she was able to find so much joy and beauty surrounded by adversity?
Director Aisling Walsh: I think we look back at those times and we think it was so brute and harsh I mean it was. But Maude’s life even before she went to live with Everett may have been more comfortable but it wasn’t much better. She found a way to paint with all of those other things going on. They had no electricity, no running water. Life with the winters out there I am sure are really tough, but she was able to paint everyday.
That desire to paint and that obsession to paint is a true artist. For me, her greatest work of art is the walls of that house. Forty years of living there and forty years of painting. That it changed over time. I think she found a way to live her life. She never traveled very far, maybe twenty miles away from the house. It was enough for her. It was a simple life: no television, no radio.
There life was very simple. Her husband Everett would drive the car only when he needed to because it would use up petrol. Yet through all of that she found a way to earn a living; she sold her paintings not for very much at the time. She committed to that life that they had together, and brought life and beauty into his life that he could not have had without her. He gave her the freedom to paint.
Maudie is set for theatrical release on April 17.