WARNING: This interview contains spoilers. If you have not yet seen A GOOD WOMAN IS HARD TO FIND, avert your eyes and return once you’ve watched the film. Unless you’re unbothered by spoilers, in which case, read on!
This year’s Fantasia Festival treated movie-lovers to a very special advance screening of Abner Pastoll’s sophomore feature, A GOOD WOMAN IS HARD TO FIND. The high-tension crime thriller, with hefty doses of dark comedy and social commentary, is set to close the 20th anniversary of London’s Fright Fest. Not only was I fortunate to attend the special advance screening, I also had the distinct pleasure of speaking with director Abner Pastoll. After watching A GOOD WOMAN IS HARD TO FIND, I was eager to pick Pastoll’s brain. One thing I did not anticipate was sharing our mutual love of a certain 80s classic.
Pastoll’s love of cinema runs deep. Indeed, it’s in his blood. Many of his family members worked in film or related creative fields. His parents owned a two-screen cinema back in South Africa, where he was born. Attached to the cinema was a video store. Though Pastoll and his parents moved to London when was two years old, they would go back to South Africa for a month during the Christmas season. Pastoll said that this was his prime time for movie watching. He would spend days inside the cinema, taking in as many movies as he could. His father used to make short films of his own. As a result, cameras and equipment were around for Pastoll to begin making his own short films. Indeed, he began making his own short films as a young child. The film that kickstarted this vocation? None other than BACK TO THE FUTURE. Pastoll shared with me that the time-travelling adventure is the film that ignited his desire to become a director. Oh, and he also wanted to be Marty McFly (I had to include the fact that he shared his admiration for fellow Canadian, Michael J. Fox).
Read on for our full interview where we discuss all things A GOOD WOMAN IS HARD TO FIND.
NOTE: Check out my review of A GOOD WOMAN IS HARD TO FIND before reading this interview. Also, this is your second warning that this interview contains spoilers. Turn away all who enter here without having seen the movie and/or are bothered by spoilers.
Alright, you’re good? Let’s go!
Toronto Film Files (TFF): Thank you for a great screening and Q&A last night! I really enjoyed the film personally. One of the first things that came to me, top of mind, right away, that I really appreciated was the perspective of the film. We see the story play out through Sarah’s eyes. One of the first things that came off so strongly to me was her positioning. She’s obviously such a caring person. She’s a wonderful Mum. She’s smart. But the world around her is so oppressive. Whether it’s her Mom admonishing her, the man harassing her at the grocery store almost every day, and just how the police are so dismissive of her. We see her go through this really epic journey from taking that all in, then taking the power back into her own hands. What about that kind of journey intrigued you? Why was it important to tell it from that perspective?
Abner Pastoll (AP): For me, this story was about her. From the first time I read the script, I was attracted to the idea of telling the story of this vulnerable woman who has this very subtle but strong transformation into this independent woman. For me, that’s what really attracted me to the project. It was the chance to bring that transformation to life. It could have easily, in the hands of another director, not been done that way. I watch a lot of movies, I’m a big fan of cinema obviously, I get frustrated when films are told in a way that way. I was trying to not be too typical in telling a female story from a male perspective. The people call it the male gaze or whatever. There’s none of that in it because this is genuinely how I see things. It was very much the way I wanted to do it.
TFF: Even bigger picture, seeing how the police are so dismissive of her to blatantly trespassing on her property and taking agency away from her. Even in the beginning the small things like the man in the grocery store, I’m pretty sure every woman in that audience was like “Oh my god. This is real.”
AP: He was so good as well.
TFF: Yeah, he was AMAZING.
AP: He’s the loveliest guy in the world. He’s so nice.
TFF: I love that he’s actually so nice in real life.
AP: He actually auditioned for one of the cops. But there was something about him. He was playing the cop who was a bit like that anyway. I was like “No, I think he’s gonna be way better for that role.” It really paid off in that decision because he seems to be one of the most memorable characters of the movie. I mean, he is right in the end as well and that’s really satisfying.
TFF: Yes, oh that ending is such perfect closure. When she’s leaving the grocery store, I noticed the canvassers handing out flyers. In the beginning, they kind of just force it into her hands and she accepts it. In the end, she just walks right by it.
AP: Oh you noticed that. It’s a very subtle thing. That’s great. It’s a subtle difference in her transformation. Where she just accepts everything that’s given to her, whereas by the end she’s like “No, actually.”
TFF: She’s making decisions about what she wants to accept and what she doesn’t.
AP: Exactly. It’s great you noticed that. Because like I say, all of those details are so subtle but they really sort of enhance her transformation in the sense that it is making it more believable, rather than suddenly just being this new person.
TFF: I appreciate that. You have these big moments dotted and enhanced with these subtle moments, such as the canvassers. I really loved that. Along the lines of her journey and more from a visual aspect, I felt that at the beginning we’re really getting shown her life and her situation through the visuals. It does come across as a very working-class neighbourhood. Then, towards the end, particularly when she goes to the bar, it becomes very stylized. It gets a lot darker, the neon stands out, it really amplifies this tense scene. How did you make those decisions? What was going through your mind from a visual sense?
AP: It was very intentional. Sarah’s story is very much grounded in reality and there’s a social drama aspect to it. The storyline with Tito and Leo Miller, is very much this underground, crime genre, stylish world. I approached it as the meeting of these two worlds. So, it builds up and she enters this other world in a sense. She enters this stylish underworld. The beginning of the film’s got this social drama aspect to it. I kind of approached the film from that perspective, imagining what a Ken Loach genre film might be like. It’s very much the meeting of social realism with this underground genre film, and how they collide with each other.
TFF: That came across so beautifully with that whole bar sequence. She makes this odyssey through the bar before she even gets to Miller’s office. I love how you put that, her entering that underworld.
AP: One of my favourite shots in the movie is when she’s looking at herself in the mirror when she’s putting on lipstick, the empowerment of just putting on the lipstick.
TFF: I love that it’s about her making that choice. I thought that was very pointed throughout the film. I think that’s very unique. It’s a fine line, and you really hit the nail on the head by demonstrating that this is her taking her agency back. This is her making these choices for herself, as opposed to accepting or making choices based on the people around her.
TFF: Along the lines of that whole scene where she makes the odyssey through the bar, that scene in particular but really throughout the whole film, the music really felt like a character. It really felt like its own entity. I know you spoke a bit about it last night which was so intriguing. How did you come to have that collaboration, and was this collaboration something you really intended for this film?
AP: Yes, basically it was. Like I said, my composer Matthew Pusti, this is actually his feature debut as a composer.
TFF: WOW. That’s incredible.
AP: I know! The thing is, he is such a prolific artist and he releases so much music under the moniker Makeup and Vanity Set. He’s composed tons of short films. I think there was one short film that played at Fantasia a few days ago that had his music in it. I was in the screening. I didn’t know that he did it, and his name came up and I was like “What?!” So I was texting him.
TFF: Isn’t that such a great feeling?
AP: Yeah, it was good because I kept thinking during the short “This music is amazing.” Then his name came up and I was like “Of course.” I’ve known him since 2012. I’ve known him for seven years. Like I said at the Q&A, I saw a short film that he did and I really loved it. So I found his details and got in touch with him. We’ve been in contact since then and we’ve built this friendship. He’s worked with me before on short things. I felt this was like, it was like a gut instinct. I just knew that this was the right fit. It was great to work with him, like one of the most fulfilling creative experiences because like I said, as I was editing the film, I would be sending him scenes before I had a full edit. Some of his music would then dictate editorial choices. In fact, one scene, in particular, is at the end, when she enters the bar, originally, in the edit, it cuts from her looking at herself in the mirror to this crazy metal [music] when she walks into the bar, because again, she’s going outside of her comfort zone into this crazy, different underworld. Then Matt suggested to me that we have her theme tune, we have this sort of ethereal feeling and stay with her as she’s sort of like making this entrance. It feels quite angelic. So he suggested, “What if we just take out all of the other music and all the sound.” So we tried that and I was like “This is amazing!” So I kept it on as long as we could, then snap into it. Because she’s in this sort of like dreamy state as she’s going in.
TFF: Bolger is such a fantastic actress. I mean her performance was incredible and I felt like just her movement got so much across. The music just elevated that feeling. You have this sense that she’s got blinders on. She’s going in there. This is her mission. She’s doing this.
AP: Yeah. Like I’m sure that people can identify with being in that kind of situation that you’re in a place and that your mind is not necessarily there. You’re somewhere else. The collaboration with him was just very exciting.
TFF: It absolutely came across. I noticed that change where the metal music that’s taking place with the band inside the bar, but then that change-over to her music that as you say is consistent throughout the film. It really is ethereal in a way. She’s walking in there. She’s on this mission now. It’s like that point of no return. The mission’s gonna get carried out. I loved that. I get the sense that that was a very unique process, editing the film very much closely collaborating with your composer.
AP: For me, it was very new, but felt right. I felt because it was me editing the movie, I felt like I was collaborating on the edit with him. So the crazy thing was I was editing the movie in London and he’s actually based in Nashville. We weren’t actually even doing it in the same room. This was totally by the internet, by Skype. So we were working long-distance but still able to do it in a way that I felt like this is really working so well. It was always so exciting. He would just write so much music. He would write a piece of music to one scene and I would be like “Actually that music works better in that scene” and then finding that it almost matches perfectly. It worked both ways. Like you said, it’s a character. Music is very important for me in all of my movies, or movies in general. It wouldn’t be the film it is without the music, you know? I feel like the music was almost the most important element other than Sarah’s performance in the movie. Not to downplay my amazing DP. It’s also his feature debut. I’d worked with him on a few shorts and things but again it was about timing. We worked so well together I thought this was the right time to work with him and it was. He’s just an amazing guy and goes the extra mile. Richard Bell is his name.
TFF: I love that this film really comes across through our chat, and through the Q&A yesterday, as a very collaborative effort. When you mentioned you only had 16 days, and you’re directing and editing…I don’t know how you did it without not sleeping ever.
AP: I didn’t sleep [laughs], but I still don’t know how I did it. I watch the movie and I am in awe of the fact that we even have a film that looks that good, that works so well because of the amount of the time that we had. It’s I just don’t even know how we did. I haven’t figured it out. Even though I lived through it.
TT: You’re still catching up on the sleep.
TFF: Congratulations, it was so much fun. The audience reactions last night should tell you how much people enjoyed it. I really loved the balance between the thriller, the crime, and the kind of dark aspects of the film, but there’s a lot of humour as well. Even the characters who live in this dark underworld are hilarious. How did you balance that?
AP: I think to make suspense and thrills and chills really work you have to balance it with some kind of humour. If it’s intense intense intense with no relief on that journey, it’s almost too stressful. It’s good to make people laugh even in awkward or serious circumstances. That’s how I actually approach life. It’s good to laugh. It doesn’t matter how difficult things are, you have to have a couple of laughs. In terms of balancing and making sure that would work, it’s always tough because you’re always on a fine line. Is it gonna be cheesy or be funny? There’s definitely some elements in the movie that some people will think are cheesy, but that’s down to personal taste. I felt like tonally it all fit into what was going on. Like I say, humour is important.
TFF: Absolutely. It made some of the characters, particularly with Tito, that much more life-like, that much more real.
AP: It makes him somewhat likeable, you know, within reason.
TFF: You veer between hating him and kind of liking him.
AP: Exactly! It’s because of those moments. Things that he says that are quite funny. It almost helps you to connect with him a little bit.
TFF: His performance was fantastic. He just felt so real, that character. I mean obviously, Bolger’s performance was phenomenal and felt so real –
AP: It’s her film, but then there are all of these other supporting actors.
TFF: Absolutely. As we mentioned, the gentleman in the grocery store, he felt so incredibly real. The ladies – the lady at the check-out in the grocery store and the lady at the check-out at the hardware store, I loved her line. Her line, as well, was just so hilarious. Many of these characters feel so real which I think is a big testament to the film because we are dealing with such, as you mentioned, intense circumstances. You’re kind of sprinkling in, not only this humour but kind of a humanity there too. Edward Hogg (playing Leo Miller) obviously was hilarious. I just really appreciated your interplay between the humour and the suspense. I wanted to mention, and you kind of spoke to it last night – the two kids in the film. They were fantastic. I felt they came across very real, they felt like real kids.
AP: I actually cast two children that I felt could just be themselves. The funny thing about Macie [McCauley] (playing Lucy), the girl, is that she’s very vocal. She was a little bit shy some times when we were rolling.
TFF: Obviously with Rudy [Doherty] (playing Ben), his character was a bit different because we don’t actually hear him speak until closer to the end but with Macy, just the way that she speaks, and she interacts with her Mom in the film, and also her brother in the film, it came across so realistic to me.
AP: That was amazing to me how they actually bonded so well. They were instant best friends. They almost felt like brother and sister. So that was very much my choice in why I chose them as the pair.
TFF: I liked how you mentioned last night you really did want to have two kids who seemed to have really natural chemistry right off the bat. You mentioned that you had these group sessions with the kids. What made you really think when you saw these two kids “That’s what I’m looking for”?
AP: I just wanted to feel like they’re believably brother and sister. That was the most important thing to me. But also for the character of Ben, which I found in Rudy, was somebody who looked a little bit lost. The thing is he’s not like that but he was able to emote it. And it was basically as simple as that. For the girl I wanted somebody who was lively which is sort of downplayed in the movie.
TFF: Honestly, I felt like she was so lively!
AP: Okay, well that’s good! She’s even more than that. She’s pretty crazy.
TFF: Now I’m so curious what she’s like in real life! [laughs]
AP: I love her so much. [laughs]
TFF: Kind of along that line, the relationship between Sarah and her Mum I thought was really interesting. In the beginning, they have this sort of strained relationship and even just by the setting you can see the difference between where Sarah’s living versus where her Mum is living, in a bit more well-to-do home. You see this gulf between them. You get the sense right off the bat that there’s history there. Why was that important to you, and within the script, to demonstrate that mother-daughter relationship as part of this journey?
AP: I guess it shows how the Mother didn’t really appreciate or understand the fact that her daughter was in love with this man. She didn’t understand how she could live on this estate because of love. I think it was basically as simple as that. Because she herself never knew what real love is. And so there was that tension between them.
TFF: When they kind of have that discussion between the two of them that night, you get a sense of reckoning between the two of them, they kind of understand each other a bit better and they come to a place of more love and acceptance. I almost felt like that was part of Sarah’s journey as well, reaching that point of acceptance with her Mom. Was that an important element for you in telling her journey?
AP: Yeah, of course. I guess there is a theme in the movie about how important family is and their family is a bit broken but there’s somewhat of a relief. More of an acceptance. It’s like “So we’re a bit different but we still love each other.”
TFF: I found that their relationship was so interesting. This was curious to me; the film was set in Belfast. How is this film unique to Belfast? Her neighbourhood where she lives, you mentioned you shot on location on an estate, which was at times a little bit chaotic. How did you bring about that element to tell a story unique to Belfast?
AP: It’s interesting because the film is technically not set in Belfast. I chose that particular estate and Belfast to give it a sense of place. But it’s supposed to be a sort of generic anywhere-city in the UK or Ireland. I have been saying that it’s set in Belfast but it’s technically not. In some of the aerial shots, there are some distinguishing features and things that are specific to Belfast, so if you know Belfast you’ll automatically associate that it’s there. But if you don’t know, you won’t. It could be anywhere. I kind of took bits and pieces of Belfast and then there are other elements that I mixed together. In the casting of Ed Hogg as Leo, it was intentional because he has a Sheffield accent which is from North England. Then there are other supporting characters. There is a Liverpool accent, one of Tito’s flatmates who is interrogated. Then Sarah has a Dublin accent. So it was very intentional to have all of these different accents because that also represents anywhere in the UK or Ireland.
TFF: I felt watching the film that the community really came across to me. The neighbourhood where she lived. The feeling of community came across in the film – for better or for worse. We get the sense of these really wonderful people in the community, like the two ladies she sees in the stores. But also there are these darker elements, such as her husband’s murder and how the police are so dismissive of her. I really appreciated that you kind of pulled that out. That there’s these great aspects but also not-so-great aspects of living in a tight community. As you mentioned, the supporting actors really shine. When you were casting those actors, was that something that your casting director looked at first, or were these actors you knew and wanted to work with?
AP: A lot of them were people I wanted to work with, and there were a few that I discovered through my casting director and working with her on that. So Andrew Simpson as Tito, I had worked with him as the lead in my previous film so that was easy to cast him. Ed Hogg is one of my best friends so I cast him, and having the short-hand when we were working really helped us because we had a limited schedule. So I just wanted to be surrounded by people that are all my friends. We already had that working relationship. We get each other. We trust each other. I can let them do their thing. Caolan Byrne, who plays one of Leo’s lackies, is actually one of Ed’s best friends. I hadn’t ever met him before shooting the movie. So because he’s from Northern Ireland, he was one of the actors who did a self-tape. So when I was looking at all of [the tapes] with my casting director and he came up I was like “Oh that’s Caolan, that’s Ed’s friend!” I was thinking that would be really interesting to actually cast him because they’ve done a couple of movies before together. Then I met him and I was like “He’s great.” Since the shoot, we’ve become very good friends.
TFF: I love that! You know I think that’s such a beautiful thing when you can create a film amongst friends or at least with people you feel close with. A level of trust is important.
AP: Yeah, for me that’s what it’s all about. It’s about finding people you connect with because it’s so difficult to make a movie. There’s so much stress and pressure, you want to be able to at least enjoy some of the time. If you’re stressed because you don’t get along with them, it’s not very pleasant. All of the other supporting characters, like the guy in the supermarket, his name is Sean Sloan. The woman at the tills is Jo Donnelly and the cops, Nigel O’Neill and Daryl McCormack. The doctor, Siobhan Kelly. They were all through my casting director, Carla.
TFF: They were brilliant.
AP: I, of course, haven’t mentioned Jane Brennan who plays the mother. I wanted to work with her so she was on my list and we sent her the script and she responded well. So I met her and she was like “Yes, let’s do it.” She’s a very well-known theatre and TV actor. She’s also done some very high-profile movies. She was in BROOKLYN. She plays Saoirse Ronan’s Mum. When I first met with Jane and we were talking about this role, she was so excited about playing Sarah’s Mum because she’s pretty much played everybody’s Mum except her so she was like “Now I’m finally complete!”
TFF: Amazing! That’s hilarious. Oh my gosh. I love that.
AP: Yeah, because she’s played Saoirse Ronan’s Mum and if you look at her credits she’s always playing the Mum to everybody in Ireland.
TFF: She’s Ireland’s Mum, you know.
AP: Yeah. And she’s also wonderful. She’s so different to the character. Of course, they’re just such good actors. They’re able to bring these characters to life. They’re just so wonderful. I really enjoy working with actors. For me, that’s the most enjoyable thing on set.
TFF: Did you previously act or is there a certain level of collaboration that you’re drawn to with actors?
AP: It’s funny because when I was a kid I always wanted to be an actor, but then I quickly realized that I preferred being behind the camera. I just enjoy working with people, I guess. Of course, the collaboration with the crew and everyone I really enjoy. But working with actors and guiding them to find the character, not restraining them, not telling them “This is what I want.” Just giving them an idea and letting them surprise me and showing me what they want to do with the character. You have to find people that you trust. When you work with people where you’re on the same page it’s very fulfilling.
A huge thank you to Abner Pastoll for being so very friendly and engaging to speak with. Be sure to check out my review of A GOOD WOMAN IS HARD TO FIND and share your thoughts here. Stay updated on A GOOD WOMAN IS HARD TO FIND here.