Kate Dolan, director of “You Are Not My Mother,” described herself as a “massive horror fan” during a conversation with TheWrap’s Steve Pond at the Toronto International Film Festival. However, much as she loves to scream as a fan, she said she found herself avoiding the genre’s typical “jump scares” in her feature directorial debut.
“I watch horror movies constantly and I love them very much,’ said Dolan, joined on the panel by the movie’s stars Carolyn Bracken and Hazel Doupe, who play mother and daughter in the film. “Obviously, as a horror fan and as a audience member of the genre, there are things I want to see when I watch (a horror film).” However, she added that the expected “genre beats” didn’t always fit with the understated terror of “You Are Not My Mother.”
“It didn’t feel genuine to do that in this story,” Dolan said. “I couldn’t be overtly kind of trying to jam in scares when they weren’t really there. I feel like every genre beat had to serve the story and the characters. And so, yeah, maybe it was a bit more pared back than some other kinds of horror movies.’
Dolan pointed out that the holiday of Halloween originated in Ireland — and so does the ancient mythology of the “changeling,” when a supernatural entity appears as a familiar human being. In “You Are Not My Mother,” the mother returns home after disappearing the week before Halloween, and her daughter notices that her behavior has become bizarre and increasingly frightening.
The director and cast members were careful to avoid any spoilers, but Dolan said the story called for a blending of the supernatural with the reality of mental illness, a challenge which she said she had experienced in her own family. Dolan said she wanted to make it very clear that she was not trying to “demonize” mental illness, just to make the audience connect with how frightening the symptoms of mental illness in a parent can be for a vulnerable child.
“It’s almost like a kind of unreliable narrator in a way, and it’s all through her perspective,” Dolan said. “I think that’s very important to remember when you watch it.”
Actors Doupe and Bracken said they took a “chemistry test” before being cast to make sure they would be comfortable in their familial roles, and discovered that among other things they shared the same sense of humor. While Doupe said she was nervous when the production began, “I feel like we all wanted to go to the same festival… we all wanted to, like, get the same thing out of it…after the first week, it was smooth sailing.”
Bracken said with a laugh that part of what made the first week a challenge was that before actual shooting began, the actors and crew were still wearing masks on set. She covered her face up to her nose with her hand to give viewers the idea. But it didn’t take too long before the eyes had it.
“In the first week (it was hard) to get used to what people are saying with their eyes when we can’t see the rest of their faces. But after that, yeah, it was all good,” Bracken said.
For more of this conversation, watch the video above.