Director Mahalia Belo’s THE END WE START FROM was one of my favorite movies screened at TIFF this year. Based on the novel by Megan Hunter, the film is an apocalyptic drama focused on new mother (Jodie Comer), her partner (Joel Fry), and their baby trying to escape London to get to his parents’ home in the English countryside. Unfortunately, the family quickly discovers societal collapse isn’t just in London, and it’s up to them to protect their family in this dangerous new environment.
It’s hard to believe this is Belo’s first time directing a feature film because her vision was so confident and assured. It’s frankly impressive that Belo took on a project with so many conditions that are known to be added stressors to filming, including special effects on a small budget and difficult outdoor shooting locations… and then on top of that had a baby in almost every scene. If this film isn’t a perfect showcase for her talent, I don’t know what else is.
I was lucky enough to interview Mahalia Belo this week! She was so fascinating to speak to and we covered a lot of elements in the movie, including the amazing sound design, special effects, what it was like working with a baby on set, Jodie Comer’s incredible performance (including the story behind her scream-singing “I’ve Had The Time Of My Life”), improvisational moments between Comer and the baby, and so much more! Check out our discussion below and don’t miss my review of the film here!
I absolutely love the movie! I was at the premiere and was really moved by it, especially because of the female experience. I noticed that you had a lot of behind the scenes female creators. It was you, screenwriter [Alice Birch], cinematographer [Suzie Lavelle], and several producers. Was that an important element of you creating this film?
I think it kind of landed that way. It wasn’t entirely by design, but I think probably it was by taste. The people who fell in love with it and really understood it happened to be women. Adam Ackland, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Mark Strong came in and got it really intensely as fathers as well. But creatively it was great having so many women involved, fighting beautifully for this movie to be made.
Yes, and it was such a beautifully shot movie. I love how you started the film in the bathtub with the camera slowly getting submerged in water while the woman [Jodie Comer] is on the phone. Was that always your vision for the opening shot because I thought it was so brilliant for foreshadowing what was to come.
Yes, you know what it was? I was experimenting with… what is is called…
Yes, and I found one that actually happened to be a water tub and I was like…hold on a minute… HOLD ON A MINUTE! It was a eureka moment [laughs]. This is it! And yes, it felt true and then we decided to put their relationship in as well… the conversation between the woman and R [Joel Fry] and drowning that out as well. Yeah, it was funny… I knew exactly how that would look and exactly how that would sound and it was so satisfying that it all came together.
And the sound design in the movie is so good, especially in that scene!
Oh yes! That was done by Jens Rosenlund Peterson. We met at film school and have worked together throughout. He’s so fascinating. I’ve got these funny videos actually because at one point we were working in a cupboard in his house. There’s a moment when Jodie’s [food is] bubbling, when there is barely any food left in the house and the man and boy come. And I have a video of Jens saying “this is the sound of a geyser in Iceland.” I said, “Cool, why Jens?” He said “Because I feel like something is about to happen.” And it’s before that knock. He’s such a genius!
So throughout the film are these sounds we will never know, some I’ll never know. The sounds he finds to relieve tension; it’s amazing what he does! I had just been to Scotland and he drove out to the same area in Scotland that we shot and it’s the wilderness. So there’s a moment when woman and R are in the car after the food bank incident and you hear these drops. He said he was in the car and rain was dropping off the trees *pop* *pop* like bullets hitting the car. So it’s just these subtle things he captured. There’s a crackle of water in all of the files and he did that. I’m so glad to be able to talk about it because no one would ever know Jens stood in a puddle with a microphone in order to get that sound. [laughs]
And this is why I love having these conversations to get these little tidbits about filmmaking. And so on that same thought, one of my favorite parts of the film is your balance of humor and tragedy. I think one of the humorous moments that struck me the most was Jodie and Katherine Waterston singing “I’ve Had The Time Of My Life” at the top of their lungs. Were there any other songs that you guys considered? Can you talk about filming that scene?
We had a list. We were given a list of potential songs we were allowed to use. And it ended up being quite expensive [laughs]. Sorry guys. And then Jodie was like, it has to be that one! It has to be that one! I was like okay. And Katherine was like it has to be that one. And then we put them in the middle of a hill in the pouring rain. You know, that wide, wide shot? I was on one end of a hill and they were on the other coming down and rain was pouring. And bless them, they were just banging it out! I could hear their faint voices (they had mics on) just singing. And Jodie is an extraordinary singer! She’s amazing. But I said you’re not allowed. Woman wouldn’t. Woman has to be a normal singer. You can’t be good.
Was that hard for her to dial it back?
I think so. Actually, I don’t know. You’ll have to ask her. But I think we all know how to sing badly. Not many of us know how to sing well. She can, which is really annoying.
On that element, how did you and Jodie meet? Were you on the project first?
Yeah I was. We had never spoken before, but I think there was a massive mutual admiration for a long time. And I’ve been seeing her in everything and I’d seen HELP. Have you seen that?
Yes, it’s so good.
And just seeing her let rip… I mean I already knew she was great. Marc Munden shot that and what they managed to do with that…wow! So when her name came up and that she might be interested, I was like what a gift! So we met and then she had this really brilliant take, which was again so in line with mine, about that sweet and sour… allowing for that real truthful human experience, which isn’t just awful but isn’t all bright. You can’t gloss over it. It’s the reality of it. And I think we both were on a mission for honesty in all its forms.
So we have to talk about the baby because you made it so hard on yourself for your first film![Laughs] I think I was naive.
Can you talk about the baby on set and did Jodie and the baby have time to bond ahead of time because their relationship was seamless!
What was great is that… I don’t want to speak for her too much but I kind of know she didn’t have much experience, especially with very young babies. And so we had a rehearsal and one of those things was we brought in a midwife. And between R and woman… the midwife tells you what the birth is going to be like. So they had that session together as a couple who was about to have a baby. It was also sort of a bonding session between woman and R.
But in that as well we brought in a newborn baby who was going to be in the film, so small and so vulnerable. It was wonderful… but the mum had had other kids so she gave the baby easily to Jodie. Her hands were shaking holding the baby, and for a minute I was worried, but then I was like that is exactly how I was as a first time mum. And it was so true that kind of not quite knowing, you know, the body language. When [woman] goes, “Hello, hello who are you” not knowing what the baby wants is just so true. And that’s what happened with Jodie.
Then later it got really problematic [laughs] because Jodie got really good at being a holder of the baby and would often get the baby to sleep. I would just see her in the background rocking and the baby’s eyes sort of softly closing. And I would be going “I need the baby looking.” There was one key moment when I really wanted the baby looking out at the trees as she’s walking. Jodie’s there just rocking and the baby falls asleep. That’s half an hour I have to wait for the baby to stop having a nap. It was killer. [laughs]
She got the hang of it in line with the growth of and with the experience of the mother. Even though we [didn’t film] completely linear, for the most part it matched, the easiness of it. I think a lot of the story, in a way, is woman learning to be a mom, whilst also learning how to fit into this world as a mother. And Jodie went on that journey. Really, some of that kind of happened organically and some of it was by design from her performance.
And speaking of that organic quality, was there any improvisation in the dialogue? Because especially in the scene between the woman and the baby, I loved when Jodie was telling the baby the plot of GREASE.
That was written, but the way she did it… also that was one take. She did it so many different times because we had no time. She told the story like six times. We shot on film so in one reel she went through it. It was so funny. But that was written. It’s something that came because I remember when I was on my own with my baby, because my partner was away shooting, I remember telling him the story of Oliver Twist because I wanted to entertain myself and also give him language. So I really remember that feeling. So we tried to give that. That wasn’t improvised, but I think the way in which she did it changed every time. It was fascinating.
But there is improvisation, especially with the baby. You know, when she says, “Can you go to sleep?” That was real because that baby needed to be sleeping. [laughs] And “Can you go to sleep now, please?” [Laughs] And when she lays down after Benedict leaves, you know, “why are you so awake?” Those moments are so beautiful and very, very true. And that was Jodie being right in the moment.
I know that this wasn’t a Marvel movie budget by any means. But the special effects you did in the film were so seamless and it seemed like some of them were practical too… such as when the whole house is flooding. It was so badass and I love how you did that. Can you talk about the effects and how you did this on, I’m sure, a very small budget.
I mean that was tough. The house wasn’t a set. It was a real house. We didn’t have enough money to build the set, but we did have enough money to build a portion of it on an SFX backlot. The designer Laura Ellis Cricks, who is amazing, recreated a portion of the room in order for us to do that. We only got two gos to do it and then she built the upper part of the bedroom; we managed to get into the water and start tossing objects and bits of their life into that water. So we were tossing things in and out and used an underwater camera for that.
That part reminded me of TITANIC, honestly.
No! Really? Probably a salt grain…
Exactly! [laughs] Even the scene where Jodie is on top of the building looking at the devastation, I thought wow they really did a good job.
That’s a testament to the effects company Rebel Unit, which is based in Norway. Theo [Groeneboom], who is the effects supervisor… you know when you go, “Can we do this?” He was like “yes!” They wanted to do the best possible job. I wanted that journey back to London, seeing the devastation, to be beautiful as well as devastating.
That waterfall! Where is that?! It was so beautiful!
This was something that came very early. So when I wrote what I wanted to do, I made a big document about what the film would be. It was one of the first images—a little person in a big world with this massive waterfall. So we shot bits of a waterfall and recreated and made it bigger.
Wow, so it was special effects too?
Yes it was. But there were portions that we shot and put together.
Are you kidding? That is so cool! So when you were reading the book and thinking about the adaptation, what was the scene that you were most excited about adapting into the film?
Oh that’s a good question. It’s funny because Alice always had that they were singing a big ballad on the hill, but didn’t specify what ballad. So that I kinda knew oh yeah, she got that light and dark shade, which I like. But I actually think the scene that brought me to it, to make it my own… I was interested in how to depict the birth and floods simultaneously.
I could feel it, this parallel of what it’s like to have your life completely changed by the vulnerability of being a new mum. You have to really find yourself through that, mixed with this vulnerability of surviving something and the consequences of that flood. I was really interested in how to make that parallel between becoming a new mum that has to change who they are to be there for this vulnerable new being and find who that new person is at the end.
On that point too, I really loved the hope in the film. Because me watching a million apocalypse movies, I’m used to when the main character meets another person, that person ends up being terrible. But I loved how, without getting too much into spoilers, that isn’t necessarily the case in this film. Of course, there are terrible things that happen, but I kept waiting for the other foot to drop. I really liked the hope in this, that humanity is still good despite the terrible things happening in the background.
I think it’s about honesty isn’t it? Although there are stressors, which is depicted in the film, people react to trauma in different ways. That is kind of what this film is about as well. It’s about the fallout of trauma. I think we discovered that people do, in some way, find connection through those instances. One thing we also knew was that to be able to move forward, we need to acknowledge what happened; that was quite integral. It’s something we learned and informed how we dealt with this tragic event.
Last question for you, did you get any pressure to give the characters names?
We didn’t have any trouble. It was hard for me [laughs]. It’s interesting because a name holds so much, doesn’t it? It’s a power. My name is Mahalia and everybody says my name differently. I don’t know if Jodie named the woman, actually.
Did you have a name for everyone?
No, it’s not mine. I don’t own them. That’s theirs. It would be interesting to know if Jodie did. I never asked her.
Well, if I interview her I will make sure to ask her. Again, I absolutely loved the movie and I am so glad I was able to talk to you. Thank you!