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Interview: Writer/Director Molly McGlynn on 'Mary Goes Round' and Her Evolution as a Filmmaker

March 30, 2018Ben MK

In writer/director Molly McGlynn's debut feature, Mary Goes Round, Aya Cash plays Mary Jackson, a 29-year-old addictions counselor from Toronto who, ironically, has a drinking problem herself. When Mary's alcoholism gets the better of her, however, she's forced to confront her own personal demons, which includes revisiting her hometown of Niagara Falls, where an awkward reunion with her cancer-stricken estranged father (John Ralston) and the 17-year-old half-sister she never knew (Sara Waisglass) ensues.

A story of both recovery and familial reconciliation, Mary Goes Round opens in select theaters today, after a critically acclaimed stint on the film festival circuit, which kicked off with its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this past Fall. I caught up with McGlynn to discuss how her experiences have informed the movie, and to chat about the cast and her evolution as a filmmaker.

People often say, "Write what you know." With that in mind, how have your own personal experiences helped to shape the story of Mary Goes Round?

McGlynn: I come from a large, complicated family, and definitely some of the themes in the movie are present in my family. It's not an autobiographical film, but I definitely think Mary is kind of a darker version of what I could have been at one point in my life, in my twenties, before I steered myself into a different direction. And, you know, I initially wrote it to be a film about like a father and daughter, but to me it ended up becoming [more] about the sisters, than it was the relationship with the father. So, yeah, I'm certainly exploring things from my life, but everything has been overdramatized, obviously.

As a director, what lessons did you take away from your prior short film work, like 3-Way (Not Calling), and how did you apply them to Mary Goes Round?

McGlynn: Making a short is a totally different experience. Making a feature is not really like doing a bunch of shorts back to back. I think what I've learned on a feature is, especially at a micro-budget level, how important good producers are. I think low-budget films are as much kind of a producer showpiece as it is for the director, so I was very lucky to have a great team with Wildling Pictures. And they really jumped through hoops to make this possible. I mean, it's not really a film that should have been contained on the budget it was.

And second to that, it's like anything in life, you can only say that your hindsight's 20-20 and you just have to learn it on the go. But be selective with who you choose to be involved, in terms of your crew and your cast, because if you have one fail, the whole thing can derail a little bit. So, yeah, a lot of it was trial by error, and I think also learning to let go of the idea of the film that you thought you were gonna make and embrace the one that you are.

So how did you maximize your budget, given that you had such a small budget to work with?

McGlynn: The hard thing that pops into my mind [is] something like our wardrobe budget, [which] was very small. But I ended up building in a nice character detail with our wardrobe. So as the movie progresses, Mary starts to wear some of Robyn's clothes, which kind of makes sense for their relationship as it progresses, and Mary's comfort with her sister. So something like that is a little example of how we wanna keep our wardrobe budget down. Ideally, it makes sense for the world that you're in as well.

And then just kind of beg, borrowing and stealing for locations, definitely. Niagara Falls is a little more off the beaten path, as opposed to Toronto, where everyone is used to, you know, $5,000-a-day commercials flowing through. So we were also able to get some great deals on that. Like the diner we shot in, we shot [it] for free, but they just asked that we buy food from them, which, obviously, of course. [laughs]

The film has its share of moments of levity, but of course it's tricky to imbue a story like this with humor, because you don't want to undermine the drama. How did you approach balancing the dramatic elements and the funnier elements of the story?

McGlynn: For me, when I approach a theme, no matter what I'm shooting, I just ask, "What is true here?" And then I think the effect of either comedy or drama will come out naturally. I don't love playing humor like jokey, "ba-dum-bum" kind of punchline style. I just think that if it's true it'll organically end up where it needs to be. And, you know, the drama is the trickiest part of this film, and maybe for some people it won't be their style, but I was just true enough to myself.

And Aya Cash, who plays Mary, is an outstanding actor in all of her work. And specifically [in] You're the Worst, she very much embodied the kind of headstrong, sardonic-witted character, which was right for Mary.

Speaking of Aya and the rest of the cast, can you tell me more about how she and Sara Waisglass (who plays Robyn) and John Ralston (who plays Walter) came to be involved in the film?

McGlynn: Sara and John we found through our casting process in Toronto. The character of Lou, played by Melanie Nicholls-King, was more difficult for me to cast, because it was just a very specific thing in my head that I wasn't quite finding. And then my producer, Matt [Code], had suggested Melanie, who had been in Rookie Blue and The Wire. She's in New York, but we did reach out to her, and luckily she responded to the script, so she flew up very quickly.

And Aya was definitely a "get" for us, this first-time feature with a very low budget, but I went through a few channels to get to her. I got on a Skype call, where we kind of introduced each other to our dogs and just really hit it off. So she decided to come on-board, which was definitely a leap of faith on her part.

Mary Goes Round is the only feature film you’ve directed to date. Before it, you directed several short films and recently you've been doing a lot of TV work. How has your approach to filmmaking changed or evolved since making the movie?

McGlynn: Hmm, that's a good question. Since making the movie I've been shooting television, which is obviously a different beast, in the sense that you are a gun-for-hire. But I've been really grateful for that. And the days on set are days I'm happy, because I know that when I go back to my second feature I'm gonna be the stronger director and more efficient.

So in terms of how it's evolved, you know, confidence is definitely something I've gotten more of. And you don't have to have all the answers. You have to be prepared and know what you want, but I kind of call it like, "You have to have flexible and flexibility." So yeah, it's feeling a little more relaxed, I think, it's the best thing that's happened. [laughs] The stakes are always high, but I'm trusting myself more, you know?

Would you say that television is your favorite medium to work in at the moment?

McGlynn: I wouldn't say it's my favorite. I'm thrilled to be there. I definitely have the intention of continuing on in features as well, but I think now people are able to kind of jump back and forth a little bit more than they previously were able to, which is great.

Speaking of continuing on in features, what's your next film project going to be?

McGlynn: My next project that I'll be writing this Summer is a coming-of-age set in New Jersey in the early 2000s, which is kind of loosely based on my experiences growing up there.

So, before we go, is there anything you want to leave our readers with, in terms of what they can expect from Mary Goes Round?

McGlynn: The main thing is that even though it kind of tackles some heavier subject matter, there's a lot of lightness and humor too. And so I think people can expect to be emotionally affected but also have a good time.

Mary Goes Round is in theaters now.

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