Twisting Fables

After acting in films ranging from The Gift to War Machine, Australian-born Mirrah Foulkes has turned her attention to going behind the camera. Shooting three short films, including 2016’s Trespass, she now delivers her first feature as writer-director, Judy & Punch, a fable-like story starring Mia Wasikowska and Damon Herriman as puppeteers whose lives begin to echo the violence and horrors of the Punch and Judy tale.

ASFF: How did this project start?
MF: It came to me via Vice Studios, who developed the film with me. They approached me to write…Vice were really encouraging to take the story, boldly and bravely, in whatever territory that I felt was interesting. I’d made a handful of shorts and that’s how I’d come to Vice’s attention. They’d seen some of the shorts and put them on their online platform.

ASFF: How did you first conceive of exploring the Punch & Judy story?
MF: I took it back to mid-17th Century to make what is essentially a fictionalized origin story. I loved that whole world-building exercise, and I wanted to make it a fable and I wanted it to feel like no particular time or place. I also wanted to anchor it in a period where all the stuff that was happening in the film had a context and was relevant. But when you lean into that world-building, you’re able to break rules and make stuff up. There’s a wonderful freedom in that. We played around a lot with language; I didn’t want to be bound historically to language or visually making a stuffy period piece – that wasn’t my intention. We created a rule book and chose when and how to break those rules.

ASFF: Was it always your intention, however, to give it a feminist twist? MF: I didn’t think you could come at this Punch & Judy story in a contemporary context without examining some of the gender issues. But there is also a lot of other thematic and topical things that are interesting to me. Violence in general in popular culture – the fact that violence is very often directed towards women is unavoidable so it becomes a gender issue.

ASFF: This was an idea you had before MeToo. Do people think it was a reaction to that?
MF: I guess all my work is probably channeled somewhat through that prism, being a woman and being interested in strong female characters. But I wrote it several years before MeToo erupted and it thankfully landed in the world at a really interesting time when there’s a lot of appetite I think for female stories and I’m grateful for that timing.

ASFF: What drew you to Mia Wasikowska and Damon Herriman, who play Judy and Punch?
MF: I knew them both. I knew Damon quite well. I knew Mia a little bit, but she was at the top of my list and she was also at the top of Vice’s list. So we were both excited and relieved to realize we all wanted the same actor. And then incredibly excited when she read it and responded so well to it. She just loved it. She makes really brave, bold choices and she only does stuff that’s exciting to her. She committed a hundred percent very early on to the project, which was great for us. And then Damon came later. I just think Damon’s work is really remarkable. He’s got that incredible dexterity; he’s a great character actor but he also has a fragility and a very natural way of being in character that is so rare. It’s a tough role – such a tough role. Punch has to turn on a dime so many times in the script.

Judy & Punch is released in cinemas on 22 November. For more details, click here.

James Mottram