The coming-of-age sports film has been one of the most beloved film type for decades. From Billy Elliot to Rocky, crowds regularly find themselves cheering for the underdogs who finally get a chance to show what their made of. And Carmel Winters’ Float Like a Butterfly does just that with her story of Francis, a teenage Irish Traveler who worships Muhammad Ali, as she’s been taught to as a child by her father Michael. But after the tragic death of her mother and imprisonment of her father, Francis’ love of boxing has become a way to survive. And when her father returns to take his place as head of the family with Francis and her brother, the once loving father who encouraged her fighting spirit has soured in a cruel man. At this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, the Prize of the International Federation of Film Critics was awarded to Carmel Winters for Float Like a Butterfly, who attended the festival with her stars, Hazel Doupe (Francis) and Dara Devaney (Michael).
Lesley Coffin: What was your reaction to finally seeing the film?
Hazel Doupe: Usually when I go into a theater, I’m extremely critical, but because it was the first time I’d seen the film I was just sitting back and enjoying the film. Even little things, like the way they transitioned from one take to the next.
Lesley Coffin: Was that the first time you saw the little girl who plays your character as child?
Hazel Doupe: It was. And it was interesting because the first I met her, she was such a shy kid. And I didn’t get to see her much on set. And we kept missing each other. Usually I’m in the position of playing the younger person to an older actor, so it was funny for me to see someone played a younger version of me.
Carmel Winters: I didn’t show Hazel any of the footage of her, because I didn’t want her to feel any obligation to imitate Emily. But both you and Emily have this incredible intense and direct gaze. They have such an extraordinary gaze that even though they’re eye color’s different, people don’t even notice.
Lesley Coffin: What was the casting process on this movie?
Carmel Winters: It involved everything from straightforward auditions with casting directors to going to fairs with copper tanks and telling people I’d sell it to them for a song. I saw a self-tape from Hazel, then we did an in person audition, and then we did a day work-shopping. I go with whatever the situation requires.
Lesley Coffin: Did you have any direct connections to the world of Travellers?
Carmel Winters: At every level. Even in my earliest childhood memories, my mother traded out of caravans and we lived in one for a while. So I’d be on traveler camps playing with the children while she’d be wheeling and dealing with the men. She did business with the men and often times traveler women would come to our house, once we didn’t live in a caravan, and they’ve compare bra sizes. We had a lot of close contact with Travelers. I was one of 12 children and when we lived in a caravan, we were always mistaken for Travellers.
Lesley Coffin: Did you witness first hand some of the prejudices Travellers were exposed to?
Carmel Winters: We did. But as a settled person living in Ireland, you hear all sorts of prejudice because other settled people assume you share their views. I think all the problems Travellers experience in Ireland can be traced back to social exclusion, the policies in the ’60s and ’70s when their culture was destroyed and children taken away from their parents, only to be exposed to some really horrific abuses in institutions. So, I have a great sense of loyalty to travelers, and in every single department of the film there were Travellers working. They read the script and would ask, “How do you know that about us?” The culture depicted in the film is specific to Travellers but the feelings are universal.
Lesley Coffin: Was this a whole new world to you? Is the history of Travellers included in the history books in Ireland?
Hazel Doupe: I’d played a traveler once before, so it wasn’t completely new to me. But nothing’s been taught in schools about their history. Although as of a few years ago, Irish Travellers are legally recognized as the indigenous people of Ireland. And you’d think given that fact that they’d make an effort to teach more about them in school, because so much of our history dates back to the Irish Travellers?
Lesley Coffin: What is the traditional family dynamics in Traveller communities? Are they more matriarchal than settled families?
Carmel Winters: I wanted to present something full of contradictions. Within communities there was a sense that men were the leaders of the clan. And there would be certain cultural privileges men would enjoy. But in truth, women were the center of their tribes. They are incredibly heroic, strong survivors. And they enjoy respect within their clans. But there can be abuse of women in Traveller communities. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. But in the film, and this is my own conviction, I don’t believe that the Irish Traveller culture would have survived up to today, unless in its earliest stages were matriarchal. Initially they were walking people and women were giving birth to large families, so it seems to me you had to have respect for women. And I saw it. There are these majestic women. Fact is, we’re all living through patriarchy and the more socially excluded groups are blamed for patriarchy, when they aren’t the cause, it just comes to roost there. A defeated and abused man who feels he has no control over his own life will sometimes turn against women. But I don’t think there’s anything natural about that. So in the film I am showing a time when the belief within this community was more matriarchal, when the natural way of life was to organize family around the grandmother, who are often responsible for keeping a culture alive and passing it down to the next generations.
Dara Devaney: But even women in the film are guilty of patriarchal beliefs. Her auntie says “marriage will sort her out.” She’s kind of unaware of the bias that exists within herself.
Carmel Winters: But don’t we all? Men aren’t the only ones carrying that, women do too. When we step outside our own culture, that’s when we can see other people doing it. But we’re all doing it. I’ve been out where people have gone to the one woman wearing trousers and said “could you not put on a dress?” I’m not interested in pinning this on one group, this is a more universal idea in a film focusing on Irish Travellers.
Lesley Coffin: The father-daughter relationship is clearly fractured, but I loved the relationship between Francis and her grandfather, who is this male figure who is completely supportive of her passion for boxing.
Carmel Winters: I firmly believe there’s no such thing as a natural born misogynist. I believe you have to injure a man to make his feel anything less than respectful towards women. We are all born of women, it is the most natural thing to love our mothers and respect women. When you watch animals, the male works hard to impress the female, to gain the right to procreate with them. So what I’m doing in the film is conjuring the natural order, where there are men who have the natural respect they should have for the women they’re lucky enough to be partnered with. I think you often see older men, who’ve gone through it with their own children, and by the time they get around to being a grandparent they are just incredibly loving men. Whatever held them back when raising their own children, that grandchild relationship isn’t burdened by thoughts of their own weakness or neurosis. And that’s a beautiful thing to see in older men that should be celebrated. But she also has an uncle who’s on her side.
The film isn’t about maligning men, it’s about pointing the finger at specific men guilty of misogyny. When her father comes out of jail, he’s an injured man. The man we met at the beginning of the film could never have dreamed of being the kind of man that would treat his daughter that way. He’s not the natural, healthy man he once was. It’s the complete opposite. Before, he puts her up on his shoulders and tells her, you’re the greatest. And by the end of the movie, he needs to find a way back to telling her that again. That’s the story that has to be told. There’s healing to be done for all of us.
Dara Devaney: I have nothing to say in response about my character because I’m just hanging on her every word. This is the incredible woman I had directing me.
Carmel Winters: I don’t say that much when I’m directing. Once I hand over the roles to these two, I don’t tell them much. This is the story I had writing it. I don’t say a word unless they ask.
Dara Devaney: That was totally empowering as an actor because she’s willing to answer any questions we ask, but she won’t go further than we ask.
Lesley Coffin: Not to excuse anything your character does, but did you think of what happened in the years between the first scene in the film and his return as this damaged man who’s mistreating his children?
Carmel Winters: We had conversations before starting. One of the things I suggested to him was that being a Traveller in an Irish jail, he would have been raped. He was at the bottom of the hierarchy in prison.
Dara Devaney: He completely lost his status when he went into jail. And even if he found it again when rejoining his family, that damage is already done.
Carmel Winters: He yells at her, “Do you want to end up like your mother before you.” He saw what could happen when a woman fights. Since that day he’s been living injured and in fear, that’s a terrible combination. I feel sad just to think about it.
Lesley Coffin: He mistreats both his children when they aren’t falling in-line with these very conservative ideas of gender roles. The fact that his daughter is a good fighter but his son refuses really frustrates him. Did Hazel and Johnny (Collins, who plays her brother Patrick) talk about how strict gender roles were in the ’60s, compared to now?
Hazel Doupe: I don’t think we did.
Carmel Winter: I wouldn’t have wanted to have that conversation because I don’t believe there’s value in those conversations with actors. They’re too abstract and actors have to be so exact and in the moment. Brilliant actors are brilliant interpreters.
Lesley Coffin: And yet a lot of directors will be so concerned about their work being misinterpreted by their actors.
Carmel Winters: I’m never going to cast someone and ask them not to do the work themselves. I love the way Hazel thinks. I fall in love with the way Dara sees things. And I don’t want to interfere with their artistic process. Their art is autonomous and unique but as important as my own. I can’t do what they do. We did enough in casting to trust their interpretations. I remember a few times Dara would tilt a scene in one direction and I’d think, the next scene you need to play a little tougher or harder. To keep the whole story in check. But they are the possessors of their characters.
Dara Devaney: I don’t know how Hazel feels but I’m an actor who likes direction as much as I like having freedom. I like that on this film I had a lot of freedom, but I often enjoy being given specific directions. It completely depends on the dynamics you have with a director. I’ve had directors tell me when to blink and although you might resent that from one, you’ll appreciate it from another.
Carmel Winters: You two are such different actors. You would ask things Hazel would never ask. But I think directors who talk about getting a performance out of an actor is complete nonsense. Especially on a film like this, where we had such little time. If‘d been micromanaging the actors we would have never finished.
Dara Devaney: But you did spend time with the actors with small parts. Hazel and I have both in been in the position where we have small roles in a film and you usually don’t have the opportunity to build up a role. And Carmel really made sure that the actors with smaller roles, playing the fellow Travellers, owned their roles. Being a bit of a road movie, that was especially important.
Lesley Coffin: And you have a lot of actors with small parts in the film, with just one scene, but they’re also playing characters from the past.
Carmel Winters: I met loads of amazing kids, but a lot of them you just feel, they belong to here and now. And I knew we couldn’t hire them. Same with the adults. There was a wonderful actress, but her hair was shaved and bleached, and that was pity. But you also depend on your art department and your costume designers. They help immensely to help a little kid build their characters The magic of getting dressed up means they get a lot from the art department. I brought the kids to a big workshop and just watched how they interacted with each other and selected those that felt like they were part of the tribe.
Dara Devaney: And the kids did create this little family that you see and feel on screen.
Carmel Winters: And we introduced the kids to the props and let them choose the ones they connected with. One of the kids has lost her doll in real life, she was in a state of absolute grief. And she picked a doll from the props and wouldn’t let it go, but towards the end of filming, she started to let the doll go and play with the other children. One little fellow I told, I think you might have nits. And I’d just say that occasionally and he’d scratch his head. Kids require so little. I let the adult actors choose who their children were and they became their parents on the set. It was amazing.
Lesley Coffin: Did you become close to the kids who were playing your family?
Hazel Doupe: I didn’t play with them as much, but I had time to sit around and absorb the bonds between the kids and the kids and adults.
Dara Devaney: It was palpable that they looked to Hazel as someone a little different. Someone they looked up to.
Carmel Winters: That was important, I didn’t want Hazel and the kids together as part of the same pack. Francis is slightly apart from her tribe. I wanted it to be about Francis and her brother, not Francis and her brother and the other kids. The kids were a little bit in awe. She’s the warrior and they have a little more respect for her. But, I’ll never forget it. This tiny girl, and she was peeping through door. And Hazel was quietly directing her without saying a word, to get her to make the most delightful face. But I kept them separated because it’s hard to artificially create distance.
Hazel Doupe: It was hard for Dara and I because we immediately liked each other and we had to be separated and our relationship on screen was so tense.
Dara Devaney: But that helped. It gave us a base because subconsciously you know the character really loves his daughter even though he is mistreating her.
Carmel Winters: They’re in trouble because they love each other. They can’t express it. But when these two met, they started playing the guitar and singing, and when I came back in the room they were still singing.
Dara Devaney: We didn’t even know you were gone.
Carmel Winters: Their chemistry was essential. But there’s no story if these two don’t love each other. A lot of people are very angry at their parents, but what’s under that anger is grief and a desire to heal.
Float Like a Butterfly made its World Premiere at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.
© Lesley Coffin (9/18/18) FF2 Media
Photos: Float Like a Butterfly (Courtesy of TIFF)