The puppeteering act of “Punch and Judy” has an origin story written from Judy’s perspective thanks to the unrestrained imagination of first-time writer and director Mirrah Foulkes in her new film “Judy and Punch.” Note the order of the names in this version and you have an inkling of the power behind the film. “Judy and Punch,” starring Mia Wasikowska and Damon Herrimon, shifts its tones before your very eyes, like a magic trick, luring you into dramatic horrors only to make you laugh aloud in the next instant.
Talking via Zoom halfway around the world to Foulkes in Australia where she lives, she shared her process of writing and why she put acting on the back burner. The meek and soft spoken demeanor was surprising given the bold film we began to discuss.
After chatting about a favorite short film in which she starred, “Spider,” we quickly dove into how Foulkes began to take a comfortable and confident seat in the writer’s and director’s chairs. She shared that while she had a relatively steady stream of acting jobs in her younger years, the roles became fewer as she reached a certain age. “I wanted to have longevity in this industry and I could already feel that start to wane. I think in particular for women, you reach a certain age and the roles change, there’s less of them. Sometimes they’re more interesting, but often they’re not and I just wasn’t satisfied all the time with my acting career. … I did feel like there was a sense of control missing and I really found that when I started to write and direct, I realized I could create the narrative.”
Foulkes admitted that she never had any intentions of directing, but recalling her first short film, she said, “I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would.” Thanks to her friends and partner in her film group Blue Tongue Films, a film collective, she had the support and encouragement to continue writing. And with this connection, she was introduced to VICE Films who not only had purchased Foulkes’ short films, but offered her a chance to write this first narrative feature. Foulkes said, “I guess for whatever reason they saw this tone or a style in my short films and they said we know we want it to be bold. We don’t know what it is and we want you to figure it out for us. So that’s how it began.” Humbly, Foulkes confided that she didn’t know if she would have come up with the “fortitude” for creating an original idea, at least in the beginning. Her sense of obligation pushed her as this was the first time Foulkes had been paid as a writer. She punctuated that feeling, laughing, “I didn’t want to let them down and I wanted it to be good. And if it was just for me, maybe I wouldn’t have worked so hard!”
The story of Punch and Judy, beginning in Italy in the 16th century, has found a place in history even through the 1950’s in a television series. The misogynistic violence perplexed Foulkes as the puppet show morphed into a show to entertain children. Delving into the research, Foulkes retains the basic elements of the story as a thread throughout the film, but it is her reinvention of the time and place that suspends the story, delicately balanced and always surprising. Foulkes wanted the story to be historical, “…but I didn’t want it to be period strict. I want to have freedom that’s totally kind of bonkers so I don’t want to be bound by the rules of the period.” Bonkers it is, but it’s also quite socially relevant in today’s world. Foulkes added, “I can’t see a world in which you would ever do a period film without having some sense of how it plays in 2020.” But Foulkes credits VICE Films with the concept of the story being seen through Judy’s lens. Foulkes said, “I don’t think there’s any way of approaching that story without reinventing and reexamining it with that lens. It’s such a violent, such a misogynistic play that has endured for such a long time. It was inevitable that it was due for a little bit of a reexamination.”
And reexamine she did! It was, however, important to Foulkes to maintain the “…very simplistic set of stock characters” as there really isn’t a story to Punch and Judy. She explained, “Each puppet master or professor as they were called, creates their own narrative and each show is different.” So Foulkes used this as an interesting exercise or as she said, “…a fun jigsaw puzzle.” She added, “The beauty of writers is that you can do whatever the hell you want. It’s wonderful. I’ve never had that as an actor.” VICE Films was more than encouraging to her, pushing her to go wherever her imagination took her.
Foulkes allowed her imagination to take over, leading her down a “crazy unplanned rabbit hole” that she had to dig herself out of, but many of the characters, she shared, came out of this free process of creativity or as she said, “…a brain dump of doing nutty ideas.”
While Foulkes may not have followed the rules and regulations of screenwriting, the final results are incredible as she takes us on an adventure filled with humor, horror, and drama. Foulkes’ ability to push the audience down a roller coaster ride was inspired by her curiosity to understand the attraction to violence and terror as it was incorporated in a children’s puppet show. She said, “…to turn the violent beating of the wife into comedy, I wasn’t necessarily judging that, I was fascinated by that. I was really curious to try and make something that really forces their relationship to that.” So Foulkes used slapstick sequences followed by violence and back and forth to “mess with an audience in that way.” But it was the use of gender flipping as we follow Judy and not Punch along with what Foulkes said, “…is essentially a classic hero journey structure.”
“Judy and Punch” opens on major digital platforms beginning Friday, June 5.
© Pamela Powell (6/2/20) FF2 Media
Featured photo: Mia Wasikowska in Judy & Punch (2019)
Middle photo: Damon Herriman, Mia Wasikowska © PUNCH (Damon Herriman) and JUDY (Mia Wasikowska), photograph by Ben King © Seaside Productions Pty Ltd
Bottom photo: Kiruna Stamell, Daisy Axon, and Virginia Gay in Judy & Punch (2019)