Peter Mullan

The Magdalene Sisters

Interviewed by Tom Dawson

How surprised have you been by the vehement reaction of the Roman Catholic authorities towards your film?

The Vatican has tried to condemn "The Magdalene Sisters" as a pack of lies and that I've made it all up - I wish I was that good a dramatist - and in terms of public relations, that was the daftest thing they ever did. Newspapers in Italy and England have investigated the stories of women who were in those institutions, whom I had never met and who hadn't seen the film, and who had no particular axe to grind. Of course, these women's stories made our film look like a holiday camp. I'm shocked because the church's reaction has been so inept and betrayed an attitude that we, as Catholics, are there to believe in what we are told.

What was the original inspiration for the film?

I first came across the story of the Magdalene convents in Ireland in a Channel Four documentary called Sex in a Cold Climate, and it blew me away. In bringing the subject of religious oppression to a wider audience, I didn't just want to kick the Catholic Church but to poke a finger in the throat of theocracy and to let it be known that people shouldn't tolerate this anymore.

There's quite a loose structure to the film, in the way you combine the stories of the various young women...

I'm not a huge fan of the three act structure, because it insists on a hero or heroine at the centre. I figured that the story would be more like a series of diaries that I had stumbled across and that the entire film would be from the point of view of the girls. Cinematically this was much more straightforward to shoot than "Orphans", my previous feature. I wanted a simple way of shooting and to let the power come from the actors and not to draw the audience's attention to the camerawork.

Did being an actor yourself make it easier to direct, with the exception of Geraldine McEwan's Sister Bridget, a relatively inexperienced cast?

The key is casting it right - you're looking for people who will bring something and add something to your script. In most scenes the dialogue you've written comes way down your list of priorities as a director - it's much more about the dynamic between the characters.