As children, everything we did seemed amazing and life changing. You learned how to eat, speak, and walk, and everyone—if you're lucky—praised and loved you. So maybe it's fitting that when we grow old, everything flips: Unable to eat like we used to, we forget how to speak and our legs can barely move while everyone patronizes or "babies" us. What happens in between birth and death is sort of a mix of the two, but with sex and work thrown in. These ideas, when addressed in works of fiction, can sometimes carry a suffocating self-seriousness, but when tackled in a "it's all a cosmic joke" style, humor and pathos can bubble up and surprise you. Australian writer/director Mirrah Foulkes confronts these issues just right in her newest short film, Florence Has Left the Building.
Pent up in an old folks' home, the rebellious Florence has yet to consign herself to eating, sleeping, exercising, and socializing as scheduled. She's less an original character so much as a solidly engaging one, sassing her nurse and trying to bum smokes from visitors. Patronized by the staff, she struggles to feel like she exists, especially with so many of her friends dying around her. How do you feel alive again? Is there any way to experience adventure or reality as you once know it? The Marigold House Assisted Living Facility would tell you to watch its annual Christmas Eve Elvis impersonator perform, because all old people like Elvis, right? When it comes to light that the Marigold House has accidentally double-booked two Elvises, Florence sees her opportunity. Playing off the famous phrase "Elvis has left the building," Foulkes's film questions what "leaving the building" actually means, whether it's literal or metaphorical, freedom or death, or if it's all of those things. Check the film out below and decide for yourself.
Watch the VICE Shorts Exclusive: 'Florence Has Left the Building':
Mirrah Foulkes is no stranger to VICE. A few years ago we premiered her debut short film, Dumpy Goes to the Big Smoke, and she acted in another VICE Shorts premiere, Spider, directed by her fellow Australian and Blue Tongue Film Collective collaborator Nash Edgerton. (In the US, Foulkes might be best known for her work on Hawaii Five-0.) Having dipped her toes into the directing water a few times now, she continues to improve on her craft and is undoubtedly going to make a splash with her debut feature, which she's developing with VICE. I caught up with Foulkes over email to chat about her film, her love of weirdos, what it's like to be a film writer/director/actor, and what's she's working on next. Have at it below.
VICE: In both of your short films, your characters are outsiders of some sort. What is it about people on the fringes that interest you?
Mirrah Foulkes: I don't know exactly, but it is a reoccurring theme for me. I didn't really realize until I finished Florence that I was basically making a different version of my first film! I think I'm just drawn to those types of characters. It's certainly not reflective of me wanting to escape my own life… At least I don't think it is!
Where did the particular story for Florence Has Left the Building come from, then?
It kind of evolved from something quite different. Initially, I wanted to make a fictionalized film about old-age Alzheimer's and dementia with non-actors and shoot in a functioning aged-care facility (turned out that was going to be extremely difficult when it came to consent!). But the story sort of grew from there, and we ended up with someone much younger and more experienced than I imagined at the center of it, so I adapted the world of the film a little bit to make it work for Jacki [Weaver, who plays Florence].
Do you know any real-life Elvis impersonators or angry old people?
No Elvis impersonators, but lots of angry old people. I love angry old people. I'm pretty angry myself. I think once you get really old, you can be angry about whatever you want. You've earned that right.
There's such a bliss at the end, when the two characters just get to let go of all the other bullshit around them to sing and drink and be happy. What makes you scared, excited, bubbly or, more appropriately, what do you do to fill up your "big fucking bucket"?
Well, I guess I just try and fill it with stuff that makes me less angry and more joyful, like beer. Food and drink make me the happiest… And good movies. But it feels like there are less and less good movies, and that makes me scared. I love how open I feel when I'm traveling. I'm so much more inclined to see the good in people and have great human encounters when I'm in that mode. A friend said to me the other day that you should try and live always with the openness and sense of wonder you have when you're in a new city. I thought that was great advice. If I could sing, I would do karaoke every chance I had.
You've now made two critically acclaimed short films, but are still probably known as an actress, having appeared in The Gift, Animal Kingdom, Hawaii Five-O, and more. What draws you to both practices, and do you prefer one over the other?
I made my first film in between acting jobs because I had some time and wanted to do something new. I really had no intention of becoming a director. But I didn't expect to love it so much. I think, after all those years of being at the mercy of other people's tastes, I really wanted to be in control! I really love acting when the project is good. When the project isn't good or you're not on the same page as the director, it really sucks. It can be such a punishment because it's so revealing. But then I had no idea how revealing it would feel to be a writer. Hands down the most terrifying thing in the world for me is showing people my writing.
Has acting informed you as a director or vice versa?
Definitely both. I feel really lucky that I'm not scared of actors. I mean, I am sometimes but not often. It's amazing how many directors are terrified of actors. This is a generalization, but I think actors have fantastic ways of looking at the world and exploring human interaction and approaching text. Especially actors with a theater background, I think. And often they're really insecure, because it's terrifying what they're doing. But they just want to be helped and to help and for the work to feel good. I think every film school should have acting classes for directors, so they have a sense of what it feels like. When I'm on set as an actor, I think I'm so much more aware of making the director's life easier now—maybe to a fault. Sometimes I have to remind myself that my job isn't to just be accommodating. But I know how fucking hard it is now: It's really hard!
Do you have any advice for aspiring female writer/directors out there?
Try not to let the sexism within the industry distract you from your work. It can be tough, and depending on who you're working with, you will encounter things all the time that remind you you're a woman in an industry that has been dominated by men for a long time. But everyone is going to feel marginalized in some way at some point in their life, so don't let your gender define you as a filmmaker. Just make great work. Which is not to say you shouldn't call people on it when you feel someone's treating you badly. But the world is full of great people, so if you're working with someone who's not great, then dump him or her and find someone better. There is a real shift happening at the moment in the way people see female directors. It's an awesome time to be a woman making films, but things can take a long time to change. So in the meantime, just get on with the work.
So what are you working on now?
I'm finishing up another short, and I'm developing a feature with VICE actually, which I'm pretty damn excited about it, so watch this space!
Jeffrey Bowers is a tall mustached guy from Ohio who's seen too many weird movies. He currently lives in Brooklyn, working as a film curator. He's the senior curator forVimeo's On Demand platform. He has also programmed at Tribeca Film Festival, Rooftop Films, and the Hamptons International Film Festival.