Irish filmmaker Ken Wardrop made several award-winning shorts before he starting making features, of which Mom and Me is his second. In this documentary he shines a light on the bond between mothers and sons in Oklahoma, which was recently voted the manliest state in the US.
Wardrop and his team set out to make a film in the US. Researching online, they found a radio presenter who operates from his basement, to whom they took a real shine. Then they heard about Oklahoma being ‘the manliest state’ and that was their call to action. The main thing was then to find the right people, Wardrop says. “I cast the men over the phone because of the distance but also because we had precious little time. We called all kinds of places where we expected to find a lot of men and asked if any were close to their mother. We got recommendations which helped break the ice, in addition to which we were only three so they felt they could be braver, and the film gave them a chance to build on the relation with their mother. One woman who had Alzheimer wanted that highlighted in the film and cooperated for that reason. Her son knew there was not much time left and he wanted to mark the moment.”
As we’re talking to the friendly filmmaker it becomes clear why he has no trouble putting people at ease: it even works on us! “My job as a documentary maker is to put people at ease”, Wardrop says. “Hopefully I do it well. The key is to always be honest with them. If you are not open, you don’t have a film. I want to touch people, make them laugh and cry. Oklahoma is in the Bible Belt and these people are often ridiculed as a bunch of Trump supporters, which is true but not the only one side to them. I wanted to show the rest.”
In addition, Wardrop has a personal bond with the film, as is usually the case for his work. His own mother went into a nursing home shortly before he started making Mom and Me so he wound up portraying mothers that need taking care of.
As a documentary maker you can’t plan everything ahead so a lot of the film was created in editing, which is both exciting and a struggle for Wardrop. “If I don’t edit it myself I feel as if I am cheating because then I would only point a camera at people. I really enjoy the editing process. It gives me the same buzz some people get from playing FIFA World Cup on their Xbox… And then I see my work two days later…”
Fortunately, before he can get worried about his work he has an extra set of eyes in his producer Andrew Freedman. They hold test screenings as well, which is unusual for documentaries. “I believe in fresh eyes so we screen it for ten to twelve people at a time. I don’t attend myself, because I would vomit. So I leave it to Andrew and he tells me what they said. It is nerve-racking and enjoyable at the same time. There are always a lot of different opinions so you shouldn’t mind too much. But when they all say the same thing I can have tears and some tantrums but they are probably right and then I listen. For example, there was one character in Mom and Me that didn’t resonate with people so I took her out. It’s like a puzzle and when I finish one I put it back in the box and I never watch it again. I just fight to make my films better.”
As it turns out, that’s also his aim for the future. “I would like to become extra good at making films. I won’t say ‘no’ to drama but I don’t know enough yet to do it properly. I am now in my forties so maybe when I’m in my fifties. I want to make good documentaries that have more impact on people and I try to be a bit braver. So far, my subjects have been personal, things I am comfortable with, so I would like to get out of my comfort zone. For example, I have just started a project about piano lessons and I know nothing about piano, but I find it very interesting.”