Simone Kirby took the challenge to perform without making use of her voice. Instead, she had to move her body and lips to K7 recordings from the 1980s, in Notes on Blindness (Peter Middleton/ James Spinney, 2016). The film is a vivid account of a man losing his sight. The debutant British directors Peter Middleton and James Spinney first pitched the film four years ago, after reading the memories of John Hull. Kirby is best known for her recent role in Jimmy’s Hall (Ken Loach, 2014).
The most extraordinary aspect of Notes on Blindness is that the directors used the original material in the film. The intention was to evoke authenticity. Actors Dan Renton Skinner (John Hull) and Kirby (Marilyn Hull, John’s wife) do not use their voices. They learnt how to lip sync the original tapes.
It is very common for actors to dub recorded footage, or for singers to lip sync. Here we see something different: an actress performing to prerecorded, authentic voices – and this is almost entirely unprecedented.
This is an extraordinary achievement of dramaturgy for an actor to rethink how to express feelings and intensity having to lip sync the actual voice of your character. She got deep into Marilyn Hull’s verbal stream of consciousness. As someone who shared her life with a theologist who lost sight after marriage, she sometimes thought he would disappear in a world she could not follow. The outcome is moving rebirth.
Here is our interview with the talented Irish actress:
DMovies – Was there an audition? Did you have to lip sync?
Simone Kirby – Yes, there was. I couldn’t meet the casting director, Amy Hubbard. I think I was shooting something else; so I sent in a self tape. I had been sent two audio clips. One of Marilyn speaking about John, and another of a conversation between the two, as they are driving in a car. I had to learn them and record myself miming along to the audio tapes. It was a challenge, not only to make it seem like my voice, my breath, my thoughts, even, behind the eyes when it was someone else’s, but also to re-enact a scene being spoken about in the past tense but with the idea that we were, in fact, reliving that moment.
DM – Tell me about the experience of playing a role of someone who is alive and involved in the production. I suppose Marilyn was in touch with the directors?
SK – Marilyn and John had formed a close bond with the writers and directors, Pete and James. But the guys never coached me on how to play her. They were able to answer any questions I had, but none of us knew until we started shooting what the challenges were going to be. They aren’t used to working with actors and this experience was new to me, too.
So I watched a documentary made in the ’80s about the Hulls, and listened to the audio tapes and got a sense of who she was. Marilyn only visited the set once while I was there, and I was immensely relieved to find that she was indeed, the generous, smart, funny, practical, earthy, warm person that I had been playing.
DM – Marilyn says that the film is about loss, not blindness, as John was not blind at birth. Sadly, John didn’t live to experience the film. When John Hull died, was the film finished? If not, did it affect it somehow?
SK – John died a couple of weeks after filming began. We were supposed to meet him, Dan and I, a couple of weeks later, so when I did finally meet Marilyn it was shortly after his funeral. I think it did affect all of us, and Pete and James especially, of course. But there was a sense, I suppose, that this film would be part of his legacy, and I think we all wanted to get that right.
DM – The quality of the images Notes on Blindness is very surprising. It is mostly extremely dark or blurred. Sometimes it doesn’t focus on the characters, but on details of objects. At times it shows an intense light. During the shooting, did you follow the work of the cinematographer Gerry Floyd?
SK – Gerry is amazing, and very open and accommodating. He had to shoot things in a way that was unusual and challenging but he was so gracious. And the result is beautiful. Between James, Pete and him it’s quite a stunning achievement.
DM – Finally, what did you learn with this experience?
SK – In terms of the technique, it reminded me how the voice is a huge part of the character. How Marilyn speaks, affects how she breathes, affects how she moves… and so on, until you get an insight into how a person thinks. It was a very unique experience trying to merge my instincts with hers, essentially.
But more importantly, I learned a lot about John’s journey, and his story is very inspiring. His family are beautiful, a real credit to him and Marilyn and their ethics and beliefs. And I think the film is very hopeful because of that.
Photo at the top: Sarah Gawler