• Warning: This feature contains graphic imagery

Rose Plays Julie is our third narrative feature. We always imagined the process would get easier as you make more films, but there are always new challenges. We began developing Rose Plays Julie back in 2013. 2013? That’s quite a sobering date to write. It’s almost impossible now to go back and think about the very first thought we ever had about the film. 

Along the way, the essential core ideas remained the same – it is a story about a daughter (Ann Skelly) who seeks out her birth mother (Orla Brady) only to then journey into the treacherous territory of her birth father (Aidan Gillen) – but the details went through many permutations, mutations and iterations before we arrived at the finished film. Frankly, it will be a relief to finally screen the film for the first time – as we will be doing on Thursday 3 October – because then and only then can we be sure nothing else can change.

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Underscoring the idea of changes and modifications, we wanted to write about arguably the most difficult scenes in our film to shoot. And they were difficult for two very different reasons. The first was the trust and patience it required to film at University College Dublin’s Veterinary School, but also for the actual experience of filming on the day.

Rose Plays Julie (2019)

We began our conversation with Rory Breathnach, Clinical Director of UCD Veterinary Hospital, back in July 2016. At that stage, our central character (Rose) was a zoology student and the scene (on paper) had her attending a medical procedure being carried out on a silverback gorilla. When you’re sitting in a room in London writing a scene like this you’re not really thinking how difficult it might be to actually get a silverback gorilla, much less one you can anaesthetise and operate on, but by the time we got face to face with Rory it became apparent, very quickly, that this grandiose idea that we had been writing and refining for more months than we care to admit was an absolute non-starter.

Firstly, we discover that the only silverback gorilla in Ireland had passed away from a heart attack (not uncommon for gorillas in captivity) only a couple of months earlier. And secondly, silverback or no silverback, Rory was clear that they would never, under any circumstances, carry out medical procedures for anything other than medical reasons. And so we would have to gamble that an actual procedure would be happening on the day of filming, and this likelihood was slim to vanishing and not something we’d want anyway. After all, we’re making fiction and not a documentary. We kept wondering about the tiger scene in Manhunter – different times! –  as we found ourselves quickly thinking about smaller, more realistic animals. A cat? A hamster? A stick insect? In the end we settled on a dog. And, with a nod to Manhunter, a guide dog.

Rose Plays Julie (2019)

A bigger shift in our thinking was regarding our character Rose. Rory wondered out loud why she was a zoology student and not a veterinary student. And so, there and then, Rose became a veterinary student and for the first time the idea of euthanasia entered our thinking. And for those of you who find yourself watching the film at some stage, you’ll understand just how profound this moment was for the direction the film took. But there was more to come!

On this, our first visit to the veterinary school, it becomes clear that it was also a fully functional veterinary hospital – the largest in Ireland. A walk along its corridors revealed scenes of intense surgery being carried out by trained vets with veterinary science students observing. It’s not uncommon to see the occasional animal in a body bag. Vets putting down animals is, alas, very much part of the job. Something which, we were reliably informed, spikes when the economy has a down turn.

Rose Plays Julie (2019)

There is one room, however, which made a deep impression. This room is the pathology lab. At this stage our script didn’t include a scene in a pathology lab – as our script centred on a zoology student and not a veterinary student – but this room made such an impression on us that we knew it would find its way into the film. Even before you open the door you know you are about to enter a challenging place. The smell hits your nose and there is a full on assault once you pass through the doorway.

Once inside the pathology lab we could see a number of horses’ heads and dissected sheep’s bodies laid out on metal trays. It was a very disconcerting sight. The other thing that strikes you is the scale of the room. We’re told that it can and does handle animals of all sizes, including tigers, elephants and giraffes, and we were even shown the photographic evidence.

Rose Plays Julie (2019)

The staff are incredibly professional and you adopt this manner that you too should also be professional, even if you are all the while gagging.

We left the veterinary school after this first meeting with lots to think about and lots to change and alter in our script. For example, what did it mean to the world of our film that Rose was now a veterinary student?

On our second visit we were now able to tell Rory that we would be working with three animals: a dog; a horse; and the organs of a dead cow. The dog and the horse were going to be pretty straightforward – although only after Rory had talked through the complexities! – the difficult challenge would be the organs; the potential for pathogens to cross contaminate just being the first item on a long list of potential hazards. Health and safety, while paramount, was becoming more and more intricate.

Rose Plays Julie (2019)

We should point out – and this is important – we did not ask for the cow to be killed for the film but were given a cow that had died of disease two days earlier. Rory had set the terms of the engagement. If we wanted to have a scene that included the organs of a dead cow, the veterinary school would then have to carry out a proper dissection in advance, from which the organs for our scene would be supplied. This dissection would need to be carried out on the day of filming and so would have to be fitted into our extremely busy schedule on that one day we had for filming in the location.

Rose Plays Julie (2019)

It hadn’t been our intention to film a dissection – it wasn’t even in our script – but, as it had to be carried out, we decided it had to be filmed. As it’s not really possible to rehearse the dissection of a cow, we agreed with the pathologist and the pathology technician that we would film it in stages, asking them to briefly stop their work at key moments, while we quickly changed camera position.

And so we filmed the dissection from beginning to end. Not everyone on the team felt able to witness the dissection. And nobody had to be in the lab if they didn’t want to be, but thankfully our DoP Tom Comerford and his team were all comfortable to be there.

The experience was unbelievably intense and required a strong stomach, but it was also compelling and humbling and very moving, to see this very ordinary animal being treated with such respect and professionalism by the pathologist and the technician. We joked about the fact that the entire dissection could make for an interesting DVD extra, but in reality it really would.

Rose Plays Julie (2019)

From the outset you can never tell where a film is going to take you but venturing into the world of the veterinary school at UCD and meeting such inspiring and open-minded people like Rory and his team was one of the wonderful experiences of making Rose Plays Julie.