I caught up with director Helen O'Hanlon for a chat on film, influences, mise-en-scéne, whimsy and wire-walking in her latest, a short based on Emily Arnold McCully’s award-winning children's book "Mirette on the High Wire", Mirette, starring BAFTA and Oscar-nominee Tom Conti.

Hailed as an "exciting future voice in cinema" at the 53rd New York Film Festival, Helen's debut film How to be a Villain has become a favourite of critics and audiences and won a number of awards, including Best Director at the Oscar qualifying Bermuda International Film Festival and The Forry Ackerman Award for Imagination in Film at the inaugural Silver Scream Film Festival.

A former Senior VP of Sony Music Publishing, she began her career as a music consultant at EMI, pitching and placing music in TV and film. Quickly rising to global executive level, she ran offices in key markets around the world. Having conquered her corporate universe, she took time out to raise her young daughters and began developing the films running riot in her imagination.

Secretly obsessed with wire-walking for its danger, elegance and metaphors for life, she found a copy of "Mirette on the High Wire" in 2013 and has been passionate about bringing it to screen ever since. Helen has a unique talent for magical realism, creating original worlds filled with colourful characters, as well as a keen sense of rhythm and pacing for good storytelling. She is based in London. www.helenohanlon.com and follow her on Twitter here.

Mirette has been selected for a number of high profile film festivals including the Bermuda International Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival and Nashville International Film Festival.

Mirette transports us to Paris around 100 years ago at a boardinghouse, where the young Mirette's (Dixie Egerickx) life is changed forever by the arrival of a mysterious man (Jean-Marc Desmond) whom she discovers is a tight rope (or wire) walker (check out an interesting article on the history of the high wire here). The young girl befriends him but will he teach her the art of the tight rope?

O'Hanlon's whimsical little film will answer that question while capturing the atmosphere of both Paris and the book. Enjoy the interview below where she lets us in on some of the tricks of how she did just that in the film.

Hello Helen and welcome to The 405! I was hoping we could start by getting an idea of your history for our readers – what got you into film as your art form?

Well we were by no means silver spoon kids, but somehow we were lucky enough to have a cine-camera and Super 8mm projector in the house for a time and used to watch Star Wars and Enter the Dragon over and over.  It had a massive influence as you can imagine but I would say that something very special happened when I first saw Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster

Karloff was amazing as an actor and experimenter with makeup (with his MUA Jack Pierce). Love watching him too.

I was obsessed and used to ask my Dad to tell me stories about "Frank" (as I called him, much to everyone's hysterics).  It made an indelible impression on me.

Absolutely. Which films and directors would you consider most influential on your evolution as an artist and story-teller?

Definitely the great James Whale, Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, Baz LuhrmannCaro & Jeunet… But I also regard Mary Poppins as one of the greatest films of all time so Robert Stevenson has been hugely influential too.

Quite the eclectic selections. I like that. What makes a great film?

For me I want to disappear into the world being presented.  I want to believe in it, be consumed by it and be able to daydream about it afterwards. All the elements must come together to be greater than the sum of their parts, to create something that compels, rivets me, entertains and takes me where I could never otherwise go.

Dixie Egerickx as Mirette in MIRETTE.

An excellent summation. Getting into Mirette, how did you arrive at the decision of wanting to adapt Emily Arnold McCully's book for the big screen?

I fell in love with it immediately!  I thought the story was beautifully original, an empowered female protagonist, without the typical villain tropes, in a setting that was so incredibly cinematic, it literally leapt of the page and begged to be brought to screen!

One thing that really captivated me in the film was the misé-en-scene. I think that's pretty vital whenever a film that is, at least in part, a period piece (as Mirette undoubtedly is to a degree) is attempted. What was the creative decision-making process like in getting the whimsy from the book balanced with the details that really transport the audience to Paris roughly 100 years ago? How vital was the misé-en-scene in the overall process? I thought you executed really well on that.

Thank you so much!  I'm thrilled you said that.  Well I wanted Mirette to feel and look like a well-thumbed book.  Broken down, soft and comforting.  I wrote in the screenplay that everything should be mismatched yet together it should all sing of a kind of sanctuary, rooms soaked in stories… I felt our world on screen should be more broken down and poorer than the images of the book.  That way when our heroine lifts us all to the stars at the end we really feel that wonder and magic. We all worked incredibly hard to achieve that, trawling through prop stores, endless location scouting and research.  I am incredibly detailed in that regard and was blessed with a committed talented team who were willing to give their all to bring that vision to life.

That's great. Like I said, you guys really executed well there. Really the entire cast, but Tom Conti especially I found spell-binding in the film. What was the casting process like on Mirette?

Isn't he wonderful!  He's such a mesmerising talent and simply the most charming gentleman you could wish to meet.  There are shots of him in the end scene that floor me every time I watch the film.  He really does crown Mirette

Tom Conti as Charlie Meyer in MIRETTE.

But yes, casting is everything to a film and with Mirette there was a very special momentum.  Once I found Dixie Egerickx, our Mirette, in a long long list of headshots I instantly knew it was her.   Then with our Bellini cast (Jean-Marc Desmond who I came across in a film I saw at the New York Film Festival in 2015) we set about looking for our key supporting cast.  I wrote the role of Mirette's Grandmother especially for Miriam Margolyes.  When we sent it to her and she accepted, I spent the day thanking my lucky stars.  Everyone was so carefully selected to build the whole tapestry of the film. This delicate process was a pleasure and one I very much enjoyed thanks to my Casting Director (Sarah Lee) who worked so hard with me to make every character perfect.  Like a jewel box as we often said.

The whole cast did an excellent job there in really creating that atmosphere for the audience. What were some of the challenges on the project?

Both our leads had to learn to wire walk for real. 


They both took to it incredibly quickly, but wire walking in character on set (indoors and out) is incredibly difficult, exhausting and logistically problematic.. You can't just string up a wire and jump on it.  It has to be tensioned, anchored, with serious ballast in place….The kit is incredibly heavy.  There are huge health and safety considerations. The kind and supportive people at Aircraft Circus custom made us a rig we were able to travel with.  They were real heroes to us.

Jean-Marc Desmond as Bellini in MIRETTE.

Where can our readers catch Mirette?

We hope to release it later this year but for now it is very much in demand with film festivals – so please stay tuned and follow us for news on FaceBook or Twitter (@helenohanlon // @mirettefilm).  

Last, what is next for you?

The response to Mirette has been extraordinary and the interest in a feature length version has gathered tremendous pace.  So I am developing Mirette the feature as we speak.  Watch this space!

Miriam Margolyes as Meme Gateau in MIRETTE.

Mirette Trailer from Michael Stanish on Vimeo.