The Bright Side – Interview with Ruth Meehan

Inspired by Anne Gildea’s best-selling book ‘I’ve Got Cancer, What’s Your Excuse’? THE BRIGHT SIDE is a new dramedy about the healing power of love, laughter & friendship.

The film is inspired by Anne Gildea’s book I’ve Got Cancer, What’s Your Excuse? and your own experience of loss. How did the two come together?
I met Anne in college many moons ago, we both went to DCU. I bumped into her over the years, but I hadn’t seen her as such. I was going to India after my sister died because I needed a break. I was in the airport on a New Year’s Eve, and thought I better bring something to read. I went into the bookshop and picked up Anne’s book. I hadn’t realized that she had had cancer. I had been trying to write something, but I wasn’t in a great place. The idea had been to do something with Jean Pasley, who co-wrote the film with me, but I had said to her I don’t think I can do anything, but as I was reading the book I was struck by the honesty of Anne’s account of her experience and the irreverence. I was laughing at stuff that you’re thinking; how can I be laughing at this? My sister, who I’d lost, had a quirky, funny, black sense of humour. I felt like it was something she would love, so it connected me to her in a funny way. I was sitting on the beach in Goa and emailed Anne. I said you’ve been through a lot, and I lost my sister and would you be interested in trying to see if there’s something in this to make a film. Anne admitted that she had been in a dark place when she got her cancer diagnosis. Wow, I just thought: a character who has lost the will to live and then receives the news that they are sick. It is complex – people do want to live and yet, at the same time, can be in a very dark place. It was an enormous creative challenge because the main character does not want to be here, and so every obstacle that you can think of is put in her way. I contacted Jean and said maybe we could develop a story around this idea of a standup comedian who doesn’t want to be here who gets a cancer diagnosis. The three of us, Anne, Jean, and I created the other characters in the story, but we did lean heavily on some of the material in the book. Anne read drafts, helped with the standup dialogue, and some of the text from her book found its way into the dialogue. It was one of those lovely projects where it just keeps speaking back to you. The feeling of developing always felt growing; it felt like it was coming towards us. Even though it took a few years, it never felt like we were going backwards. It was like it just kept coming to us, and it continued through shooting and editing, and hopefully, now with an audience, it will gain another life. It’s another iteration of the story – how to respond to it.

Kate is a complex character to play. How did you know Gemma-Leah Devereux was up for the task?
We took a year to find her. First, you try and get a lead role that everybody knows, but Gemma-Leah Devereux isn’t a big name yet. The character I envisaged was older than Gemma-Leah is, and I saw her as a blonde, but when I saw her tape, I knew she was the right actor. I never doubted for a moment after that. She brought the character to life in a different form, and all that mattered to me was that the character had power behind her versatility. I have an intuitive style of working, and I follow my gut. I hadn’t seen Gemma-Leah in anything before, I’d never directed a feature film, she hadn’t been the lead in anything. We were carrying a load in terms of how wrong that can go. We knew what the stakes were, but we had a level of trust. We decided to go for it 100%. We knew if it went horribly wrong that we would have given 100%, so we’d go down blazing. It was the same with the rest of the cast. They were all gut castings. I couldn’t always articulate what I wanted in an actor, but each one just fitted in. I saw Tom Vaughan-Lawlor doing an interview and saw a different side to him. There is a sensitivity in his performance that I don’t think audiences would have seen before in him.

Tom –Vaughan-Lawlor is a big name. Was it easy to get him on board?
He saw it online at the Cork Film Festival, and he was very moved by it. He said that he thought it was a comedy, which it is, but he didn’t expect to be so touched by it. He thought it was an important story; he makes his choices based on what is meaningful. I was delighted that he was interested and that the materials spoke to him, and he was terrific to work with, an absolute joy. There wasn’t any sense of him being a star. There is a scene late on which is very moving, and I had an emotional response watching him perform it. He brought something special to it which I hadn’t anticipated.

The ensemble has great chemistry, but you were short on time. How did you get that bond?
When I got together with the women, I said it was vital that everybody feels that they can really relax into this film, enjoy it, have fun, and really feel what these women would be like together. Maybe because I lost my sister and my friend, I have no interest in suffering for art. I suggested that we sit quietly together for a bit to allow ourselves to connect, because we’re going to have to find a shorthand to connect. I very consciously set out those parameters. As a director, you’re setting the tone, and I was very deliberately setting a tone which was I want people to have a good time here. I’m going to have a good time. Life is short. I’m not wasting a single minute being terrified of us getting it wrong. We’re just going to give it 100% and have the best time to communicate all the love, the joy, and the sadness. We didn’t have much time to shoot the scenes at the lake. The women jumped into the scene and did what came naturally. We created the best emotional environment to create ease and let things flow.

The cinematography is much richer than we normally see in comedy drama. How did you choose the aesthetic of the film?
J J Rolfe, the cinematographer, and I have interesting chemistry. He and his team work fast and with fluidity. I come from a documentary background, and I’m used to looking for things to come alive, so it might just be a detail, and JJ also has just a great eye. We wanted particular looks. When you’re coming out of the sterile environment of a hospital, you are met with brightness. We tried to create a colour palette that had a story. There is so much water in the film, and glass also became hugely important and deliberate. I would have said Kate has to be behind glass to add to the effect. Mark Kelly was a fantastic designer; he just did everything he could with the resources we had. I did have a big folder for the art department and camera department with all the colours and the ideas, and then we did everything we could to reach as best we could.

It is a female story, driven by these amazing female characters and then we have three female writers working on it. How important do you think it is that female filmmakers tell films like this?
I think it’s vital. I’m delighted to see that we have three films, Irish films, with central female characters and made by women coming out soon. We have our film, Cathy Brady’s Wildfire, Herself, and Deadly Cuts. It’s interesting because there is a feminine perspective that can be equally expressed by men and a masculine perspective that women can equally express. It’s almost like, you share your perspective with the world. The audience can get a sense of getting a better menu of perspectives. If there are women behind the camera, behind the storytelling, there are more comprehensive options of how we look at things, not to say one is better or worse, just to say that that’s enriching as far as I’m concerned for everyone. It’s poverty for us if there’s not a rich spread of diversity. I am talking across the board – colour, race, gender. The greater the diversity of perspectives, the richer we all are.

When you are making something deeply personal, is it hard to keep your emotions in check?
It just depends on how you cope with emotional pain. I don’t like it, like anybody else, but I’ve learned that I am not afraid of it. When I was a teenager I played camogie, and our trainer would say, don’t hold back, or you will get clattered. I think grief is the same. If you’re trying to hold it at bay, you get clattered.  I wanted to go right up into it. My own experience of losing my sister and my friend makes it hard to hold that space to stay in. But when you do, it’s strangely liberating. There is a scene in the sea, and I wanted the sun, but a mythical storm came out of nowhere. I felt that day the Earth was grieving with me; it was bizarre. I was in the sea with Gemma-Leah, and we were laughing and crying. It was the best and the worst day. All my grief was there, and all the release was there as well. Grief and release are all connected.

What do you want audiences to take from the film?
It has power for me. I can feel it in my solar plexus. I don’t need people to have the same experience that I have, but I would like them to have an experience. I want them to absorb it, to engage with it. I feel it is life-affirming, but it may be devastating to some people at times. I hope people feel that it mirrors our ability to engage with pain and control it. I wouldn’t try to prescribe any experience, but I hope that if there is an emotional truth in the film that will be received by whoever is watching, it is engaging and fulfilling in some way.

Words – Cara O’Doherty

THE BRIGHT SIDE is at Irish cinemas from August 20th