WILDFIRE – Interview with director Cathy Brady

Wild Fire is the story of two inseparable sisters raised in a small town on the Irish border, and how their lives are shattered with the mysterious death of their mother. Cathy Brady deservedly won Best Director at this years IFTA awards. Although she’s credited with the script for ‘Wild Fire’, her two leading ladies Nora-Jane Noone and the late Nika McGuigan (daughter of Barry) were crucially involved in the script development.

You made the unusual decision to cast the film before you had a script. Can you tell me about that decision?

I worked with the two actors [Nika McGuigan and Nora-Jane Noone] before, I was just excited about how I could put them together. They both had this remarkable ability to be quite fierce, vulnerable, courageous, and just strikingly real at the same time, and they were both dedicated to their craft. I just thought, well, they have to meet each other, we have to see what happens when they meet each other. We met in Bewley’s, we had a pot of tea, and then we went around the corner for a pint of Guinness. I was watching them and thinking, what is this? I had no idea what I was going to do with them, but I just knew, together they could unlock each other in an interesting way.

So, you have your actors; how did you go about finding them a story?

We were scattered working in various places, so we set up a private group on Facebook to share photographs, music, and news articles. It became apparent that we wanted to tell a story about complex, fierce women; we just didn’t know the story. I saw Madness in the Fast Lane, a BBC documentary about twin sisters who have shared psychosis. It has some remarkable footage of what the psychosis led them to do. I asked the girls to watch it, and we all wanted to know how it happened and how shared psychosis can lead to all sorts of difficulties. We wanted to understand how a bond between two sisters could be so strong. It made sense to bring the story home in terms of borderland Northern Ireland, where I’m from. The girls went off and did their backstory work, and then we worked together as a group. After that, I had to strip away what’s essential, what tells a good story. I wrote the script’s first draft, but the actors were very much involved in the characters.

You workshopped much of the character work, and there is a stunning dance sequence that I believe came from workshopping. Can you tell me how it came about?

It started with no script. I had to go on physicality, and my mother’s an identical twin, and Nora-Jane’s mother is an identical twin. We both understood how physicality could play within that sibling dynamic. Nika and Nora-Jane don’t look identical, so I was playing with the idea that they could be Irish twins, siblings born within a year of each other. I wanted them to have the same voice, the same walk. I used music to access the energy of the film. I want to know what it’s like when they are happy, when they’re sad, and what that energy feels like in your body. Music was this great way of working all of that out. I played Patti Smith’s Forces, and I just got the girls to go for it. It wasn’t a case of them dancing. It was something more primal. I videoed it, and even in the moment, I knew it was unusual. It was really fascinating to watch. They were fighting for each other’s attention, but somehow, when they started fighting, they just gave in to each other, and something so much more powerful unlocked. That’s where their bond was really formed, so it made sense to put a moment like that in the film. We don’t see women on screen like that. We see a much more pruned and glossier version, whereas this is fierce women and their primal instincts, and they’re not dancing for anyone else but themselves.

There is another powerful scene where Lauren watches Kelly sleep just after Kelly comes home. How did that idea come about?

We decided to do a residential workshop just to test out some of the backstory ideas, so I decided to play with what would it feel like for Lauren to find her sister after all this time? We wanted to plan that out in real-time. We sent Nora-Jane, who plays Lauren, and we told Nika, who plays the younger sister Kelly, to come to the house while Nora-Jane was out. I was in the house with a researcher, and there was no sign of either of them coming back. The next thing we hear is this scratching sound, and Nika has come back. She found an open window and climbed in. This was very much Nika’s style; she would think outside the box. She climbed into the house, leaving muddy footprints, has a mooch in the kitchen for some food and then she goes to the bedroom, and she just falls asleep. I wasn’t sure what to do. Another 40 minutes goes by, and Nora-Jane arrives through the front door, sees the muddy boots, sees the kitchen in a mess. You can see she’s starting to tweak, and then she went down to the bedroom, and that was such a remarkable moment to witness because it was the power of seeing her sister alive, thinking she had died, and not knowing whether to wake her. There was something so complex at that moment, so much more powerful than any big melodramatic showdown. I realized the importance of trusting the small stuff. When you allow actors to be creators, sometimes they get past the bullshit of stereotypes, and they go into this place that’s a bit more unexpected, and it often feels more authentic.

Do you think you will use this style of workshopping in future films?

I’m fascinated by actors and fascinated by how they work. I don’t know if I will have the luxury of working so intimately and closely with actors, but I think I will always value the role of an actor as a creator and find a way to bring them into the story-building process.

Intergenerational trauma is a big part of the film, and The Troubles plays into it without being overtly political. Was it important to get the balance between politics and drama?

When we were looking at psychosis, one of the things that stood out was the idea of how trauma locks into the body psyche but hasn’t fully integrated, and then it presents itself in this very abstract way, and often that’s a trauma that’s been in the past. It made sense to bring the film to borderland Ireland and the not so distant past. I came across the writing of Lyra McKee, who was putting the spotlight on intergenerational trauma. I realized that my generation hasn’t fully experienced it but that the impact of The Troubles has left people deeply wounded mentally, in terms of antidepressants. Our suicide rates were soaring much higher than in places in Europe. It made me realize that something hasn’t been expressed yet or hasn’t had a chance to heal yet. With the Good Friday Agreement, you’ve got people who were released back into the communities. The impact of that on families who had lost someone or been injured by someone who has been released is very complicated. Now you’ve got Brexit happening, and a lot of the given things are questioned again, and I felt like a lot of wounds have just been reopened. I want to look at it. What does it mean to be in this family, this community? This is a different take on the Troubles. This isn’t a story about men and their guns and violence; this is about much more nuanced and complicated internal violence and what it takes for people to survive.

To get a deeper understanding of the mental health aspects of the story, did you have to do a lot of research?

The Welcome Trust was one of the first bodies to come in; they are a fantastic group supporting science and arts together. We were able to have a researcher, and we spoke to psychologists and psychiatrists, but what became the most valuable, in terms of research, was talking to two sisters who had had a shared psychosis. The older sister wanted to protect her younger sister, who was having these hallucinations and delusions, and she didn’t want to lose her, so she joined her in her delusions. I thought that was heartbreaking, but it shows the power of love, that you will enter madness rather than lose your sibling.

As the younger sister, Kelly doesn’t remember something significant from her childhood. Did you keep that information from Nika as you workshopped the script?

I didn’t go out of my way to hide information from her, but I did have more detailed conversations with Nora-Jane about what happened. It was about two years into the process of world-building and character-building when I knew what would happen by the end of the film, and I remember telling Nora-Jane this big truth the first time, and I remember seeing the shock on her face. It was something I didn’t know if I wanted to write either, but a film like Wildfire is a film that deals in uncomfortable truths, and so, of course, it’s going to feel a little bit murky and a little bit difficult.

There is a red coat that has an essential role in the film. Was that something that came from the workshops?

It did come from our workshops. Instead of telling backstory to the actors to work with, I like to make things more physical. I loved this idea of this coat belonging to the girl’s mother. She was so elegant, she wore red lipstick and looked like a Hollywood star, but she was just too glamorous for the small town she came from, so she stood out. We didn’t have a red coat in the workshop, but we did have an old fur coat, and I remember the two girls sat on the ground, wrapped in the coat, and we played music and talked to them about their mother. It was so sensory for them; it reminded them of their mother, who was long gone.

The story could have played out in lots of ways, but you have chosen to have a note of hopefulness. Why was that important?

It was always something that felt like if I were going to tell this story, I would have to leave it in a hopeful place. I wanted to bring them through the other side but also wanted to leave the audience in a place where they realize there’s only so much they can do to help themselves. Supports need to be in place for people who have serious problems. I always wanted to shed more light on that and open the dialogue around that.

It is impossible to talk about the film and not acknowledge the sad fact that Nika died during post-production. How did you manage to complete the film under the circumstances?

Nika was like a sister to me, and I don’t say that flippantly; she was the best friend you could only dream of having. She was someone who really got me in a way that few did, and she made me a better person. To have gone on that journey with her and to see her taken away so suddenly, I had to finish the film for all of us. What we had done was so special. We had made things on our terms, and I couldn’t just leave it. I had to get in there and finish it, and the bizarre thing was that the film deals with grief, and it forced me to look at my grief and, in a way, finishing the film was like a long goodbye to Nika. I had the privilege of sitting in the edit, and as painful as it was, I got to see her on the edit every single day. That was heartbreaking, and it was incredibly hard, but I felt like I got that extra little bit of time so that I could let her go. She is so amazing in the film and Nora-Jane is so amazing, how could I not finish it? Now that it is finished, it’s this gift that we all have that we can look at Nika, and those people who don’t know Nika that will know her through Kelly and hopefully, her work will move them.

What do you want audiences to take from the film?

I’d be grateful if they go and see the film because with COVID and not knowing if the film would see the light of day, the fact that an audience might see the film and see the amazing performances, that is incredible. I saw the film in a cinema in London. It was a socially distanced screening and there was a woman in front of me. At one stage, she brought her knees up to her face, and she covered her face with her hands, and I was like, oh my god, this is so visceral you can feel the tension in the room and certain scenes that like, it reminded me the power of cinema, cinema really is such a special place.

The film won several awards at this year’s IFTA Awards. Does that mean much to you?

The film hasn’t been seen yet by regular audiences, so to be recognized by my peers really meant something to me, and to see Nika get her day in the sun meant a lot. It was incredibly bittersweet, but my God, it was powerful.

Words – Cara O’Doherty

WILDFIRE is at Irish cinemas from Sept 3rd