The emotionally stirring exploration into the tumultuous relationship between two estranged sisters can powerfully prove that their bond reflects the struggle of their country, as they all set out to emerge from a traumatic past. Lauren, the protagonist of the new drama, ‘Wildfire,’ must choose between the existence she presently knows with her husband, and her lifelong connection to her sister, Kelly, who has just returned to her life.
Filmmaker Cathy Brady framed the present-day Irish family movie within the history of The Troubles and the current debates around the return of a hard border between the UK province in the North and the independent Republic in the south. In emphasizing how the past impacts the present, the writer-director opens up conversations around mental health and the generation in Northern Ireland that grew up in a post-conflict society.
Brady made her feature film writing and directorial debuts on ‘Wildfire,’ which features noteworthy performances from its two lead actresses, Nora-Jane Noone and Nika McGuigan, who sadly passed away from cancer during the summer of 2019. The actresses’ noteworthy dynamic as Lauren and Kelly was first brought to the screen last month, when the drama had its World Premiere during the Discovery section of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
‘Wildfire’ follows a formerly inseparable pair of sisters who were raised in a small, quiet town by the Northern Ireland border. Having been born within a year of each other, the “Irish twins”-Kelly (McGuigan) and Lauren (Noone)-share a deep bond, despite their differences; Kelly is the wild one, and makes Lauren’s married life and factory job look like she’s a top pillar of conventionality. The sisters’ connection truly apart, however, after the mysterious death of their mother, and Lauren was left to pick up the pieces.
After disappearing from their town a year prior, Kelly suddenly shows up on Lauren’s doorstep. Kelly’s return quickly stirs up long-repressed traumas between the sisters, including their mother’s death. Kelly’s desire to unearth their history isn’t welcomed by everyone in their neighborhood, and the town is divided by rumors and malice that threaten to overwhelm everyone involved. As a result, Lauren must contend with her family’s dark past, which threatens her newfound stability, and ultimately choose between her new existence and her life-long connection to her sister.
Brady and Noone generously took the time during last month’s TIFF to talk about writing, directing and starring in ‘Wildfire’ during an exclusive interview over Zoom. Among other things, the filmmaker and actress discussed how the scribe uniquely cast the lead roles of Lauren and Kelly before she began writing the screenplay, which allowed the performers to help her develop the relationship between, and overall arc of, their characters. The duo also expressed their appreciation of being able to premiere the drama during last month’s TIFF, which limited the amount of movies it included in its lineup this year, due to COVID-19, which validated all of the hard work they put into the feature.
The conversation began with Brady explaining what inspired her to pen the script, and what the penning process was like on the film. “Unlike most films, before I had an idea, I cast it first. There was something about Nora-Jane and Nika, whom I had both worked with before separately,” that convinced the writer to develop the screenplay.
The two actresses had “a fierceness and able to be vulnerable, and I thought that took a lot of strength. I wondered, what would happen if I put these two in a room together? It then took us a couple of months to put it all together. When we finally did put them in a room, I knew I had something special,” the writer admitted.
“We then spent a few weeks talking back and forth about the kinds of films and characters we like. I think we gravitated towards making a simple story, but overall, we wanted to tell a story about fierce women,” Brady continued.
“While we were doing our research, we heard a story about two sisters who have a shared psychosis. That was actually a springboard for what would happen for our characters, and that was a journey of discovery of what might bring sisters to that moment of extremeness. It was a five-year journey, during which we spoke with psychiatrists and psychologists.” The filmmmaker added, “We set the story in a border town in Northern Ireland, which is where I’m from, and became another area for us to pull our facts from for our story.”
In terms of the drama being the first feature film script she penned, “it took an incredibly long time to get started, as it normally does. Going from my first short film to this feature took 10 years. I had an incredible set of producers behind me who embraced the process, which is quite unusual,” the scribe admitted. “They were a big reason why ‘Wildfire’ got made the way it did.”
Noone then delved in what drew her to play Lauren, and how she was cast in the movie. “Cathy’s process of telling this story was huge, so to be able to find moments of the relationships and story organically was amazing. Also, to be able to spend so much time building layers for these women and their relationship, and what that means in the world emotionally and socially, drew me in,” she shared.
“Then to be able to do research with the girls, and finding those real moments that ended up in the movie, was really special. As Cathy said, that was fine-tuned as the years went on, as Cathy worked on the script with the producers. We also fine-tuned those elements on the set,” the performer added. “It’s a very rare experience for an actor to be so involved so early on, and to be able to become so immersed” in the story, which is something she appreciated.
Brady then explained what the experience was like of building the family dynamic between Kelly, Lauren and their mother before, and during, the film’s production. “There were certain details that we focused on. In one of our early workshops five years ago, we didn’t even have the script yet; all we had was a series of images for points of references.
“I brought in a coat to one of the workshops…and we realized that there would be mementos from the mother that would awaken memories…We talked about how she would have worn it, and how she would be seen when she wore it, because it’s so striking,” the filmmmaker continued. “So it was really interesting how we started to build the truths about the mother.”
Once the screenplay for ‘Wildfire’ was completed, Brady cherished having the opportunity to then delve into making her feature film directorial debut. “It was an incredible experience. You spend all these years having a feeling for it, sitting at a desk, and then bringing the cast and crew together, and workshopping it with the actors,” she revealed.
“What was exciting was that all of the people who came in, including the producers, the editor, the sound designer, the composer, the production designer and the actors, had a serious level of commitment to it, as well as talent,” Brady gushed. “It was a privilege to work with them.”
Having so many talented women in front of, and behind, the camera was something that was important to the filmmmaker and actress. “Why not have so many women involved? We don’t get to see that too often. We also don’t get to see many women who are fierce, angry and flawed in a way that can feel threatening, scary and wild” on and off screen in the filmmaking world, Noone pointed out. “So that, for me, was huge.”
Brady also chimed on, stating that “I was really interested in the viewpoints of Crystel Fournier, who was our cinematographer, who’s French, and is an outsider to this world. I think she has an incredible sensibility to the female gaze, and what that looks like in the intimacy between sisters. One of the first times Crystel met Nora-Jane and Nika on set, we realized that we were all the same height!,” she added with a laugh.
The casting process for the drama was also an experience that the helmer cherished. “Our casting director had her work cut out for her, because Lauren and Kelly have such a strong bond, and set the tone for the film. So casting Nora-Jane and Nika was so crucial,” she noted.
“Since Nora-Jane and Nika set such a high standard, having people like Martin McCann and Kate Dickie also come in was amazing. The roles of the sisters’ aunt, Veronica, who Kate played, and Lauren’s husband, Sean, who was played by Martin, were supporting ones. But if they weren’t cast right, the dynamic between the two girls would fall away,” Brady proclaimed. “So we knew that we needed to get really high caliber actors for those roles, even though they were quite small…We’re thankful that Kate and Martin came in and were generous with their time.”
Once all of the actors were cast in ‘Wildfire,’ there was some time for the cast to work together on building their characters’ relationships. “We did have some time-a couple of weeks-with Marty and Kate beforehand,” Noone shared. “That was lovely, because that’s the family. There’s so much history there, especially between Lauren and her husband, as well as the girls with their aunt, who was almost a second mother to them, given that their mother died when they were young.
“That’s a huge part of their story…there were many things that were hidden from the sisters by their aunt. On the one hand, there’s the aunt, who’s holding so much power over their past, including how their mother died. Martin, who played my (character’s) husband, was also kept out of the loop,” the actress continued. “So he was the outside perspective of learning this all for the first time. So it was great to have rehearsals with them.”
One of the things the group focused on during the rehearsals was “how to make Lauren and Sean to feel as though they’ve known each other for years,” Brady noted. “So we had a few days of rehearsal, during which I decided to set up a backstory moment of their wedding. I said, ‘This is your wedding, so what song are you playing during the party?’ I think he said ‘Drops of Jupiter.’ I remember them then dancing, and getting to know each other, and that really set the tone, which was nice.”
Once production on the movie was completed, the cast and crew embraced the experience of having the world premiere of ‘Wildfire’ last month at TIFF. “What an incredible platform! We’re so grateful to TIFF to have this opportunity,” the director gushed. “It’s great to see that the film festivals are still going ahead during this time of COVID. I think that’s really important, especially for an emerging filmmmaker like myself. You put all this work into a film, but it’s nothing without an audience. Even though we haven’t been able to attend the festival, it’s great to know that it’s living out in the world.”
Noone then chimed in on the experience of bringing the drama to TIFF, stating that she “has to agree with Cathy. It’s important to still have an audience during a pandemic. This (limited festival) platform is amazing for us, because it means so much more to be chosen; if the selection was bigger, as it normally is, we’d get lost. So it’s so special to get to be a part of TIFF. It’s even more special for us because of how long it took us to develop the film, as well as NNika’s passing. So it’s a privilege for us to be able to share it in her honor.”