Originally commissioned by and published on Film4 Online
With her Film4-backed feature debut Wildfire showing at this year’s London Film Festival, we sat down with IFTA-winning writer-director Cathy Brady to discuss trauma, the Troubles and releasing a film in a turbulent 2020. By Nicole Davis.
Wildfire began with a desire to unite two actors, with whom writer-director Cathy Brady had worked with separately in the past. Nora-Jane Noone had starred in Brady’s award-winning short film Small Change, whilst Nika McGuigan was a member of the cast for her darkly comic TV drama Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope.
Having seen their talents independently, Brady wondered how they might interact with each other. “They both had incredible range and were able to capture something vulnerable but with a fierce sense of strength and I think there’s such a unique polarity in those abilities that I thought ‘what would happen if I put these two elements together?’”
The answer is an explosive chemistry and a bracing feature debut.
Set in the Borderlands of Northern Ireland, where Brady is from, the film is rooted in the notion of “unspoken history and the idea of having to move on for the sake of peace” and how that dynamic might manifest in a community or even a family. “It came from a personal place before it became political”, Brady admits.
Although it was “more of a sense of energy, than an idea at that stage”, she knew she wanted the story to explore sibling dynamics and began researching cases around shared psychosis. “It was so crucial that if we were telling this story we’d have to grind the truth of that. We wanted the characters to be complex, because if they weren’t they would just be seen as diagnoses of their illness and that’s not the case, it never is.”
It was during Brady’s research that she came across the term ‘transgenerational trauma’; the notion that trauma leaves a legacy and can be passed onto the next generation, “if it isn’t somehow dealt with.”
“We can see the devastating consequences of that in Northern Ireland”, Brady continues, “as it has one of the highest rates of antidepressant usage in the world,” stats which were published in a report for The Detail in 2014. Similarly, the generation nicknamed ‘Ceasefire Babies’ — those who were too young to directly experience the intense violence of the Troubles — have suffered from soaring suicide rates. “More people in Northern Ireland have died as a result of suicide than those killed in the Troubles”, Brady tells me.
“Why is that generation in so much difficulty?” This question became a fire in Brady’s belly and Wildfire became the medium through which she would explore it.
“Northern Ireland, in one sense, is quite a pathologically secretive place, because the truth has historically been dangerous.” The film grapples with that idea of secrets buried deep, and the kind of peace that emerges from unploughed ground.
“In some instances of psychosis, the past can become the present.” That jumbled, fragmented frame of mind is something that Wildfire captures with visceral intensity and the whole film pulsates with a menacing, spectral quality.
It makes sense when Brady starts to tell me how the world of the film came into being. “We used a lot of music and imagery to develop the tone, atmosphere and energy of the film.” Brady put together a playlist that became “a universal access point” for the film’s tonal and visual language.
In one of the early workshops with Noone and McGuigan, Brady played ‘Land: Horses / Land of a Thousand Dances / La Mer’ from Patti Smith’s album Horses, a primordial 9-minute track, whose energy Brady wanted her actors to match. The ensuing dance, improvised by Brady’s two actors, very closely mirrors a dance scene that occurs in the film — honed alongside identical twin sister choreographers Junk Ensemble — a moment crackling with tension and intended symmetry. It served as something on an ‘a-ha’ moment for everyone on set. Brady recalls shooting it in the second week of production and feeling palpable excitement.
The filmmaking process hasn’t been one of pure excitement however. During post-production, Nika McGuigan tragically passed away after battling cancer. “It was a rollercoaster of a year”, Brady sighs.
“There were the highs of making your debut [feature], but then losing Nika was incredibly difficult. She was like a sister to me.” The irony of editing a film about tackling grief, whilst experiencing “the biggest grief of my life” is not lost on Brady. “It was a head spin.” She admits that it’s hard to put into words what the Wildfire journey has meant to her. Like the history it deals with, it has been turbulent. “I’m proud of the fact we got through it and finished the film. It’s a testament to Nika.”
On the topic of bumpy rides, I’m curious as to what the experience of releasing a film in the savage year that is 2020 has been like. As for many of us, it’s been a period of uncertainty. “I thought the film might go into the deep freezer.”
In fact, Wildfire recently enjoyed its World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, a moment which Brady describes as “bittersweet” as the team were informed of the film’s acceptance on the anniversary of Nika’s death. “Unfortunately none of us were there, but equally that could’ve been too hard.”
“I feel ready to sit and watch the film with an audience.” Although Wildfire’s audience at the BFI’s London Film Festival — where the film has its next appearance — won’t be in the same room as Brady, I hold out hope that it will be feverishly embraced.