The title of Cathy Brady’s debut feature, Wildfire, references how rumours and malice spread, but also the intensity of potential damage once a dangerous spark is lit.
Inseparable sisters raised in a small town on the Irish border, Lauren and Kelly faced a devastating loss as children with the mysterious death of their mother, their father having also previously perished in a fatal bombing. Now adults, their bond is about to intensify further as the spectre of mental illness that surrounded their late mother remains thick in the air, thanks to town gossip that’s never really faded.
After a year of being missing, presumed dead, Kelly (Nika McGuigan, who sadly died at 33 from cancer during post-production) returns to Northern Ireland amid Brexit border uncertainties on the news. Her own erratic and distressing behaviour chips away at the façade of normality that Lauren (Nora-Jane Noone) is barely maintaining.
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Talking to us ahead of the film’s UK and Irish release, writer-director Brady and star Noone discuss the unique way in which their drama came together.
How did the idea for Wildfire first come about?
Cathy Brady: It’s very unusual. It’s quite different from most films in the fact that we cast it before we even had an idea. I’d worked with both [Nora-Jane Noone and Nika McGuigan] separately, and was blown away with their remarkable ability to be both fierce and yet courageously vulnerable. I thought, “Well, what would happen if you put them together in a room?” And that’s what happened. We literally started with a pot of tea followed by a pint of Guinness.
By the time we finished that pint, we were like, “We’re making a film together, no matter what.” It’s incredible because we managed to protect that idea of a story that had been built from the ground up with the cast. That’s down to our funders and producers.
We began with research, inspired by a real event. It was the Eriksson twin sisters. They were found walking along the middle of the M6 in England. They threw themselves into oncoming traffic and survived. There’s a documentary called Madness in the Fast Lane (2010), and when we watched it together it really troubled and threw us. What would cause two sisters to behave like that? How did they manage to survive? What was that bond that was so intense that they would put themselves in danger?
We began investigating the idea of psychosis. We spoke to experts, but also to two sisters who had a shared psychosis. It was in getting the detail of that relationship that we started to finely tune these characters. And it made sense to bring the story back home where I’m from, the borderlands of Northern Ireland. That’s where the story started to take root.
Psychosis often comes from a trauma repressed in the past that becomes present. So we started looking backwards, and at the generation living in the borderlands now. It wasn’t long before we were coming across really startling statistics. You’ve got a young generation, ‘ceasefire babies’, who are living in peace times and haven’t experienced the Troubles firsthand, but who are really troubled. Soaring suicide rates, really high use of antidepressants. Why? How is this happening? And the more you drill into the personal, the more you can’t help that it be political and social.
Was the level of collaboration with this film something new for you, Nora-Jane?
Nora-Jane Noone: It was. There are times when maybe you have a couple of months of a certain amount of involvement. But this being completely all-involving was new; to have such a long time. It just gives you space for so many layers to bubble up and to absorb all the research. To really let it sink in and get an understanding of what that would feel like to live there and to experience those things. Cathy created an amazing space for us to have a lot of shared memories together and a lot of shared backstories.
How did the use of Van Morrison’s ‘Gloria’ in a centrepiece dance sequence in a pub come about?
Brady: Originally, we sparked the energy for that song in our very first workshop, seven years ago. Because I didn’t have a script, I was working with pure physicality. We considered ‘Horses’ by Patti Smith, but knew we weren’t going to use it because it’s a nine-minute track. We actually had a different track in the script – ‘Let’s Dance’ by Chris Montez.
Noone: But it didn’t quite have the raw energy that was needed.
Brady: It didn’t. And then we did our rehearsals with Martin McCann [who plays Noone’s on-screen husband] and we were doing backstory scenarios. I said, “Let’s imagine it’s Lauren and Sean’s wedding. What song gets the party started?” It was Marty McCann who goes, “It has to be Van the Man. It has to be ‘Gloria’.” I put on Spotify, played it, and it was like, “Sheer, holy God, we’ve found it!” It was so exciting. And you’re talking probably about a month out from shooting. So, we were like, “How the hell do you clear a track within a month? And a Van Morrison track.”
We had a music supervisor and I wrote a really pleading letter to Van Morrison. We managed to get someone who would get it to him, and it worked. I’m so grateful because it’s such a standout moment in the film.
There’s a very striking red coat in Wildfire. It belonged to the sisters’ late mother but Kelly digs it out and starts wearing it around town, to Lauren’s disapproval.
Brady: We based on our own experiences, maybe more of my mother and grandmother, of what it means to live in small town Ireland and to make a statement, or to be beautiful as a woman. Especially in Catholic small-town Ireland, for a woman to wear red lipstick and a bright red coat, she’s making a show of herself – who does she think she is? We always had this idea [the mother] would stop people on the street with her beauty, but also that she had this flair and passion; that she felt a little bit too big for this small town. Red spoke to me as a colour that would stop people on the tracks. And it made sense that she had this statement jacket that truly spoke to her.
Looking at your filmography, Nora-Jane, it’s interesting just how many wildly different films you’ve been in where really intense female relationships are either centre stage or at least close to it – aside from Wildfire, there’s The Descent (2005), Brooklyn (2015) and The Magdalene Sisters (2002). Are you consciously drawn to that sort of material?
Noone: Yeah, absolutely. And I also feel extremely lucky that people have been drawn to me for those films, because it works both ways. It’s funny, it was maybe only a few years ago that I realised how rare that is, to be in so many films with a very heavy, involved female cast and characters. And ones that push the boundaries a bit. Even though it’s genre, nothing like The Descent had been done before. I absolutely love it because not only do you get to see every version of what women can be, you also get to see what they inspire in each other.
There’s a different energy when that all comes together and it takes on a life of its own. With Wildfire, that was absolutely the case. It was so powerful.
Wildfire, backed by the BFI Film Fund, is in cinemas and on BFI Player from 3 September 2021.