David Freyne always knew that casting was the key to success with his second feature. The delightful Dating Amber concerns two gay kids in 1990s Ireland who engineer a bogus romantic relationship to distract the circling bullies. It was vital to get the right chemistry bubbling between his two leads. Fionn O'Shea and Lola Petticrew deliver like Curie and Mendeleev (or some other great chemist).
“The minute we got Fionn and Lola’s tapes we knew they were special,” Freyne says. “There was something electric between them that shone. This film only works if people buy that these people love each other as best friends. Rehearsals were a way of making sure they were hanging out. Then me and my director of photography were out scouting for a location one day and we saw the two of them on the way to a party – sipping a cup of wine. We thought: ‘yeah, we’ve done it’.”
They certainly had. The two actors ended up shutting themselves off together in isolation for an entire spring. It shouldn’t need to be said that an international catastrophe was a contributing factor.
“Dave wanted to cast people to pretend to be best friends,” O’Shea tells me. “And he ended up with two people who became best friends. He was delighted. We were isolating together in London, but we wanted to be closer to home. So we came back and we are isolating here.”
I would happily watch a situation comedy based around the pair's experiences in Brittas Bay
The two friends, still holed up in Co Wicklow, really do finish each other’s sentences like well-adjusted brother and sister. Petticrew, so good recently in A Bump Along the Way, has the sharp wit you’d expect from someone raised in the great city of Belfast. O’Shea, lead in the much-admired Handsome Devil, has a more long-suffering style of address.
They need only the gentlest of nudges to start Grade-A banter.
“I have been doing a lot of cooking. I enjoy cooking. I made Fionn become a vegan – not by choice, just because I cook all the meals,” Petticrew says.
“Lola is such a phenomenal cook. The things I was making before weren’t great,” O’Shea concedes. “It was the same chicken and pasta dish I was making every day – and trying to will different tastes on it. It was actually easy to be vegan.”
“He was eating chocolate bars behind my back. It was so pathetic!”
“What was even more pathetic was that it was one of the Kinder Happy Hippos,” O’Shea says. “So I picked it up and thought: ‘just tell her you’re going to eat it’.”
But he didn’t.
“It was the lie. I wouldn’t have minded,” Petticrew sighs.
“It was a messy treat. I was worried I would leave a Hansel and Gretel trail. So I went into the bathroom,” he says.
“He didn’t realise I was the person who did the washing,” she says. “I was tidying up his jeans and I found a Happy Hippo wrapper. I thought, you have to be kidding me!”
They are, if you will, each other's beards, and Beards was the film's original title
This stuff is gold dust. We are all concerned about the awful contemplative novels and (worse) theatrical monologues the pandemic is set to generate. But I would happily watch a situation comedy based around their experiences in Brittas Bay. We just need a Covid pun for the title.
“Ha, ha! The relationship in the film is very similar to that in real life. It’s true,” O’Shea says.
As if things weren’t already strange enough, a few short weeks into the crisis, O’Shea found himself caught up in a cultural sensation. Playing somewhat against the Fionn type we’re getting used to – a shy charmer in Handsome Devil and Dating Amber – he turned up as the much-mistrusted Jamie in a series called Normal People (you may have heard of it).
A random search on Twitter delivered the following from a Canadian fan: “incredible work from the guy playing jamie in Normal People. Every second he was onscreen I wanted to drag him out of the tv & beat him to death.” There was a lot more where that came from. Nobody likes the young obsessive who won’t give up on Marianne.
“It’s mad,” O’Shea says. “When you are making it you are not thinking about the reaction online. That is so separate from the actual making of it all. To have people react to a character like that – whether it’s love or hate – is kind of amazing. I got texts after episode seven saying: ‘Maybe you shouldn’t leave the house for a while’.”
“I got really defensive. Because he’s my best pal and I think he’s a dote,” Petticrew says.
“It’s been amazing,” O’Shea says. “Everyone is blown away with the response to the show. But I am excited about having people like me again as this nicer character.”
'I grew up in the 1990s in a military barracks area in Kildare. My dad was in the Army. I wanted to see that rural story, but from a comic perspective'
He is certainly that in Dating Amber. Set in 1995, as the divorce referendum chugs to its tense conclusion, the picture finds Eddie, a gay boy, and Amber, a gay girl, struggling against an everyday class of prejudice. They decide life will be easier if they make out like girlfriend and boyfriend. They are, if you will, each other’s beards, and Beards was the film’s original title. It seems distributors felt that term for a romantic cover story wasn’t sufficiently well known.
“Yeah, there was always a question mark from readers as to what that means,” Freyne says. “To be fair, a lot of people knew what it meant – particularly gay people – but I was often asked what it meant. You lose some battles and it wasn’t the biggest battle.”
It is always cheap to ask whether a writer’s work is autobiographical, but there’s no way round that question here. We are in Kildare during the last years of the century. The boy’s dad is a soldier. He learns that he is gay. That is very much Freyne’s story (if you’re wondering, yes, he is brother to this newspaper’s Patrick Freyne).
“The line does get blurred,” he says. “I grew up in the 1990s in a military barracks area in Kildare. My dad was in the Army. I wanted to see that rural story, but from a comic perspective. When you grow up gay you are used to seeing yourself in tragic work. Being beaten up. Dying of Aids. Those films are important and relevant. But if that’s the only way you see yourself om screen it’s really depressing.”
Freyne has set the film in the mid-1990s because that is when he was in school, but viewers may suspect there is another strategy at play. Maybe, it’s easier to frame the characters’ dilemma in an era with greater prejudice. Neither Freyne nor his cast are quite having this.
“There are some people – generally older, straight people – who say: ‘Sure, it’s fine now!’,” he says with a tolerant laugh. “That always does enrage me and the actors a little. ‘But it’s not. You don’t know what it’s like,’ we say. There is a misconception about how easy it is now.”
There were funders who felt it was 'too happyfor an LGBT movie and others who said they 'already had a gay film'
Petticrew, just 24, is closer still to those pressures; she mulls over the experience of growing up in west Belfast.
“The film is set two years after it was still illegal to be gay in Ireland,” she says. “We are now five years away from marriage equality. It’s now passed in the North. But it’s one thing to move forward in terms of legal rights. It can still be as hard socially. We are maybe not as progressive as we think. It’s mad.
“I identify as queer. I had a much easier time. My sister is a lesbian. She finds it much different. She had a very hard time in school. Even though my parents were totally fine, she still had that internalised taboo and she would get hell if anybody found out.”
Dating Amber is among the many films nudged in an unexpected direction by the coronavirus catastrophe. After finishing his much-admired zombie drama The Cured – an allegorical oddity that made good use of Ellen Page – Freyne found the financing of Dating Amber relatively straightforward. He admits wearily that there were funders who felt it was "too happy" for an LGBT movie and others who said they "already had a gay film", but the picture was ready barely two years after The Cured premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.
The standard procedure is then to seek a festival berth and theatrical release. That’s hard to do when the cinemas are closed. Happily, Amazon Prime popped up and offered Dating Amber a place on the service. Identified as an Amazon Original release, the picture will benefit from the promotion that mighty organisation can provide.
Are we allowed to say "new normal"? This is, for the foreseeable future, how the film industry is going to function. Artemis Fowl is on Disney+. Trolls World Tour is on Apple. The 2020 Galway Film Fleadh is virtual. Welcome to the weirdness.
“It was crazy,” Freyne says. “You would normally go through Toronto or whatever. There was this sinking feeling that the film would be lost. Then Amazon Prime came up with this incredible offer to release it – making it an Amazon Original. That is a great outcome at any time, but in this environment it is exceptional. We have an opportunity to get a massive audience and give people a laugh when they need it.”
Quite so. There are isolating citizens all over the world who deserve a bit of lift. Fionn and Lola will, for instance, be able to watch themselves at work – if they are still able to share the room.
“We haven’t killed each other just yet,” O’Shea says.
Petticrew replies with no hint of gritted teeth.
“Not yet. Not yet.”
Dating Amber will stream on Amazon Prime from Thursday, June 4th