Director Cathy Brady: ‘With Wildfire I was interested in the internal violence of women in the North’

Newry-born film-maker depicts a Border family drama starring Nora-Jane Noone and the late Nika McGuigan

Cathy Brady: ‘This isn’t a film about men and their guns. This is about damage and trauma within a family – within a community.’ Photograph: Aidan Monaghan/Samson Films

Cathy Brady: ‘This isn’t a film about men and their guns. This is about damage and trauma within a family – within a community.’ Photograph: Aidan Monaghan/Samson Films

 

Director Cathy Brady first worked with Nora-Jane Noone, star of The Descent and The Magdalene Sisters, on Short Change. The 26-minute short, Brady’s graduate project from IADT, went on to win prizes at the Dublin International Film Festival and Sundance. A lovely piece about a young mother with a slot machine addiction, Short Change was emblematic of Brady’s intensely character-driven work to come.

“It always starts with a niggle,” says the Newry-born film-maker. “There’s something I don’t understand or that maybe leaves me feeling uncomfortable. With Small Change, it was the idea of putting mothers on pedestals. Mothers are people; they have their flaws. And just because the character had an addiction, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t love her child.”

Director, Cathy Brady. Photograph: Barry McCall
Director, Cathy Brady. Photograph: Barry McCall

She laughs: “I was as green as they come when I made that. It was my grad film so I was just like, oh, Nora-Jane would be amazing for the role. Let me just reach out to her agent. And unbelievably she said yes. It was my first experience of directing. I didn’t really fully understand what an actress can do and how they can transform the script. I remember a scene that required her to stand up and walk. She got up and she started to walk like I hadn’t seen her walk in her life. And I thought: Oh, this is what actors do.”

Brady has subsequently picked up silverware at Cork, Edinburgh, Amsterdam and Valencia – plus an IFTA and a European Film Award with her exquisitely crafted shorts Morning and Wasted. All the while, friends and fans have asked the question: “When’s the feature?”

The answer is: now.

The story of the Eriksson twins turned out to be another niggle that Brady couldn’t ignore. Swedish siblings Ursula and Sabina Eriksson made headlines when, suffering from an episode of folie à deux (or “shared psychosis”), they walked into oncoming traffic on the M6 motorway between London and Liverpool.

“The footage of the twin sisters really troubled me,” says Brady. “Why and how would they do that? If they loved each other, how could they put their lives at risk? And that became a driving force. I started researching and speaking to real people who had been through psychotic episodes. One of the girls who had shared psychosis told me that the first time that she felt something wasn’t right was when she was walking home one night, and she heard this noise. And she looked around, and it was a wolf. She started running and she got covered in mud. She went the whole way home. She went to open the door to look and the wolf was gone.”

Chisel a script

As Brady cheerfully admits, it is a slow way to chisel a script. The research, however, was only the beginning of the process. Working with creative-friendly producers Charles Steel and Carlo Cresto-Dina, Brady workshopped the script over five years with her two favourite collaborators, Nora-Jane Noone and Nika McGuigan. The latter collaborated with Brady on the first season of Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope.

“The first time I worked with her was for the Lyric Theatre in Belfast,” says the director. “She had come recommended. She was very sharp. I remember she turned up in the room and I was blown away. I was just like, who is she? And we ended up working again together on Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope. Nika went through the full audition process just like everybody else. That in itself was a joy. Just seeing a completely different side of her, really fun and cheeky and playful.”

Nora-Jane Noone and Nika McGuigan in Wildfire. Photograph: Aidan Monaghan/Samson Films
Nora-Jane Noone and Nika McGuigan in Wildfire. Photograph: Aidan Monaghan/Samson Films

Wildfire stars Noone and McGuigan – daughter of former boxer Barry McGuigan – as two estranged sisters who are reunited in their Border family home after many years. Secrets concerning their late mother bubble to the surface within an already fractured family unit and post-conflict community. The sisters, however, pick up with their close obsessional bond where they left off. Intergenerational trauma is interwoven in the carefully calibrated script. Northern Ireland, as she notes, has lost more people to suicide in the years since the Belfast Agreement than were killed in political violence between 1969 and 1997. Watching Wildfire post-Brexit, the film’s textures are all the more heightened.

“I remember watching [the documentary] A Mother Brings her Son to be Shot,” says Brady. “And that for me spoke to that aimless generation in Northern Ireland. Because their sense of identity has been altered. So what do they hang on to? How do they identify? And with Wildfire, we’re looking at female characters and that sort of shifts everything. Female characters are not directly related to the violence. I think what I was interested in in Wildfire was the unspoken internal violence. This isn’t a film about men and their guns. This is about damage and trauma within a family – within a community.”

Cannes

An early cut was screened at Cannes in 2019, but Covid and Nika McGuigan’s tragic death have prevented the film from getting the red-carpet hoopla it so richly deserves. (The Croisette would surely have gone wild for the Newry-born actor). McGuigan told Brady that if she could never make another film, she would die happy. Her quick, final battle with cancer required Seána Kerslake to provide cover shots and pick-ups.

Nika McGuigan and Nora-Jane Noone in Wildfire. Photograph: Aidan Monaghan/Samson Films
Nika McGuigan and Nora-Jane Noone in Wildfire. Photograph: Aidan Monaghan/Samson Films

“It was great that Seána came in, but it was not cathartic,” says Brady. “It was very, very strange. We weren’t even picture locked when Nika got sick. And from when she got sick to when she died was five weeks. She was violently ripped away from us all. We had both said to each other: wow, look what we’ve achieved. There’s cold-water swimming in the film and, in a strange way, cold-water swimming saved me. The editor and I would go to the Forty Foot at eight o’clock in the morning. We needed that kind of jolt to watch her on a screen when she’s not alive. And the film itself deals with grief. And I’ve never really experienced major grief in my life before this. So it was very, very complicated. If I was speaking to you a year ago, I probably couldn’t even have communicated this. I would have broken down. I feel I’m at a place on the other side of it all where I think: she was incredible; she was absolutely one of the most special people I’ve ever met in my life.”

Wildfire opens on September 3rd

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