Money moves unusually in the film business. Aoife McArdle, one of our most successful video directors, has worked with such luminaries as Jon Hopkins, Bryan Ferry and U2. She has a signature style: strong narratives unfold in bold visuals. That doesn't mean she's been showered with funds for her first feature. McArdle's tricky, unsettling Kissing Candice was made as part of the Irish Film Board's low-budget Catalyst Project.
“The film was made for less money than for anything I’d done. Ha ha!” she says. “That was quite a shell-shocking thing. I did go into it with that fear. I am used to a lot more. I am used to being able to choreograph epic scenes with lots of people.”
Set along a heightened version of the Border, the film stars Ann Skelly – alumna of Red Rock – as a troubled young woman who feels her dream-life leaking into messy reality. There's violence in here. There's rebellion. There's confusion.
The picture has already kicked up a buzz at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival and at the 2018 Berlinale.
“Toronto was weird because it was hyped way beyond its tiny size,” she says. “Young people really connected with it. A lot of people who had wild youths enjoyed it. It was always going to be that way. There were some people who were offended by it. But I think a film about young people should challenge people. I love films that make me feel uncomfortable.”
McArdle admits that there is a lot of herself in the title character. That tends to be the way with first films and first novels. All that lived experience is just bursting to find expression. Large parts of her youth were spent in the northern reaches of Louth and she returned there to shoot.
"It's mostly Dundalk and Carlingford. But it's a fictional place. I wanted to make a dystopian youth film," she says. "It's a no-man's land where all these characters hang out. When I was young you were always meeting these people. There were guns about the place."
Mum is from Carlingford and dad is from Dundalk, but McArdle, now 39, grew up mostly in Omagh, County Tyrone. She gives the impression that her parents – "real non-conformists" – combined responsibility with an agreeable liberality. They were happy that she went to Trinity College to study English, but, though a little fretful, supported her decision to then attend film school in Bournemouth.
"My dad makes his own instruments. He has always hand-carved guitars and that," she says. "But his everyday job was being an accountant. We always watched films. I remember watching Humphrey Bogart films and film noir. My mum showed me Taxi Driver when I was too young."
The Troubles have coloured McArdle's work. Her video for U2's Every Breaking Wave featured a love story from the streets of Belfast. The corrupt fug of that era infects the violent confrontations in Kissing Candice. McArdle is of an age to clearly remember the 1998 bombing in her hometown. The worst atrocity of the conflict, resulting in the death of 29 people, the attack must still hang over Omagh.
“I had a younger brother who was in it and just escaped with minor injuries,” she says. “We all knew people who had lost their limbs or lost their lives. I remember that day very well. Omagh wasn’t the worst place to be in the Troubles. But that was the worst incident in the Troubles. It left a scar on the area. You can still feel it when you walk through the town.”
McArdle is among many who felt that Omagh was, to that point, somewhat apart from the violence.
“It was integrated. It is ridiculous that we have to say that. But Omagh didn’t have that feeling. I remember going out to coffee with all the other kids after school.”
Aoife attended a convent school and, though the teachers couldn’t quite get their heads around her ambitions to become a film director, they did – after suggesting she become a lawyer – admit that she might pursue a career as a writer. Aoife remembers ploughing her way through all the greats at TCD. She was, however, always intent on getting back behind a camera. After studies at Bournemouth, she and a group of like-minded friends formed a film-making collective and began working on low-budget shorts and pop videos.
She remembers enjoying their work on documentaries, but feeling frustration that she wasn’t able to make images that “looked amazing”. The collective eventually managed to persuade Bloc Party, the successful indie rockers, to give them a chance, and they shot a much-admired manga-styled video for the band. But collectives rarely hold together for long.
“It’s hard to direct with somebody else unless you’re absolutely on the same page,” she says. “I went off on my own then. The first video I made on my own was for a band called Little Comets. That video did really well for me. That opened the door for that as a career. So I ended up doing videos or the odd commercial where I got creative freedom.”
McArdle stresses those last two words. She won’t accept a commission unless she is allowed to forward her own vision.
“Of course you have to listen to the artist,” she says. “But I was just always trying to find an avenue where I could make a film. I had to turn down artists I really loved because they just wanted a performance video. That isn’t what I do.”
A glance at her videos for Bryan Ferry's Loop De Li and Every Breaking Wave confirms this. The films tell stories that comment obliquely on the songs. The artists don't appear. There is a sense of an individual narrative sensibility at work.
“They both asked for that. They had seen my work,” she says. “[Bryan Ferry] had seen it through his son and he asked me to come and meet him. It was a bit of a dream come true, not just for me, but for my parents. They adored Roxy Music and I grew up listening to them.”
When U2 approached her she was wary. Aoife had enormous respect for the group, but she is aware of how much attention is directed towards everything they do. Even now, a creative involvement with that band changes things for a professional.
I enjoy films where you can create a visual world. Science fiction and horror allows that. As long as you can transcend the genre and have a bit of a message
"They have been around a long time but they still keep their eyes and their ears open. I think that's what bands who have longevity do," she says. "This will make you laugh. I went off and made this film in Belfast. It created a bit of a fracas on the street. When they watched the video they said: 'We thought we were getting Grease and we got Apocalypse Now.' They thought they were going to get this happy romance. They got this thing with all these explosions. Ha ha!"
McArdle continues to shoot commercials and videos, but the chatter around Kissing Candice is propelling her ever closer to that difficult second feature. Now based in Belfast, she is hammering out the script for what she intriguingly calls "an old-fashioned art sci-fi". There's a lot of research involved. She is working hard to get the structure in order before she moves on to the dialogue and the action.
“That’s what I always wanted to do,” she says. “I enjoy films where you can create a visual world. Science fiction and horror allows that. As long as you can transcend the genre and have a bit of a message. I would probably have started with that if I could get the money.”
While this has been playing out, the cinema world has been anguishing about the role of women in the profession. Cate Blanchett led a protest at Cannes. The Oscars managed to finally nominate a woman as best cinematographer. The door is being kicked open.
"What's great is that with all this conversation maybe women will say: I can do that," she says. "You need to see things happening to know you can do that too. For me it was Jane Campion and Lynne Ramsay. I saw them and thought: I can do that".
She can do that.
- Kissing Candice is in cinemas from June 22nd
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Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
1979 by The Smashing Pumpkins might be their best-known video. Went on to make the Oscar-nominated Little Miss Sunshine and the underrated Battle of the Sexes.
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