Wildfire is nominated for five IFTAs and deservedly so. Cathy Brady and Nora-Jane Noone speak to about the quietly fierce film five years in the making
"I’m really curious about how an audience at home is going to receive it,” says Newry writer and director Cathy Brady, whose debut feature, Wildfire is nominated for five Irish Film and Television Awards (IFTAs) at this Sunday’s virtual event.
“I think the timing of the film couldn’t be better in terms of people walking in peoples’ shoes about what it means to live in a border community.”
Backed by the BFI, Northern Ireland Screen and Screen Ireland, the character-driven Wildfire pulsates with life. Set in a fictional border town, sisters Kelly (Nika McGuigan) and Lauren (Nora-Jane Noone) are reunited after over a year apart.
Dubbed Irish twins for their closeness in age and appearance, Kelly’s reappearance takes its toll on Lauren, who had put much of her life on hold after her sister’s disappearance. While they’re different, and it takes a while to learn how to live under the same roof again, it’s not long before that unbreakable bond finds its groove.
But Kelly’s return stirs up long-repressed trauma for them both. The shadow of mental illness prevails, something that dogged their later mother, and Kelly and Lauren need to confront the events of their childhood that had a lasting impact. With grief and intergenerational trauma at its heart, Wildfire is an important reminder that life isn’t as easy or carefree for the post conflict generation as many may think.
“Lyra McKee’s writing was incredible for shedding light on the generation,” says Cathy. “I think it was the first time someone really did begin to say, ‘We need to look at this and we need to talk about this’. In theory, we’re not fighting anymore but that doesn’t mean there’s not some kind of internal battle happening within.
“Wildfire is told from the female perspective. We’re so used to the backlog of stories of men and the guns and the violence. This isn’t some kind of conspiracy led thriller, there isn’t any massive sense of redemption.”
The film was developed differently, beginning with research — ‘with fact informing fiction’ says Cathy — which led to its unusual but significant organic quality.
“I wasn’t sitting here trying to hammer home here’s the link from A to B, here’s the character arc we are going to follow in the film,” she says.
“This started with trying to understand what psychosis is and it took us on a journey looking at shared psychosis, fear of intergenerational trauma, bringing it all back home and what that meant for my generation and the generation coming up after me.”
Cathy still wanted Wildfire to be accessible which she says is in part down to Nika and Nora-Jane.
“I really think the two girls’ performances bring something incredibly accessible because it’s so authentic and real.
“Even if what they do is perceived as strange, you believe their truth of that, you believe that they’re dancing frantically, they’re connecting in a way that some of us wish we had that emotional connection, they unleash something very primal and very vulnerable in each other and they’re not afraid of that.”
Having worked with Nika and Nora-Jane separately, Cathy knew both had ‘incredible capabilities’ and that, in many ways, they’d only scratched the surface of what they could bring to a role.
“I thought, what would happen if these two actors met. And that really was a catalyst for me.
“It wasn’t like they were a mirror image, they were just yin and yang, constantly in each other’s energy.
“We sat back, and we knew we had some kind of electricity. I thought, how do we start, where do we start. We knew we wanted to tell a story. It sounds like it’s something chaotic but it’s actually about being incredibly present.”
“We really did just put everything into it,” says Nora-Jane Noone, who plays Lauren. “It’s so rare as an actor to collaborate so intensively with a project and the character and the story to sort of come from you or from your experiences or what’s important to you.
“It was 100% collaborative. Every decision down to costume, down to hair, down to everything, was talked about — Cathy wanted it to come from us as much as possible. We were so completely tied in it.
“With this, it really felt like completely immersive and from our bones,” she laughs.
“It was something we didn’t necessarily have words for or didn’t know were there.
“From a personal point of view, we grew so much from that process. It really inspired me, I started writing almost immediately after Wildfire because I just loved that whole process so much.”
The team started without a script, working on physicality — and indeed in Wildfire, the sisters are linked almost by an invisible thread, their actions and reactions, and their words, complement each other. Within a scene Kelly and Lauren run a gamut of emotions, bringing the viewer on their journey, as close and as involved as if you were standing beside them.
“With the workshopping period, feeling things out, seeing where it went, you’re sort of basing it on real experiences perhaps,” says Nora-Jane.
“You’re in a workshop and working on energies and things like that, energies in the room and sparking off each other and seeing where that went.
“It is amazing for that to take shape in a solid story and it just moves in its own way. It’s kind of amazing; from day one of the workshop, doing the dance to finally being on set and that happening, that was really an exciting day where we thought, ‘Oh, we’re here!’”
Wanting to give validity and authenticity to the film, Cathy and the team worked with people who had experienced psychosis, and psychiatrists and psychologists, “people who could give us a wider context of how this might happen,” explains the two-time IFTA winner for her short films Small Change and Morning.
“Psychosis is often a trauma in the past that forces its way to the present in a sometimes very convoluted way, a way for the body, mind, spirit to understand it. That’s where we realised, ok, we need to set this story in Northern Ireland and feels like a really poignant place. I’ve grown up on the border, I know what that means.”
The process took five years with Brady taking inspiration from BBC documentary Madness in the Fast Lane, about sisters Sabina and Ursula Erickson who throw themselves onto oncoming traffic on the M6 in England. They also spoke with two sisters who had shared psychosis and how it had affected their lives.
“It’s important to make these characters… like you said, they’re complicated, they’re vulnerable and they’re not scary because they have problems,” says Nora-Jane.
“It’s hard to see those portrayals of mental illness all the time when you know someone you love who’s gone through that. [We wanted] to show someone in a light where you can feel for them and can relate to them and you can be on the journey with them without it feeling horrific. It’s complicated, it’s messy but there’s a lot of love and a lot of vulnerability there too.
“It meant so much to be able to do that and have that example of, hey, look, we’re all messy, we’re all vulnerable, we all go through tough times and the way through is to face it.”
Wildfire opens with scenes from Northern Ireland’s past as well as news reports on Brexit, something that wasn’t on the cards when Cathy began preparing.
“It’s incredibly bizarre the journey with this film because there’s so many things that felt like art began imitating life, life began imitating art and it’s hard to think where things separated,” she says as we discuss events in Northern Ireland from the last few months.
“There’s been such a strange journey around all of it, the story and what ended up happening mirroring in life, with Brexit, and story about grief and we lost Nika,” says Nora-Jane. “It’s hard to find the words to explain how much of a journey this whole experience has been.”
Halfway during post-production, Nika died from cancer aged just 33.
“It changed everything for me around that film,” says Cathy.
“When we were shooting that film, the three of us knew we had something magical. We had made a film in our own way, we were supported to make a film in our own way as we felt like we’d given our all, which is incredible to get to that place.
“Then when we were in the edit… her death was unbearably fast, and it felt like she was ripped away from us.
“But I still had the film. We felt we had to finish it because we all believed we had done something remarkable, and it would have been wrong not to finish it. It felt like a very long goodbye, she meant so much to all of us.
“The story will reverberate, and it will find its audience and that people will feel seen and connected to. It had to be finished. What we’re grateful for is that I had that work with Nika in such a unique way. What she’s done is so remarkable and it leaves such a legacy. It’s a character that’s hard to understand, maybe even hard to like, but she brings such humanity to it that you go with her.”
On screen, Nika’s portrayal of the complicated Kelly, full of contradictions, is mesmerising — viewers will not want to shift their focus in case they miss any of the nuances she brought to the role.
“It’s a testament to Nika,” says Cathy. “What we really strived to do is — we didn’t want to make characters that feel like asymptomatic, all cliches. We wanted real people, living experience and for them, this has become incredibly confusing, their love for each other is right to the brink.
“I hope that’s what people take away, this incredible bond, not women going off the rails as such because this is not what this film is about.”
The secondary cast adds to Wildfire with each character necessary to the plot.
“Marty McCann [who plays Lauren’s husband Sean] was incredible because he was in what is considered a supporting role, and he’s a lead actor,” says Cathy.
“That just shows generosity of spirit. These roles were smaller than they were probably used to getting. You’re watching Marty watching his wife make out of the ordinary choices. He’s standing back wondering when is too much too much, but he wants to support her.
“It’s heart-breaking with Kate Dickie’s character, the aunt [Veronica] who has looked after these girls from a young age and who feels she’s protecting them by concealing the truth.
“In many ways this is about a family and a society that are pathologically secretive.”
It’s something with which someone growing up here can identify.
“In the north, I certainly know the extent of growing up where you didn’t give out your full name or say where you went to school,” says Cathy.
“There is a thing within us that’s in-built, secretive, because the truth is dangerous. What we realised that if the truth isn’t owned or expressed, that can make people quite sick because they haven’t had the chance to let go of something or to process or integrate it.
The five IFTA nominations, plus one for Cathy as a Rising Star, are especially significant for the Newry native because they come from industry peers.
“It’s connecting to people, and we are so proud of the two lead actresses, I think it’s a testament to them, five years of sweat, blood and tears that they put in. For them both to be nominated for best performance is unreal.
“In many ways, the nominations help people come across the film and I think that’s important. We want that story to be heard, we want that story to resonate, and if that means the nominations help people hear about it, that’s fantastic.”
Wildfire will be released in cinemas in NI on September 3. The IFTAs will be broadcast tomorrow evening on Virgin Media One at 10pm