We sat down (virtually) with Cathy after the European premiere of her debut feature Wildfire at the BFI London Film Festival to talk about transgenerational trauma, shared psychosis and her incredible actors
You can read our interview below, or if you’re the more visual sort – watch the whole conversation with slightly more rambling from Dani!
D: Congratulations on the film Cathy, how has the festival circuit been treating you so far?
C: It’s all been virtual! With Toronto they did have a physical screening but filmmakers weren’t present, and then with London film festival our film is a virtual screening so I’ve just been sitting at home. It all feels kind of strange and otherly, but equally I’m incredibly grateful that it’s out there because my biggest fear was that it would go into the deep freezer. I’m really grateful that the story is out there and it’s communicating something at a time when we need to talk.
Can you tell me a bit about where the inspiration for the film came from?
Absolutely – unlike I suppose many films where you often have your script and then you go and cast it – I cast before I had an even idea. I had worked with Nora [Noone] and Nika [McGuigan] separately and it really was their remarkable ability and range to be both fierce and incredibly vulnerable that really excited me. I put them together and I sat back and watched them talk and it was like I had a yin and a yang. I just knew I had something, so we settled on telling a story about an intense sibling bond. We began looking at real stories about sisters and we came across the Eriksson twin sister story, which is about two sisters who had a shared psychosis. That really became a launch pad for us to try and understand what a shared psychosis was and also what would lead two sisters to such an extreme event. It really began a journey of researching and also building fact and fiction together. We brought the world back to the borderlands of Northern Ireland where I’m from, and that became a really important reference point about the past, the present and how where you’re from really shapes your sense of identity.
I’m familiar with that video of the Eriksson sisters – the reference to it in the film was immediately recognisable [You can watch the viral video we’re talking about here]
Without giving too much about the film away – when I saw that video it was incredibly existential. I watched it and wondered how could you do that? How could your sister do that with you? It really troubled me that for the sisters it was not an act of suicide, it was an act of survival. It made me put a spin on everything, I realized that I needed look at how psychosis can change your state of mind and how a strong bond like that could bring you to the brink of something incredibly dangerous.
I really enjoyed the slow reveal of how The Troubles had affected the family and the whole community – what did you learn making this or want to show people about that sort of lasting trauma?
As I began research I was looking at trauma on my own doorstep from growing up just as The Troubles were ending. I came across a term called transgenerational trauma, and that was the idea of trauma that can’t be expressed or understood so it’s passed on to the next generation. I realized that where I’m from, Northern Ireland, is pathologically secretive. The truth has always been dangerous, you had to be careful if you told someone your surname, or careful if you told them what school you went to; because then they’ll know what side you’re on, and that’s dangerous. So it really kind of startled me and fascinated me how the the micro of the everyday became intense and scary.
I realized that having characters from that place and that sense of being judged and questioned, that can really build a sense of paranoia. You want to just break free from all that and just speak the truth. Ultimately if we don’t speak the truth the past is going to rear its ugly head and it’s going to be so much more toxic and troubling than actually facing it head on. You can bury all you want like Lauren does in the story, she doesn’t want to deal with stuff she buries it, and buries, and buries it, but ultimately it’s going to come out of her. Kelly returning is a catalyst for all that just to pour out of her. I hope that the film can let you get to know these sisters not just as diagnosed illnesses, but incredibly rich, complex individuals with a past and a present. And that people can see that there’s something cathartic about facing your past.
I can’t imagine how strange it’s been going through this whole process without Nika here to speak [Nika McGuigan, one of the films stars, died of cancer whilst Wildfire was in post-production.] What was the process like creating that sisterhood between your two actors? It felt so organic and raw
I feel like I’ve lived several lifetimes with those girls, the workshopping was so incredibly close. We even did a residential where we went to Ireland for a week and tried out some of the ideas. You go to really raw, visceral places and as a director you sit back and you’re just in awe of your actors. I really did feel like I lived several lifetimes with them. We all just felt like we were on the crest of something incredibly special. I’ll never forget when I finished the last scene with Nika, she came up to me and she said ”you know, if I never make another film my life, I’ll die happy.” I was like, wow. Again we felt we had done something incredibly unique. When I got into post and [her passing] was so fast, that moment really was something I held on to. I realized like I had something that people would be very lucky to have. I feel incredibly grateful.
Was the film particularly closely scripted?
Normally when you start working with funders they want scripts. I was very fortunate that I worked with two amazing producers, Charles Steel and Carlo Cresto-Dina who embraced the process where I said ”I want to research it, I want to build it from the ground up with these two actors.” So we went from a treatment and then from treatment we went to the first draft of the script, and then I workshopped the script with the two actors and went through stages and took notes from our funders. By the time we were shooting we pretty much had a locked off script.
It seems an impossible question but – the film is undercut by the worries about the future for the Irish border – do you feel hopeful about the future for Northern Ireland?
What’s so bizarre is when we were making the film five years ago we took for granted that the Good Friday agreement was intact. The Good Friday agreement had seen prisoners released in return for peace; it was a really big part of justice and retribution, and redemption and forgiveness. Now as the film is going out the border is still up for grabs. We don’t know if it’s going to be harder, it’s going to be soft or what side is going to be happy. I’m very nervous about what will happen and I don’t want to take for granted that peace is a given because I think that’s where we get into trouble. I think we need to tread very carefully and there needs to constantly be an open dialogue between all sides. We can’t take for granted that the peace is a given – but I hope it is.