Cathy Brady

Cathy Brady is a two-time IFTA-winning director, having won the Best Short Award in 2011 for her first film “Small Change” and again in 2013 for “Morning,” which was also selected for the 2012 BFI London Film Festival and won the Short Film Nominee prize for the European Film Awards at the Cork Film Festival. In 2011, Brady directed the BIFA-nominated short “Rough Skin,” written by Laura Lomas and starring Vicky McClure, as part of Channel 4’s Coming Up scheme. Her short film, “Wasted,” competed at the 2013 Edinburgh International Film Festival. That same year, Brady was named one of Screen Daily’s “Stars of Tomorrow.” In 2014, she directed an episode of Jack Thorne’s BAFTA-nominated drama-thriller series “Glue” and later went on to co-develop and direct the first series of Stefanie Preissner’s “Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope” for RTE/BBC3/Netflix. In 2017, Brady was one of fifteen female directors selected for BAFTA Elevate and in 2019, she was selected as one of “The Irish Times’” “50 People to Watch in 2019.”

Tara Karajica talks to Cathy Brady about her debut feature, “Wildfire,” that premiered at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival and subsequently screened at the BFI London Film Festival, and creating that strong emotional connection between the leads Nora-Jane Noone and Nika McGuigan, mental health and transgenerational trauma in Northern Ireland as well as the importance of women in film.





How did you get into filmmaking?

Cathy Brady: For me, I guess, it was a slow and maybe unexpected route. I was studying Art first and I was hugely into photography and the work of Gregory Crewdson who normally does huge set pieces where he shuts down towns just to take a still, but he works with known actresses and actors, and I was really fascinated by how he told a story through image. So, I was doing my Art degree and I started experimenting with working with actors and I really wanted to then explore that further in terms of moving image. I realized I was pretty much studying the wrong degree, so I went back and retrained. It was through photography, really, that my passion for image and working with actors came about.

How did Wildfire come about?

C.B.: I think Wildfire, once again, came about in an unusual way where I cast the film before I even had an idea. And, I cast the film because I had worked with these two actresses separately and it really was down to working with them and sensing this unique energy they had. Both of them had an incredible ability to be vulnerable and incredibly fierce, which I think is an incredible polar opposite to work with. So, to come across two actresses in my lifetime that were from different places, but had that ability, I just knew that if I put them together, something magic could happen. So, that’s really what we did. It took a couple months to get us all in a room together and I literally sat back and I knew I had something remarkable. And, we spoke back and forth for a few months and I think what we all settled on is that we wanted to tell a story with two fierce fearless women right at the center of it. So, we really began putting fact and fiction together and not to give away the big set piece within the film, a key scene within the film was inspired by a real event with two sisters who had a short psychosis. So, for us, that became a springboard of trying to understand and unpick what is a short psychosis and how my two sisters became in such an extreme way. It became a journey of really speaking to psychiatrists, psychologists and also building our own truths, which is for example setting it in borderland Northern Ireland, where I’m from. And, in agreement with the two actresses, I was building it from the ground up with them. They were really devising and shaping the characters with me, so we were pulling our own life experiences together and trying to lead it all to this event that would feel plausible and real.

It’s a very personal yet political film. There’s this baggage of The Troubles that is personal for the sisters, but there’s also the political backdrop.

C.B.: My intention was never to make a political film. Never. When I started writing this film, over five years ago, Brexit wasn’t even on the horizon. We had peace for twenty years. The Good Friday Agreement was very much intact. There was no talk of it ever being a hard border. It seems unbelievable. But what happened over that period of time, the personal and specific made the story. It became politicalized because you get to walk in people’s shoes and you get to see how past events have shaped their destiny and their present so, in a way, by actually making quite a personal film, it became politicalized and it just so happens that the film has an incredible urgency right now because the border in Northern Ireland is such a contentious issue again.

Can you talk about the research and the casting? You talked about it before, but how did you put everything together with the rest of the cast?

C.B.: So, basically, once we had completed a number of workshops with the two leads and built enough together, I went away for a couple of months and then started building a script. So, from that script there, we would workshop and research further. We had amazing help from the Wellcome Trust that very much enabled us to have a researcher on board. It varies as we were coming up against stuff. We realized, for example, with psychosis that, in early psychosis, past becomes present, so we realized through that research that we needed to outline exactly how everything happened in the backstory. So, when it came to really having a finished script, then it was a case of going and finding our supporting cast. What became very important was that because these two leads have known each other for five years and had quite a sisterly bond, it was to find other actresses and actors who could come in and match that energy, who could show up and give the amount of commitment that our two leads were doing. And, we found that through Martin McCann and Kate Dickie. Shaheen Baig was a fantastic casting director who really helped us set the tone of what that world would have been like. What we made sure is we had a decent rehearsal window so that they had the time to understand how the girls like to work, how I like to work so that it became much more seamless in terms of our language on set.

The actresses have to have this strong emotional connection and everything you have been talking about, as the film depends on it and is built on it. How did you achieve that really strong connection?

C.B.: Well, I think workshopping is incredibly different to a rehearsal process. With workshopping, I have to show up one hundred percent. The actors have to show up because we are constructing moment per moment characterizations of how that person might behave in a scene. It’s not like rehearsal where you have beats and it’s preset. So, if an actor doesn’t turn up and is one hundred percent committed and willing to tune into that energy, you go from false beat to false beat and you don’t get scenes and you don’t get sequences. So, we had already made an agreement that we were going to come at this film with full energy and full trust and then it really did become a sisterhood. We really did trust each other and it was a very safe space to talk about stuff. During our very first workshop, I was using music and the reason I used music was because I realized these two leads had to have an incredible ability to reach a high intensity of emotion. So, music without any dialogue allowed me to go: “This is the kind of journey that we are going ride on this film.” So, right from the very first day, the tone was set – it’s all or nothing. It’s exciting, but absolutely demanding! But when you come out the other side, you get a performance that’s incredibly nuanced and owned that you don’t often get with films, I think.

There’s this scene in the bar, where after they’ve danced, they’re drinking and Kelly goes upside down and they laugh and the men tell her to stop doing this. They wouldn’t have told this to a man and it’s a strong message. Can you talk about that and them as strong, fierce and fearless protagonists?

C.B.: I think that scene is really interesting in a sense that in hindsight you probably go: “Those girls knew exactly that bar; they knew those men were going to be there” and they were challenging the sense of truth because what you’ve got to remember: This is borderland Northern Ireland and it’s a pathologically secretive place. The truth is scary and either that be the fact that these terrorists have been released into the community or whether in terms of their own life, their mother’s secret about her death and it wasn’t what actually happened. The truth is so dangerous and there’s something in the story where these two women realize that they have to face this truth and that takes huge amounts of courage and strength and I think through each other, they unlock each other and through each other, they strengthen and support the ability to do that, that it almost becomes cathartic when they’re actually able to speak the truth of their life and be aware of the repercussions.

You question Lauren’s married life as a pillar of conventionality in this setting when Kelly comes back. Can you talk about that?

C.B.: Well, it’s very interesting. This is my third film made in that area, so it’s kind of a trilogy of female characters that live in that environment and kind of small-town Ireland and what’s expected of them. I think with Nora-Jane [Noone]’s character, Lauren, she would love to be as wild and as free and just follow her heart like Kelly, but she’s afraid. What she gets in return for having a smaller life is that she gets stability. She gets comfort, but after a while, that can be suffocating. So, when Kelly comes home, she really unleashes the ability to be free and to stop caring so much about what other people think because through her marriage with Sean – I do think Sean really loves her and she really loves him – but I don’t think she’s capable of being one hundred percent herself with him. And, I don’t think he’s capable of allowing her to be that. I think it’s what sometimes happens in marriages, especially in smaller towns where the expectation is that you get married much earlier in your twenties and it’s your first love and you have children and that’s the next thing and that’s your role. And, Lauren, I think, is struggling with that because they don’t have a family yet, so she’s feeling the weight of that expectation of young marriage, but meanwhile, her sister who’s been missing, has returned home and throws all her expectations of who she is out the window.

You also open up the conversation about mental health as well as the post-conflict generation. Can you elaborate on that?

C.B.: For me, I guess, once I’ve rooted the story in Borderland Northern Ireland, I started researching and what I’ve realized was the notion of transgenerational trauma, so that basically is a trauma that hasn’t been understood or healed, so in a sense it’s passed on to the next generation. So, their children might carry something that they don’t quite know, they know something not quite right. In, Northern Ireland, statistically, we have one of the highest suicide rates in Europe. We have one of the highest usage of antidepressants in the world. So, that is a real example of transgenerational trauma; it’s happening – it’s happening right now in Northern Ireland – so, you’re talking about what they’re calling the cease-fire babies, children of the generation that have first-hand experienced The Troubles yet their mental health is so much worse off than people who went through The Troubles. And, statistically, people who have died in suicide over the recent years have surpassed the number of people killed in The Troubles. So, there is a crisis; there’s a mental health crisis in Northern Ireland and in the world at large. And, I felt this was definitely something important to talk about and I think we definitely don’t talk about it often in women as well. Obviously, there’s a huge crisis with men as well, but I guess my view is more centered on female focus and it became important to see the legacy of how their mother may have been treated and how her children are then perceived as well.

Can you talk about the title of the film?

C. B.: Maybe it’s double in the sense that there’s a saying: “Rumors spread like wildfire” and that’s an Irish saying and that’s very true because things just catch on and it doesn’t matter where it came from – everyone just believes it. And, I felt that was really an important metaphor to put to the front of the story, but also within the film, there’s an event that reveals itself and it connects to the family history. So, I think later in the film, you understand the significance as well, but I think there’s something about that that, for me, evokes a sense of passion, fury and wildness, which kind of is at the heart of this film – what it means to live in Borderland Northern Ireland where it’s no man’s country.

There has been so much talk about women in film these past three years. What’s your take on that? Where do you see yourself in this discussion? How is it in the UK and Northern Ireland?

C.B.: Well, it’s a huge area and firstly, I’m glad there’s a spotlight on female-focused filmmaking because it certainly has gone amiss for a number of years. I hope to God that one day we don’t even need to have this conversation because it becomes so normal, but for now it’s not. I think it’s not just females, it’s people of color and different sexuality. I think the fact that we’re talking and realizing our own prejudices and just shining a light on our own ignorance is incredibly important. I think doing is really important, I guess. I think of the female directors I met and was mentored by when I was younger and starting my career and I am really grateful for them because actually being on their set and shadowing them was some of the most useful experience I’ve ever had in my filmmaking because I was just doing and watching. So, by example, you lead.

Who is your favorite female filmmaker and what is your favorite film by a female filmmaker?

C.B.: I am a huge fan of both Lynn Ramsey and Andrea Arnold. They’ve both got a sensibility and there’s something incredibly visceral, raw and yet poetic. It’s an incredible craft to be able to have those things. So, either of those filmmakers – I can watch their films all day! The first time I saw Andrea Arnold’s short Wasp, it was a real eye-opener of just how essential characters are to telling your stories and those moments can be incredibly small, but the characters are everything. Lynn Ramsey – all of her work is absolutely stunning. Again, I would say, I think We Need to Talk About Kevin was a really special film in terms of just the progression of her work and seeing her elevate her style. I guess, seeing Hollywood actors in it and seeing how she was able to approach that really challenging story. It was really special.

Times are uncertain now, but do you have anything in the pipeline for better times?

C.B.: I do! I took a little bit of time off first and I just went back to painting, which was really good! And then, I find myself wanting to explore stories again, so I am at the very early stages of researching a film called Sanctuary and it’s an ecological thriller set in the Amazon that looks at the dark underbelly of the volunteerism world.




Photo credits: Barry McCall.

This interview was conducted at the 2020 (virtual) Toronto International Film Festival. 

Tara Karajica

Tara Karajica is a Belgrade-based film critic and journalist. Her writings have appeared in "Indiewire," "Screen International," "Variety," "Little White Lies" and "Film New Europe," among many other media outlets, including the European Film Academy’s online magazine, "Close-up" and Eurimages. She is a member of the European Film Academy, the Online Film Critics Society and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists as well as the recipient of the 2014 Best Critic Award at the Altcine Action! Film Festival. In September 2016, she founded "Yellow Bread," a magazine dedicated entirely to short films, ranked among the 25 Top Short Film Blogs and Websites on the Planet in 2017. In February 2018, she launched "Fade to Her," a magazine about successful women working in Film and TV and in 2019, she was a member of the Jury of the European Shooting Stars (European Film Promotion). She is currently a programmer for live action shorts at PÖFF Shorts, Head of the Short Film Program and Live Action Shorts programmer at SEEFest and Narrative Features Programmer at the Durban International Film Festival. Tara is a regular at film festivals as a film critic, moderator and/or jury member.

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