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Aidan Monaghan/WILDFIRE

Wildfire: ‘We knew we wanted to tell a story with fierce women at the heart of it’


by Jennifer McShane
14th Sep 2021

Cathy Brady’s disquieting film about the mysterious return of an Irish woman and the bond with her sister is bold and vivid, with an extra layer of melancholy, thanks to it featuring the last performance by the late Nika McGuigan. We spoke to the film's director and star Nora-Jane Noone about its remarkable journey to the screen.

During the post-production of Wildfire, actress Nika McGuigan lost her brief but brave battle with cancer. The stirring film was developed and written for Nika and her co-star Nora-Jane Noone. They are both enigmatic and fiery on screen, each part as important as the other; bold, driven ‘Irish twins’ fighting against societal expectations, fighting with and for each other, for family.  

And yet it’s hard to watch it without your eyes leaving Nika. Because we know she didn’t see the final movie, in this her first leading role, it is tinged with more melancholy than is even in the script. Director Cathy Brady collaborated with both actresses for years, writing the roles specifically for McGuigan and Noone. All three had become close friends and it’s undeniable to both that there is still a raw loss thanks to Nika’s absence. 

“It has been incredibly difficult to finish this film without Nika, but it was such a privilege to know her and be known by her. I  hope the legacy of what Nika has done [remains]. And of what Nora Jan has done, as it’s really rich, and it’s really complex. And these characters are they’re not straightforward characters. They’re very complicated women,” says Brady.

Born within a year of each other, Lauren (Nora-Jane Noone) and Kelly (Nika McGuigan) are ‘Irish twins’. You’d never see one without the other, but over the years the mystery surrounding their mother’s death has torn them apart. Kelly, keen to escape their insular town, drifted away and disappeared a year ago. Lauren’s life has been on hold since reporting her sister missing.

Kelly’s unexpected return sees a surge of every raw emotion between the sisters. But as they begin to relive memories of their mother, the sisters become inseparable. Their bond is stronger than ever and as Kelly digs deeper, not everyone is ready when in this border town, secrets are not intended to be spoken of when buried.

“Nika is a force of nature. She had the most contagious laugh, contagious smile and she was someone who I felt I wanted to be in her company. And I felt with her and Nora-Jane, there was something about them that just fired me up. And the long and short of it is that all three of us got together in a room and decided we were going to make a film together, regardless of what that intended to be. ”

“We knew that we wanted to tell a story with fierce women at the heart of it. And that’s really where the journey began. And we were inspired by a real event. The story of the Erickson twin sisters where Sabina and Ursula Erickson repeatedly and deliberately rushing headlong into speeding traffic on the M6 motorway in England. Miraculously, they survive. Then, with unbelievable strength and fury, they turn against the officers who are trying to help them,” she explains.

Nika is a force of nature. She had the most contagious laugh, contagious smile and she was someone who I felt I wanted to be in her company. And I felt with her and Nora-Jane, there was something about them that just fired me up.

Powerhouse performances

Lauren, who lives near the Northern Irish border with her partner, and works in a vast warehouse is tense and appears to be going through the motions of life rather than living it but when her troubled sister Kelly, returns home after a mysterious yearlong absence, their reunion is tense before igniting a fire within both women. Haunted by tragedy and the mysterious death of their mother, the powerhouse performances by both women are the anchor in a film that skillfully shows how the past is intrinsically linked with our present.

“We wanted to tell a film that would somehow allow an audience and ourselves to understand what would cause a bond to be so intense, that you would put your life in danger for that person. And we realised it was so much more complicated than that, where psychosis which is coming from trauma repressed in the past becomes present. And in so many ways, bringing the story back to borderline Northern Ireland is where it really starts to take root,” Brady continues.

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Portraits of ladys on fire

“It was amazing because we had all these different stages of developing it, and the beginning was very free and very physical, and very much about our energy together and figuring out how these characters would unlock each other in the film. And then, you know, you just build layer upon layer so you get to really shape their backstory and shape the world and shape all the experiences that brought them to this point,” says Nora-Jane.

“And knowing that trauma, not only comes back up, and sometimes in the form of psychosis, but it also it creates a bond between sisters, when they have no one else, it creates an extremely intimate bond.  And with my character, it also gives her the responsibility of almost being a parent to her sister, so there are these contradictory feelings where she needs and gets that from her sister, but she also is always torn between the responsibility of protecting her and going with her. So it’s that internal struggle, that’s such a huge part of Lauren.”

“And then, Cathy went away and wrote a script from all the workshops and all that so, we shifted gears into that space, and began digging into the detail. There’s a lot of little details in there, from physically us matching each other walking and, right up to the dance scene just fine-tuning what was already there so that it flows.”

We have not seen female perspectives enough on women, never mind if you've lived through the troubles as one. It's always been about men and their guns and this very physical violence. This film explores something that's much more internal.

“I set the film in an insular border town in Northern Ireland not too dissimilar to Newry where I grew up. A landscape enclosed by mountains, constantly looking in on itself, both staggeringly beautiful and strangely oppressive.  This is a place struggling with its own sense of identity post ‘Troubles,'” Cathy continues.

“And what’s interesting is if you look at Lauren and Kelly’s mother, she’s another generation, I think she found it hard to regain the fact that she wore red lipstick and she wore a red jacket. She was thought of as someone who thought something of herself and the time so, it was very much, how dare she? How dare she want to be seen?”

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Aidan Monaghan/Wildfire

“And then here we are, a generation removed with the two sisters. And you can see how times have changed. And women have much more freedom in a sense than she did. But there’s still a legacy and there’s still repression and restriction. And what’s fascinating about this film is this is a film with a female perspective. We have not seen female perspectives enough on women, never mind if you’ve lived through the troubles as one. It’s always been about men and their guns and this very physical violence.

“This film explores something that’s much more internal. It’s much harder to get your head around because it’s so complex, it’s primal, it’s about a lasting impact on the psychological and emotional wounds that take generations to heal.”

Wildfire is in Irish cinemas now

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