Marrying Irish Humour & Filmmaking Talent, ‘Happy Ever Afters’

‘Happy Ever Afters’, the debut feature film from writer and director Stephen Burke (Anner House, No Tears) comes down the aisle on December 26th with the premise that sometimes the happiest day of all can be the most heartbreaking.

The film’s plot is anything but straightforward: Freddie, played by Tom Riley (Lost in Austen, St. Trinian’s 2: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold) and Maura, played by Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky, An Education) are getting married, just not to each other. While Freddie is entering his second marriage with the neurotic Sophie, played by Jade Yourell (Waiting for Dublin, The Longest Day), Maura's is more concerned with her pockets than her heart in marrying ‘Doctors’ star, Ariyon Bakare’s Wilson. Then, when the two wedding parties end up at the same reception venue, the illusion of wedded bliss looks set to collapse on top of the newly-weds and their guests. The film's stellar Irish cast includes Simon Delaney (Zonad), Tina Kelleher (The Clinic), Deirdre Molloy (Adam and Paul), Tomas O'Suilleabhain (Trouble with Sex), Stanley Townsend (Hilde) and Ger Ryan (A Love Divided).

To mark the opening of the film on Saturday, December 26th, IFTN caught up with the film’s director, Stephen Burke and one of the film’s (un) happy couples – Tom Riley and Jade Yourell (aka Freddie and Sophie).

Tom Riley & Jade Yourell

As previously mentioned this is Burke’s first foray into feature film directing. When asked if it transpired to be as mammoth a task as he had expected, Burke bemoans a common problem for film-makers, that ever-present matter of funding (and lack thereof). “It was quite hard. Getting the finance together for a first feature is always the hardest.” 50% of the film’s financing was secured within six months of the decision to make the project but accumulating the other half of the film’s budget required a lot of hard work and even some travel, as Burke explains “It came in bits and pieces after that, luckily it wasn’t my job, it was Lesley McKimm’s and she did a great job. She was all over Europe. She got it through France, Germany and luckily Disney came on board in Ireland quite early.”

Clearly this is a project that has been a long time in the making, as Stephen tells us. “Originally I wrote the script and there were four different lead characters and it was the same set-up of two weddings colliding, but the characters were quite different. It wasn’t getting financed so I put it on the shelf and did other things and the producer would do other things but we always thought there was something in this idea. So when I came up with the four new characters, wrote the script very quickly and when I had finished it I gave it to Lesley (McKimm) and said ‘If this doesn’t get financed I’ll eat my hat.” The new improved script was written when the Celtic tiger was still at large but Stephen says he didn’t feel the need to make the film’s story more believable and ‘recession-friendly’, rather it was already a reflection of the new economically-crippled Ireland: “I didn’t change anything in the story line - Sally’s house was being repossessed and what people were saying back when I wrote it was ‘Nobody is going to believe this, nobody gets their house repossessed, they just re-mortgage it and try to get more money.’ Then it became an everyday thing.”

As director of projects such as the grim ‘No Tears’ and the (equally bleak) 1996 short film ‘81’ Burke has taken on a tangibly different artistic challenge with ‘Happy Ever Afters’, something he is all too aware of, “I wanted a new challenge and comedy is definitely harder than anything I have every done. To make people laugh is much harder than making people cry. I’ve done that - I can make people cry, no problem. I can do it with my eyes closed. But laughter is a different story altogether.”

As for the film’s stars, one would imagine it was refreshing to work with a director who was just finding his feet, a state of affairs that presumably allowed for much creativity and artistic freedom? Tom Riley concurs and is full of praise for his director’s approach “I did a film a few years ago called ‘A Few Days in September’ for, again, a writer / director called Santiago Amigorena and it wasn’t his first film but his first time directing and it’s interesting, it’s a really different vibe. I’d like to think that I would be able to do what both Santiago and Stephen did as directors if I ever directed but I think I would be too much of a control freak. They both had a way of stepping back and saying ‘Well, I’ve written it so do what you want with it’ which is incredible. It’s really brave and I think it’s the hardest way to direct.”

Director Stephen Burke

When asked about Stephen’s novice approach to feature film helming, Tom is quick to praise him: “A really good director should be able to both let you be good at what you can do because they cast you for a reason but at the same time be able to say ‘That doesn’t work’. And Stephen can do that, and that’s all I need. I like it when director’s say ‘No no, try and do this with it’ which is how Stephen approached this. With TV, there sometimes isn’t time so directors can’t really say ‘Come on lets do another one like this’ because you just don’t have the time. So for me the total luxury of a feature film then is when you have a twelve week shoot and you have a director who can do that. And that’s what we had!”

Co-star Jade Yourell also found the experience equally encouraging: “I kept forgetting that it was Stephen’s first time directing a film. I wasn’t really made aware of it because he was so confident. Every director I have ever worked with I have been blessed with. They know what they want and you deliver. That said, this is the first time a director said “What do you think?” and my percentage of input was far greater than on any other project. I felt completely supported and he just let me have that freedom and reined me in whenever he needed to and that helps your confidence no end. I really learned and grew. Everybody has their job, the make up artists and wardrobe and you let everyone do their job - but the film itself was number one priority. Stephen did what he had to do and he did a fantastic job.”

What is paramount in this genre of film is the creation of credible tension and chemistry between the leads, namely Tom, Jade and their marital partners. But aside from the image of a modern day Jack Lemmon and Barbara Stresiand in their twenties Stephen approached the casting of the film with a very open mind. “I had a few of the Irish actors in mind, like the Ger Ryan part which I wrote for her. We did a lot of casting for the Sally and Tom parts. Sally hadn’t had the enormous success at the time that she has had since with ‘Happy Go Lucky’, because it was editing at the time, but I had seen her work before and I kept her in mind as I thought she was brilliant. I said that if we ever had a suitable part I’d like to bring her in and so she came in for this and was terrific. And then she read with a few Irish actors that we brought over to London and a few London actors and Sally and Tom were friends from years back and you could tell the minute he walked into the room that they were at ease together. There was a great kind of comic chemistry between them and, in the end, it was a simple choice.”

And thus began the search for their characters’ respective better halves. “We did a lot of casting for the Wilson character,” says Burke. ”Ariyon did a great audition and we had actually cast someone else for the role of Sophie who then dropped out. Jade had come in to read for a much smaller part and the minute she came into the room I thought, ‘Maybe Jade could be Sophie?’. So we gave her the script and she went away for an hour and came back in and we gave her the part of Sophie and she did a great job.”

So far so straightforward, but what was the experience like on the other side of the casting couch, that of our actors? As Tom explains, being told to channel Jack Lemmon in his twenties is slightly daunting: “Terrifying! I mean I love Jack Lemmon, ‘The Apartment’ is one of my all time favourite films ever but you watch the video and say ‘I can’t be as good as you, you’re so good, I can’t do that’.“ And Tom’s problems don’t stop there, as he admits “I’m crap at auditions, they’re my Achilles heel. I’m really bad except when I’m with another actor. It’s a terrible trait to have because once I get through the door people want to work with me again but it’s just that first time they say ”No”. It’s usually because when you sit opposite a casting director and there is just the camera there, they are reading with you and they are constantly checking whether the camera’s on you and forgetting their lines and they have a very tough job - they see a hundred people, it’s understandable. So when you go in and it’s someone like Sally and she is just acting with you then you can do it. Also, I knew that Sally would be fine so I was a lot less nervous that I normally would be which is probably why I got it.”

And so Stephen found himself with two British actors playing Irish characters. The Irish brogue, notoriously hard to master, has proved to be the downfall of many an accomplished actor, so how did Tom go about establishing an authentic lilt? A process of trial and error he tells us: “It was tough but people necessarily don’t realise the time limitations on a film like this and you have to film so many scenes in a day - there simply wasn’t time to learn the accent but there was no dialect coach on set. We just couldn’t have one because there wouldn’t have been time for him to come in between takes and say ‘Ok change this and you are doing this sentence wrong’. So it was a case where we met Brenadan (Gunn) in London before we left for a couple of hours who was brilliant and he gave us a thick Dublin accent to go on.” The supporting Irish cast were also on hand to lend their linguistic expertise, as Tom explains “When I came on set the first day everyone was saying ‘Ok, that is too Dublin, nobody is going to understand you outside of Ireland’ and then there was ‘Can you sound more English?’. Now an English person doing an Irish accent trying to sound more English… well, I don’t know how successful I was. And especially because we were on a set where there are people from Galway, Cork and Northern Ireland and everyone is giving you their opinion. So I just decided to keep everything as neutral as possible and hopefully it’s ok, we’ll see how people respond.”

Sally Hawkins & Jade Yourell in Happy Ever Afters

This topic of character traits, such as accents, calls to mind the fact that the lead cast members spent almost a month on set, and longer still, researching their characters beforehand. So did Tom like his character, Freddie? “I tried to create as many likeable charming traits in him as possible.” He says, most diplomatically “You have to. You must find something to like in everybody you are playing otherwise it won’t work. I’m not a big believer in the good and evil that sometimes makes up TV and film roles. You have got to find bits in characters that you like and understand because that’s real life.” Jade has a slightly different approach: “Every character is a therapy for me and in comedy especially because I have done a lot of Wildean comedy but this was more true to life. It was more modern obviously so any old boyfriend issues I had I could bring them out through Sophie!”