‘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!”
Speaking of ‘real life’ the film’s production was forced to shut down for several months as a result of Sally Hawkins breaking her collarbone during the filming of (quite ironically) a scene that does not involve any real fighting. Thankfully, as Stephen explains, Sally was well established in the plot before the accident: “Sally badly broke her collar bone two weeks into shooting. It was supposed to be a small thing and it was just unlucky what happened and initially she just thought she had pulled a muscle but the doctor confirmed that it was a break so it was several months before she was back. In the meantime, we shot everything we could but in these situations the insurance company decides what is going to happen and, in a lucky kind of way, we had shot two weeks with Sally – if we had shot two days with her and she had broken her collar bone the insurance company would have wanted us to re-cast her part because it would have been much cheaper - but Sally was really good at the part and really wanted to finish it. So we shot everything we could without her and then we stopped. And then we had to wait while she went off and did the publicity tour in the States for ‘Happy Go Lucky’ and she won every award under the sun. Johnny Depp gave her a golden globe and then she came back to us.” And then of course there were other, quintessentially Irish problems to contest with: “Everything that we had shot during the four weeks during the summer was in blazing sunshine and when we came to shoot the last seven days there was snow everywhere and the whole film takes place in one day so you can’t have sunshine/snow, sunshine/snow. Then it miraculously thawed out two days before the shoot but every time we went outdoors it would cloud over. The two girls were absolutely frozen in their wedding dresses but you don’t notice it on camera.”
As for the effect this change to the schedule had on the cast members, as Jade emphatically puts it “This movie was meant to be. It really was meant to be made because the chances of not everyone being available the second time, when Sally came back, was huge and yet we got everyone back – it was meant to be made.” And, as Tom (not quite so poetically) puts it in his explanation of Sally’s accident: “That was a funny moment - when I say ‘a funny moment’ it wasn’t, it was horrible, but bless her she was such a pro in that we were doing it and it was the most iniquitous of stunts that happened. She went to the ground, there was a crack and it was just an unfortunate moment for everyone. I got off lightly in comparison failing down a bit, getting a punch in the face, passing out . . . that’s all fine.”
The film, albeit mostly a mix of slapstick and goofiness, does occasionally allude to darker matters such as suicide, deportation, psychiatric care and eviction. Stephen introduces us to apathetic Garda members and a pair of thicker-than-mud immigration officers but, when asked if he had any backlash fears, he states quite simply “It was so over the top that I don’t think anybody will be offended,” but how did our stars keep a realistic balance despite this juxtaposition of genres? First of all we have the character of Sophie complete with overbearing mother and a father who wholly embodies the extremes of over-protective paternity. Jade sought to keep her character real: “I just think she doesn’t have a clue. She is extremely intelligent but is feigning a sort of dumbness to reality and life and what is really going on out there in the world. She has been so sheltered and under the thumb but there is this thing inside that is telling her there is something not right. I don’t know what it is but it amalgamates into frustration and then there is the straw that breaks the camels back and something just goes ‘Pop!’ and all that rage and frustration just flows, it pours and pours out of her and she goes (in a wedding dress) on the rampage in O’Connell Street which is the best way really.”
As to Freddie’s shifting psychological states throughout the feature, one wonders how Tom balanced this clash of slapstick and human fragility without confusing his audience. “Well we weren’t making a heavy duty drama,” he tells us. “And it’s not a case of the audience watching a movie that is being marketed as a happy every after wedding comedy suddenly being confronted by jarring psychological issues. In the film I am trying to get the balance right and hopefully making Freddie’s issues appear funny but also with some depth. Ok there are problems there but not so awful that people will say ‘Oh the poor guy we better stop the film and put him in an ambulance’ just hints of weakness rather than anything that is too much.”
Moving on, director Stephen Burke displays mixed emotions when it comes to describing his favourite scene to shoot. “I have a few different favourites but one of the best scenes for me is probably the last scene on the beach. It was a nightmare to shoot though, there was about twenty of us walking backwards on the sand with the characters walking towards us and we could hardly hear what was going on! I always like to be close to the actors and also the monitors so I can see how it looks on TV but the sun was beating down and I couldn’t see a thing. We shot it on steady cam so the camera wasn’t locked up and so I didn’t know what the camera was getting.”
Other locations used for filming were slightly easier to manipulate. The vast majority of the film is set in one venue, the wedding reception, and the budget of €1.8 million called for a cost effective set. Enter the Bray Head Hotel. The hotel has housed countless Irish movies from ‘The Commitments’ to ‘Michael Collins’ – the bar of which makes a cameo appearance in ‘Happy Ever Afters’. The hotel's manager gave the crew free run of the building for the five week shoot, with rooms set aside for wardrobe, make-up, and hair departments, as well as rooms for location shooting. Other Irish films may have shot here in the past, but few productions have used the hotel quite as extensively. "It's been great, God help us all when it's not available for films in the future. Long may it continue. I think the guests find it quite interesting to watch a film shoot while they're having their breakfast."
ally Hawkin’s absence allowed for the crew to roughly edit a lot of the film as they waited for her to return which Stephen found very helpful: “Obviously there were a lot of Sally scenes missing but we were able to get an idea of whether there were any problems with the script or if there was anything we needed to fix. In the end there was an interrogation scene that wasn’t working so we shot some more with the detective and Maura’s little girl (played by Sinead Maguire). That was another factor with the gap because Sinead was 11 when we started shooting and kids can change completely within six months so we kept in touch with her agent who was all the time telling us “She looks fine, she looks the same” but coming up to Christmas this changed to “You better shoot some more scenes with her”. When she came back after six months she was much taller and much broader but hopefully nobody notices!”
Tom was glad to return to Ireland after the gap, due in no small part to the easy-going nature of his Irish co-stars and crew he says: “It is just relaxed and very chilled. In America and England there are a lot more people sitting behind the camera panicking about their mortgage – there’s a panicky feeling of ‘We have got to get it done, if we don’t get it done I will lose my house!’ Whereas in Ireland you have the actors going ‘It will be fine, it will be grand’. It’s brilliant!”
On the subject of weddings one has to wonder what stance Stephen wants his film to take when it comes to marriage. “I don’t think it is an anti-marriage film.” He reflects. “I think marriage is a big step and that maybe people do it too lightly sometimes. They think ‘We’ve been going out for a while and this is the next thing we are supposed to do’ and maybe they don’t need to do it and should wait a bit longer before they do. I didn’t want it to be an anti-marriage film so I wrote the story line of Dessie (Simon Delaney) and Niamh (Deirdre Molloy) to show that some people belong together.”
Finally it is incumbent upon me to ask if Stephen will ever go back to directing short films or TV – the answer to which is immediate and heartfelt: “God no, it’s definitely only features now. I did a lot of TV and I would be reluctant to go back. I like movies and that is where I want to go now.”
‘Happy Ever Afters’ is produced by Newgrange Pictures’ Lesley McKimm (Relative Strangers). The project’s director of photography is Jonathan Kovel (Keep the River on your Right), production design was done by John Hand (Song for a Raggy Boy) and the film’s costume designer is Aisling Wallace Byrne (Tristan and Isolde).
‘Happy Ever Afters’ is released in Irish cinemas on Saturday, December 26th.