'bittersweet' | 

Wildfire director 'heartbroken' that star Nika McGuigan is not alive to see movie's launch

"She's got this incredible ­performance and as a director when you get to see someone reveal themselves and put every ounce of themselves into it you go, 'That's it, that's it'.
Wildfire stars Nika McGuigan (L)

Wildfire stars Nika McGuigan (L)

Jim Gallagher

The director of Irish film Wildfire says she is heartbroken that its star Nika McGuigan is not alive to see the launch of the movie next month.

Nika, daughter of former boxing champion Barry, died from cancer soon after the film, about two troubled ­sisters in the border area, was completed.

Director Cathy Brady has ­dedicated the intense drama to the actress who was just 33 when she passed away in July 2019.

"Oh my God her talent! That's what's so heartbreaking and so bittersweet," said Cathy.

Director Cathy Brady

Director Cathy Brady

"She's got this incredible ­performance and as a director when you get to see someone reveal themselves and put every ounce of themselves into it you go, 'That's it, that's it'.

"I'm so grateful we had that.

"Studio executives in America saw the film and were going, 'Who is this girl?' Then they realised she is no longer with us and it's very hard to wrap your head around."

Cathy, who also directed Nika in the RTÉ comedy drama Can't Cope, Won't Cope, said the actress had shown no signs of illness ­during the shoot.

"During the edit when she wasn't well she went to the doctor and between that and her death was just five weeks," said Cathy.

Nika McGuigan in Wildfire

Nika McGuigan in Wildfire

"I obviously had to take some time away from the film because it was just so painful editing and seeing her on screen. In many ways it was like a very long goodbye.

"But because the film meant so much to all of us - and I know how much it meant to Nika - I had to finish it. I had to do it for us all. It took every ounce of energy to do but I had an amazing team that ­literally helped me get to that finish line.

"I don't really know if I even had the energy to be devastated, I was just so exhausted.

"In many ways Covid gave me the time and space just to grieve because I really hadn't had the opportunity during the post-production."

In the film Nika plays Kelly, a woman who returns from the UK to her home in Ireland after being missing for a year.

Her sister Lauren, played by The Magdalene Sisters star Nora-Jane Noone, is both ecstatic and furious with her. It soon emerges that they are psychologically scarred by the death of their mother in mysterious circumstances.

Amazingly, director Cathy revealed she recruited both actresses before she even had a script or even the idea for the movie.

She had worked with both separately on TV or short films and was impressed with their ability to play vulnerable but courageous characters.

"I thought that was really exciting and wondered what would happen if I put them in a room together," says Cathy.

"That's literally what happened. It took a few weeks to organise and we met in Bewley's over a pot of tea and carried on to a pint of ­Guinness and by the time we finished that Guinness we just knew there was something electric between the three of us.

"We agreed we were going to make a film together so we spent a few weeks back and forth talking about what kind of film, and we knew we wanted to tell a story with fierce women at the front of it."

Cathy told the actors about a documentary, Madness in the Fast Lane, about two sisters walking along the M6 in the UK who hurled themselves into traffic and lived.

"Was it a psychosis, a pop-up madness? That was the first time the three of us had heard about shared psychosis and that really was the springboard," she said.

That was six years ago and ­together the team built up the nuts and bolts of the story before Cathy went off and wrote several drafts of the script.

She was blown away by both performances and was glad she was not on the judging panel for the IFTAs when the two stars were nominated for Best Actress in July. Nika, who battled leukaemia as a child, won it posthumously.

"I was delighted she won but equally I was delighted Nora-Jane was nominated. I can't separate the performances but I am so glad that Nika got her moment in the sun."

The writer-director said she will never forget the first time she saw Nika, on a Belfast stage at a reading for two plays.

"They needed an actress who could do both plays with completely different actions and completely different characters.

"Nika was amazing. I thought, 'Who is she? She's incredible.' And we sparked a friendship from there and we ended up doing Can't Cope, Won't Cope. Myself and Nika were ­incredibly close especially when you make a film in that way. You write it for a person and the three of us became very close.

"She was such a great talent. I felt we had a lifetime of making films together. I thought myself and Nika would just continue growing together and perfecting our craft together."

The actress was also great fun on set - and very caring.

"Nika was a livewire. She had the best laugh and such stamina, such a work ethic. You could have a lot of fun and get a lot of work done.

"She was really cheeky and a real messer. She would always be jumping out trying to scare people or putting on accents, she was amazing at accents.

"She was a real presence on the set and always looked out for people," said Cathy.

"I remember once she came up to me and said, 'Your feet are cold.' She was someone who was very sensitive to how people were feeling and she was very caring and considerate and she went to the costume department and got me these insole heaters for my feet.

"They are meant for costume but she got me a pair and I thought, 'God that was the sweetest thing.' "

Wildfire is released here on September 3.

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