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Nora-Jane Noone (left) and Nika McGuigan Aidan Monaghan
Wildfire

'She was intensely, vibrantly alive': Nika McGuigan's final film tells story of sisters marked by trauma

Nika McGuigan and Nora-Jane Noone star in the debut feature from Cathy Brady.

IN EARLY 2020, director Cathy Brady was walking the Camino with a friend when the first Covid-19 cases were reported. She had recently finished her debut feature film, Wildfire, about two sisters in Northern Ireland who share both a fierce bond and the legacy of trauma.

The previous year, she had lost her close friend, one of the people she had written the film for: actress Danika (Nika) McGuigan. McGuigan, daughter of boxer Barry McGuigan, was just 33 when she died. A longtime actress, she’d starred in Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope, and had worked for five years alongside Brady and her co-star Nora-Jane Noone (also a longtime actor, who first came to people’s attention in the 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters) on Wildfire.

It was an almost incomprehensible loss for those who knew Danika. And as Brady was preparing to release this film, a labour of love and creativity, Covid shut everything down.

Now, she’s finally getting to bring Wildfire to the world. It’s a difficult thing for Brady (who’s also a TV director, having worked on Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope and Glue) and the rest of the Wildfire team that one of its stars won’t see herself celebrated for her work as the firecracker character Kelly. She’s already won a posthumous IFTA award for the role, while Brady won a director’s award. 

“I thought the film was going to go into the deep freeze,” Brady told The Journal about those early pandemic days. She presumed film festivals would find it hard to hold events – but Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) picked up Wildfire. It debuted at TIFF on 23 July 2020: Nika’s anniversary.

Loss and celebration

Wildfire is a film about strong emotions – about loss, and trauma, and their impact on a person’s psyche. Brady, who is from Newry, brings us two sisters who are fiercely connected, but who differ in how trauma affects them. Kelly, McGuigan’s character, is wild, full of energy, prone to acting out or doing things impulsively. Her sister, Lauren (Noone), is calmer, and wants to live a quiet and stable life.

The multitude of often conflicting emotions explored in the film is reflected too in what Brady felt making it. “This film probably has taught me about the polarity of emotions you can feel,” said Brady. “So at one time, it was a sense of sheer celebration, ‘we did it’ and then the other time, I was balancing this loss [of Nika]. I’ve had to really hold both and hold the space for both things.”

When they did a virtual screening and Q&A in Cork, for example, the loss “hit me very bad”, she said. “It was just so emotional, because I knew that, again, virtually her friends and family would be tuning in seeing the film for the first time and we didn’t have that darkened space together to hold each other, to look at each other afterwards.”

But at the same time, she’s glad to bring the Wildfire sisters to the public. “Our intention was: we want to tell a story with fierce women at the heart of it.” They wanted to make a film that would “bear witness to something that felt authentic and truthful”. They wanted to share a story inspired by people who had lived through serious mental health difficulties and come out the other side. 

Can we tell a story where we’ve got these fierce yet vulnerable women at the heart of it, and they’re gonna go on this really intense journey? But it’s really about what you would do for the person you love the most.

“We hope we’ve done it – but we don’t know now until it really goes out.”

The next test, and the “next big final let go” is getting it out there to audiences. After a long wait, Wildfire finally hits cinemas this weekend. It has already had a screening Clones, where Nika’s father Barry said that her family’s “hearts are broken” that she did not live to see the premiere take place – but that the film is “a fitting tribute to her legacy and exceptional talent”.

aidan-monaghanwildfire Aidan Monaghan Aidan Monaghan

Difficult and intense

Nika McGuigan’s loss was “the most intense, difficult thing I’ve ever gone through in my life”, said Brady. The time from her diagnosis to death was just five weeks. The film was not yet finished, and the idea of going back into post-production without her “was really hard – and yet as a team, we all wanted to finish… because that would have been the biggest tragedy, to not have finished the film after everything we’ve done.”

“Now the film is in a place where we are ready to let go and there is this thing that will always stay permanent.”

During this tough time, Brady got into cold water swimming. She says it ‘saved her’ and helped give her the strength to work on the film’s post production. “We would run down to the 40 Foot, jump in, run back to the house, have breakfast and then be in the edit for 10 o’clock. And you would just feel alive again for a few hours.”

McGuigan’s family are from Clones, so she spent quite a lot of time there during her youth, while Brady is from Newry (“I’ve had two passports, two purses, two phones all my life”). She’s “part of the Good Friday generation who have the privilege of being dual nationality”, but the film started not with politics but with the sisters’ story: “What tragedy would bond them so they would have a shared psychosis of a sort?” 

Yet that ended up leading them back to the border. “It didn’t take long to see intergenerational trauma at home: some of the highest suicide rates in the world, some of the highest usage of antidepressants in the world, and you’re talking about a generation that hasn’t firsthand experience of the Troubles,” said Brady. “That really stuck with me, and I said there’s something going wrong here. There’s something unspoken that we don’t know how to communicate.” 

While working with Noone and McGuigan on researching the film, the women spent a period of time talking to psychiatrists and psychologists, and exploring the idea of psychosis and trauma. “It was really this interesting collaboration of fact and fiction, and our own stories and other people’s stories,” said Brady.

They started making the film “before Brexit was even a word”. “At the very early stages I was going ‘is the border even relevant?’” said Brady. “I had no idea what was coming.”

Wildfire Still - girls dancing

“There’s something in stepping inside these characters and walking in their shoes. It’s just made me kind of go, we can’t take things for granted. You know what I mean? And we have to tread really, really carefully with what’s going to happen over the next while with the border. Because I think a lot of wounds are still yet to fully heal. I don’t have any of the right things to say here, but I feel like we need to keep talking.”

She hopes that in bringing the story of the film to her home, “I’ve shared in what I feel is important”, like breaking down the culture of secrecy that still exists in some parts of Northern Ireland. But for all of this, Brady said that she didn’t go out of her way consciously to set her film in the north – it came from the characters first. 

“It’s about sisters and family, and the power of connection and grief and loss and love. But you can’t separate them from their environment either.” She also doesn’t want Wildfire to be seen as a “purely female-focused agenda film either”.

“The film is broader than that, equally it’s not a domestic drama. It’s got explosive set pieces.”

There’s “something quite primal” about some scenes in the film – like one where the sisters dance together intensely in a half-empty bar. Though a huge amount of preparation went into Wildfire, it still has a “spontaneous, unpredictable” energy to it, said Brady. “I hope it leaves the space for other creatives to come in and try something different,” she said. 

How would she describe Nika McGuigan? “She was intensely, vibrantly alive. She was the kind of person [who] you’d have a conversation with her and I swear to God, I always felt like she kept me so present. I was always in the moment when I was speaking to her. And I think that’s a quality few have. And as an actor, she had it in bucketloads.

So I think when you watch her performance, it’s so vibrantly alive and unpredictable. It’s quite complex. I think she was someone who was incredibly fiercely loyal, and competitive, and funny.

Wildfire is showing in cinemas now.

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