Photograph by Roberta Matis
Joan and Tom have been married for many years. There is an ease to their relationship which only comes from spending a lifetime together. When Joan is diagnosed with breast cancer, the course of her treatment creates a divide within their relationship as they are faced with two very separate challenges: dealing with the extreme physical suffering of treatment and chemotherapy or contemplating the possibility of living alone.
Ordinary Love is the complex, humour-filled story about love, survival and the epic questions life throws at each and every one of us. Gemma Creagh talks to producer Brian J. Falconer (The Dig) about the film.
Thanks so much for chatting with us. Let’s start at the beginning… how did you become involved in this project?
For each project, it’s always different for a producer. Either you conceive it from scratch or somebody headhunts you for it. For Ordinary Love, it was through my producing partner, David Holmes, who is very good friends with Owen McCafferty. Owen and his wife, Peggy, actually lived through a version of this, which is what inspired the screenplay. David told Owen that he thought he should try this as a screenplay because Owen had been wanting to write something for screen for a while. It was at that point that I was brought into the mix with the job of bringing it from a treatment through development and then into production.
Ordinary Love has been very well-received critically both here and in the UK and is set for a release next year in the States; do you think this is the type of story to travel?
I think the beauty of the film is that it’s a universal story. It’s the type of love story you don’t usually see, about an older couple who’ve lived together for years and then one of them experiences this diagnosis which flips their lives upside down. When we start, their lives have already been flipped upside down by another event. So they are really just getting back to normal. I think the film is going to travel really well because this is the way people deal with illness, also the reality of long-term relationships is very similar to Tom and Joan in our movie.
Cinema is usually so heightened and melodramatic; however, in Ordinary Love, Tom and Joan’s relationship is depicted as natural and understated, making it ‘true’ in a sense, and relatable.
That’s the thing. What you’re going to see with Ordinary Love is closer to real life. We’re a fly on the wall of this relationship and everybody across the world will be able to recognise a bit of ourselves in that as well as the dynamic we have with a partner. But the thing is, real life is as high-stakes as you can get. It’s life and death. In our film, when Joan gets the cancer diagnosis, she, like so many other people – my mum included, goes through the exact same journey with cancer and its treatment. The amount of people our team have been talking to after seeing this film, people who just come up to us at preview screenings and say: “I went through that exact same thing”, nobody else understands how brave they are. You can take it for granted that illness is going to strike us down – cancer is going to get one in three of us. Every one of us will know somebody who has gone through this and sometimes you just palm it off as “that’s just life”. But when you see Ordinary Love, Joan is potentially going to lose her life. Tom might lose the love of his life. Even though he’s just drinking soup or sitting in the car in traffic, the stakes are so high. I just don’t think there’s been a film like Ordinary Love before.
Can we talk a little about the process of getting the film made? When did the directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn become attached?
Lisa and Glenn were actually lined up from the start. David Holmes is good friends with Owen McCafferty, the writer. He’s also good friends with Lisa and Glenn. In his head from the very start he was thinking about building this package. Then they brought me on to produce and bring it through the development process. We all knew McCafferty because he’s so well respected as a playwright. As soon as Glenn and Lisa met with Owen, when he had the first treatment, that was the point where everybody got really excited about it.
And Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville… there’s such amazing chemistry between the pair. They’re so believable and their performances are very celebratory of life. Can you tell me about the casting?
Liam was attached when Owen produced his first draft revision, extremely early. His first draft was just so accomplished – yet he’d never written a screenplay before. Liam climbed on board at that point and then… bang! Everything went nuts! Straightaway, I’m going out to look at finances and talk to sales agents. I brought on another producer called Piers Tempest to help me close the financing of the project. I really didn’t have much experience with that at that point. That’s when we started to build our package. We had to work out what budget we should aim for, who are our partners and then the big question, who’s going to play Joan? It’s effectively Joan’s story.
Way before even Liam joined, I remember having a conversation with the Lisa and Glenn talking about who would be the dream cast and that was Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson. It was very serendipitous and the planets aligned so many times for us but fast forward to the point where we were casting: Liam had a certain availability so we were tied to certain dates. Then we started looking into Leslie’s availability… and she wasn’t available. We thought ‘Oh God, I don’t think this is going to work’. At the same time Lisa and Glenn had talked to Liam about what his thoughts were about who should play Joan? Lesley Manville was his first choice too. He wanted to work with her so much that he moved to accommodate her availability.
You made an interesting point about the financial prep – where did the money come from?
I suppose to clarify, being in the North, Northern Ireland Screen have supported us from the very start of our careers, through all our short films and various projects. They, along with the BFI, had actually developed Ordinary Love. I went for BFI and Northern Ireland Screen Development funding because I really felt they would be amazing partners to help us get the production funded. But we were always going to need more money. Especially then when we secured the incredible talent that we did. We just needed to make sure that we could afford the right budget to provide everybody with what they need. That’s where Piers Tempest is absolutely fantastic. At the same time then we wanted to look at sales agents. We had a lot of interest. As soon as someone sees Liam Neeson in a film, they think: ‘We can sell this’. There was one sales agent in particular, Bankside Films, that’s run by Stephen Kelleher, that went above and beyond everyone else at every stage in just showing his love for the film and his commitment to it.
Without going into the details, it’s at that point when you’re choosing your partners for your film, you’re getting phoned every minute of every day by everybody trying to undercut the other person and trying to show that they are the one for the film. But we knew we wanted to work with Stephen Kelleher – he’s so well respected. Through Bankside and then Head Gear Films we were able to complete our finance. Head Gear Films is run by two guys, Phil Hunt and Compton Ross, two complete gentleman who are the most incredible financiers and helped make our film happen along with Bankside, the BFI and Northern Ireland Screen.
From my perspective, this was the first time I had to manage closing the finances. It’s a fascinating process. I learned a lot.
‘Ordinary Love’ is currently in cinemas.