Omagh writer/director Aoife McArdle on feature debut Kissing Candice
Omagh-born Aoife McArdle brings her acclaimed feature debut Kissing Candice to the Belfast Film Festival next week. The Belfast-based writer/director spoke to David Roy about making an ‘Irish youth film' and why she loves actors
AOIFE McArdle's Kissing Candice is one of the most visually arresting entries showing at this year's Belfast Film Festival – an impressive achievement considering that this bold, genre-bending psychological teen drama is the Omagh-born writer/director's first feature.
However, it's far from McArdle's 'first rodeo': over the past decade, the Trinity College Dublin and Bournemouth University-educated film-maker has cut her teeth on a series of pop promos for artists including Anna Calvi, Bryan Ferry and U2 – she shot the impressive Troubles-inspired extended video for the latter's Every Breaking Wave in Belfast back in 2014 – and glossy ad spots for the likes of Audi, Honda, Under Armor and Absolut.
The sultry, dreamlike imagery, dynamic camera work and high production values evident in these short works also combine to make Kissing Candice such a striking, absorbing and frequently unsettling watch.
However, despite extensive storyboarding and rehearsal, a tiny budget and punishingly tight shooting schedule meant that many of the film's striking visuals had to be manipulated/created through the magic of post-production, as McArdle reveals.
"Really, I didn't have the budget to do the vision in my head justice 'in-camera'," the director explains. "We did a lot of artistic embellishment in post – colour grading, invisible sky replacements, fog and smoke and then the sound design – to bring it to that next level and to try and make the dream sections 'sing' more.
"I did lots of late nights and pulled lots of favours in London with people like Grant White who I've worked with in the past on commercials in order to elevate the whole thing – just replacing everything that I didn't like, really, and trying to make it as immersive as possible.
"There is actually much more post in the film than people think, which I think is testament to how good it is."
Such inperceptible trickery surely adds to the uncanny feel of certain sections in this dark, stylish tale of teenage rebellion/survival which combines coming-of-age drama with elements of crime, thriller, fairytale fantasy and horror.
Candice (Ann Skelly) is a 17-year-old misfit desperate to escape her unsatisfying existence in a gloomy Irish border town. She pins her hopes on 'dream boy' Jacob (Ryan Lincoln), a member of a notorious local gang with enticing hints of soulfulness beneath his tough exterior.
Her father, Donal (John Lynch), is a veteran garda who knows the gang's violent reputation all too well. Obsessed with the recent disappearance of a local youth, he's determined to keep his wayward teen on a short lead – but Candice has other ideas, most of them involving getting Jacob undressed.
Shot in urban and rural locations across Dublin, Louth and Wicklow, the film also features a cast of up-and-coming young actors alongside more familiar faces like Ryan McParland (6 Degrees, The Survivalist), John Lynch (The Fall, Sliding Doors) and Lalor Roddy (Game of Thrones, Hunger).
"I really enjoy working with actors," enthuses McArdle, who also cast non-actors in some supporting roles. "The key is really not to be afraid of them. On this project rehearsal was crucial because I knew we had such limited time on set – I only had one or two takes on every scene, which was kind of insane, so I had to work through everything with the actors beforehand.
"I spent a lot of time with Ann and Ryan just working through the performance, really trying to get what I wanted out of them.
"As the writer, I had quite specific ideas. That preparation was very important so I could discuss their performances in a very quiet, respectful way rather than on set in front of everyone.
"All that communication was so important in bringing out the best in them and building up trust."
She adds: "It was really important to me to try and get as many young talented people into the film as possible and build a little world around them. We ended up becoming very close during the filming, like a little family.
"The mix of backgrounds was a lovely part of it too: I had actors from theatre, from film and from the street – I believe street actors have a lot to teach others because they are so natural and intuitive.
"In a way I was trying to get everyone to be like that, always."
The Co Tyrone film-maker is full of praise for Dublin-born actor Ann Skelly, who made an instant impression during the lengthy casting process for Candice.
"Ann was someone who stayed in my mind," says McArdle. "I wanted to meet as many people as possible, but I was always thinking about her. She was 19 and had a really youthful vibe about her which was really great for the film.
"I think she really nailed that – the character is quite childish in some ways and I think she was able to draw on her own teenage years for inspiration. I think we were all doing that, really."
Indeed, the isolation and boredom of small town life for Candice's permanently dissatisfied teen is what drives the film, set in a stylised version of post-Troubles Ireland.
"Things were a lot safer here during the Troubles," Donal complains in the film of the young criminal element who thrive on drink, drugs, vandalism and intimidatory behaviour.
"I was very keen on making an Irish youth film – it might be about Irish youth in crisis, I guess," explains McArdle of Kissing Candice, which premiered last September at the Toronto International Film Festival.
"The characters are quite irreverent in how they see adults, in how they see history and the Troubles. You kind of see all of that in there.
"Being 17 is like this mad, feverish time when everything is pretty crazy – you're looking for danger, looking for trouble. That's sort of what the whole thing is about, really."
Indeed, while shooting on Kissing Candice began in 2015 with the backing of the Irish Film Board's Catalyst Project, the roots of some of the film go right back to McArdle's real teenage years in Omagh during the 1990s.
"I did write a lot of bits of Kissing Candice when I was really young and then sort of re-found them," reveals the writer/director, who is currently developing a couple of new features.
"The next film I make is definitely not going to be a 'youth film' – it will be more about things I'm interested in now."
:: Kissing Candice, Monday April 16, QFT Belfast, 6.30pm. Aoife McArdle will take part in a Q&A following the screening. Book now at Belfastfilmfestival.org