"LYRA and I had lots of projects that we were going to make together," explains director Alison Millar of her close and creative relationship with the late Lyra McKee.
"We had a Dropbox full of little ideas. It's odd to think of all the amazing things we were going to do together – but I end up making this film because she's dead."
The film in question is Lyra, Millar's eulogistic documentary about the life, death and work of her late friend, the Belfast-born investigative journalist who was killed by a New IRA gunman on April 18 2019.
Lyra was 29 years old when she was struck in the head by a bullet fired at police attending a riot in the Creggan estate in Derry, the city where she lived with her partner Sara. Lyra had been taking photos of the stand-off between republicans and the PSNI, reporting events as they unfolded via Twitter just minutes before she was killed.
Millar, a Bafta-winning documentarian, first met Lyra when she was 16, by which stage the highly driven Belfast teen was already making serious inroads towards her dream career as an investigative reporter.
"I first met Lyra in about 2008," explains Cullybackey-born Millar, who trained at the National Film and Television School and made acclaimed documentaries for the BBC, Channel 4 and others before establishing her own outfit, Erica Starling Productions, in Belfast in 2010.
"I'd just moved back here from London and I was making a film about the Rape Crisis Centre in Belfast. We went up to film and there was a girl there writing about how the Centre was under threat of closure.
"She looked about 12, so I said to her, 'Oh, are you on a school placement?' in what was probably a quite patronising sounding voice. And she went, 'No, I'm Sky Young Journalist of the Year, Lyra McKee'.
"I just thought 'wow'. So that put me back in my box, and we became friends from that moment on because I realised that she was going somewhere."
As Millar's powerful film reveals, Lyra McKee was cut down just as her career was about to really take off. Already an award-winner for her work investigating Northern Ireland's rocketing teen suicide rates in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement, she had recently been included in Forbes magazine's influential 30 Under 30 list of up-and-coming young talents, while her investigation into the disappearance of several youngsters in the early days of the Troubles was due for publication as The Lost Boys, the first instalment of a high-profile two-book deal with Faber & Faber.
"I was always, you know, pulling my hair out and panicking about things and going, 'Oh is this good enough?'," explains Millar of how she used to turn to Lyra for advice on her own documentary projects.
"She was always like, 'What do you mean?'. Every time I'd finish a film, she'd come and I'd give her a private screening. And if I needed someone to do any press for me, she was the one I'd ring because I knew I could trust her and because people loved her.
"Lyra became friendly with myself and [investigative journalist] Darragh MacIntyre, because I was working quite a lot with him at the time. We both adored her, we loved her company, we loved her. She was so dogged and she was really always digging in and looking for things to write about.
"She'd have notebooks upon notebooks of stories that she was working on at one go. She had so many I don't know how she managed, but she was just always bursting with ideas and story leads.
"She was just born to be a journalist and to be a writer – she was so naturally inquisitive and had a beautiful turn of phrase with the way she wrote. It was really, really special.
"You don't get a two book deal with Faber & Faber by accident, it's an incredible achievement. I really think that, before she was killed, she was about to break through."
The documentary is made all the more powerful for the fact that much of it is narrated by Lyra herself, her voice rescued from hours of old voice notes and interview recordings discovered on her laptop and laid over footage taken from news archives, mobile phone recordings and home videos, the latter supplied by the McKee family themselves, who were determined that Millar, already a trusted friend, be the one to tell Lyra's story to the wider world.
"Lyra and I were friends right up until the night she was killed," explains the film-maker.
"She was actually supposed to be having dinner with me at my house the next night – and then I got the message that she'd been shot up in Derry. That was kind of the beginning of the horror that we're in now.
"Because she was all over the news, people from all over the world were approaching her family and her partner, Sara, about making a film. When the family asked me to do it, I was like, 'I just don't know, I don't know where to start. I don't know how to do this'.
"But they just said, 'Well, you know, Lyra would have wanted you to do it'. And then I was thinking, 'God, if the boot was on the other foot, who would I want to write about me? It'd be Lyra McKee'.
"My family also supported me with it, you know, because they grew up with Lyra as well, especially my eldest son who was around a lot with me working, and my husband – we all really adored her."
As the film reminds us, Lyra's death caused outrage throughout Ireland and beyond. She immediately became political currency, with the north's politicians queuing up to mourn side by side at her funeral in order to 'send a message' to dissident republicans who killed her, even as the Stormont Assembly lay in mothballs following a walk-out.
However, Millar's film also offers a vivid glimpse of the real person behind those grim headlines. For her loved ones, it offers a powerful reminder of who Lyra was and what she stood for.
"The one thing her family and her partner Sara kept saying to me about watching the film was that it was lovely to spend time with her again," says the director.
"Her sister Nichola said to me, 'I got her back for a wee while. I got to hang out with her and spend time with her and hear her voice'. They found a lot of it really comforting.
"Lyra is such a great character, so I really want people to spend time with her. We've shown the film at various festivals: we showed it in Italy and won Best Documentary, which was lovely, but the main thing was how she connected with the audience.
"People came up to me in streets afterwards making little love heart signs going 'love Lyra, love Lyra'. And the questions were wonderful at the Q&A, because people really wanted to know more about her, her work and about here.
"The very last question was from a young boy who stood up at the end and said, 'I want to know where Lyra is buried because I want to go and say 'thank you' to her. I think she's amazing.' I just thought that was so touching. She really affected people."
Millar adds: "Her name, Lyra, comes from the stars. It's a mythical name, you know, but she really did live up to it."
:: Lyra is in cinemas from Friday November 4. Alison Millar will be participating in a Q&A with Lyra McKee's sister Nichola McKee, hosted by Darragh MacIntyre, following the 6pm screening at Queen's Film Theatre in Belfast on November 4. See queensfilmtheatre.com for details.