Back in 2012, directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn brought the Belfast punk scene gloriously to life with the much-praised sleeper hit, Good Vibrations, the story of Terry Hooley and his eponymous record shop set during the Troubles of 1970. Seven years later, their latest film marks a radical shift in tone, moving from the extraordinary and vibrant, to the ordinary and every day. Ordinary Love is the portrait of a marriage, one that’s strong and secure, one that’s already survived a tragedy and one which is about to be tested all over again.
In a film that comes close to being a two-hander, the couple are played by Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville and the directors count themselves fortunate to have secured the two actors. Leyburn recalls they were talking initially talking to Neeson about another project. “That was our introduction to him and sometimes these things happen for a reason. Although that project, through no fault of ours or his, fell away, when this script came along, we heard Liam’s voice in it. It’s quite rare to do this at such an early stage, but we managed to get a first draft of the script to him and he actually signed up on that first draft!”
Written by playwright Owen McCafferty, the story reflects one particular period of his life with wife Peggy. For Barros D’Sa, it wasn’t a story just about love or cancer. “It comes from a very personal place, so there’s a lot of power in the writing. And it’s a story that honours the poetry of those everyday moments of a life spent together. When we first read it, we felt this wasn’t a cancer story, it was a love story about a couple who are at that stage in life that we don’t tend to see explored very much in cinema: they’ve been together a long time, they’re not about to break up, it’s not the start or the end of a love story, they’re not bored with each other, it’s not a power struggle. These two people have a really vital relationship together. They’ve been through some really dark times, but they’ve also been through thousands of days of precious normality and that’s what they’ve learned to value.”
She also believes it’s a story that many people can identify with and this, along with its two lead actors, helped in raising the finance and generally getting the project off the ground – something that’s never easy to pull off, as they both admit. “I think people could see that this was a fresh take on a love story, even though the subject matter is challenging for a lot of people because we’re all close to people who’ve been through this journey,” she reflects. “Everyone that we spoke to about the film, the first thing that they said was ‘this is what happened to my friend/my mum/my sister/my brother ….’ It’s everybody’s story. And even if it’s not cancer, there’s the experience of grief or loss or the fear of losing somebody you love, so we felt there was something universal there that was told through the lives and experiences of these two people.
“We were fortunate to have the support of a lot of medical professionals in making the film. They gave their time very generously because I think they felt that we were trying to say something authentic about those experiences, even though they’re tough and there are a lot of people living everyday lives with cancer in their past or present.” Leyburn adds that that honesty and simplicity were key to their approach. “The one thing we didn’t want to do was sensationalise the story or turn it into a melodrama. It wasn’t dripping with sentiment. It was all there in the everyday details and the poetry of the everyday that speaks of the bigger story.”
That honesty extended to the on-screen relationship between Neeson and Manville who, surprisingly, had never actually worked together before. “It was important that they shared a similar sense of humour and, although they’d never met before, they had a lot of mutual acquaintances so they instantly had a chemistry, which was really helpful. We were quite careful in how we set things up because it was such an intimate story. We shot the film in Belfast and we’ve shot films there before, so we knew a lot of the crew, so we did our best to give the actors a good space to work in.”
While the couple in Ordinary Love are facing cancer, their past has also been hit by tragedy, something that has influenced their home, where much of the film is set. The directors agree that it’s something of a time capsule and a lot of location scouting went into trying to find the right house – one that was on the verge of losing exactly what they were looking for. “The couple who had just taken over the house were in the process of renovating it and taking all that stuff out and we had to literally ask them to stop!” says Leyburn. “Something that appealed to us about that house was that, although it’s a little time capsule, and in many ways their cocoon, the materials used in the house are quite warm, they’re quite natural – there’s a lot of wood and stone, a contrast with the hospital environment which is so different to that. Obviously, there’s an absence in the house but we didn’t want it to feel like it was a house that didn’t have love in it.”
Glenn Leyburn and Lisa Barros D’Sa were talking to Freda Cooper
Ordinary Love is in cinemas on Friday, 6 December