A Date for Mad Mary, loosely adapted from Yasmine Akram’s play 10 Dates for Mad Mary, is an unconventional film about love and friendship, that manages the difficult task of being at once sincere, funny and touching. It’s set in Drogheda, and centres around Mary (Seána Kerslake), a young woman with a violent past who is released from jail just in time for the wedding of her best friend Charlene (Charleigh Bailey). Mary finds herself out of place and without a plus-one amongst a group of friends who seem to have changed completely in the time she’s spent inside. We sat down with director Darren Thornton and his brother Colin, who wrote the film together, to talk about ambiguity, identification and that beloved Irish institution of marriage.
Is there anything in particular you wanted to keep or do differently in adapting the film from the stage?
Darren: We wanted to expand on the friendship. That was the core of it. The play was more concerned with the dating aspect, but with the film we thought that the beating heart was really about the relationship between these two best friends, and what it means when somebody who you’ve grown up with has suddenly moved beyond where you are, and you feel like you’re stuck on the starting line.
Colin: And I think we both fell in love with Mary as a character, as I think audiences do as well. For the two of us in particular what we loved about Mary was that contradiction within her: that on the surface she’s someone that screams “stay away”, but underneath that is someone who’s more vulnerable, who’s desperately searching to make a connection with someone, with anyone around her.
D: Adapting it into a film gave us an opportunity to look at the coming of age stories that we really liked as movies, John Hughes films and early Cameron Crowe movies from the ’80s and ’90s, that really connected with us when we were growing up. And then we looked at European coming of age films and thought, wouldn’t it be great to take an element from each of those styles of cinema and try to make it work. And Mary really felt like the right opportunity for that.
There are a couple of moments of what I would call intense first-person subjectivity in the film: like where Mary meets Jess for the first time, and when she encounters the person she had previously assaulted: presumably these weren’t present in the same way in the play?
D: Well Jess wasn’t in the play. It was quite different. The play was a monologue, and the love story, the relationship Mary had was with a boy, it was more traditional sort of narrative… it was still good, she was still quite a violent character and she had still been to jail, all that kind of stuff, but the core relationships with the women in the stage show were quite different. It was a lot more about the dating aspect. We decided that it would be a lot more interesting if the connection she made was with a girl, that it would be much more challenging for her and that it would be harder for her within her world, to be honest about that.
It’s interesting you mention John Hughes and Cameron Crowe: I always find their films are quite nostalgic, if that’s the right word? They’re quite pleasant places to slip into, whereas this film perhaps doesn’t feel like the most affectionate portrayal of Drogheda. Would you agree with that?
C: It probably is for us! Because we grew up in Drogheda, so all the nightclubs that Mary goes to like Fusion, the pubs like McPhails, they’re all parts of our youth, so when we look at them it’s with a slightly romanticised…
D: But what I think you’re trying to say is we’re saying Drogheda isn’t the best place, which is kind of true as well. I mean you always have that sort of love/hate relationship with the place you grew up, and again it’s subjective, you’re looking at it through Mary’s eyes, so…
C: I guess when we think about Mary and her future, we think about her maybe moving out of Drogheda, and moving to a place where she’s not going to be judged, and is able to feel more free. Another thing we really like about Mary is that she’s a very recognisable character from any small town, she’s an outsider.
It’s interesting you’d mention imagining Mary maybe moving away to a different place, when your short film Frankie from a few years ago also has this ambiguous ending: is it important for you not to tie up all the loose ends within a narrative?
D: We always prefer films that leave enough room for your imagination at the end, where you can give the character the ending you want, I guess, at the end of it.
C: That ambiguous ending was actually always there, from the beginning of the process.
D: Yeah, we changed around so much in the story, but that always remained the same.
Do you think it’s easier now than it was a few years ago to tell a story which has this gay element to it?
D: We never thought of it as a gay film or a straight film, we thought of it as a film about girls and their relationships. It never came up, with producers, with the Film Board… the first time it came up was when it came to marketing and there was this question, you know? But it never featured in our discussions when writing the film. What would have been more of a concern with financers would have been Mary herself as a character. “Will an audience go with this character?” But that’s something that drives us mad as well. Who wants to watch something that’s just full of perfectly likeable people?
There’s this de facto idea that people watch films primarily at the level of identification…
D: I think as long as you can understand someone, can empathise with them on some level, then you can go anywhere. I mean, people behave in appalling ways anyway. They may not be starting fights on Friday night, but if all of us analysed the way we behave down to the minutiae, we all do some pretty fucking questionable things. And you often find that when filmmakers get down to that truth, a lot of people don’t like it, or don’t want to see themselves reflected in that way.
In spite of this you have this tendency, with teenage boys say — and I could well have counted myself amongst that number — to watch something like Taxi Driver and go, “Cool! That guy is a legend!” even though that’s so far from what that film was trying to achieve…
C: Yeah. But I think with Mary, there’s a great deal of both of us in her character. She’s sort of universal in a way. The emotions she feels — fear, anger, confusion, etc. — these are all emotions people experience when they’re transitioning from one period in their life to the next.
D: We all know what it feels like to be at a point and feel like we should be a lot further on than we actually are. I think, if anything, that really does communicate to people. We all know how it feels when a friend feels like they’ve gone beyond you, or outgrown you, and you’re left with that feeling of what’s happening here? So, even though Mary can be violent and gets into situations that most people haven’t experienced, the emotional structure that underpins this is still quite accessible.
Seána Kerslake [who plays Mary] gives an extremely likeable performance as well.
C: I think what Seána really brings to it is that she really understood the complexities of the character. She’s able to bring the toughness, she can feel quite intimidating, but she’s also able to be funny and charming. Crucially she was able to play the comedy in a way that felt natural to us.
D: She’s just an honest actor, a very natural, real actor. Nothing felt forced or phony. It was great for us because we could tell immediately when we sat down for a read-through what was working and what wasn’t. She became a great radar for what was bullshit in the writing.
C: And it was the very same with Charleigh [Bailey, who plays Mary’s friend Charlene] as well. Once we cast the two girls it was easy for us to go back and do a rewrite, because we could hear their voices in our heads and we were able to tweak the dialogue to feel more natural for them.
D: We got really lucky. Tara [Lee] and Denise [McCormack] as well, were just fantastic. When we cast them we really felt like we’d put the world together. The shoot was tough but they were just a pleasure to work with all the time.
A more general question: why do Irish people love weddings so much?
C: I don’t know, I mean, we love weddings! When we started writing the film in 2012, I realised that I’d only been to two weddings, and to this day I think I’ve only been to four. We went through a phase when writing of being desperate to get invited to a wedding! Our cousin got married and we were like “Alright!” We’re taking out our notepads! It’s fascinating to me to go to a wedding, observing these little details about people’s behaviour.
D: People love weddings in movies! I don’t know why it is. Because you’re used to seeing them in Hollywood films in this really opulent way, but it’s interesting to look at the reality of how they are as well, and the rituals that we as Irish people have at our weddings. We really liked that idea.
A Date for Mad Mary is released on 2nd September.
Words: Oisín Murphy-Hall