AT some point, everyone will experience grief, yet despite it being a universal thing, how we react to it is profoundly personal and unpredictable.
For director Ruth Meehan, she needed to find solitude to deal with the loss of her sister Alacoque to cancer, but it was through this solitude that she found company in the form of Anne Gildea’s book, I’ve Got Cancer, What’s Your Excuse?
The book led to a collaboration; a new film, The Bright Side, which deals with cancer through comedy.
Cancer and comedy are not often two words that go together, yet Meehan has found a way to remind us that there must be laughter even in the darkest times.
The film follows a suicidal stand-up comedian Kate (Gemma-Leah Devereux), who gets a breast cancer diagnosis and thinks that death by cancer will be a guilt-free way of escaping life. The women she meets during her chemotherapy sessions help her see life in an entirely new way, but will they be enough to make Kate realise that she wants to live after all?
For Meehan, picking up Gildea’s book was the beginning of her journey dealing with grief. Gildea and Meehan went to college together in DCU, but they lost contact after college. Gildea became a comedian, Meehan, a filmmaker.
“I was going to India after my sister died. I needed a break. I was in the airport on a New Year’s Eve and picked up Anne’s book. I hadn’t realised that she had had cancer. I was struck by the honesty of Anne’s account of her experience and the irreverence.
"I was laughing at stuff that you’re thinking; how can I be laughing at this? My sister, who I’d lost, had a quirky, funny, black sense of humour. I felt like it was something she would love, so it connected me to her in a funny way.
“I was sitting on the beach in Goa and emailed Anne. I said, you’ve been through a lot, and I lost my sister. I asked if she was interested in making a film. Anne admitted that she had been in a dark place when she got her cancer diagnosis.
“Wow, I just thought: a character who has lost the will to live and then receives the news that they are sick. It is complex — people do want to live and yet, at the same time, can be in a very dark place.”
Meehan’s writing had come to a standstill, but with renewed vigour, she brought the idea to Jean Pasley, who co-wrote the film.
“It was an enormous creative challenge because the main character does not want to be here, and so every obstacle that you can think of is put in her way.
"I contacted Jean and said we could develop a story around this idea of a stand-up comedian who doesn’t want to be here who gets a cancer diagnosis. The three of us, Anne, Jean, and I, created the other characters in the story, but we did lean heavily on some of the material in the book.
“It was one of those lovely projects where it just keeps speaking back to you. The feeling of developing always felt growing; it felt like it was coming towards us. Even though it took a few years, it never felt like we were going backwards. The feeling continued through shooting and editing, and hopefully, now with an audience, it will gain another life.”
Casting Kate was a challenge. Meehan needed someone who could be vulnerable, funny, and sharp and carry off the character’s darker side.
“The Kate I envisaged was older than Gemma-Leah is, but when I saw her tape, I knew she was the right actor. She brought the character to life in a different form, and all that mattered to me was that the character had power behind her versatility.”
Meehan is a first-time feature director, and this is Deveraux’s first lead role. Meehan says she knew it was a risk for both, but they decided to give it their all regardless of pitfalls.
“We knew what the stakes were, but we had a level of trust. We decided to go for it 100%. We knew if it went wrong that we would have given 100%, so we’d go down blazing.”
Tom Vaughan-Lawlor plays a love interest, and Meehan says that he is an unassuming actor despite being a big-name star.
“Tom saw it online at the Cork Film Festival, and he was very moved by it. He thought it was an important story; he makes his choices based on what is meaningful. I was delighted that he was interested and that the materials spoke to him, and he was terrific to work with, an absolute joy.”
Meehan says it is vital that women filmmakers get the chance to tell female-centric stories.
“There is a feminine perspective that can be equally expressed by men and a masculine perspective that women can equally express. You share your perspective with the world. The audience can get a sense of getting a better menu of perspectives. If there are women behind the camera, behind the storytelling, there are more comprehensive options of how we look at things, not to say one is better or worse, just to say that that’s enriching as far as I’m concerned for everyone. It’s poverty for us if there’s not a rich spread of diversity. I am talking across the board — colour, race, gender. The greater the diversity of perspectives, the richer we all are.”
Regarding grief, Meehan no longer fears it, she faces it head on.
“I don’t like grief, like anybody else, but I’ve learned that I am not afraid of it.
"When I was a teenager, I played camogie, and our trainer would say, don’t hold back, or you will get clattered. Grief is the same. If you’re trying to hold it at bay, you get clattered. I wanted to go right up into it. My own experience of losing my sister makes it hard to hold that space to stay in. But when you do, it’s strangely liberating.
“There is a scene in the sea, and I wanted the sun, but a mythical storm came out of nowhere. I felt that day the Earth was grieving with me; it was bizarre. I was in the sea with Gemma-Leah, and we were laughing and crying. It was the best and the worst day. All my grief was there, and all the release was there as well. Grief and release are all connected.”
The Bright Side is released in cinemas on August 20.