David Freyne on Family, Friendship and DATING AMBER – Marina Antunes interviews

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If you’ve seen writer/director David Freyne’s debut feature The Cured and were excited to see what the director had up his sleeve for a follow-up, you might be surprised to discover that Dating Amber is as far as one could get from horror.

The romantic comedy, so called by the creator himself, is a somewhat biographical story of Eddie and Amber (Fionn O’Shea and Lola Petticrew respectively), two closeted teens who are finding themselves, their sexuality and their friendship in rural Ireland in the 90s.

While Dating Amber does tackle many of the themes commonly associated with coming out stories, Freyne’s film is one that celebrates the joy of finding oneself and while it does have some deeply emotional moments, the film also celebrates the family, friendship and awkwardness of being a teenager.

We recently had a chance to speak with the writer/director about the making of his sophomore effort which is available on digital and on demand on Friday, November 13.

Marina Antunes: Where did your passion for filmmaking start?

David Freyne: From a very early age, I really wanted to be a filmmaker before I even knew how to do that. I was really lucky in my home town, even though it was very small, we had a brilliant video store and they had really great world cinema sections and action sections. So I spent every weekend, going through the library of films on mass and that’s kind of where my big love of film came from. It was from rental stores. Then I kind of started thinking about how we get into this.

I did an English degree in college and after that I did a master’s in film. Then started working as a runner and working my way up the ranks. But yeah, it’s always been a passion of mine since I was a kid.

MA: Was it always directing or did you ever have a thought that maybe you want it to be an actor or a writer?

DF: No. I mean, I write and direct, but when I was in college I really wanted to be a production designer. I really loved it and I did my thesis on the production design of The Wizard of Oz but I think that was a way of getting into film and then eventually getting my way to directing.

I also worked in post-production for several years and in color and editing and that side of things. I knew I wants to work in film in some way, shape or form, and it was just finding my way into it, but ultimately the dream was always writing. I’m really grateful.

MA: Let’s talk a little bit about Dating Amber because this is now your second feature film after doing a number of short films and this is very different from your first film. You’ve spoken about how personal this story is. Could elaborate a little bit on that? I’m particularly curious about why it was important for you to tell this story now.

DF: It’s a movie I always wanted to make and there was a point where it looked like it might be my first feature, but financing doesn’t always work the way you want it to work. I think I was always going to make it, whether I made it now or in 10 years.

I grew up in a small rural town. I really struggled with coming to terms with my sexuality and I wanted to bring my story to life. I really wanted to show a coming out story but framed in a way that gives people hope. I don’t think we often see it. I grew up but I didn’t see myself or see characters I could relate to on screen. The stories were usually quite dark. It was usually a story about somebody being beaten up for being gay and they’re really important and vital, but if that’s the only way you see your future, it’s really depressing an I want to just wanted to create a really hopeful, comedy and I think they’re still quite rare.

MA: It’s a really amazing story about friendship as well.

DF: Yeah, absolutely. I keep calling it a romantic comedy. It’s not a love story in the traditional sense, but it is. They’re each other’s first beards and they are shaping who they’re going to become. They can be themselves with each other and discover who they are.

MA: One of the things that I find really interesting about the film in general is that it’s disguised as a comedy, but it’s so much more than that. It’s also like a really amazing family drama. And it’s also this really amazing story about self discovery and a friendship and finding yourself among your peers. Can you talk a little bit about the development of the script and what you started with as your basic story idea and how these other lines started to emerge in the storytelling?

DF: It very much so started with the premise of these two kids become each other’s beards and one of them needing to escape in order to be themselves and the other one just not being able to come to terms with themselves. In creating that and creating the characters, I wanted to make sure they had these funny flashes of home life. Even in the school and their school friends. They all felt like they had their own drama and they had their own issues to deal with. Everyone, whether you’re gay or straight, suffers from toxic masculinity. I wanted to make sure that each one of these characters didn’t feel like a stereotype, you know, the loss of the stereotypical military father or stereotypical abusive bully. They each had nuances to them.

We love to break down those expectations because for me, even when I suffered from bullying, the things that were often most hurtful weren’t meant to be hurtful. I think that showing how people can be accidentally hurtful is really important because very often it’s just a reading maliciously intended stuff that’s shown on screen and I just don’t think that’s realistic. And certainly at least it wasn’t in my experience.

MA: You started with wanting to be a production designer. One of the things I love so much about the film is how it captures the period without being like a caricature of it. You don’t lean too far into the nineties but it feels very much like it’s not of this time. How did you and your production designer develop the look and feel of the film?

DF: My production designer was incredible. I think for me, Emma [Lowney] and Joan [O’CLery] and my DP Ruairí [O’Brien] did a great job. What was very important to me is that we all a strong dialogue so we would often work in the same room together. We very quickly chose that kind of look and style we wanted to use for the film. And that dictates so much. We knew when we had a color in the production and the set, it wouldn’t be the costumes and vice versa, but that there was a real extreme line that would create a sense of time without really being on the nose about it. I think that also played into the way we shot it, we shot it with a look back and with a look very reminiscent of socials we were looking at. Like our own families. We wanted to make it feel like you were looking through the photo album of the time and what was also really important to me because the 90s in Ireland probably looked like the 80s everywhere else. It was important to create a look that was unique and specific to Ireland and a little less up to date than say London or New York.

MA: Can you talk about the process of finding your leads. What were you looking for and what was the process of casting like?

DF: It’s one of those things that you know what you’re looking for when you find it. I was so nervous about it because the film will live or die on their shoulders. So you set a really, really wide, casting net in Ireland and the UK looking for these kids. And we got some brilliant self-tapes in, but Fionn and Lola were amazing. I had worked with Fionn when he was a ten-year-old on a short film. I knew right away that I really liked him but we didn’t know if there would be chemistry between them until we put them in a room together. We read a couple of people together but straight away when we saw them together we knew they were the ones. As we worked together and they began spending time together they became friends and the relationship you see on screen was honest and truthful because it was. I didn’t anticipate and how lucky I am in that they really did become best friends so quickly and they really do live in each other’s pockets. You know, they became my characters in a way I never could have dreamed of and that is the heart and soul of the film.

MA: Did you work primarily from your script or was there room for improvisation?

DF: I think it’s always evolving. I think this script is really strong and it’s on the screen, but even better. For me, you can write the funniest joke, but it’s good if it’s protected in the right way. And so you find the jokes that work in the rehearsals. You find really funny moments that you add to the script and I think it’s always evolving. We’re never precious about it. I think it’s a great starting point but having really great rehearsals means that you have time to mess around and change priorities and try things.

We improvised moments because we had the time to do it and having that freedom, I think, is really important. I think giving your cast ownership of those characters and the freedom to come and make choices… I think that it’s really important, particularly for comedy. I never want my cast and my crew to feel like they’re being constrained. We’re all working towards the same vision.

MA: Now that the film is out there and making its way across the pond, what are you working on now? What’s next for you? I read somewhere that your ultimate movie dream would be to adapt Rendezvous with Rama which just happens to be one of my favourite books….

DF: I have a fear that I probably won’t get the rights for Rendezvous with Rama just yet. That’s one for one day. I just evolve love film and TV and I know I don’t ever want to be constrained. I’ve just written a revenge comedy which I hope to make next year. I’m working on a period drama scripts that I’m really excited about. I have a fantasy drama set in America that I love.

I think it’s kind of exciting to keep people on their toes and constantly subvert the expectations. After Cured I was offered a lot horror films which is a lucky position to be in, but then you’d have to be a director for hire and I love making comedies and I want to make people laugh. I think it always starts with the characters and the characters will tell you what your story should be, you know, whether it’s a comedy or a horror film. I think so it’s all the character.

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Marina Antunes

Marina has been writing and discussing film for over 15 years, first on a personal blog followed by a decade long tenure on the now retired Row Three. In 2008 she joined the writing staff at Quiet Earth, becoming Editor-In-Chief in 2014, a role she still holds. Over the years, she has also produced and hosted a number of podcasts including Before the Dawn, a long-running podcast on the Twilight franchise, Girls on Pop, a podcast on film and popular entertainment from women’s perspective and After the Credits, bi-monthly film podcast with nearly 300 episodes. Marina is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, is the Vice President of the Vancouver SIGGRAPH chapter and has served on juries for several film festivals including the DOXA, St. Louis International Film Festival, and the Whistler Film Festival. She joined the Spark CG Society as Festival Director in 2014.