16 June 2024 The Irish Film & Television Network

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“I hope people enjoy spending time with her”; Alison Millar discusses the emotional making of Lyra
11 Nov 2022 : Nathan Griffin
We spoke with BAFTA and IFTA winning director Alison Millar about her beautifully intimate and heartfelt documentary, Lyra, a story about the life and death of the internationally renowned Northern Irish investigative journalist Lyra McKee.

Wildcard Distribution is handling the release of Lyra, which opened in Irish cinemas nationwide last Friday. Something that feels surreal to the film’s director, given the emotional and long journey to get to this point.  “I keep having to pinch myself because it's been quite a long journey and it's really exciting. I've had so many lovely people respond and we had so much help to make the film. I'm completely blown away,” Millar tells IFTN, when discussing the film release.

One of the UK and Ireland’s most respected documentary filmmakers, Alison Millar has won BAFTA, IFTA, and Prix Italia awards for her emotionally compelling films that include The Father, the Son, and the Housekeeper, The Disappeared, and Searching for Shergar.

Prior to the interview, Millar had just recently received the news that Lyra had been shortlisted for the prestigious International Documentary Association Awards in Los Angeles. “It's huge, because there's films on there that have my jaw on the ground. I'm completely in shock, but it was so lovely,” says the director. “To make that Top 25 list, and we haven't even screened in America yet. I mean, it's great because there's not that many people that have seen the film yet.”

“Any of the festivals we've been at, we've won something. We won the audience award in cork, which was amazing. I was blown away to win that. I mean, I was completely flabbergasted. I actually thought that the email I got was sent to the wrong person, I was completely amazed. It's a very personal film and I'm pleased for Lyra too, that we've managed to get her voice out there and her word out there.”

Raised in working-class, war-torn Belfast, Lyra spent her life and career working to highlight the consequences of The Troubles and seeking justice for crimes that had been forgotten since the Good Friday Agreement. Her murder by dissident Republicans the day before Good Friday in 2019 sent shockwaves across the world.

McKee and Millar’s friendship spans back many years with the BAFTA winning director first meeting the impressive young journalist when Lyra was only 16 years old. Following that first meeting they remained regularly in touch and pushed each other to seek the tough truths through their respective work. “I am a filmmaker, I do what everybody else does in this business, not just manage from week to week, but obviously choose to tell stories that are really difficult,” says Millar.

“That's why Lyra was great because we had a little drop box where we put ideas and things we wanted to do. They were never easy. They're always really difficult stories, but we had that box running for years together and I didn't think that I would end up making a film about her, you know, it wasn't ever something that ever crossed my mind. At 29, Lyra should have had everything in front of her.”

On April 18th, 2019, McKee was fatally shot during rioting in the Creggan area of Derry, which she was reporting on. “We were actually due to have dinner together the next night in my house here in Belfast with a few of us and our partners. The last text I got from her that day was about half four, asking me to make her a lasagna for the dinner. Then the next message I got was at midnight that night when her partner rang me from hospital to say she'd been shot and killed, and would I be able to look after the media,” Millar tells IFTN.

Millar stepped in to help the McKee’s with what became a globally media frenzy as the world descended on Lyra’s tragic murder. “From then on it was a blur right through the funeral and everything else. I had kind of moved into the house with her family when her remains were brought home. I was also managing the world's media, which was camped at the front door,” Millar explains.

“I was watching her laid out there in the little box, and she just looked even younger than I remembered. Her mum in her wheelchair, was just sitting, stroking her hair. So, I was kind of managing the press, and then what started as a small funeral, became then this enormous funeral. All the politicians, presidents, everybody, the Queen, I mean, it was like everybody on the planet seemed to arrive.”

“It was a lot to do. I mean, I'm a filmmaker, I'm not a PR person. So, it was a bit of a stretch for me, but we were managing. Then after that, about three weeks later, there was various people writing to either Nicola or to Sarah saying that we'd like to make a film about this woman and who was she. Then they said to me ‘well, you know, she loved your films. She helped you do your work. You're the only person who could do it’. I was frightened to be honest.”

“I've made many, many, many films; I'm an old person now, I’ve made lots of films. Many about the conflict here like the disappeared or about, you know, all sorts of stories, but this was different. Eventually they persuaded me to do it.”

The documentary was originally commissioned by Siobhan Sinnerton at Channel 4 as a one-hour film for Channel 4 Dispatches, which Millar had extensive experience working across with Sinnerton. However, several months into the project, the arrival of Covid only heightened the difficulty of making such an emotionally draining film. “Before the first anniversary, we were editing what we had and it was really difficult, I won't lie, because everybody was completely traumatized,” Millar explains.

“I had the support of Wave up here, who were helping us deal with that trauma and I suppose because I knew them it was easy to come and go and say, ‘let's not film today, let's just hug each other’. Then Lyra's mum Joan, got really ill, and passed away just weeks before the first anniversary of her murder. So, at that point, being amid Covid as well, we were like, ‘right, that's it, we need to stop’. So, we put it on ice.”

It wasn't until later that year, that Millar carried on filming because things were beginning to open again after the COVID restrictions lifted. “My editor Chloe Lamborn, who cut a film called ‘For Sama’, which won many, many awards and was up for an Oscar; she is one of my best friends. She came back from traveling and said, ‘let's look at what you have’. Then Jackie Doyle, the producer, came aboard along with many other people, and we made the decision to make a longer film because we had the material,” says the director.

Using hours of voice recordings from Lyra’s own mobile, computer, and Dictaphone, the documentary seeks answers to her senseless killing through Lyra’s own work and words. The result is a complex picture of Northern Ireland’s political history, bringing into sharp focus the ways in which the 1998 Good Friday agreement – with its promised end to violence for future generations – has struggled to be fully realised.

“We had loads and loads of stuff we wanted to do. We found a Dictaphone, so we found her voice. We decided that was a turning point and we would try and make this film with Lyra's voice recordings, with her writing, so that she could author a good chunk of the film herself. So that she could tell the audience herself about who she was, what she did, what she wrote about and why she did it, rather than me as a friend.”


Millar gives insight into her editorial approach as a writer and director, when asked about the way in which she structured and weaved the intimate narrative of the film. “I worked a lot with cards and attaching them to the wall, so the wall gets covered in story cards. I went to the National Film School, so I am a bit old fashioned,” Millar jokes.

“We had the first line up, which was Lyra: who was she, from birth right through, and I wanted them to know who she was. Second line up: the ongoing investigation, the grieving family, partner, and what happened. And the third was through her work. It was looking at the landscape of the North here, through her work and her eyes. So, the stories that she covered are actually some historical cases like Ballymurphy.”

“I thought it was interesting to retell that story through her work and her relationship on her Dictaphone.  You know, dealing with intergenerational suicide or trauma through suicide, that was something close to her heart, or coming out and LGBTQ issues. So, it wasn't easy, and I think the hardest part was where to add or cut lines, because there were so many good lines. We were spoilt for choice!”

“We had a lot of support from my executives at that level. Ed Watts, who came in to work with that, who was co-director For Sama; Chloe cut For Sama. So, he was great, he had a bit of distance.”

Lyra was produced by Jackie Doyle and Alison Millar for Erica Starling Productions and executively produced by Siobhan Sinnerton, Edward Watts, Greg Darby, Andrew Eaton, Louisa Compton, and Hillary & Chelsea Clinton for HiddenLight Productions, with funding from Northern Ireland Screen, in association with TG4. Music for the film was scored by the Ivor Novello award-winner David Holmes, Mark McCauley was cinematographer on the project, and it was edited by the British Independent Film Award-winning, Chloe Lambourne. 


“We had to fundraise to make a longer film, where I literally left the doors open and had so many amazing people come forward to either help with donations or money,” Millar explains. “David Holmes, who is a very well-respected BAFTA and multi award winning soundtrack musician, he called me up and said, ‘look, I want to do the soundtrack for your documentary’. And I said, ‘oh no, I haven't got any money, I'm really broke I'm trying to make this or nothing." He said that he was doing this for Lyra and that he didn't want any money. That was kind of what everybody was like you know, support from so many people in my industry and then local business people came in.”

“Channel4 were there, then TG4 came in. Then Bono, Liam Neeson Anna Byrnes, like the richest people who all just give donations trying to help it happen.  It was made with a lot of love and that's kind of what I think makes it special because we all made it, the people on this island, came together from all over and helped me make it.”

“I think that everybody was just sickened by another murder. Yeah, it was my friend. But it was another death. Somebody's daughter, it was somebody's sister. People shouldn't be gunned down on the street. So, we wanted to make a statement to say, that's it. No more. No more deaths.”

As to how the Clinton’s became involved, this materialized as the film began to take shape in the edit, when Millar was approached by the new Head of Unscripted at Hillary and Chelsea’s production company, HiddenLight Productions. “Siobhan, who was my original Commissioner from Channel Four, she moved to work with Hillary Clinton's company, and became in charge of all the unscripted work for the company,” Millar recounts. “Not long after she'd moved there, she said to me, 'I'd like to show the Clintons a cut: Chelsea, Hillary, and Bill. They'd like to see the film because of their connections with here (Northern Ireland) and everything’. Siobhan is a Belfast woman, so she really wanted them to see it and thanks to her, I gathered their support.”

“They're on hand to support us in this when we launch next year in America. That's really where that'll be most helpful for us,” Millar tells IFTN.

“It's bizarre, I have so many people attached but honestly at the end of the day, it's literally the people here who support you, how your family put up with you on the days where you come home bawling your eyes out or pulling your hair thinking what we're going to do next or 'I need some money.' This was made on a really low budget. So, you know, even to be included on that IDAA shortlist, while there's enormous films in America, it is such an honor because we really made that on the tiniest budget on the planet.”


In terms of helping Lyra’s work have a lasting impact on Northern Ireland, the director has so far been inspired by the interest and questions that have followed festival screenings about Lyra and her work, but also about Northern Irish history as a whole. We showed it in Achill Island at their film festival, as well as audiences from all over the country at Galway and Dublin, and the sessions afterwards have been amazing,” said Millar, when asked about what she hopes audiences will take from the film. “It was clear that people had learned a lot about the North through her work; the questions asked were really raw and brilliant.”

“I think audiences will learn a lot, not just about her, but about her amazing writing, and maybe would go to her writing because it was special. We need to have an Assembly; we need a functioning government. We don't have it when there's a vacuum. Things like that happen. We're in that position now, again, so nobody wants this anymore. People want a better life.”

“As Lyra said, I don't care much for a united Ireland, or stronger union, I just want a better life.”

So, people want a better life. That's it. I hope people enjoy spending time with her because she's fascinating. She was brilliant at her job, she wrote so well, and there's some mysteries in the film.”

“I hope they enjoy spending time with her.”

Lyra is currently on release in cinemas nationwide.

Bloomsday Film Fest: Director Martin Turk and Line Producer Jeremiah Cullinane discuss Kino Volta
Actors Hannah and Emily Dargan discuss The Watched
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