18 June 2024 The Irish Film & Television Network

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Features & Interviews

“It's a particularly Irish way to handle things”, director Claire Dix discusses Sunlight
13 Jun 2023 : Luke Shanahan
We caught up with Claire Dix, the director of Sunlight, ahead of the film’s release in Irish cinemas.

Sunlight marks Dix’s narrative feature debut as a director, having directed Broken Song, a 2013 documentary about street poets, hip-hop artists and songwriters from north Dublin. 

The film follows Leon (Barry Ward), a recovering addict, who is caring for his terminally ill sponsor Iver (Liam Carney). When Leon learns that Iver has made arrangements to be euthanized, Leon forces Iver to agree to one last day in Dublin, hoping to convince him to live. Meanwhile, Leon butts heads with Iver’s physician, Maria (Maureen Beattie), about what’s best for Iver.

Despite being better-known for her documentary work, Dix has a background in short drama (Free Chips Forever!, Downpour, Alia) and working in television. Her experience in both fiction and documentary inform her approach to both forms, and the result of this can be seen in the visual style of Sunlight.

“I don't really storyboard. Obviously, there's a lot of preparation and a lot of discussions with the DOP, but it's very much about reacting to what's happening in front of you. So I think the two of them definitely inform each other.”

“The style of it all comes from Leon. I really like that style of shooting, that kind of handheld following the character style, like Andrea Arnold or Darren Aronofsky.”

Narayan Van Maele (You Are Not My Mother, Million Dollar Pigeons) is the DOP for Sunlight. He is perhaps best-known for shooting the Oscar and IFTA-winning An Irish Goodbye. His collaboration with Dix began on Broken Song.

“We had three different operators on Broken Song and Narayan was one of them. I thought he'd be really suited to Sunlight. He's really great at responding to what's happening in the moment. Not just covering it, but finding a beautiful way to shoot it and really quickly. He's got a brilliant eye.”

Her 2017 short Take Me Swimming was the beginning of some of the core working relationships that led to the creation of Dix’s latest feature. The short was written by Ailbhe Keogan, produced by Roisin Geraghty, and stars Barry Ward. Dix finished the short knowing she wanted to work with all of these people again. The short’s story is different to that of Sunlight, but shares similar themes in regards to end of life experiences.

“We all wanted to work with Barry again - myself, Ailbhe, and Roisin. The first time I met Barry was on Take Me Swimming. We got on great. He’s an amazing actor. His acting is so suited to the screen. We were able to take out a lot of lines from Take Me Swimming, because it was like ‘Barry’s just saying that by looking’”.

When Keogan wrote the script for Sunlight, she had Ward in mind specifically for the role of Leon.

“Barry was on board before the script was even written. So he was very much involved in creating the character of Leon. I think it helped Ailbhe that she knew that Barry was going to be Leon. Because we all had such a good working relationship, she was able to bounce ideas off him.”

“That final song that he performs, he and Seamus Fogarty wrote that!”

Composers Matthew Nolan and Stephen Shannon incorporated stems from tracks that Ward and Fogarty wrote for Leon into the score, giving the film’s sound a fun DIY pop flair.

Screen Ireland’s POV Scheme provided Dix and her collaborators with an opportunity to reunite. The POV Scheme is a filmmaking initiative that supports the development and production of low budget feature films and is aimed at female writers and directors. During her time participating in this initiative, Dix was mentored by the IFTA-winning Dearbhla Walsh (Bad Sisters).

“It was the whole reason we got to make the film, so I can't speak highly enough of the POV Scheme. It was brilliant timing, because we had just made Take Me Swimming, and we knew we wanted to work together again. We were very very lucky to be in a position where we were able to go for it.”

“Screen Ireland provided every HOD with a mentor, and I had Dearbhla Walsh so that was amazing. She was very generous with her time. I could ring her, but I’d be like ‘Oh should I be bothering her?’ She was doing Bad Sisters at the time, but she would never not take a call. Sometimes I’d call her just to talk me down, she was like a therapist!”

“I really can't speak highly enough of the scheme. I highly recommend it if they ever do it again.”

The great balancing act of Sunlight is its combination of lighthearted comedy and heavy subject matter, which the film handles deftly. Dix attributes the success of this to Keogan’s writing, and believes that the comedy is what allows audiences to engage more easily with the subject matter the film is tackling.

“None of us were interested in a heavy serious film, and I don’t think audiences would be particularly interested in that either. I think maybe it's a particularly Irish way to handle things: To make light of things, to make jokes, to be irreverent.”

“It's got a lightness to it, because I think that's more realistic, really, isn't it? And I think maybe because Iver is of a certain age, and he’s lived his life, I think we were allowed to bring a bit of comedy into it.”

“Ailbhe nailed the tone in the script, so what really mattered for me was casting it properly. The tone is all there, it’s all set out for you in the script. It's really important to get the right actors, because that can go either way. The wrong person can destroy the tone, you can go too comedic or too serious. So casting was a long process.”

Dix will continue the creative partnerships behind Sunlight on an adaptation of the short story Orange World. For now, details of the project are being kept under wraps.

“Ailbhe is adapting this from an amazing American writer called Karen Russell. It’s a very interesting story. Ailbhe is writing the script this year, and it’s the same team again: Ailbhe, myself, Roisin. Keeper Pictures are onboard again. So it's lovely to be able to keep working with the same people because we really trust each other. It’s very early days, but hopefully that will be the next project.”

Sunlight will have an IFTA members screening this evening at 6:30pm, June 13th, and releases in Irish cinemas on June 16th.

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