Ordinary Love – An intimate portrait of love, survival and the epic questions life throws at each and every one of us

In a conversation between childhood friends Owen McCafferty and David Holmes, the initial idea for Ordinary Love was formed and began to take shape. McCafferty, a celebrated playwright in his own right, had been discussing his first foray into screenwriting and as Holmes explains: ‘In the current climate of films; you need a really good idea’.

It wasn’t until McCafferty’s wife was diagnosed with and subsequently survived a journey through breast cancer, that Holmes believed McCafferty had the idea for his debut script.

‘I remember the day and the moment Owen called me to tell me Peggy had cancer,’ Holmes recalls. ‘The quality of Owen’s writing, and how original he is as a writer; it dawned on me that maybe this is what he should be writing about.’

‘I didn’t personally want to go back into that world. If I were to go back there, it would draw Peggy back with me.’ McCafferty explains.  Holmes completely understood when his idea was initially rejected: ‘After you’ve been on a journey like what Owen and Peggy went through, the last thing you want to do is revisit it’.

For a year, Holmes continued to check in with McCafferty about the idea to make sure he was happy with his decision. ‘I was unsure of the idea of using something that close and real to you for a script. When David asked again, I asked Peggy what she thought. When she said yes, I agreed. David’s very persuasive!’

Holmes brought the idea to Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn, his partners in Canderblinks Film.

When the film was still in its treatment stage, the Canderblinks team recruited producer Brian J. Falconer to join the production. Within six months, the first draft was ready. ‘It’s about people coping and finding a way to live with grief. It’s about the normality of existence and I don’t mean that in a mundane way. It concentrates on the minutiae of life. I have a theory that if you tell lots of small stories; you end up telling one big story. So in a sense that’s the construction of Ordinary Love,’ McCafferty explains.

‘When I first read Ordinary Love,’ Falconer states ‘The anticipation and nerves were high. I read the script for the first time so quickly that when I finished I picked it up and read it again immediately. It was that good. It’s the best script I had ever read, and people like Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson clearly agreed,’ Falconer states.

 ‘The script was stunning. We were all completely astonished by how powerful it was. Putting this film together has been effortless and that’s down to the power of Owen’s script,’ Holmes believes.

Owen McCafferty

Lisa Barros D’Sa & Glenn Leyburn

Holmes was lifelong friends of co-directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn, who had started their production company Canderblinks so they could ‘control our own destiny’ Holmes explains.

‘You know those parties where you are all standing in the kitchen at 2am? We were the ones standing there saying we’re going to make films together. We thought, let’s not wait on things coming to us, let’s make it happen ourselves.’

‘David is a lifelong friend of Owen’s and all three of us were such great fans of his theatre work. Knowing what he was capable of in theatre made us excited to see what he might bring to the screen,’ Leyburn explains.

‘This film exists because Owen and Peggy went through this journey. It’s something everyone in the production wishes didn’t have to happen for this material to be here,’ Leyburn continues, but as Barros D’Sa elaborates: ’We believed that Owen’s intimacy with the  material could lead a great writer to produce some of his best work.’

Lisa Barros D’Sa & Glenn Leyburn

After reading the first draft of the script, both directors were struck by the central love story, but also by the portrayal of love in a 30 year marriage, as Barros D’Sa explains:

‘We don’t tend to see characters at this stage of life featured in a love story. Tom and Joan have been married for a long time, but this is not a story about a power struggle, or people who are looking beyond each other. This is a couple who have a vital connection with one another. We’re not at the beginning or end of their love story, we’re at the heart of it.’ Leyburn agrees: ‘I was really struck by what a beautiful love story it was; it is a lovely intimate portrait of a marriage.’

Beyond the love story, both directors were also drawn to the simplicity and normalcy of Tom and Joan’s day to day lives.

Ordinary Love is a film about what it is to be human in the world, the texture of that. We deal with the biggest issues in life, the heart shaking mysteries of death and grief, whilst at the same time planning the weekly shop. Handling the prosaic alongside the epic; that’s how we all move through the world,’ Barros D’Sa explains.  

For Leyburn, he wanted to reflect the vibrancy of their marriage within the aesthetic style of the film. He explains furthers:

‘With a title like Ordinary Love, it’s easy to assume there will be a plain, everyday look to the film, but we see ‘ordinary’ as interesting. If you look closely enough at anybody’s existence, you see it’s unique. As far as the camera and photography were concerned, it was about being quietly striking. We didn’t want the camera to get in the way of performances, it was about pulling that back and being quite spare and considered, so the camera moves when the characters move, and the lighting is naturally motivated.’

Tom and Joan’s house played a big part in the film, becoming a character unto itself as Leyburn elaborates:

‘We wanted the house to feel like Tom and Joan’s cocoon. If you look at how we used the curtains and how you don’t really see the outside, they’re silhouetted against those. It’s like Tom and Joan closed themselves off from that part of the world.’

Barros D’Sa explains that this concept is important when it comes to dealing with Joan’s unexpected news: ‘Joan’s diagnosis pushes them out of this cocoon on a very painful journey into a bigger world. But it’s a journey that has unexpected compensations and enables their lives to open up a little bit’.

Lesley Manville & Liam Neeson

Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson were the top of everyone’s minds for the roles of Joan and Tom as Falconer explains:

‘When we first got together as a team and discussed our pipe dream casting, it was Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson. Ordinary Love is a testimony to having a good script, the sky’s the limit when you cast the film. We were really lucky to have them front and centre to tell the story of our film.’ 

‘When the first draft came along, not only did we think Liam Neeson would be perfect for the role, we could hear his voice in that way that Tom was written. From that moment, we knew we wanted to approach Liam with the script,’ Barros D’Sa continues.

As well as sending onto Neeson’s agent, producer David Holmes had an additional way of reaching him with the script; via U2 front man Bono. ‘I asked Bono to send it to him, but only after he had read it first and thought it was good enough for Liam – and that’s what he did,’ Holmes explains.

For the character of Joan, Barros D’Sa elaborates on what drew them to Lesley Manville:

‘She’s the most extraordinarily precise, warm, sensitive and intelligent actor. She’s simply one of the very best actors around. We had a strong feeling that the dynamic between her and Liam would work brilliantly and create something special.’ Holmes agrees, ‘To have two actors of that calibre in the ring, we knew it was going to bring some excitement because of the mutual respect they have for each other.’

When reading scripts, Manville looks for specific qualities in a role, which she found in the character of Joan:

‘When I first read a script, I’m always looking for a fascinating character and an emotional story to tell. It’s what I like best and what I do best. I want to see that there is some complex centre that I need to get to, a complex set of emotions that I need to bring to life and are going to challenge me.’

For Neeson, the appeal of Ordinary Love was much closer to home:

‘I didn’t want to be a different character to who essentially I am; Liam Neeson from Northern Ireland; and I found that very liberating to be able to do, and hopefully supply a general truthfulness to the scenes by not acting through an accent. James Cagney had a famous expression:  ‘Walk in the room, plant your feet, speak the truth.’ That’s all I try to do’.

With Neeson based in New York and Lesley performing on Broadway in Eugene O’Neil’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the two actors met properly for the first time a few days after Neeson had watched her perform. ‘She commanded the stage for three and half hours,’ Neeson recalls admiringly.

Both actors had great faith in the script: ‘We just trusted Owen’s script and his scenes. We knew we could pretend that we had been married for thirty years.’ Neeson explains.    

For Manville, the research surrounding playing a cancer patient didn’t feel daunting. ‘Everything that happens to Joan, happens to her for the first time. In a way, she only understands what is happening to her through what the doctors are telling her first hand.’ Manville wanted to maintain a degree of authenticity. ‘What I did look into was how women feel after chemo and the loss of their hair, so I spoke to many people and did some reading up on that.’

With Lesley’s play finishing a few days ahead of filming beginning in Belfast, Barros D’Sa and Leyburn flew to New York to meet their actors together and spend a few days prepping. ‘We got familiar with each other, which is just as important as rehearsing together as you know you are going to be alright when it comes to filming,’ Manville explains.

‘As soon as we saw them read the script together, we immediately felt it was believable that they had known each other for years,’ Barros D’Sa recalls. ‘They share a sense of humour, as well as wit, intelligence, honesty and generosity. They are very generous actors, both with each other and with the crew; it created a lovely warm atmosphere on set.’

For Neeson, Tom and Joan’s marriage represented an ideal he hadn’t portrayed on film before, and he was grateful for the time he had to get to know Lesley, as he explains: ‘Everything is happening to Joan, but it is by proxy happening to him too. They only have each other; their lives are so entwined, and I’ve never done a film where the couple are so closely embroiled in each other lives and emotions and have been through quite so much together.’

When filming commenced in the summer of 2018, both Manville and Neeson were at ease with their third time feature directors. In some ways, they were the perfect couple to guide the actors through their on screen marriage:

‘I had worked with two directors before and in the same way: one of them works with the actors primarily and one of them works with the cameras and the aesthetic of it.’ Manville explains. ‘They seem to gloriously complement each other. Lisa worked more with Liam and I, and Glenn more with the camera team. But they are always at the monitor together, making all the decisions together’

‘They are a charming, knowledgeable couple. Over the course of the shoot, I relied on them a great deal which I love doing; I love trusting my directors,’ Neeson elaborates. ‘It was one of those happy relationships; we got on very well and I have every admiration in the world for them.’

The admiration and respect was mutual: ‘It was very exciting to work with such gifted actors, to see their ease with the craft born of long experience, and also their total commitment to the work. It was a delight to build character and story with them, to discover beautiful moments and nuances together every day,’ Barros D’Sa explains.

‘As far as working with Liam and Lesley and the potential pressure attached to that, it didn’t really feel like that to us at all. Liam and Lesley are such great collaborators and wonderful actors; they’re so skilled at their craft that it was a wonderful experience,’ Leyburn continues.

It was an on screen match made in heaven for both the actors. ‘It was marvellous working with Liam. Thankfully we got on and it was a fantastic experience. I looked forward to every day on set with him, working it all out together,’ Manville explains of her co-star.

‘Lesley is one of those truly great actresses. She appears effortless on screen and of course that masks over forty years’ experience. I can tick off my bucket list having worked with her; it’s been a joy,’ Neeson enthuses.

The filmmakers knew they had bought together two actors with great chemistry and experience for the roles of Joan and Tom, as Barros D’Sa describes: We wanted to feel that every time we saw Tom and Joan together, there was this electricity between them, this quiet, undeniable chemistry. At times during their journey they are separated, but when they’re together we feel the energy shift, and understand how they keep each other alive, afloat We needed actors that could create that dynamic and Lesley and Liam did it beautifully.’

‘Together, their faces look like they have lived through life. They have an incredible natural chemistry,’ Holmes describes.

As his first experience in film, McCafferty was in awe watching the two actors on set. ‘Coming through in everything they do is this look that they have had something happen to them. That must be from experience and great acting. They don’t have to be pushed; it just exists in the moment.’

More Than A Diagnosis

Cancer is a diagnosis that many people deal with on a day-to-day basis. However, the team behind Ordinary Love believe there is so much more to the film than illness. Falconer explains:

‘When the audience see Ordinary Love they are going to see an intimate portrait of a rarely seen story. Tom and Joan love, they laugh, they fight; they are ordinary just like all of us.’

‘I hope people will take away comfort and inspiration. Ordinary Love is a film about love on so many different levels. But it also says that cancer isn’t the end for a lot of people, even though sadly it is the end for many’, Holmes explains.

‘We are dealing with a very tough subject matter but the film has lightness to it, a lightness that is based on the love that these two people have for each other,’ Neeson elaborates. ‘I hope audiences come away thinking they’ve watched a film that is incredibly heartening about the longevity of a beautiful marriage and how a marriage and a relationship can get stronger even though you may be going through incredible, emotional hardship.’

‘Life isn’t full of exceptional days, it is full of ordinary days. I hope people will try to find the joy in the ordinary after watching Ordinary Love. Tom and Joan have to deal with a lot of stuff that everyone has to deal with, but they’ve never quite lost this twinkle. You should always try to find something or someone to keep life buoyant,’ explains Manville.

‘The extraordinary and the ordinary coexist in everybody’s life, every day and that’s what this film is about,’ Barros D’Sa states, ‘There are vast numbers of people living a life along with cancer. Films are good at creating empathy, making us more understandable to each other, and I hope Ordinary Love will open a window into some of those experiences.  Every ordinary life, and love, contains multitudes and is worth celebrating.’

For Manville, she took away one learning from the process of making Ordinary Love . ‘People who go through cancer are so courageous. They find a bravery they didn’t know they had. You can survive cancer and discover a lot about yourself. It’s a journey that can, and hopefully does for some, be a strengthening event.’