Emer Reynolds on Finding Excitement on the Road Less Traveled in “Joyride”

“Joyride” may open at a day at the beach, but for its characters, the reality is anything but. A flashback to more idyllic times quickly cuts to a warm memorial service at a local pub for Rita Mulligan, the mother of the prepubescent Mully (Charlie Reid). His spirits are unusually high for a kid that’s lost his mum, obliging the well-wishers who urge him to go up on stage to sing, but he can’t help but notice the empty stool where his mother would surely be sitting or his father James (Lochlann O’Mearáin) backstage who seems certain to take off with any money the family receives for their bereavement, likely to pay down debts that aren’t related to funeral expenses. That Mully gets away from the Irish wake first, absconding with a car he isn’t old enough to drive legally, is just one of the many surprises in store in Emer Reynolds’ affecting dramedy “Joyride,” especially to when Molly’s chagrin, his eagerness to leave home blinds him to the fact that the car he’s stolen has a sleeping woman (Olivia Colman) and her baby in the backseat.

Inspired by the thoughts screenwriter Ailbhe Keogan had as she was wandering around the backwoods of County Kerry after giving birth herself, “Joyride” follows the circuitous route that Mully and the passenger he comes to know as Joy take to find a new normal as the boy comes to terms with life without his mom and Joy tries to accept her role as one, starting to have second thoughts about giving her newborn to an adoptive couple. They trade places in the driver’s seat, exhausted at times by the other’s company, but generally invigorated because of it as they begrudgingly accept they have something to offer one another, with Joy cutting quite the decisive, if not necessarily maternal figure, Mully is looking for after he’s lost his mother and even at his young age, he has a better idea of the lay of the land than Joy when it comes to the local roads as well as caring for the baby when he’s long been responsible for his niece. The two may be on the run from James, who is eager to get at least the money Mully has taken with him, but as they find a home with one another as they embark on a trip across Ireland that comes to involve country-singing cabbies and majestic ferry rides, issues that would only seem to affect them personally take on the scale of the larger world they traverse.

Having come off of the making of the documentary “The Farthest,” charting the history of NASA’s Voyager Program, Reynolds would seem to know a thing or two about exploring vast universes on a human scale and though “Joyride” is her narrative feature debut, the filmmaker brings along her experience in nonfiction and a particularly accomplished career as an editor on such dramas as Conor McPherson’s “The Eclipse” and Lance Daly’s “The Good Doctor” to balance out the bold characters and atmosphere that make for such a lively comedy while allowing for the nuances of Reid and Colman’s performances to really shine. With the film making its way stateside as a surefire heart warmer for the holidays, the director spoke about navigating inclement weather and equally tumultuous emotional terrain in this charming road movie.

This is actually your first narrative feature. What was it that made you want to take the leap?

I made three feature documentaries, but I was actively looking for a drama to start that part of my adventure. I got sent the script in 2018 by Aoiffe, the producer who had been developing it for a couple of years, and I really responded to the themes. Every director is looking for a way in, a personal connection, and for me, it’s about friendship, family, and healing — all these wonderful big ideas — but at its core, it’s about motherhood. I lost my own mother when I was a very young child and am childless as an adult and I was very intrigued and challenged to dig into Joy, as played by the wonderful Olivia Colman. As written, she’s not your classic mother. She’s not floral and placid and demure and anodyne. She’s messy and broken and in your face, making all these crazy decisions unapologetically. She’s not a people pleaser and I was really, really interested to see that woman on screen and it’s got this huge beating, uncynical heart at the center of the film. It’s not coy. It’s not demure. It’s just all out there.

The bright yellow coat that Joy wears from the start really seems to be making a statement. Was that something that came to mind immediately?

Yeah, I had a really wonderful chat with Kathy Strachan, our brilliant costume designer and it was coming out of a place where I wanted the film to wear its heart on its sleeve and to allow Joy be as messy and expressive as she wants. Even though she’s ostensibly giving away her newborn and trying to mop up that messy side of her life at the start of the film and go back to where she was, she’s got a defiance about her, so we were looking for a way to express that in her clothing, given that we were going to be out in the wilds of the Kerry Hills. She needed to bring that attitude and I saw that clothing as her unwillingness to be cowed and if you don’t like her, that’s okay. That’s on you. It was only as the film wore on that we started to realize how there’s one scene where she looks like a sunflower in a meadow, so it was funny how even the costume changed from the start of the film being this real statement of intent to something that was capable of change and softening itself over time.

Once you got Olivia and Charlie together, were there dynamics that you could lean into that you might not have anticipated?

It’s a chemistry thing and we didn’t really realize this when we started, but Olivia doesn’t really like to rehearse very much. She’s very, very instinctive actor, so a lot of our rehearsal process was just talking about the characters and the scenes and really leaving it for the day. I was slightly concerned for Charlie — [this was his] first role, and [I thought] maybe he really needs rehearsal, but he’s very brave and a really spirited young man and trusted Olivia. They just came together and you could see their friendship off-screen and on, they were really, really tight and I had seen a much longer journey of them facing away and starting to turn [in the story].

But when it started, from the beginning in the car and heading off, you could see that Olivia loved to have this young boy who was putting it up to her and he loved her being so full of spirit, so they turned to each other really quickly. That’s really rewarding when you see it in the film because with all these odd couple road movies, you know they’re going to start apart and move towards each other and it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy where you enjoy watching that unfold and I think you can see from the start, they’re really going to like each other and that was thrilling to see as it washed out as the film wore on.

You keep it visually engaging, which must be a challenge when you’re stuck in a car for a large part of this. Was your experience as an editor kicking in as you were devising the shoot?

Sure, but for all my years of experience as an editor, when you’re on set with five weeks and we had 11 vehicles, up mountains and on ferries, [you’re] saying “you need to get this,” so in many ways, you’re just instinctively going for it. I had an incredible team and it was very, very alive as we shot, so it naturally had that feeling of trapped unpleasantly together in a small space and having to put up with each other and then as they move towards understanding and outside to some sort of resolution, the car kind of falls away.

We also shot it in County Kerry, this beautiful, wild magical county on the west coast of Ireland, and its madness and wilderness and poetry really seeps into the film’s DNA. We were wondering, “Gosh, how will we find a locations manager who will know this world? And it was our first stroke of great fortune that literally the week we started looking, Carl King, who is the locations manager on “The Crown,” had just married a woman from Kerry and moved to Tralee. He came onboard and we went off driving the highways and backroads of Kerry trying to find places that were iconic and beautiful, quoting “Paris, Texas” [along the way] – all of these places, if you’re going to have them pull over and stop, let’s have it over a big highway or a flyover. So we had a lot of fun trying to map that journey.

Did the weather cooperate?

No, the weather did not cooperate. [laughs] And it was a concern because the film happens over a day-and-a-half, and for anyone that’s been in Ireland, it’s not a cliche — the “four seasons [in] one day” is totally part of our life, raining in the morning and sun in the afternoon, so we just went with it. There’s one scene where they’re in a monsoon on the back of a tractor driving down a mountain and it was supposed to be a completely different sunny day and lots of coverage, but [ultimately] it’s a two-minute scene in one long shot. We were shooting in low loaders, which is where you pull a vehicle behind a truck with all the cameras and we got two punctures because there was a monsoon. It was just insane. I remember that day thinking, “Oh God, Olivia Colman, Oscar winner, sitting in the back in the rain… [laughs] But she loved the experience and the camaraderie. Film sets can be a wonderful place where you build this strange little family for a few weeks you’re together.

Olivia and Charlie were up for anything and [in general], I had a wonderful team and cast who were happy. It also turns out that there’s a local witch buried at the bottom of the mountain, so we definitely thought there was some evil magic that was trying to get us off the mountain so they could go back to normal. [laughs]

Only the good magic made it up on screen. And late in the film, there’s a festival you drive through – was that actually convened for the shoot or something you happened upon?

Yeah, the film was initially written as a Christmas tale and we changed it when our dates shifted and it became a summer film, so on St. Stephen’s Day, the 26th of December here, people go out dressed in all these crazy Pagan costumes and sing and call to people’s doors, so we carried over that idea. Those same people in Kerry run multiple types of festivals like that through the year where they celebrate our Pagan heritage, so [that scene] came out of that idea and we set it up for the film, but the people who are in the parade dancing are a troupe of Pagan dancers. I felt so sorry for them [because] we shot that scene on the hottest day of the year. It was absolutely blazing and they were in these sheepskin rugs and these huge animal heads, and they were great sports.

What’s it been like seeing this get out into the world?

It’s wonderful. It’s an incredible film to watch with an audience, sitting in the dark laughing and crying with strangers [because] it’s a big-hearted feel-good film, full of laughter and full of tears. Ultimately, it really brings home some big ideas to do with healing and loving yourself, so it’s been lovely once it goes out, with people writing to me all the time, really reflecting on the feelings. It’s a big feelings film and people like that. People don’t want cynicism and being guarded. They want to connect and this film really does that.

“Joyride” opens on December 23rd in select theaters and on digital and demand.

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