“There’s a lot of waiting in hospitals, huh?” Tom (Liam Neeson) says in “Ordinary Love,” teasing his wife Joan (Lesley Manville) not long after they arrive for her first mammogram after she suspects there’s a lump in her breast. The couple has weathered everything in their decades together, from keeping each other entertained as their lives have grown quieter to the unthinkable loss of their daughter years before they find themselves awaiting a diagnosis for Joan. While the anxiety surrounding whether Joan has cancer threatens to reopen old wounds, it also has the ability to reveal an entirely new level of compassion and empathy between the pair in Lisa Barros d’Sa and Glenn Leyburn’s extraordinarily moving new drama.
The gentle romance may come as something of a surprise for those familiar with the married filmmakers’ raucous comedies “Good Vibrations” and “Cherrybomb,” but armed with a nimble script from Owen McCafferty, Barros d’Sa and Leyburn create a film that’s every bit as lively as their previous work, if respectfully more subdued, when Tom and Joan face their greatest fears with grace and good humor, celebrating the strength of their partnership when the disease can be so isolating. After premiering last fall at the Toronto Film Festival, “Ordinary Love” arrives as one of the most romantic options available at the multiplex on this Valentine’s Day holiday weekend and Barros d’Sa and Leyburn spoke about working with Neeson and Manville and eliciting such tender performances, the unexpected benefits of having a strong backcatalog, and how they created a visual dichotomy between the everyday lives of their characters and their experience in treatment.
How did you get interested in this?
Lisa Barros d’Sa: It always starts with the writing, and Owen McCafferty, a really well-known Irish playwright, based the story on things that happened in his own life when his own wife Peggy was diagnosed with breast cancer. It’s about the year they had together, and we talked to him at the beginning when he was thinking about writing and we just had a feeling that personal material would lead him to write something really intimate and powerful. We were really drawn to it because it felt to us that there is this tough subject matter, but primarily it’s a really beautiful and really unique love story. Obviously, we don’t tend to see couples at this stage of life so often and they’re a really equal couple and they still have this very vital relationship, so all that felt like really interesting territory to explore.
Glenn Leyburn: It also felt like a story to us that wasn’t too sentimental or cliched, and that really attracted us.
This is a bit of a departure from “Good Vibrations” and “Cherrybomb.” Was that exciting?
Lisa Barros d’Sa: For sure it was. “Good Vibrations” and “Cherrybomb” are quite frenetic movies with a lot going on, and this movie gave us the opportunity to just spend a lot of time with two actors developing in detail the nuances of this relationship in a really truthful way. It was exciting to change gear in that sense and every story suggests its own style, so this suggested to us shooting it in a way that felt really considered and it’s always exciting to explore a completely different way of doing things than you have done it before.
Glenn Leyburn: Yeah, we shot “Good Vibrations” in five weeks, but it was probably closer to [what should’ve been] a 10-week schedule, so in many ways, we tried to harness the chaos and that wholly suited the material — Belfast in the 1970s was a very chaotic place and certainly the punk rock scene within that. And [with “Ordinary Love”] we thought a great opportunity to really make something we could strip back to its essential elements.
In working with Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville before filming, did you see anything in their dynamic that you might not have expected, but could incorporate into the film?
Lisa Barros d’Sa: What we realized about both Lesley and Liam, especially seeing them together was that they both are really intelligent and witty people. They make each other laugh and that made us really excited about the possibility of drawing out the humor that was inherent to the story. We always wanted to create a relationship that was based on this lovely, vibrant energy between the two of them and we knew that natural sensibility that they shared would create something really lively in those interactions, so that became part of some of the tougher scenes. For example when Liam cuts [Lesley’s] hair in the film, the decision to approach that in a humorous way where the two of them are really, in a very gallant way, finding the humor and the comedy in that situation, makes it a really powerful scene because you have the journey through that scene to the move where Lesley’s character Joan is just faced with herself in the mirror.
How did you find the right house to shoot in?
Glenn Leyburn: That was really quite something. We’d actually been location scouting for quite some time and we had a reasonable idea of we didn’t want and that was a rectangular box with a window at one end and a door at the other. That wasn’t really great for the story we wanted to tell, and we had been out scouting locations in a minibus and we parked the minibus, went and looked at another house that was available and there was nobody in that house and when we came back to the minibus, just by chance, we were parked beside the house we ended up shooting in. We looked up and it had a very unusual, very long window at the front of the house and just as an exterior, we thought it looked interesting, so our locations person knocked on the door.
We’ve become quite good friends with Jeff, the guy who owned it, and he invited us in and [said], “You’re making a film? Would I have seen any of your films?” He’s a real movie buff. So we told him about “Good Vibrations,” and he went away, we were looking around the house and he came back and he had the DVD. He was a fan of the film and wanted us to sign it, so the Movie Gods sometimes smile on you in these situations. I think the idea of us filming there really appealed to him and I guess it had to because we had to move him and his wife out for three weeks, but for us, [the house] was a very key element in the storytelling because it had so many elements that we really loved – the use of natural materials with the stone and the wood, the color palette, that slight sense of being out of time. It felt like perhaps Joan and Tom bought this house some time ago and they were in a state of stasis in a way, and the house really becomes their cocoon that they come out of as we go through the journey of the film.
Did the wide framing and the shadowplay come immediately to mind as an aesthetic for this?
Glenn Leyburn: It did. We talked a lot with our director of photography Piers McGrail about how aspect ratio was important [because] it meant that we could have Tom and Joan in the frame at the same time and still be really, really close. Then when one of them would be missing [in a scene] that we’d probably be feeling that absence even more. The house lent itself to be shot that wide and it also was just big enough where you feel perhaps their daughter Debbie’s absence, which when we were talking to Piers, we [discussed] there being almost a spectral point of view and sometimes having that look at Tom and Joan from pulling the camera far back. The camera’s not moving a lot, at least initially, but it being a very static camera again reinforces that stasis [along with] very considered framing and lighting.
It creates an unexpected contrast to what happens in the hospital where there’s often a feeling of movement, particularly in that breathtaking sequence where you can hear Joan counting down to her treatment as you travel through the clinic.
Lisa Barros d’Sa: Yes, the part where Joan is counting her way through the scan actually comes back to what Glenn was just talking about and that sense of movement. One of the things we wanted to do was to suggest that though these events are difficult and certainly terrible to live through, they also have the effect of pushing Tom and Joan out of this cocoon that they’ve been wrapped in and through a sometimes painful – but dynamic — process, that enables them eventually to forge new connections with the outside world. So we always wanted to have this sense that the hospital environment required them to move. They weren’t able to be still. They had to go through this process.
When we were in those [hospital] corridors, we used the steadicam to shoot those sequences, so when it came to cutting it together, we were able to create a really nice flow that propelled them through the space, and one of the challenges of this story was that it’s so full of quiet, intimate moments that you also have a need to draw them through the story to the end emotionally and that kind of sequence helped at that stage of the film.
Glenn Leyburn: And [the idea for the countdown] came from Peggy, Owen’s wife. It was one of her physicians that had suggested this relaxation method of counting and breathing, so that was something that she did.
Lisa Barros d’Sa: That’s right because when you’re inside one of those scanners, it can get a little bit claustrophobic and that’s a way to slow down breathing.
Since I understand your composer David Holmes was actually pretty close to Owen himself, was the music actually a starting point?
Lisa Barros d’Sa: Always, that’s one of the really glorious things about our relationship with David is that he’s got a really instinctive sense of story and of tone and it’s one we’ve all really have jelled on right from the beginning. He’s sharing musical ideas and we’re talking about that back and forth right from the earliest part of the storytelling, and we always feel that surely has got to be a much more fulfilling way of integrating the music [because] to just attach it at the last minute to something that’s almost been fully created seems like such a missed opportunity. And [David] really was the first to talk to Owen and to suggest that he write this as a screenplay, something that perhaps initially Owen was reluctant to do, but David, who has his own connection to the subject matter, really felt that this would be important.
Glenn Leyburn: With this particular score as well, much like a lot of the elements of this film, we all discovered along the way that it was about pulling things back and letting the material and the performances speak for itself — that we weren’t asking for emotion from the audience, but we earned that. And David is on record saying this is one of the most difficult scores that he’s ever done and that is just because of the restraint we had to all show at every aspect of it.
Lisa Barros d’Sa: David and Brian [Irvine, the co-composer] created this incredibly beautiful score that just holds everything in balance and never leans on the emotion too hard. We’re just thrilled by it.