David Freyne returned to his hometown in Country Kildare in Ireland last summer to direct his semi-autobiographical screenplay, set in 1995, just two years after the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the country. The film, Dating Amber, which is released on demand and digital in the US today, is a platonic romantic comedy that sees two queer high schoolers Eddie (Fionn O’Shea) and Amber (Lola Petticrew) at different stages of self-acceptance, pretend to be a couple in order to avoid the speculation of their peers. Freyne’s 2017 feature debut as writer-director was zombie movie The Cured starring queer icon Ellen Page, which won Best Horror Feature at Fantastic Fest. He describes this second feature, Dating Amber, as far more personal: “it’s my story…or at least as autobiographical as it will ever get.”
Ahead of today’s US release, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with writer-director David Freyne about returning to where he grew up to make a film about that period, portraying the experience of entering a queer space for the first time, how he wanted to convey the mid-90s rural Ireland setting, and why Russell T. Davies’ Queer as Folk made a big impression on him.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: You went back to the area in County Kildare in Ireland where you grew up to shoot the film and I wondered what that experience was like especially given how personal the film is?
David Freyne: “It was amazing. I was kind of a bit nervous and a little bit anxious about it initially, but it was actually really cathartic and lovely and really fun. It felt like I was making a short film like I would have done back in the day when everyone helped out. My dad helped on the film and my family were extras, so it ended up being a really great experience. It was amazing that we got to shoot where we did on this military barracks because it’s really hard to get access to and they usually say no. So actually getting to shoot where the film is set was such a privilege and I didn’t know whether that would necessarily happen. So yeah, it was such a joy. I loved it.”
Tell me about your guiding principles for recreating 1995; the period details that position it in that time. I love the video that you start the film off with that helps immerse us into the era.
“Well, that video is based on a real tape which is just as extreme and ridiculous, so that was just the background of how absurd Ireland was at the time. Rather than being really specific with period details I wanted to create the mood and a sense of the period through the palette and through the design. What was really important to me to convey was that Ireland in the 90s probably felt like the 80s in other places. It always felt like we were a few years behind. So when somebody from the States or England or France watches the film the time period it is set in probably feels even older than it is because when you think about it socially modernity came later to us. So that was something that I talked about a lot with my production designer Emma Lowney and costume designer Joan O’Clery. There was really strong communication between them and myself and my incredible DP Ruairí O’Brien about how everything would look. We wanted it to feel like you were looking through a photo album, like you were looking back at a memory. So it wasn’t about being very heavy-handed with the music or including specific fashion, but more that we wanted to create a sense of that time.”
I wondered how closely the screenplay reflects your own experience and whether having that bit of distance of a couple of decades allowed you to inject more humour than you might have done if you’d written it closer to the time that it happened?
“Totally. It’s pretty autobiographical, it’s not entirely truthful but all the really bad bits are true, all the really embarrassing stuff happened unfortunately! I think you’re right, I wouldn’t have had the peace of mind to be as honest with with this stuff had I made it a few years ago. I actually tried to make Dating Amber, then called Beards, as my first film and the finances didn’t happen. I think in hindsight that was a good thing because I just don’t think I would have been as open and honest as I needed to be with my cast and my crew and with the incidents in the script that happened to tell it. I think I would have been much more guarded and it would be a lesser film for that I guess. There’s that classic saying of tragedy plus time equals comedy and I think that’s very true, distance really helps you see the humour and warmth that maybe exists but you don’t always notice at the time. When I was in my twenties I had a very angry, bleak view of my teenage years and even my college years and the struggle I had. I think it’s only now that I can really see how much warmth was there as well as the anguish and the pain, and I think they go hand in hand. I definitely went very close to the bone with a lot of elements in the script, and I don’t know if I could have done that a couple years ago. Like the scene where Eddie’s mother finds those really badly drawn pornographic images in the basket, that stuff is really close to bone, things that happened in my own life and I’m fine to make fun of it now. It’s really funny but at the time it was horrific. Those kind of absurd moments are really sad as well, and I think the comedy and the tragedy go together. The moments when you feel the most empathy for Eddie are those sad moments.”
One of my favourite sequences in the film is when Fionn O’Shea as Eddie and Lola Petticrew as Amber get away from their small town and go to a gay bar in Dublin. What did you want to capture about that experience of going to a queer space for the first time?
“For me that moment of going into a gay bar for the first time and finding a queer space when you’re closeted or newly out is really scary and really exciting and exhilarating. It feels otherworldly, so I wanted it to feel like they were entering a different world entirely. When Eddie floats up to the stage and dances with Johnny Woo the drag queen there’s this really maternal kind of fairy gay godmother essence to it. I wanted it to feel like they were finding their tribe and to feel like it was almost teetering on magic realism. It was about how it felt and getting that feeling of finding your place in the world. Fionn and Lola were so stunning in that scene and in creating that feeling. It’s was definitely one of the funnest days on set and it was such a joy to create that one camera movement with Ruairí, it was just brilliant. Everyone kind of stopped like it was a spiritual moment when Johnny Woo started lip-syncing to the recording of the Brenda Lee song for the first time. He was just so magnificent and everyone’s jaws dropped, it felt really moving and emotional. I think we all felt what Eddie was feeling at that point.”
What’s your favourite LGBTQ+ either film, TV series, book, play, musical, piece of music, artwork, or person – someone or something that has made an impact on you and resonated with you over the years and why?
“Russell T. Davies. Queer as Folk was the first thing that a snuck a look at when I was a kid and it was the first time that I saw joyous queerness on screen that wasn’t riddled with abuse or a tragic gay AIDS story. So that was really significant to me and throughout his career he’s been somebody that I really admire and love. Also, a film that I loved in the 90s which again felt so unlike other films that I’d seen was But I’m a Cheerleader. I just loved that film so much and I return to it often. It was the first time that I had seen that story told with warmth and humour. I was so used to seeing a very depressing view of myself at that time and so I just really embraced it and I still love that film.”
By James Kleinmann
Dating Amber is available on demand and digital in the US from today November 10th 2020.