Love o' the Irish

Director/writer David Freyne unveils the year’s most unusual romantic comedy with ‘Dating Amber’

Director David Freyne (right) with Fionn O’Shea

Talking to David Freyne is a bit like talking to a war correspondent. At times, it’s hard to hear over the explosions.

“Sorry, I’m in London. It’s Guy Fawkes Day,” Freyne apologizes, never losing his affable tone or raising his voice.

His cool might come from his upbringing in Ireland during the 1980s and 1990s at the height of ethnonationalism conflict between Ireland and Northern Ireland, which remains part of the United Kingdom. As the son of an Army officer, Freyne spent his youth on military bases before journeying into filmmaking as an adult. His first movie, The Cured starring Ellen Page, debuted in 2017. Though ostensibly a horror film, it used a zombie apocalypse as a metaphor for queer identity, and survival in a militarized society.

Freyne now tries his hand at comedy, writing and directing the coming of age rom-com Dating Amber, coming to theatres and on-demand November 10. The film follows the nerdy closet case Eddie (Fionn O’Shea), the son of a military brat bullied for his effeminacy. His classmate Amber (Lola Petticrew) endures similar humiliation, and also happens to be a closet lesbian. The two hatch a plan to “date” each other, thus quashing any rumors about their sexuality. As the pair develop a true love of their friendship, they begin to explore the queer lives and community they’ve always dreamed of. But how long can their charade last?

We snagged some time with Freyne to chat about Dating Amber, his fascinating life, career, and his hopes for the future. Dating Amber arrives in theatres and on-demand November 10.

So this is your second film, and you’ve already called it your most personal. How closely do the lives of Eddie and Amber mirror your own experience growing up queer in Ireland?

Very closely in many ways. It’s kind of half-truth and half wish fulfillment. My dad was in the army. I had wait until late to come out, like most queer kids do. I had a friend in school who later came out as a lesbian, and in hindsight, it would have been so easy had we just dated. It would have made our lives easier.

Fionn O’Shea and Lola Petticrew

Sure.

So that was really the starting point. Having that kind of queer friendship is the wish-fulfillment of it. And it’s also autobiographical: all the hideous things really did happen.

Oh wow. Now, just to give our readers a bit of context, the film is set in mid-90s where there are lots of military activities going on as a sort of backdrop. Was there a specific incident that you were referring to? Or was that more just the lifestyle?

My dad was in the army, so I grew up on a military base. I grew up in a town called Curragh, which isn’t just where the film is set. It’s also where we shot it on a military base. So I grew up with tanks and soldiers training. That was just the setting. It didn’t have anything to do with the troubles—the term for the state violence of the time. I was quite removed from that. It just happened that I grew up in one of the biggest military camps in the country. And like a lot of kids who have a military background, it’s a unique experience.

Of course.

You’re in this “normal” town, but it happens to feel occupied in a benign sense. So it was really just being true to my experience, and the oddness of a military family. I really wanted to bring my hometown to the screen. I thought there was something magical in it.

Related: Same-sex marriage to finally arrive in Northern Ireland

It’s kind of amazing that you were able to shoot in your home town. That’s kind of meta given that the story is autobiographical. Is it weird revisiting that time in your life, in that location, while making a film? Is that painful?

For me it was very cathartic, and very healing more than anything. Had I made it earlier—there was a time I could have made this film as my first film. I think then I would have had the distance to really see the warmth and love that existed, and to be as honest as I was in the film. Making it when I made it, what’s the phrase? Tragedy plus time equals comedy? I had the distance that I could revisit it and have fun with it. I made peace with a lot of stuff.

That’s wonderful.

And it was really lovely having everyone see where I grew up. I could go home in the evenings and have dinner with my parents. I haven’t lived with them in years. It was just really lovely. It was an extremely healing experience. When you write something that is so specfic to place, you very often don’t get to make it there; you shoot somewhere else.

Fionn O’Shea

Yes.

And that can be really difficult. We were dealing with an active military base that hasn’t let anybody shoot there for 20 years, not since Braveheart.

Oh wow.

It was crazy. We had to put in so much work just to get access to it. So much of my anxiety around this film was if we’d get to shoot there, or if we’d have to build it somewhere else. But we hounded them. My dad hounded his old army buddies for six months, and eventually got access to the active barracks. I can’t imagine shooting anywhere else. It would have broke my heart to do that.

It’s so interesting that you would get to go home after shooting and have dinner with your parents. Did you take Fionn and Lola to meet them as well?

It’s really funny. We were staying in this hotel called The Keadeen, me and the crew. It was very close to my parents’ house, so I went back to various locations to have dinner just because it was nice. I don’t live in Ireland, so it was very nice to do it. My dad spent time with Barry Ward who plays [Ian, Eddie’s dad], and taught him how to use guns since my dad was in the Army. My brother—a lot of his band’s music is in the soundtrack. My sister, nephews and nice were extras. So it became a real family environment. And we were working with these soldiers who, when we weren’t filming, all had anecdotes about my dad. So…it was weird.

[Laughter]

It was really weird. And it was really funny: my mom would go out to shops and people would ask did you hear they’re filming something? And she’d be like that’s my son. He’s a director. It was just really, really fun and lovely.

That’s wonderful. So when you have your family on hand like that, do they give much advice to the actors about how to approach their characters—people that are based on them?

It’s very funny. Barry spent time with my dad just to learn his ways and mannerisms. A lot of my friends watched it thinking certain characters were based on them, rather than that being the case. The parents are very much based on my parents; they’re fictional versions of them. But I didn’t want Sharon Horgan [who plays Eddie’s mom] with my mother trying to mimic her. I wanted her to create her own character, and she did that beautifully. I wanted all the characters to feel really and funny and have all their own arcs in the film.

Fionn O’Shea and Lola Petticrew

Well, and on that note, one thing that did impress me was just how clearly drawn even the tertiary characters are. They’re all so distinct even in just one or two scenes.

Yeah.

That being said, the dramatic weight of the film rests on your two leads, Fionn and Lola. Was there a specific quality you were looking for between the two of them?

It was a really long search. We were so nervous about casting the leads. I was very aware the whole film rests on their shoulders. If we’d made one mistake in casting, it wouldn’t work. So we did really wide casting. When we finally narrowed to just a few final guys, we did a chemistry read. I had a feeling the whole time it was going to be Fionn and Lola. But when we got them in the room together, it was electric. Lightning in a bottle. I knew I’d found my leads. From there it was about making them become friends. So we had a really long rehearsal period, and they immediately became inseparable. They became the bestest friends—they were finishing each other’s sentences. It was so heartwarming to watch. You feel the genuine love they have for each other. And that’s why the film works.

Totally.

There was one day Lola wasn’t filming, but she was still there hanging out, watching the monitor with Fionn, and vice versa, just because he wanted to hang out with Lola. It’s so gorgeous that the film ended up having that friendship. Going back to what you were saying, I didn’t know what I was looking for, but I knew it when I found it. I had a clear idea that I wanted Amber to be like a young Julie Walters: very acerbic. And Lola just had that. And Fionn—there something so vulnerable about him. It’s just something in his face; you want to give him a big hug. And he instantly embodied Eddie so beautifully. But its something indefinable. You see it when you see it. I can’t imagine casting anyone else.

The dynamic really shows on screen. And—by the way—it’s so refreshing to see the friendship between a gay man and a lesbian.

Yes! Thank you.

Fionn O’Shea and Lola Petticrew

It’s not something we see that often.

I know. We watch all these queer films, and it always feels like gay men and lesbians are in hermetically sealed boxes—that they don’t interact. That’s not the experience for anyone in the LGBTQ community. It’s just not the experience. We are a community. We’re friends. We grow up and know people that are bi or trans. And I wanted that gay-lesbian friendship at the heart of this film because it’s ridiculous that we don’t get more of that. Whoever is making those decisions—they’re not gay. We need to see more queer films that reflect the entirety of the queer community.

So one of Eddie’s great fears in the film is getting dumped by Amber, even though they’re both gay. Why is it so hard for him? Is it pride or ego or a feeling that he’s failed?

I think, for him, for me—theirs is a relationship that’s based on a lie, and it is platonic. But theirs is real love, first love. So even though there’s no sexual attraction, Eddie is most himself with Amber. He finds peace with her. And I think it’s really sad for Eddie that he’s so in denial he thinks they can keep things going indefinitely. I think there’s something sad about that because it’s true for so many gay people struggling with their sexuality. So it’s genuine heartbreak—he’s losing someone he loves. I always describe the film as a romantic comedy, and it is that. It’s an unusual love story between these two people.

So this would seem like a far departure from your last film, the zombie thriller The Cured. On closer examination, however, that’s not really true—both deal with the idea of being “othered,” and with survival in a very militarized society.

Yes.

Obviously, these are forces you dealt with growing up. But why do those themes haunt you? Why do you keep returning to them?

Exactly. That’s right. The Cured is a different side of the coin to Dating Amber. I made The Cured when I was much angrier. I hadn’t come to terms with the anger I had as a young man, and maybe my own internalized homophobia. I think struggling with an inner monster as the lead in The Cured does was all about my own struggle. Then later, I could see the funny side of that and the warmth from that. That’s where Dating Amber came from.

And does that ever go away?

I don’t think those themes will go anywhere. I’m still writing, and I think those themes are recurring in my work, either explicitly or really subtextual. I forget who said it, but I think you always tell the same story, just in a different way. That’s probably true.

Dating Amber arrives in theatres and on-demand November 10.