‘Kissing Candice’ has introduced three new distinctive voices to cinema. We interview these exciting rising stars, including director Aoife McArdle and leads Ann Skelly and Ryan Lincoln.

Aoife McArdle’s Kissing Candice is a complex gem of a film. A reimagining of the circular narrative device, McArdle opens the film with the same image that closes it. The opening sees the eponymous protagonist Candice (played by a passionate and promising Ann Skelly) sitting in the driver’s seat of a car. McArdle turns what could be an average car park into a dystopian world, her vivacious lighting letting audiences know they’re in Candice’s vision; this is her dream.

Candice’s teenage infatuation takes the form of Jacob (played with a perfect mix of confidence and insecurity by Ryan Lincoln), who we see sat next to her in the passenger’s seat. Arrows in the middle of the road point up and down, mirroring both the merging of Candice’s dream world and real world as well as representing the confusion of being a teenager. The end of the film reverses this imagery, the arrows also acting as a foreshadowing of the world, or Candice’s sense of the world, turned upside down; Candice sits in the passenger’s seat, and the car turned on its head.

When I spoke to the film’s director and screenwriter McArdle and the leads Skelly and Lincoln over the phone at Toronto International Film Festival, the three were full of passion and excitement for the film, despite having traveled over 5,000 km from Ireland and Northern Ireland. And it’s this dedication to telling the story in as authentic a way possible that transpires through Kissing Candice. McArdle likes to hire everyday people as her actors (called street casting), this Neo-Realist technique allowing truth to be at the forefront of her film. Meanwhile, both Skelly and Lincoln found a connection to their characters, with Skelly describing Candice as “part of my own personality magnified.”

With McArdle’s vast experience in commercials, music videos and short films (she directed a short film for U2‘s “Every Breaking Wave”), Ryan Lincoln’s passion for music, and Skelly’s prominence in television and desire to direct, Kissing Candice has a multi-talented cast full of rising stars.

Read the full interview below.

Red Dots

Aoife, you’ve directed quite a lot of commercials and music videos. Did your previous experience make it less intimidating when beginning your feature, or was it still a really big jump?

AOIFE MCARDLE: Certainly having that background in making videos and commercials makes you feel quite confident about the visual and the technical side of the filmmaking, so I went in with confidence in those areas because I had a long time to practice. I’m a big fan of Post Production, and I’m a big fan of photography and storyboarding and all the technical aspects of filmmaking, so I felt confident about that through the work I’ve done in the past.

But obviously, it is a leap to go from short form to long form, even just in terms of the length of time it takes to make a film – the shoot is so much more of a prolonged thing. Just working so intensively with actors is something that I hadn’t had the opportunity to do quite as much on a short form. I’ve always tried to only go for narrative music videos and narrative commercials, but at the same time, I knew it was going to be a big learning curve.

I must say that working with the actors ended up being the most rewarding experience; I really loved every minute of it! We had a long time rehearsing together and I think that really was essential to helping us make our film because we had a low budget – having all that time together to rehearse gave us time to have the actors really immerse themselves in it and iron out all the things together.

There’s a style that is present in your music videos and short films, for example, your vivid lighting. With the music video you did for U2, you used unknown actors and working-class settings. Because these elements are present in Kissing Candice, are you aware of an aesthetic style you’re building, or are you following your emotions and what you feel is right for the story you’re telling? 

AM: I think it’s a mixture of both. I think you have your own take, like a voice, you know you like certain things and I definitely am attracted to beautiful dystopian locations and rich colors and shadowy places. I think that’s something that I always come back to.

At the same time, I did have a clear color palette for this film. I really wanted it to be blood reds and bottled greens and midnight blues and for shadows and very rich earthy colors to come through. So I was looking for locations that would reflect that. I do generally shoot around light quite mathematically and try to really make the most of that beauty. Just trying to show locations in Ireland in the best light and giving them as magical a look as possible by shooting at sunset and sunrise. I guess I always bring that aesthetic with me. I feel emotionally the film always has to have that sense of a dystopian world, you know, it’s Candice’s vision and her vision is quite imaginative and rich and colorful and chaotic. She’s got an overactive teenage mind. So I was looking for places and art direction that would really help to bring that world to life for the audience and be as immersive as possible.

Were there any films you looked to? The film reminded me of Clio Barnard’s films. For example, the dystopian world she creates in a small English town in The Selfish Giant.

AM: That’s really interesting. I actually haven’t seen The Selfish Giant but I absolutely love The Arbor. I think she’s a wonderful filmmaker so it’s lovely to hear that. From what I know about it, the sense of entrapment, this film certainly touches on that subject. Film-wise I guess, I love film so much and I watch so many that I think I have subconsciously absorbed loads of films!  There are hundreds and hundreds of filmmakers that I admire and I think they all come through in moments. I’d say people who I’ve felt really inspired by over the years would be Fellini, Kubrick, Wim Wenders, or Ken Loach. There are so many people that are in your psyche that I guess some of that’s gonna come through no matter what.

And there’s a bit of Italian Neo-Realism as well, with how you cast your actors, taking people who haven’t acted before.

AM: Yes, I really love doing that. I love signing people who are gonna be truthful on screen. Sometimes you can get really lucky with theatre and film actors who can bring that, but I do find there’s something so electric about finding an amazing actor on a street corner or someone who’s undiscovered and giving them that opportunity. So there are street cast actors who are being themselves in the film and bringing their truth to the film, and that’s a really powerful thing when you can find it. Within the film, we do have a lovely combination of street cast, theatre, and film actors. I think they all really buzzed off each other and inspired each other in different ways and I like to think they all learned from one another in different ways. The theatre actors bring this sort of fearlessness that they have from performing on stage that would scare most people. At the same time, the street cast actors have this beautiful natural intuition where things just feel spontaneous and truthful.

Kissing Candice

How did the idea for Kissing Candice come to you? The film begins in Jacob’s car and Candice is in the driver’s seat, but by the end, the car’s upside down and it’s reversed – Jacob’s in the driver’s seat while Candice is sat in the passenger’s seat. Did you think of these two moments at the same time?

AM: I did indeed. I actually came up with the beginning and end at the same time! I wanted the film to have this circular sense of completion. I built the story around the beginning and the end but backward. I like the idea it was about Candice’s real life versus her dream life and the overlap between the two. Sometimes they cross over in such a fluid way that she barely knows what is real and what isn’t real. I like the idea of the audience being immersed in her world and seeing it through her eyes. I think what you get in the first scene is you get this fever dream that’s a mixture of her hopes but also a mixture of the seeds of what’s to come in the story, even a magical premonition of what’s to come.

The ending gives you this reality mixed with the dream where things are slightly turned upside down and not quite what she imagined and not living up to her expectations. On some levels, there’s a satisfaction because you get some aspects of the dream that are realized, and on the other side, there are some aspects of the dream that are turned on their head. I think that’s a metaphor for the idealism we have when we’re teenagers about romance and then the reality of how that romance might be.

Your choice of using teenagers is reminiscent of Donna Tartt and Kenneth Lonnergan’s use of characters that age. They use teenagers because they’re always on the cusp of something and they represent our dreams that we haven’t realized the weight or reality of.

AM: Absolutely. Yeah, that was the whole idea behind it! I love the idea of teenage subjects and for that very reason: they’re on the cusp of something. They’re in this incredibly powerful, almost ethereal kind of place. When you’re a teenager everything is so powerful – you don’t know what direction you’re going to take in life, everything moves so fast and your thoughts move so fast, your dreams move so fast, your fears move so fast and you’re kind of in this whirlwind! It’s this hugely powerful time to be alive.

The film has this self-reflective structure where, even between the genres in the film, it moves fluidly between them in the eclectic way as a teenager moves through interests. So you have aspects of romance, aspects of coming-of-age, of thriller, of horror even, and I really like the idea that on every level it would have that fluidity and that subject matter of being a teenager.

Kissing Candice

Ann and Ryan, was this your first time working with a woman director?

RYAN LINCOLN: It was. I don’t want to generalize, but one thing I would say is it’s a bit more maternal. Aoife takes a bit more of a role in looking after the cast and crew as much as she can along with all the other stuff going on.

ANN SKELLY: I did an Irish series a while ago, and I worked with one or two women directors on that which was a great experience. But this was the first time working with a female director where it was her project and it was completely her thing. So I very much enjoyed getting to spend that much time and drawing a lot of inspiration from her because Aoife is extraordinary. I found the experience to be, as I said, very inspirational. And I feel very very lucky to work with not only a female director but a director who is so talented and so relaxed and who trusts me and I can trust her and the work. She’s very much an “actor’s director,” she trusts you with the material and she has no premonitions about herself, she’s just totally real and true and no bullshit.

Ryan, at the beginning of the film, in Candice’s dream, your character is very mysterious. How did you approach playing Jacob here? Did you play him as if you were in the mind of Candice? 

RL: I didn’t think of it as coming from Candice’s mind. I guess I thought he was on autopilot; he was there but at the same time he’s unconscious. So I didn’t think of it as only from Candice’s point-of-view, but at the same time, I know she must have control of the dream. So in a way, I was really just being led and being guided by everything that happens in the scene. [Laughs] It was actually kind of nice because I didn’t have to focus on the nuances, so I was letting the atmosphere guide the scene and I thought it came across really dreamy. It looks like he’s going somewhere but in his mind, there’s no particular destination.

Was your arm really on fire?

RL: Yes! I have the marks to prove it [laughs]. It was just one of those great experiences from this movie. The cars going on fire, the blood and the makeup, for me it’s absolute fun! I guess you can play it very safe and get someone else to play it, but I want to be in there because that’s where the fun is for me.

Ann, were you able to bring your own ideas about who Candice is into the film that wasn’t already in the script?

AS: I’m pretty sure Candice herself is a part of my own personality magnified, especially in my teenage years, although I wasn’t as cool [laughs]. I like to think I gave my own personality to her. Aoife was very open all the way throughout the shoot, so I found she was trusting with Candice and she let me take the character and do what I liked with her! She obviously guided me, but it was a very kind of freeing experience and if anyone is watching the film I think they can gather that, the freedom everyone felt. I mean, I’m kind of a weirdo myself and I think in that sense Aoife allowed some of my freakishness to come through.

What’s great about Candice and the way you portray her is that she isn’t a hero, she isn’t a heroine figure, but she’s still inspiring because she’s real. She’s quite messy. Is that an interesting role for you to play because she is so real, she’s someone you feel like you know?

AS: I could recognize her in my friends I grew up with and other people around me in Ireland. It can be quite an oppressive place to grow up in, especially in the countryside or more rural areas. Like me, I grew up in a very rural area and I didn’t fit in. She is a teenage girl and as a teenager is trying to escape and trying to rebel. Because she’s young so she’s still working it out. When I was reading the script I found that very interesting in the sense that she – you’ve got to go through that and often I find that it’s still not answered at the end, she’s still open in that sense.

Often in films, it’s very polished and very neat and the character arc is very tidy, but with this, it’s not an arc it’s up and down at different lengths of up and different lengths of down! I love that realness and I love the rawness; nothing is definite and nothing is clear, and the good and bad, as in life, are up for debate. I think that transpires not only in Candice but in the gang themselves. I still don’t even know if they were all bad! I love that fluidity and I love the messiness and the reality of that and the humanity of it. I think that’s what Aoife does really well. That’s one thing that I’m glad came through from the script – the humanity and what it feels like to be a teenager growing up in that environment, and I think that’s a universal thing and not just an Irish thing, so I think Aoife captured that.

Kissing Candice

And Ryan, how did you decide to play Jacob in reality? He’s a complex character because he’s hanging out with these bad kids but he’s ultimately a good person.

RL: That’s the thing, I think Jacob isn’t very black and white. He’s definitely a bit of a grey character. I do go into this way of approaching it as he’s not Mr. Nice Guy – you know that from the beginning. It’s more of a redemption story for Jacob. He’s past the age of a teenager having fun and coming from a moment where he has to make a decision: “does he want to continue down this road or does he actually want to go off?” That’s the way I approached it, I never wanted to show that good is good and bad is bad – he’s going to be conflicted and has different opinions on the same thing! He’s very temperamental and is definitely changing perspectives. I think the main thing is he feels guilty for a lot of the stuff he’s done with that group of friends.

Ann, how did you approach the scenes where Candice has her fits? It must be quite stressful to go through that as an actor.

AS: Absolutely. The feelings were very intense. Aoife and I discussed this beforehand, about how we wanted them to be shown, what Candice’s fits are like and what are they like for her. I looked up videos and the science of it to get a better understanding of what it felt like. And I looked at the causes and triggers.

The visual of it, I guess we didn’t want it to be the main point of her character because she is a very intricate, complex human being and epilepsy just happens to be something that she has. The fits themselves, filming them was very intense [laughs]. It’s a very physical thing and as much as you practice at home, you do a couple of takes of that and you’re wrecked, so I can’t actually imagine what having it is like. I woke up with bruises and strains and all sorts, it just takes its toll on your body.

Candice is the one who pulls Jacob out of that group of friends. What do you think of their relationship?

RL: I think she gave him an incentive to move out of his regular life. I think she was a bit of a light at the end of the tunnel in a way. At the same time, he doesn’t want to admit that he needs help or anything. It might also be that she’s a teenager and presents something new. The main theme of the film is a lot of people are bored in the town that they live in and that results in bizarre behavior, the fact that there’s no change, it’s always the same and that comes out in different toxic ways. I think Jacob sees Candice as something he hasn’t experienced before – I don’t think he’s been with someone as out there and I think that’s the attraction, the fact that it’s something new. But he finds out it’s not as simple as that—he can’t brush it off as “yeah, this is going to fix everything, ” but at the same time Candice herself is a little unstable! So these two characters are going to play off each other’s psyche that way.

As the film goes on and we get deeper into Candice’s mind, Jacob becomes a symbol of her desire to escape. Do you think Candice’s desire to escape is her motive?

AS: Yeah, that’s what I very much connected with; to escape and the desire to find the things that are bigger than what’s around you. That kind of size of life can be lacking in such an environment. I often found that that’s why I was pushed towards being an actor or in any way creative because you want to find something, it’s about where is this size of life, where’s the meaning, really. That escapism, I definitely think that is a very strong element of not only being a teenager and trying to break out of the constrictions and confines of the community but also just that environment. The setting in Candice’s environment, it’s a pretty bleak and brutal place to be in. The escapism was such a strong element of the film and is Candice’s desire. And that kind of interconnects with the not good, not bad, like that kind of fluidity. The escapism is similar.

Could you say anything about some projects you may have lined up next?

RL: Yeah, I’m doing my music thing and I’m definitely going to push the music now. But I’m using each art form as a step to the next thing. At the moment, I am trying to focus on the film – you can be so immersed in doing music that you need to step back, and sometimes you get so immersed in the films that you need to step back. So I’m kind of dancing between both worlds. At the moment I’m just going to keep auditioning.

AM: I think thematically what I’ll carry on is trying to create a world, a visual world that is immersive both visually and sonically. I do love the idea of it being a psychological sci-fi, actually. I’m in the process of writing that. I’d say it’s quite a sparse piece, maybe it’s reminiscent of vintage sci-fi, of vintage 70s sci-fi but also has a bit of Tarkovsky in there. And it has a character at the center who brings you on this emotional journey. It’s an outsider story and it’s also a psychological sci-fi, that’s all I can say about it right now. I’m in the process of writing it.

AS: I did a small thing on Vikings, and I’m filming Little Women at the moment. I think the cast on that are amazing and I’m getting to work with Vanessa Caswill who’s incredible, she’s the director of it too. So I’m just watching her, so I’m very excited I’ve got to work with two great female directors. I hope it becomes a pattern.

Would you consider becoming a director?

AS: I’d love to! I have a friend who’s going to direct this film soon and after working with Aoife I took such inspiration from her. I’ve worked with other directors in the past who  are men and for some reason I just kind of go “okay yeah,” but when you work with a female director you go “oh maybe I could” and you kind of go “but what does that do, how have you done that?” So I’m actually gunna pick Aoife’s brain if she gets some time.

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