Eirene Houston

Eirene Houston

Eirene Houston has written for the likes of This Life and EastEnders during her career, but this week she sees her first feature film hit the big screen.

Houston has brought Cuba to life in the screenplay for Day of the Flowers, a film that follows the story of two sisters who travel there to scatter their father’s ashes - John Roberts has directed the movie.

We caught up with the writer to chat about the film, what inspired the story and how she has been finding the reaction to the movie.

- Day of the Flowers is released into cinemas today so can you tell me a little bit about the film?

That is a very big question (laughs). The film is about two Scottish sisters who are quite different. The older one decides that she has to take her father’s ashes back to Cuba, where she is sure that her mother’s ashes are; her parents went there to help the revolution in the seventies and eighties.

She is convinced that is where her mum and dad are happy, where her mother’s ashes are and she wants to reunite them on the Day of the Flowers; which is the day that they met in Cuba. It is a story about the adventures of these two very different sisters when they get to Cuba.

- Where did this project start for you - I was reading that you were inspired by your adventures in Cuba?

It is a mix. Writers tend to use lots of your own experiences, or things that have happened to your friends. I went to Cuba 1997, so a long time ago, I had come out of film school in 1995 and so my career was just taking off. When I went there I was like ‘I have to do something set in Cuba’.

These things stay at the back of your mind, and you have to wait until… writing is an ongoing and sometimes subconscious process and you have to wait until everything starts to piece together and you get the idea to start writing an original screenplay.

I used the experiences of my first time there because it was and overwhelming feeling because it was so different; it was a huge culture shock when I went in 1997 and I wanted to use that memory of how I felt then for the character of Rosa.

- Can you talk a little bit about your writing process? Do you start with character first and then the story? Or the other way around?

My writing is very character driven, and so it really starts with the relationships. The starting point was the relationship of the two sisters and the fact that the sisters have very different points of view and are estranged because of something that happened in the past.

It is not at all about my sister and I, but we are very different; within families, you do get that. I am quite an extrovert who enjoys travelling and am quite political, she likes the quiet more and enjoys gardening. We have a jokey relationship where we were very different; that did become part of the inspiration of what would happen to two very different sisters.

First of all, it is about the relationships between the people and that is where the strong story comes from. You will then use things you have read and things that have happened… in fact, my father did die before I wrote the script and my mum did die young, so you do use your emotions.

My brother, my sister and I were talking about where my mum’s ashes were, and we all realised that we didn’t know. My mum didn’t die really young but young enough and it really was a devastating time for us, I suppose we weren’t thinking about that then. My brother had remembered that they were in a cupboard somewhere.

I thought that was an interesting ‘hook’ and it seemed a very truthful thing. When I am writing I want to find the truth in every situation. I will use my own emotions - as every writer has to do - or things that have happened to friends, just to get as near as I can to the truth of a situation. That is what excites me about writing and the connection that you then have with your audience.

- Leading on from that, during the scriptwriting process how many time did the story change from the original idea that you had to the film that we see on screen?

When you are writing, half the script stays almost as it was when you first right it; there are lines in there that have always been there and parts that work really well. The other half, as you are trying to discover it, goes through many changes.

This is just for me, for others it will be different. I have found that some things will stay exactly as they were in that first moment of inspiration, but other things take much longer to come. That is where the struggle is. Therefore, certain things have changed a lot.

When director John Roberts came on board and we worked on the script together, so thing then changed again. He loved the relationship with the sisters, the story about going to Cuba, and the ashes. Parts of it will go through many drafts.

Sometimes you will try something new and it doesn’t work, so you will go back to what you had; that happened a lot. However, when you go back to what you have you are surer about it, and there may be something else that you put in.

- So how did the script fall into the hands of director John Roberts?

It was actually a producer that I was working with on a different idea. The piece I was working on was more of a television script and the producer wanted the director to direct that script. I asked for the Day of the Flowers script to be sent along as well as it was my baby and my passion. John wasn’t interested in the other script and was interested in this one because he could see that it was a film.

I went in and met John for about five minutes and I just thought ’you are the guy’, don’t ask me how I knew that. We just clicked and we really did work with a great deal of respect for each other to get the film made. 

- I was actually going to ask you how you found working with John - as you said you did a lot of work on the script together?

I would have my ideas about the script and he would come with his ideas. Because he loved it and because… the most important thing when you are working with a director is that you both know that you are out to make the best film that you can possibly make; it’s all about finding that together. We wanted to do something that was truthful, intelligent and explored a lot issues and relationships, but was also very accessible; it was arty and populist, if you like.

You have got very truthful relationships between women - which doesn’t get seen very often - and exploring that. John didn’t have a problem with that at all and was interested in having two female protagonists; that was great for me because quite often they say ‘can’t you make them guys?’

And you are like ‘No, I can’t’ (laughs).  I saw something recently that films that have been the most successful of the box office recently have been female led - I really do think that is changing. One of the things that have touched me, in terms of the audience, is that men love it just as much as the women do.

- You have written short projects and for TV, so how did you find the transition into writing a feature film?

I am first and foremost a film writer as I went to the National Film School. The first thing that I wrote was a screenplay; it was bought the day after I left film school but it just never got made. It is very hard to get a film made, so I am a film writer who has written for TV and has finally got her film made. However, I also have a host of original work for TV that has just not been on.

You want to have all these different skills as a writer, so going in to do This Life was a treat. It was more about how I could adapt myself to writing TV; that was a great experience. This Life was my first big TV experience and it gave me the chance to work with wonderful producers, script editors and writers. They really left us to just get on with it.

We got to know the characters and then you could put your slant on it, but keeping within who the character are; you can imagine how interesting that was to do. There are not many jobs where you are given the freedom that we were given on This Life.

I also had a tremendous time doing EastEnders; again, you have to really study the characters, try and to bring a little bit of you into it, but keeping it 100% EastEnders. I really enjoy doing that in the TV work that I have done. I am a writer and I write film and TV; I love doing both.

When it is about character, it is only how you tell a story over ninety minutes or how you tell a long running story that you think about. I was a film writer first and foremost.

- How have you been finding the response to the film so far? It does seem to be going down well.

I can’t tell you the joy a writer feels… a few times I have been incognito in the audience. It was a film festival in New York and I was sitting beside these folks and they were gasping and giggling - it was just precious. It has just been fantastic and the audience reaction has just been great.

Audiences aren’t thrown by this at all, as they get hooked on the characters and they really enjoy it. It is not totally an art-house film and it is not totally a popularist film, but audiences don’t seem to care about that as they are like ‘do I like it?’ or ‘do I not like it?’ The audience response has just been fantastic.

- Finally, what's next for you?

I have another screenplay that I have been working on. Throughout Day of the Flowers there are many bits that appeal to Cuban audiences, as there are lot of nuances and bi-lingual jokes - I really love the bits about the culture.

Over the last year, I have been directing a documentary called The Cuban Way, and it looks into life in Cuba through the passion for dance. We look at different generation’s passion for dance. I have finished shooting - I managed to raise enough money to finish shooting - and now we are just trying to get the input and distribution to be able to do the editing and the music.

That is the project that I have been working on alongside writing. I found it quite similar as you are writing with live characters; you have pick out the parts and the bits that are telling the best story and show who they are as people and their relationships. I have been working with a Cuban team over there and my editor here, and it has been a terrific experience.

Day of the Flowers is out now.

by for www.femalefirst.co.uk
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