Lighting the way
Northern Lights star Stephen Jones joins producer Ailish McElmeel to tell DQ how he adapted his own play of the same name for this Irish drama about two grieving people who come to find hope in each other.
Northern Lights, a play written by Stephen Jones, made its debut in 2018 in front of several dozen people who filled out the Theatre Upstairs in Dublin city centre. Jones also starred as Lloyd, who in the story meets Áine on a ferociously wet night, offering her shelter before they gradually reveal more about themselves and the secrets they are concealing over a weekend together.
The play was due to transfer to the Ireland’s national theatre, the Abbey, until the Covid pandemic struck. But it was then that one of those audience members at the Theatre Upstairs, Deadpan Pictures co-founder Ailish McElmeel, approached Jones about adapting the play for television.
The resulting six-part series, also called Northern Lights, is now set to debut tonight on Ireland’s TG4. Jones (Love/Hate, Kin) once again stars as Lloyd, one of two grieving strangers whose worlds collide on a rainy night in Dublin. When Lloyd notices Áine (Elva Trill) standing on Grattan Bridge, which crosses the city’s River Liffey, he fears the worst and decides to intervene.
A series of revelations, confessions, secrets and lies follow as Lloyd and Áine come to support each other when they most need it after overcoming the awkward circumstances of their first meeting.
As their friendship develops over one weekend, the story also flashes back to reveal details of their relationships with their respective partners, Denise (Belgian actor Jennifer Heylen) and Seán (Jay Duffy), to explore how resilient people can be in the face of tragedy.
The series, which is a coproduction with Germany’s ZDFneo, marks Jones’s screenwriting debut. And as well as being based on his own play, the story is also inspired by a real-life event. Jones was in his first week of living in a riverside apartment in Dublin when he saw from his window a man jump into the same river.
“I never associated that particular bridge or the river in the middle of Dublin as somewhere where you are likely to see this kind of event happening,” he tells DQ, “and it shocked me, to be honest. After that, I would just be aware any time I was there that it seems to be a place where you’ll find an individual just stopping to take a minute to think and look out on the river.
“This kept coming back to me and I thought, ‘Who would those people be?’ I had that image of these two people, and I imagined it being late at night with the rain. I had that for a long time but never really knew what the full story was.”
Years later, those characters emerged fully formed and the play was put together relatively quickly as a two-hander, with just Lloyd and Áine on stage. Then Jones met McElmeel and the task began to expand that world and the story of those two people over six episodes of television.
McElmeel was intrigued by the emotional depth of the story, with Deadpan producing the series in association with Lionsgate and Screen Ireland. “You’re laughing through tears and you’re not sure whether you’re meant to be laughing or crying at a particular scene,” she says. “The performances are dealing with a really serious subject matter, but Stephen had a very astute way of cutting through that and bringing humour as a release valve. Because the play itself was set in this pressure cooker of one room of an apartment, I wanted to know what brought these people to this point. How did they get there? How do all the pieces of your life build up to any one event?”
Though it took a while to convince Jones to meet her, he soon came back with a three-page outline of how the story could develop. “That gave us the bones of something that we thought, ‘God, this is this could be really good.’ Once he was given permission, he ran with it.”
Jones held on to the play’s central conceit – Lloyd and Áine spending a weekend together – but flashbacks allowed him to explore different moments from each of their pasts that inform the present-day timeline.
“It was like having the security blanket of knowing the structure of the play and where these two people were on this particular weekend,” he says, “but then I had a real fun and playful exploration. There was a lot of stuff I wrote that never made even the early drafts, but I had freedom and time to mess around and see where they would go.”
The play also gave Jones a reference point to return to whenever he might lose his way, but the fact he was writing for television for the first time also meant he wasn’t bound by screenwriting convention.
“I didn’t have the rulebook in front of me,” he continues. “Ailish and the rest were very good at letting me go and seeing what I came back with, and then we could tighten up certain things or we could change the position of certain scenes. It was a joy. Nothing’s ever easy, but it was as easy as possible.”
Jones describes Northern Lights as an examination of the aftermath of grief, as Lloyd and Áine are both dealing with tragedy in their private lives – circumstances they slowly confront during their time together.
“Áine’s still in that rage-and-anger phase you can clearly see with her interactions with her family and friends in the early episodes,” he explains, “while Lloyd has moved on to a different stage, and even though both of them are very wounded and damaged by the aftermath of the events, they still find a way to offer hope to each other. That’s not giving you loads of plot, because it’s an emotional patchwork of moments from their lives and their relationships with their partners that has brought them to this point.”
“There’s just something about the characters who would normally pass each other by, but because of Lloyd’s experience, he can’t let it go and has to go and ask her if she’s OK [on the bridge],” McElmeel says. “It’s about this special connection between strangers who are both grieving and who, in a bizarre way, are the right person for each other at the right time and find some cathartic moments.”
Another element carried forward from the play is the use of music, with the opening of the first episode set at a pub music night before Lloyd is revealed to be a karaoke enthusiast.
“It’s kind of a quirky thing, people who are obsessed with karaoke, and for some reason we just kept that in,” he says. “It started off as something to be funny and a bit interesting, and then throughout the series, you see it’s another form of a mask for Lloyd.”
“Elva is in a band and is a brilliant singer, but Áine hasn’t got a note in her head, so it was really fun to watch an actress who can really sing trying to be the worst singer. I’m the opposite – I can’t sing but I think I’m brilliant.”
The series is filmed on location in Dublin, which becomes a character in its own right as Lloyd and Áine take to exploring the city together, including a visit to Lloyd’s favourite café. McElmeel jokes that Jones has been spoiled by a production that sought to secure every real-life location he wrote in the script, including a riverside flat that turned out to be just a few doors down from the apartment he used to live in.
“I was like, ‘It has to be this bridge,’” Jones recalls, “and I said, ‘We have to be able to have an apartment as opposed to a set. It has to be on the river.’ You had to see the river through the window because it’s a ghost that is haunting Áine in episode one. So those were my two requests – it has to be Grattan Bridge and we have to see the river.”
“Everything takes place in this north inner-city area so we tried to do as much of it there as possible, which creates issues because there’s not a huge amount of parking spaces for unit bases and the circus that comes along with it,” McElmeel says. “But I’m really glad we went to the efforts we did to secure somewhere along the river there. We did a week of nights to make sure we could get those evening shots in the apartment, because the city comes alive as the evening goes on and it does look magnificent out of the windows.”
Several days shooting also took place in the Ardennes region of Belgium, as part of a coproduction agreement with producer Potemkino that enabled the series to utilise several local tax incentives. That decision led Northern Lights to be picked up by Belgian streamer Streams, while Heylen plays Denise and Belgian director Anthony Shatteman directs two of the episodes alongside Tom Hall and Ruth Meehan.
Jones says 99% of writing was done by the time filming began, leaving him to focus on acting. “I was just trying to be Lloyd and keep up with Elva, Jennifer and the rest,” he says. I really enjoyed it. I didn’t feel a tremendous weight of pressure doing both.”
“He was an absolute trooper in terms of the workload,” McElmeel says. “When you hit production issues and suddenly you’re turning around pages, Stephen was doing them in his trailer at lunch. He was doing them late into the night as everyone else was trying to get their kip. He put in 110% all of the time.”
Lionsgate and Screen Ireland have now commissioned development on scripts for a potential second season, with Jones hoping people will relate to the drama when they tune in.
“In terms of the some of the darker material in it, we wanted to be sensitive but give a very real portrayal of the emotions that come around these topics,” he says. “There are all sorts of emotions, and Áine embodies that. There’s obviously sadness and there’s love, but there’s also anger and guilt.
“People go through this every day and they show tremendous courage and resilience, because life goes on. People go on and they’re able to laugh again, they’re able to love again and they’re able to find some hope.
“That was it, for me. It was about not making the bigger issues around grief plotty or gimmicky or using them in that way. It was more that these things happen every day. There’s no family that isn’t touched by this in some way, and I hope it will have a cathartic impact on people that watch.”