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Writer Tess McGowan discusses her debut feature film, A Bump Along The Way
17 Oct 2019 : Nathan Griffin
Bronagh Gallagher in A Bump Along The Way.
We caught up with writer Tess McGowan to find out more about her approach to writing the feature film script, taking part in NI Screen’s New Writer’s Focus Scheme and the need for more female-led productions.

Funded by Northern Ireland Screen and filmed entirely on location in Derry, A Bump Along the Way is a heart-warming comedy led by an all-female team consisting of director Shelly Love, writer Tess McGowan, producer Louise Gallagher and executive producer Roma Downey. 

The film tells the story of fun-loving, 44-year-old single mum Pamela who becomes pregnant following a boozy one-night-stand with a man half her age, much to the shame of her buttoned-up teenage daughter AllegraAs Pamela deals with her unexpected pregnancy and the growing pains of the disgruntled Allegra, the challenges they both face ultimately bring mother and daughter to a better understanding of themselves and each other. 

Starring Bronagh Gallagher (Pulp Fiction, The Commitments) and Lola Petticrew (Come Home)A Bump Along the Way was developed through Northern Ireland Screen’s New Talent Focus scheme and was funded by Northern Ireland Screen and Yellowmoon. Earlier this year the film opened the Belfast Film Festival and picked up the Best Irish First Feature Award at the Galway Film Fleadh where Lola Petticrew also picked up the Bingham Ray New Talent Award. In September, the film was received an official selection at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) where it had its international premiere.

IFTN spoke with McGowan to find out more about A Bump Along The Way, which is currently in cinemas across Ireland.

IFTN: Where did the inspiration for the film come from?

“I once asked a friend who had teenagers if she would have more kids?  She was horrified at the thought. Not the thought of having another child, but of putting her teenage kids through the shame of their mother being pregnant. I remembered this in the summer of 2016 when I was six months pregnant myself and I was struck by what a great hook for a film it was. A mum/teenage daughter unplanned pregnancy film, but it’s the mum who is pregnant not the teenager. Having the immature mother breaking that news to a disapproving daughter.”

“The characters and scenes started to write themselves in my head right away. Being pregnant at the time gave me a wealth of experience to draw on too. I’m sure knowing I was going to have a girl informed the writing in ways I wasn’t even aware of. From the first flash of inspiration the story was to be this mother/daughter buddy movie. The two different generations who seem like chalk and cheese but we realise they are more alike than they think, and the pregnancy was to be the thing that would bring them together.”

“I wanted to write something ‘small’ for want of a better word. Something makeable because it didn’t rely on a big budget, just good acting and directing. I also wanted it to be a comedy because, come on, who doesn’t like laughing? There are many strange and funny things that occur during pregnancy that are never talked about. I wanted to bring that to people’s attention knowing that every woman who’s been through it would laugh in agreement.”

IFTN: You yourself are from Derry, the film is set in Derry and the city almost plays a character in itself. What was it like writing about and filming in a place you are so familiar with?

“I’m really proud that the film was made in Derry and so many great Derry folk got work and experience because of it. In fact, that’s the thing I’m most proud of in writing this film.

At the same time, I deliberately wrote it so it could be set anywhere. I wanted to write a universal mum/daughter love story. I didn’t know it would ever be made and if I pitched it to a US producer or a UK producer they might like it but want it setting changed and that could be easily done. Luckily, it found Louise Gallagher—a Derry producer—so it could stay pure Derry. Louise pulled out all the stops to bring the entire production to the city.”

“The director Shelly Love is from Scotland but had recently moved to Northern Ireland to be close to her parents because she had become a single mum in her 40s (I know, what are the chances!). Shelly had never been in Derry before she joined the production and a huge part of why the city looks so wonderful in the film is because it’s seen through Shelly’s eyes. She saw the place from different angles from people who look at it every day. She is a deeply visual filmmaker anyway. It’s a bit of a silly thing to say, of course, film is visual, but Shelly’s brain operates on a visual sphere most people can’t reach. It let the camera get under Pamela’s skin. She had a colour palette that she wanted and was very involved in the whole look of the film. The cinematographer Mark McCauley who is a Derryman also has to be commended for his amazing work.”

“As a writer, it’s definitely fun to write dialogue that’s full of Derryisms. I love Derry slang. We have plenty of colourful words and turns of phrase you don’t hear anywhere else. It was a pleasure to bring that to the international stage. I particularly enjoyed having a Canadian woman ask me what a ‘gack’ was after its TIFF premiere.”  

IFTN: Can you tell me a bit about your experience taking part in Northern Ireland Screen’s New Writer’s Focus Scheme?

“I finished the script in October 2016 and didn’t do much with it because I was busy with my new daughter and my four-year-old son. In summer 2017 I saw the call for the New Writers’ Focus (NWF). I applied and got accepted. It is a useful and unique programme where NI Screen gives script mentoring to up to four new screenwriters a year. The writers meet once a month over a period of six months with Ursula Devine the Development Officer at NI Screen for writers’ workshops. Ursula is amazing. She really knows story. Every first time film that’s come out of Northern Ireland in recent years has gone through her and to have her spend time mentoring new writers is such a gift. The other writers; Patrick Loughran, Laurence Doherty and Darren Gibson are very talented and were so helpful too. You can expect to hear their names popping up on writing credits.”

“Through NWF You do a few treatments and two drafts of the script over six months. You get a bit of money for it too which is nice. At the end, NI Screen puts on a table read in Belfast and invites industry professionals. It gives writers the chance to showcase their work and meet with producers and the like.”  

“The NWF informed my writing not just for this script but for all future scripts. I took part in that from September 2017 to March 2018. I don’t know any other film body that offers this type of support for unsolicited screenwriters. It’s a very nurturing, NI Screen thing to do. Others should pay heed because it’s valuable. You can have talent, but if it’s not nurtured it goes by the wayside. NI Screen are incredibly nurturing of home-grown talent. It’s one of the reasons why Northern Ireland punches above its weight time-and-time again when it comes to filmmaking.”  

IFTN: The film is a strong female-led production with a female-led cast, director, writer and producer all involved in the project. Can you tell me a bit about working in that environment?

“NI Screen makes one film a year under their New Talent Focus scheme. This brings together a first-time feature film- writer, producer and director and gives them a budget of around €300,000 to make a film. Again, such a nurturing NI Screen thing to do. They know how hard it is to get anything made so they give first-timers this amazing break. The films from previous years had been very masculine. These were great films, don’t get me wrong. Films like Bad Day for the Cut, but they just happened to be very masculine and serious in theme.”

“The appeal of A Bump was that it was a comedy, set in Derry rather than Belfast, and a female story. It wasn’t contrived to tick these boxes. That’s just what it was. What it is. NI Screen wanted to make it and was interested in attaching a female producer and director but it wasn’t a deal-breaker if the fit wasn’t right. It just happened that Louise Gallagher the producer and Shelly Love the director were the best people for the jobs. The producer has to find some of the money themselves and Louise sent the script to Roma Downey, another Derry daughter, who loved it and kindly came on as executive producer. It’s a real honour to get a name that big attached to the production too.”

“I don’t want to break everything down to male/female. I can just say working with Louise and Shelly was a treat. They are lovely people and great at their jobs. The film was shot on a shoestring in a gruelling 18 days. Things had to be dropped and changed at the last minute due to time and budget restrictions. I can only imagine how hectic and stressful that was for the crew. But Shelly and Louise were there at the helm, being lovely and supportive and making the team feel great every day, so everyone gave it their all the entire time.”

“When you watch the film you can sense women were at the helm and that’s why it’s been hailed as a breath of fresh air. At a Q&A after a screening in Toronto, I could see a sea of women, a lot of them older, in the audience and the feedback after was almost euphoric. Audience members came to us in droves to say they loved the film. It hit me how deprived women are of honest female stories on screen. There is a huge, hungry audience there ready to gobble them up. There is talent there to write them and make them. The industry is catching on to that and I hope this film opens their eyes a little wider to the fact.”

IFTN: At what stage did Louise Gallagher get involved and how early was Bronagh Gallagher on-board to play the role of Pamela?

“After the New Writers’ Focus, Ursula at NI Screen said they’d like the film to be their New Talent Focus film for 2018. I had interest from other producers who wanted to option the script, but they might spend the next two years unsuccessfully trying to raise the money to make it and the film might never see the light of day. The New Talent Focus was a guarantee that the film would be made and made soon. It was a golden egg opportunity that I wasn’t going to pass on. The first step was to find a producer and Ursula Devine and Andrew Reid at NI Screen set up interviews with some producers. One of them was Louise Gallagher. We did the interviews over Skype because I was in Berlin with my family. Louise is a fellow Derrywoman and she spoke about the film with infectious passion during the interview. She is also very well connected in the film business and has a great track record. I was more than impressed. I met her in the flesh about a week or so later at the table read for the New Writers’ Focus scripts in Belfast. We chatted and we just got on very well. She’s sound and just by talking to her I could sense how clued in and capable she is. Producing a low-budget feature is a massive job. You better have a great, hard-working producer or it won’t happen. When I met Louise, I knew it would happen. She felt right for the job. I knew I wanted her to produce the film so myself and Ursula Devine told her that day.”

“Louise is Bronagh Gallagher’s sister. Bronagh had read and liked the script but she was initially being thought of for the best friend character, Sinead. Bronagh has been a bit typecast as the sassy best friend sidekick, but the director Shelly Love wanted her as the lead and it was the best decision. Bronagh is incredibly talented, the right age for the part and Derry royalty. Of course, she should play the lead. And thankfully she agreed to do it. She brought such depth to Pamela. She’s got the most incredible face. A little raise of the eyebrow or tweak of her lips can say so much. Every time I see the film I find another moment where I think, wow—Bronagh Gallagher is the bomb!”

“I feel the same about Lola Petticrew who plays Allegra. Two top-notch performances. I was hyper-aware when writing Allegra that she needed to be sympathetic. She had to have a point so the audience wouldn’t just hate her for giving Pamela a hard time. Her dual life in school where she is a bullied wallflower helps connect sympathy to her and to juxtapose with Pamela’s flaws, but it really depended on the acting to bring it across. Lola nailed it. She has the wide-eyed innocent child and the cheeky wee nightmare both down to a T. Pamela and Allegra’s relationship is the heart and soul of the film. The performances had to be great or the film wouldn’t be any good.”

IFTN: The film has enjoyed huge success so far during its festival run, winning Best First Irish Feature Film at the Galway Film Fleadh in July and being selected to screen at the Toronto Film Festival in September. How have you found the journey thus far?

“It’s been amazing and very surreal. I appreciate how lucky I’ve been and I’m thankful to NI Screen, Louise, Shelly and all the cast and crew for bringing the story to life. The fact that it’s a good film is a bonus! I feel like, every step of the way, this project has been blessed. It’s met so much love. Everyone who has gotten involved has cared about it. They’ve put their heart and soul into it and it’s palpable when you watch it. Element Pictures are distributing it to 38 cinemas in Ireland and they have done a remarkable job in marketing it. Element is another outfit I’m super impressed by. I can’t say enough positive things about that company. Their track record speaks for itself. Everyone there is so good at their job and completely sound to boot. The film is in great hands. We really couldn’t have hoped for better. Honestly, it’s blown all of our expectations.”

“I wasn’t on set during filming but since the film has come out I’ve spent more time with ‘Team Bump’ at festivals and screenings that’s been a real pleasant part of the journey. I have so much love and appreciation for them all. We’d sicken you, honestly. We’re all mad about each other! Seeing the whole crew in Belfast and Derry was class, and being in Toronto with Shelly, Louise, Ursula from NI Screen, Bronagh, Lola and Paddy Courtney who plays Mr. Gibson was a very special experience. Roma Downey even flew in from LA for the TIFF premiere and it was great to meet her and thank her in person.”

“It’s just been longlisted for four British Independent Film Awards too. It’s nuts. I had no idea when I sat down to write it The Bump would get this big!”

A Bump Along The Way is currently in cinemas across Ireland.




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