The “buzz movie” of last week’s Galway Film Fleadh, Gerard Barrett’s debut feature ‘Pilgrim Hill’ saw the Co Kerry filmmaker walk away with the Bingham Ray New Talent Award and a host of plaudits from his peers.
Detailing the story of a middle-aged bachelor farmer living in rural Ireland, the feature film was produced, directed and written by the 24-year-old on a budget of just €4,500. Its success has also seen the emerging Irish filmmaker signed up by fellow Kerryman Michael Fassbender’s UK talent agency.
In light of his success at the Fleadh, Barrett talks to IFTN about the film’s production; the idea of just going and doing it, and his future plans...
‘Pilgrim Hill’ has been named as one of the standout films at this year’s Fleadh, you must have been delighted with the response in Galway?
Blown away by it to be honest. I didn’t make the film to win awards or to receive acclaim; I made the film to tell the story of Jimmy the main character. It was a very personal project for me and I just wanted to do it justice. Then for it to gather that momentum in Galway and then win the award was just mind blowing. Donald Clarke’s (Irish Times film critic) review then when he picked it as the best film of the Fleadh really topped it off. Honestly it is a dream come true to get that reaction. But I’m just so proud of the whole team who made it with me and Joe Mullins who played the lead role. He was amazing. And the rest of the cast were immense also.
‘You also won the new talent prize, what does an award like that mean to you personally?
It just gives me confidence to go on and tell more stories. And hopefully I get the opportunity to do so in the future. But the award was not just for me, it was for the whole team involved in the film. We only had a crew of three, one DoP Ian Murphy, one sound recordist Robert O’ Halloran, a Focus Puller Fergus Long and I’m so proud that no one mentioned anything about the production values. Because usually with films made on low budgets, the production values are always brought up. But with this the lads did such an immense job that it was just fantastic that production values was never brought up once. So the award is for them and the cast more than me. It’s a nod for the team.
‘How was the experience of screening the film to an audience made up of many of your peers and those in the Irish film industry?
Just really exciting. I always knew the film worked and that the last 20 minutes as an audience member it’s just like you’re being punched in the stomach constantly. The main character is just going through so much pain in a quiet way. The one thing I knew that
I had to do was get it in front of an audience, and the Galway Film Fleadh gave me that opportunity. But to know that the top people from Sony Picture Classics, Pathe, StudioCanal, BBC etc were there was just so exciting. Look it’s where you want to be and they are the moments you want to be a part of. It’s like every young child who plays football wants to play in Croke Park. For me being in Galway was just fantastic and I want to say a big thank you to Miriam Allen and Gar O’ Brien for seeing something in the film when I screened it for them. They are just wonderful and I think they programmed a stunning diverse festival this year.
'Pilgrim Hill' was shot in 2011
For those who don’t know, can you tell us the story behind the production of ‘Pilgrim Hill’?
It’s very simple really. It’s the story of a middle aged bachelor farmer living in rural Ireland who is caring for his critically ill father. We just go on a journey with him and experience his life and his loneliness. That’s basically it.
What were you hoping to capture in the writing and directing of the story? Did you draw from personal experience?
Well I have some family members who are bachelor farmers and I just always wanted to explore their lives. I always wondered how they felt about their siblings moving on having families and doing the normal thing like getting married and sharing a life with someone.
The main thing I wanted to capture was the loneliness and isolation Jimmy was going through. I think the loneliness thing hit a nerve with people you know because, I think it is something we all dread and is universal no matter where you are from - the fact of being alone, being lonely and not having the chance to share your life with someone. The possibility of living out your life with no one by your side, no wife, no kids and no legacy. Your life and your impact on earth just stops when you pass on and I think we all have experienced loneliness at some stage in life and it’s not nice. And to know that potentially you will be alone for the rest of your life must be a tough thing to take.
The other thing I wanted to explore was how a person can find themselves in that situation. Because we all have a chance to do our own thing when we hit a certain age, but for some people they have tough decisions to make. Like if a parent is sick it’s not easy to walk away and thus you have to make sacrifices. Jimmy the main character did. So all that interested me and I wanted to explore it in some way.
You self-funded the €4,500 budget – did you apply for funding? If not, why?
Yeah we shot on that budget over seven days in Kerry. And I suppose, I could have got everyone to work for free but I wanted to give them something y’know because I wanted to show them that I respected them and that I valued them. So everyone got a flat rate across the board and I got a really good deal on a RED camera and we just got to work. We all sat down and I said this is what we have, great cast and a great crew. And we just set out to do everything to the best of our abilities and everything we shot we did it well. We were never trying to make the film stylish or using techniques for the sake of them, we just did what we needed to do to tell the story. And I think when people watch it right away they know that it’s not trying to be anything, it’s just what it is and it shouldn’t be any other way.
In terms of the funding I just felt that the story needed to be told this way. I felt that I didn’t need extra money to tell it and I just said to myself, there is someone else out there probably the same age as me with a bigger story to tell that needs the money now. I think the way we made it was the way it was meant to be and I think it added to the raw and realness of it.
But I do want to say that the Irish Film Board was so helpful and supportive to me with the completion funding for the film. James, Teresa, Emma, Sarah, Aileen, Mags, Patrick, Suzanne and Andrew were brilliant to work with and I just want to take this opportunity on behalf of the cast and crew to thank them so much for everything.
Also Eugene McCrystal at EMC Post and Barry Reid at Gorilla did an amazing job on the picture and sound.
Mark O’Connor and Terry McMahon have both advocated a ‘just do it’ approach to independent Irish filmmaking. Would you be firmly of the mindset that you just got to go and make things happen for yourself?
Yeah, totally. But only if you have the right story to tell. You have to be realistic about it. You have to know that if you have x amount of money, then I think you should be asking yourself, what can I do well for this amount of money and not trying to over complicate things. I just get the feeling that sometimes spectacle takes over. Work with what you have. But that’s only my view, I’m sure those two very talented people you mentioned in the question might have a different take on it.
When did you first become interested in making films and what stories inspire you?
Well I come from Listowel in North Kerry so it’s hard not to be inspired by storytelling. Such great writers have come from the town like John B. Keane and Bryan MacMahon. So when I was in secondary school you would see their pictures on the wall because they attended there and it just gives you that bit of inspiration. But people like PJ Dillon y’know when I was still in school were doing some amazing things in the industry and he inspired me. It showed me that someone from my hometown is out there doing his thing and being successful. And PJ has been an amazing help all the way through from just ringing him up to ask stupid questions like can we achieve this with x amount of money and to have that advice on the other side of the phone is worth anything to me. He also allowed me to shadow him on a few feature film sets when I was younger which was invaluable to learn how the whole process works.
In your view is the industry here nurturing of new talent?
I think it is definitely. But I just get the feeling that sometimes people are more worried about spectacle than story. The reason we want to watch films is to be entertained by a good story. I mean however good a visual effects shot is, you’re bored of it after a few seconds. If the story and the performance is real, then you can shoot it on an iPhone and it will work. Story is everything. In France and Germany it’s all about the story and that is why they are top of their game at it. But again it is only my opinion.
A still from 'Pilgrim Hill'
You have representation in the US and UK, is that correct? How did that come about?
Well I was in college last year in January and I wrote the script for ‘Pilgrim Hill’. I was really impressed by an agency in London called Troika Talent. So I sent them the script and they loved it and asked me to come over right away. They said it could have easily been set in Yorkshire and they just said go off and shoot it yourself because we know you can do it. So they took me on and the rest as they say is history. Sam Fox and Conor McCaughan are a huge help to me and Sam gives me the confidence to go on and do my own thing in the industry. When I was over there I only realised then that they represent a very well-known actor from Kerry who is doing very well for himself right now! So they are a fantastic group of people to work with.
What is next for ‘Pilgrim Hill’?
Well, we have been accepted into some festivals that one can only dream of when they make a film. And for our little film to be slugging it out among the big films is going to be really fun. I mean we are the total underdog in these festivals and we expect to win nothing but it will be mighty to see the banter at them. I can’t say anything about which ones because of publicity embargos but to be invited to the calibre of these festivals is a dream come true. And again I am delighted for all the cast and crew because they deserve it. So we will go to them and see what happens and hopefully the story will translate over into these cultures and countries.
What is next for Gerard Barrett?
Well I’m back to work in Brown Bag Films which is great. They are an amazing group of people to work with and we’re working on really exciting projects at the moment. So it’s an honour to work with them and to get the opportunity to be in the same building as so many talented artists.
And in terms of getting to tell a story again within the world of film, look hopefully I will get the opportunity to make another one sometime soon in the future. It’d be lovely.
But I’ve written a play that I hope someone would be interested in going to see so hopefully I can get that on the stage up here somewhere soon.
If you were to give one piece of advice to someone thinking of making a movie what would it be?
Tell a great story that you are passionate about, work with people that are genuinely passionate about the story you are trying to tell and use what resources you have wisely, even if they are limited.
'Pilgrim Hill' was written, directed and produced by Gerard Barrett for Nine Entertainment. The cast includes Joe Mullins, Muiris Crowley, Corina Gough and Kevin McCormack.