28 February 2024 The Irish Film & Television Network
Calm With Horses director Nick Rowland talk with IFTN
06 Mar 2020 : Nathan Griffin
Barry Keoghan and Cosmo Jarvis in Calm With Horses.
We caught up with Nick Rowland, director of Calm with Horses, to find out more about shooting his debut feature film on location in the west of Ireland, working with Irish talent, how the idea to adapt Colin Barrett’s short story first came about, and how he decided to sell his rally car to pay for film school.

Calm With Horses releases in Irish and UK cinemas on March 13th.

The film follows ex-boxer Douglas ‘Arm’ Armstrong (Cosmo Jarvis; Lady Macbeth, Peaky Blinders), the faithful and violent right-hand-man to the drug-dealing Devers clan, ready to dole out beatings at the whim of his best friend, and the family’s unpredictable protégé, Dympna (Barry Keoghan; Dunkirk, American Animals).

Arm’s struggle to find his place in the world has consequences on his relationship with his ex-girlfriend Ursula (Niamh Algar; The Virtues, The Last Right) as she strives to find a better life for herself and their young son Jack. When Arm is asked to kill a man who has crossed the Devers, his loyalties are truly tested and his attempts to do the right thing set off a chaotic chain of events that will affect everyone he holds dear.

Calm With Horses is written by Joe Murtagh, directed by Nick Rowland produced by Dan Emmerson, Rory Gilmartin, and Kate Glover. It is executive produced by Michael Fassbender, Conor McCaughan, Andrew Lowe, Ed Guiney, Sam Lavender, Daniel Battsek, Sue Bruce-Smith, Will Clarke, Mike Runagall, Celine Haddad, and Sarah Dillon.

The film is produced by DMC Film and Element Pictures in association with Altitude Film Entertainment; developed and co-financed by Film4 and Fís Éireann/Screen Ireland with the participation of The Western Region Audiovisual Producer’s Fund/WRAP Fund.

The film received its World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2019 and featured at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2019.

IFTN journalist Nathan Griffin caught up with Rowland ahead of the film’s Irish premiere at the Dublin International Film Festival.

IFTN: The story itself originates from Colin Barrett's novella, Young Skins. Could you tell me about how the idea to adapt it first came about?

Nick: “When I first read it, I was in my final year of film school at the time and this is in 2014/2015? It had just come out so I read a review of the collection in The Guardian and it'd just come out that week so I bought it straight away. I was writing my own short films and my scripts were pretty bad so I was like, "I need to try and read from someone who actually knows what they're doing…"

“I found this short story, Calm With Horses, and I just fell in love with it. It made me cry, it felt very emotional and sensitive, but it was also dark and violent. It was also extremely funny and the characters felt so alive. It just felt like it was such a detailed, mix of ingredients to work on.”

“I took it to Dan Emerson who is the producer on the film was an assistant at Working Title at the time, and we were trying to find something to do together and I asked him to try and get the option on the short story. Then when I was doing my graduation film at film school, I met up with an agent called Conor McCaughan who represents Michael Fassbender and runs this company DMC. I mentioned this short story as the thing that I wanted to do once I graduated. It just so happened that he was already trying to get the option on that story anyway for Michael.”

Then Dan Emerson joined DMC and we all banded together to do it, so it was a sort of serendipitous moment really.”

IFTN: Joe Murtagh, who you previously worked with on your Student Oscar-nominated film, Group B, wrote the adapted screenplay for this project. How beneficial was it to have someone with an established shorthand working alongside you on your debut feature film?

Nick: “It's been lovely to grow with each other. We did a few short films together and Joe's whole family's from Mayo and also a lot of his writings sensibilities complement Colin Barrett really, really well. So not only was he perfect anyway to do the adaptation, it was great to have a best friend to do it with. Because the shorthand like you say, we can be very unself-conscious around each other.”

“We can throw a thousand terrible ideas at the wall to see if there's one good one in there. We're not afraid of being idiots in front of each other and I think in general with creativity, that's so important. It's the same with actors as well; the more everyone can feel safe in each other's hands the better the work is.”

IFTN: The film was shot on location in rural Ireland. What was your experience like filming there having previously worked on Ripper Street in Dublin?

Nick: “We had a great time, it was breathtaking. We recced all around the whole of Ireland. On a production level and on just a kind of economics level it was the more expensive option to go out to the West, but Collin's writing feels so specific to that, it really is a character and it's kind of a cliché thing to say that the location is such a part of the story, but it is a character in the story as well.

“We were really single-minded in wanting this film to feel as authentic as possible and really it was thanks to the WRAP Fund that was luckily just starting up. We were able to shoot out in the West and it really gave an epic quality to the story. Nature is a big part of the story and the kind of element like the town and the characters, as well as, the beach and the vast Connemara Mountains, or the Atlantic Ocean beating against Kilkee. We felt very lucky to have those locations. It just makes everyone's job easier because Piers McGrail did such an amazing job photographing it; Damien Creagh, with the production design. When you have great locations it gets everyone excited and it gives the film a unique character.”

“There is a version of the story that you could make quite kitchen sink-y and [set in] estates, but what I found attractive about it is the fact that it felt so rural. It felt a bit like this crime story and its all rural environments.”

IFTN: The film is a great endorsement for the work that the WRAP Fund is trying to do. This film does really give great exposure to the west of Ireland and the epic landscapes it has to offer.

Nick: “It was the very small things that I got obsessed with. I went to Castlebar where Collin grew up just to get a sense of the places that were inspiring him. I found it didn't quite match the image I had in my head reading the book where I felt like in the book it felt like a frontier town, isolated from anywhere else. Whereas around Castlebar, there are hedgerows and farms and trees and it feels quite civilized and quite lifted, it didn't feel dangerous to me. Whereas going to places like Connemara, you get that sort of epic landscape of the mountains, also just having not much human footprint on the landscape was something that we fought really hard to find, to try and give it that quality that we had felt.”

IFTN: I'm also aware that in a past life you were a professional rally driver. I'm interested in knowing what you made at those locations and had you been up to anywhere like Donegal or down to Kerry with the rallying scene that's around there?

Nick: “Yes. I would say semi-professional, but 100% crap rally driver is how I would describe my past life. I did that for several years and I've been all around. I've been to the circuit of Ireland and I've competed in Ireland a few times. There's a car chase in the film that we do, it runs through the small roads in Connemara and it took me right back in time to when I was competing. We only had a day to shoot the car chase because on our sort of budget, it was very touch and go that we even were going to be able to do it, but I was able to tap into my past life to try and get that sense of speed right.”

IFTN: Michael Fassbender, who is an executive producer on the film, is another avid rally driver. Would you have aspirations to keep it up as a hobby alongside filmmaking in the future like he has been doing?

Nick: “Yes, we definitely have a shared love of motorsports. I think he's been out competing in Ferrari and I'm very jealous really.” (Laughs)

The last rally I competed in was [a tournament] in China in 2008, and I sold my cars to go to film school. I'm all in on the film-making now, but maybe one day I can get back [into it]. Actually, I might be competing in my first rally for the first time this summer with a friend of mine. I might be back in the driving seat before too long.”

IFTN: Something that struck me most about the film that I really enjoyed was the score and the sound design. It is one of the highlights for me. You mentioned that visually; you were looking to capture the rustic, untouched landscape of Ireland and have the story situated in an incredibly rural, closed-off town; whereas the score is incredibly modern, electronic, and moody, but yet very simple. What was the thinking behind that and working with the composer Benjamin John Power?

Nick: “In the early phases of trying to figure out what it's going to sound like. Once we shot the film itself, I felt like we were shooting it in the West and the way we cast it and through all the visuals and the performances we were achieving the sense of place that we wanted. I didn't feel like the score had to really do any of that work in terms of the instrumentation. For me, with the music what was really important was to capture the slightly poetic, slightly melancholic tone that I felt in the book that you slightly lose when you bring it on to the screen.”

“Because so much of that is through Colin's prose and the way he writes and describes the world in a very poetic way, but it's hard to do when you're working with images. For the sound, we would do a lot of that work and also, with the sound design of Matis Rei and Ben they would work together very closely because we told the film from a single point of view from Arms point of view. It allowed us, at times; to be very expressionistic with the sound design. There's a scene, for example, in a night club where we have a sound design where we sort of go into the character's head but also, the actual nightclub track that is playing in the club. It kind of morphs and reacts depending on emotionally where Arm is in the scene.”

“Having that sort of diegetic music that's also doing the work of the score was our way of trying to, in a cinematic way; evoke some of the way it felt to read the short story. I've been a huge fan of Ben for many, many years so it was a real thrill to work with him on this.

“I think you're right, to me, it's the music and the sound of the song is one of the highlights and I've always wanted it to be a memorable score that you'd leave the cinema and go, ‘I need to whack that on Spotify or I need to buy the Vinyl of that.’ Rather than one that sits too much in the background, I think the music has a lot of character to it. There are lots of themes in it, themes that link to characters or link to themes in the story.”

IFTN: There are some excellent performances from a very strong Irish cast and crew; not leaving Cosmo Jarvis out, who is brilliant. What was it like getting that ensemble together and can you tell me about the on-set dynamic?

Nick: “We were just so lucky to have such an amazing cast. Barry, David Wilmont, Ned Dennehy, Simone Kirby, there’s no weak link in terms of the casting and it just makes my job a hell of a lot easier. For me, every act is different and as a director, it's not so much about what my method is; I would say it's about trying to learn how you can best help an actor. Everyone's completely different, even down to little Kiljan who is five or six years old at the time when he was playing Jack in the film.”

“There's a whole range of dynamics on set and when you're lucky enough to have such an amazing ensemble of cast, sometimes the best thing to do as a director is to just not get in the way and not fuck things up for everyone, just sort of let them be brilliant. Cosmo, on one hand, is very method; Always stayed in character, always stayed in action, very, very detailed. Everyone brings their own style and I think if you were to direct every actor in the same way then you'd end up frustrating half of your cast.”

IFTN: Particularly with Barry Keoghan, I found that it was very refreshing to see him on such an extroverted character role, which you don't necessarily usually see. Did you approach him in a particular way because he's was taking on quite a punchy character?

Nick: “Yes, I think that's what attracted him to the story. Barry was the first person we cast and we always had our hearts set on him playing Dymphna. He's a very distinctive actor, he can keep things very simple. With Barry, he get it, you don't have to overtalk things, he's so intuitive, and he just gets it and it's a pleasure to watch him really because every take he does it surprises you and that's what you want from an amazing performance. You can't keep your eyes off him.”

“I just felt extremely lucky, especially with a first film to work with a cast like this. Niamh Algar, who is very soon going to take over the world, I'm sure because she's just so incredible and so professional and so well-prepared. Her performance is that she's the emotional heartbeat of the story. None of the roles are easy in this film. With Cosmo/Arm as well; on the page, it's very easy to not like these characters so the humanity that they bring is a real testament.”

Calm With Horses releases in Irish and UK cinemas on March 13th.

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