25 March 2023 The Irish Film & Television Network
“I quite like the challenge of writing characters without handles, for an audience to hold on to, you have to really work at keeping pace with them and go on the journey;“ Writer/director Antonia Campbell-Hughes discusses It Is In Us All
22 Sep 2022 : Nathan Griffin
It Is In Us All
Ahead of its release in Irish Cinemas on September 23rd, IFTN spoke with actor-turned-writer and director Antonia Campbell Hughes, about her debut psychological thriller-drama It Is in Us All.

The feature drama was filmed on location in Donegal and stars Cosmo Jarvis (Persuasion, Calm with Horses), Claes Bang (The Northman) & Rhys Mannion, which premiered at SXSW, where it picked up a Special Jury Recognition Award for Extraordinary Cinematic Vision for its cast and crew. The film is a cinematically haunting ode to loss, with a powerful central performance from Cosmo Jarvis as Hamish.

Hamish is a man powered by a destructive drive to prove himself, to be seen as an “excellent man,” as the director puts it, which is a result of his relationship with his distant-yet-oppressive father, whose life is predicated entirely on success. His aunt has died and as Hamish arrives in Donegal, where his mother was born, Hamish’s carefully curated persona of driven masculinity is rocked. Shortly after arriving a shocking car accident rips his life apart. A local teen Evan, also involved in the accident soon befriends Hamish and their relationship soon challenges everything he knows as he embarks on an emotional journey charged with the electric eroticism of life, loss, trauma, and maybe even self-acceptance.

It is a visually rich and psychologically complex piece of work, and one that belongs very much on the big screen (thanks in large part to the confident compositions and photography of DoP Piers McGrail). When speaking to Campbell-Hughes she explains how she was unsure how audiences were going to respond to the film, explaining she had no idea what the response was going to be at SXSW: 

Leading up to South by South West I had really no idea what was going to happen because we were in a sort of…restricted living existence leading up to that point. So I'd only a few people that were giving feedback. And you know, that was cautious feedback, I suppose. So that was its first time going out into the world, when the critics that I really respect from the trades were all reviewing it…and their reviews were all fairly extraordinary.”

The reviews were indeed overwhelmingly positive with Jessica Kiang of Variety saying “Antonia Campbell-Hughes fine-hones an enigmatic, atmospheric directorial debut set in the brooding splendour of remotest Donegal.”  Maggie Lovitt of Collider praised the debut and marked Campbell-Hughes as a director worthy of further attention saying “as a directorial debut, Campbell-Hughes displays her keen eye for composition, a deep understanding of the soul of humanity, and secures herself as a director to keep an eye on.” Closer to home Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian wrote that “this is the work of a director with a real sense of landscape and place.” This response meant a lot to Campbell-Hughes.

“It affected me somewhat. I mean, I kind of couldn't believe it, because I've been in enough films, to not depend on that. But it was more so the understanding, the deep appreciation and understanding of what I was trying to do, because there's some people who look at entertainment as entertainment. And they'll be quite scathing in that response. And there's other people prefer work that can pass through and linger and stay with them and see how it has a lasting impact on them. And so the reaction was great!”

“I saw it like taking two opposing atoms and colliding them!”

The reviews and the audience response, not to mention the Cinematic Vision award were particularly impressive when one considers the challenging subject matter and the constrictions of the films budget and funding. As an exploration of the kind of brutal, disengaged masculinity expressed by Hamish, one which smothers any hint of weakness beneath a stiff veneer of success, status, and sartorial excellence, it is something that will challenge some audiences. However, the results are something, which is rarely seen, and what Campbell-Hughes described as her casting the Female Gaze on young men, providing a new perspective for audiences. 

I was interested in like young boys, you know, when they're about to hit puberty, the amygdala releases testosterone and adrenaline and aggression. And that's why young boys and the rest of the brain hasn't developed. And that's why they play fight and jump off walls and act dangerously because they haven't the frontal lobes have not yet developed for them to consider consequence or empathy. And then the brain develops by acting out,” the director explains. “I was looking at all of this in contrast with men that I knew in affluent cities in London, where they literally have it all and there's such a drive for excellence and I kept saying that Hamish is an excellent man. It sounds so simple but his drive to be physically excellent, to earn everything, to have the best job, promiscuity, drugs, and he's gone through all of that, but has never been filled. So it's the two opposites and I saw it like taking two opposing atoms and colliding them and having one effect the other.”

The film was funded through Screen Ireland’s inaugural edition of its POV scheme, which champions distinct Irish female voices with a passion to tell stories on the big screen, and provides funding of up to €400,000. This also provided challenges but also inspiration as she developed the project in how important a female perspective was in this type of masculinity.

“When I was presented with this competition, which was to fund the film and the constraints with that came with it, I had to deliver a proposal within two weeks. it had to be set in Ireland, it, it was a woman's fund, all these things, and I like working within those constraints. And just in terms of the narrative, Hamish, his story is kind of mine, you know, within a sense, and I tend to, for some reason, I don't know why, unconsciously write everything as a male protagonist, like my own history, and my own experiences.

“Even though we're meant to be so gender aware, I'm also quite gender blind. I think, it's a story of humanity and a human being that has never been seen and feels displaced or dislocated. I really wanted to give that time and appreciation and the introversion that we so often give to female protagonists, you know, and there's often a kind of externalization of the male characters we looked at, and I wanted to go into that quiet, introversion of that.”

“I feel my responsibility as a director is to make sure that everyone is content and happy and nurtured.”

While this is Campbell-Hughes’ first feature in the director’s chair, she is no stranger to filmmaking having directed short films such as Acre Fall Between and Q4L (Quest For Love), as well as a segment as part of The Uncertain Kingdom anthology. She has acted in films such as The Lotus Eaters, The Other Side of Sleep, Kelly + Victor, The Canal, Never Grow Old, Black Medicine, and Cordelia, the latter of which she also co-wrote. She brings a wealth of experience to the role of director and a keen insight in how to collaborate with actors.

“Being a director, I've been around actors, as part of the ship, let's say, for many years, and I find it so fascinating to observe what different actors need and there's very different camps of what actors need. Some need a lot of hand holding, let's say or attention, or reassurance and some are quite autonomous. And I think you always have to be able to read your room and understand that different actors have different needs. I'm quite demanding as an actor. I like people to work hard, be fully invested, and  I think I know from the outset, if people are really in it with full hearts, and investments, and that's what I think is sort of necessary for me. I feel my responsibility as a director is to make sure that everyone is content and happy and nurtured.”

The film is led by Cosmo Jarvis who can arguably be claimed as an honorary Irishman at this point following his stellar turn (and even better accent) in Calm with Horses. His is a powerful role, and one well-suited to playing into the actor’s strengths, but the chemistry between him and newcomer Rhys Evans was key to the film working.

“Cosmo cared deeply to portray something that he had never really encountered before, as a male experience in terms of scripts that he had been sent or work he'd done before. And there's something that's so beautifully internalized about Cosmo and you very much see on  Screen. I quite like the challenge of writing characters without handles, for an audience to hold on to, you have to really work at keeping up with them and keeping pace with them and go on the journey. And it's like with anything, if you put in the time and effort, the reward is so much greater.“

Mannion meanwhile plays Evan, himself a complex character but one who also represents the wider story of the rural Donegal communities that have been devastate by so many young fatalities as a result of car crashes. However the director wanted to approach this from a different angle, with complex characters like Evan at the core, as opposed to a more straight forward examination of the “Boy-Racer” culture saying “I really did not want it to be coined as a boy racer film, because that's the immediate go to. So it's not about that. It's about this unbridled curiosity and youth and vitality versus a very constrained male”. Instead, she wanted to capture something on the “edge” of these youths but also an innocence and openness that can be attractive to outsiders. On the casting of Mannion she is effusive in her praise for his and the other local actors ability to straddle both sides of this:

“I wanted there to be an absolute, like almost feminine, open purity, like such an innocence of somebody who's never been in the world. And there's such a disarming beauty to that openness, you know, and that is what is necessary from that version of Evan when I cast Cosmo, is someone who's going to implode and disarm him so completely. And I mean, even the other boys that I cast, there's a seduction in their openness, that is an unconscious seduction and there was such an innocence to that and lack of cynicism.”

“It is the minutiae that make life worth living. And that is in the everyday if you just choose to see it.”

Collaboration with the crew is just as vital as with the cast, and in the case of It Is In Us All the brooding and beautiful aesthetic, maximising the cinematic vistas of Rural Donegal required a specific collaborative process with production designer John Leslie and DoP Piers McGrail.  Campbell-Hughes explains how important the “visual, tonal, complete experience” was in  establishing a world that she describes as her own version of science fiction, but grounded geographically. And that was the main, conscious collaboration. McGrail and her go back a long way having both worked on Kelly + Victor, which was the latter’s first feature and they have worked together many times since, including on the films of Ivan Kavanagh. This, she says, has led to a real understanding for how one another works.

I think Piers and I have a real deep respect for how we work. It's very easy, but it's not even about friendships. For me, it's about a constant respect and excitement for how people think and having, you know, an affinity with somebody in terms of what their wants are creatively.”

The film was produced by Emma Foley and Tamryn Reinecke for Pale Rebel Productions and Conor Barry for Savage Films and is releasing in cinemas this Friday. Ahead of the general Irish public getting a chance to see the film on the big Screen, IFTN asked Campbell-Hughes  what she would like audiences to take from the film who gives a typically thoughtful and philosophical response.

“We consider that there are certain things that are milestones in our existence on earth that are meant to be celebrated. But it is the minutiae that makes life worth living. And that is in the everyday if you just choose to see it.”

It is in Us All is on general release from September 23rd.

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