2 March 2024 The Irish Film & Television Network
“It’s a miracle it exists”, director Prasanna Puwanarajah discusses Ballywalter
24 Aug 2023 : Luke Shanahan
Seána Kerslake and Patrick Kielty in Ballywalter.
We caught up with director Prasanna Puwanarajah in advance of his debut feature film Ballywalter releasing in Irish cinemas next month.

Prasanna Puwanarajah sat down with us to discuss his debut feature film, Ballywalter. Puwanarajah has an extensive background in both acting for the screen and stage, appearing on television series such as Doctor Foster and Patrick Melrose, as well as performing in the Royal National Theatre in London many times.

Ballywalter follows Eileen (Seána Kerslake), a sardonic University drop-out whose dreams of a successful life in London have died. Now living at home in Belfast with her mother and pregnant sister, she is trying to make ends meet by working as an unlicensed taxi driver, during which time she strikes up an unlikely friendship with regular customer Shane (Patrick Kielty).

The screenplay was written by Stacey Gregg (Override, Perve), known both for her TV-writing and her playwriting. Puwanarajah tells me there’s been a script for roughly 7 years, but they had begun speaking about what this project could be long before then.

“We were talking about films where there’s a connection between people in an environment of tough love and tough humour. In that sense it very much ended up being exactly that.”

Puwanarajah cites films such as Fargo, Nebraska, The Last Picture Show, and Paris, Texas as initial points of reference. Later, the verite handheld-style of cinematographer Maryse Alberti’s work on Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler became an important touchstone as Puwanarajah and Gregg developed the project.

“That wasn’t an early reference for Stacey and I in terms of tone and mood. That quality of following someone through life, there was an aspect of that I thought would be useful in Ballywalter in terms of maintaining a bit of distance.”

“But we were still hanging on to that quite dispassionate, sort of deadpan, observational quality of something like Nebraska. You're just sitting back and watching things happening, things unspool in real time, and you really get to witness the beautiful strangeness of people and relationships. So, somewhere between those two things is where the film is.”

Early in development Donaghadee, a few towns up the coast from Ballywalter, was the original setting of the film. Ultimately it was the locations the town offered, as well as the unique qualities Gregg saw in it, that led to Ballywalter becoming a central element of the project.

“Ballywalter had the particular qualities of being quite small, it’s smaller than Donaghadee. It has a caravan park at the top and the bottom of the village, a very distinct church spire, a war memorial… It feels like a place with a big history, and a place that people come to and then leave. A place of transition. It's small enough to be a place that you vanish into. It has this mix of big and small, local and strange. Something really familiar but also distant.”

Helping Puwanarajah to find a visual language that communicated this was DoP Federico Cesca (Dead Pigs, Patti Cake$). Cesca and Puwanarajah hadn’t met before, but Puwanarajah admired that Cesca’s work didn’t have a distinct style, but was rather in service of the material at hand.

“You wouldn’t necessarily look at [his films] and say ‘Oh, that’s a Federico Cesca film’. I think that’s incredibly skillful, it’s a very particular kind of approach.”

“He responds well to source material and  collaboration. I think the most powerful thing in a relationship with a cinematographer is knowing that you can just go on a journey together.”

Puwanarajah explains how their conversations about the script led to various creative decisions, such as using a wide lens to seat the audience at a distance from the action of the scene, as well as using handheld shots in a manner that made space for the actors to inhabit their characters fully.

“We were talking about filming handheld, not in a knowing way, just in a kind of ‘we're breathing with them’ way. In other words, for it to be about this relationship and to get close to them, but also let them be. Let them be in each other's worlds and spaces without us being too much in their way, and without forcing an agenda.”

Sound played an important role in capturing the atmosphere Puwanarajah was chasing, with composer Niall Lawlor sending on music inspired by the script in advance of shooting. Lawlor sent the initial sketches of what the score would become via Whatsapp voice messages to Puwanarajah.

“Quite a lot of the film is scored in advance of the film being shot, which is always the way that I wanted to work on this. We weren't using temporary music because basically I think that leads everyone into a room, fundamentally a room you can't stay in.”

Lawlor first came to Puwanarajah’s attention when the composer was busking on Grafton Street, and from there his music became part of the film’s DNA. Puwanarajah likened the aesthetics of Lawlor’s music, recorded in a shed behind his house, as a sonic equivalent to shooting handheld.

“He has a style of playing that spans traditional Irish, folk, but also something more blues-y, like bluegrass. He’s played in Texas. There’s something about Ballywalter and the Ards Peninsula, it’s the closest these islands get to West Texas or the Oklahoma Panhandle or something. You see ‘Prepare to meet thy God’ painted on the side of a barn.”

As for the rest of the soundscape, Puwanarajah talks about removing elements, making a decision to not hear every clink of a glass or other diegetic noises. Sometimes even dropping to silence, finding a poetic quality to how the sounds and sights of the film interact.

Having a background in acting, carving out time for rehearsals was always a priority for Puwanarajah. He spent approximately five weeks rehearsing with Patrick Kielty in London, and then every morning for two weeks with Kielty and Seána Kerslake when they arrived in Belfast for pre-production.

“My experience as an actor is, you just want to know a little bit more about the scene than you usually have time to on the morning of the day's filming. My producer James Bierman, who comes from a theatre background, absolutely knows the value of decent rehearsal time and really fought for that.”

It was important that Puwanarajah that Kielty and Kerslake had this space and time for rehearsal so that they had a full understanding of their character’s resective arcs before filming got underway. 

Shane is Kielty’s first dramatic role, and Puwanarajah explains it was his documentary work that made him stand out to the director as “someone who was diverging, finding different ways to explore questions about his personal history and the history of the whole island”. Puwanarajah saw a parallel here with Shane’s journey, and felt Kielty would understand the character well. Gregg had also suggested casting him as Shane early on. From watching A Date for Mad Mary when it was first released theatrically, Puwanarajah knew that Kerslake had the “caustic wit and huge emotional range” necessary to play Eileen.

Another reason it was important to Puwanarajah to create space for rehearsal, was that the film is “secretly complicated” in regards to the amount of locations used, as well as how many scenes take place while Kerslake is driving. However, these were perhaps some of the simpler elements of the shoot’s logistics, as the production was navigating a pre-vaccine pandemic as well as the covid policies of two separate nations. Puwanarajah says that had production stopped during this period, it may not have been able to resume later.

“The Brexit of it all meant that it was really challenging moving people around the island of Ireland, and across from GB. We didn't know whether we'd be able to move through Dublin at the start of January, because suddenly you've got two nations with different COVID policies that are no longer in Europe together.”

“There were so many additional pressures on a very small independent first feature that most first films don't face, which I think is a testament to the producers on the film, James Bierman and Nik Bower, and also our line producer, Brian J. Falconer from Belfast. The crew and cast worked so hard to keep the thing going. It’s a miracle that it exists.”

Puwanarajah has no immediate plans to direct another feature, but is certainly interested in doing so again. The next project he is working on is a television series he co-wrote and executive produced, Breathtaking, a three-part series about NHS workers during the pandemic.

Ballywalter releases in Irish cinemas on September 22nd, 2023.

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