It may be a typically dull and dreary day in north Co Dublin but the small, seaside town of Rush is alive with activity. In off the main street four or five heavy duty lorries are parked beside a number of trailers and temporary dressing rooms.
Men in high-visibility vests, equipped with buzzing walkie-talkies roam up and down the street, past The Carlyan pub and on down to a newly-built temporary wooden church. John Michael McDonagh’s ‘Calvary’ is in town and excited locals are trailing the streets, pen and paper in hand, hoping for a glimpse of the film’s stars, Chris O’Dowd, Aidan Gillen, Kelly Reilly and, of course, Brendan Gleeson.
It’s the reunion of Gleeson and writer and director McDonagh, following the huge success of ‘The Guard’, that is the cause for much of the excitement. From the chatter among the locals to the media invitation to visit the set, comparisons aplenty are made to McDonagh’s surprise 2011 hit. The priest Gleeson is playing in ‘Calvary’ is, we are told, “the flipside to ‘The Guard’s Sergeant Gerry Boyle” and, like ‘The Guard’, the film is set in the west of Ireland. Cast and crew may now be stationed in Rush, but the bulk of the five-week shoot has taken place in Co Sligo.
Described as a dark, comedy-drama, the plot of McDonagh’s ‘Calvary’ follows Gleeson’s priest, a good-natured man who has become increasingly shocked at the behaviour of the locals in his small country town. After being threatened during confession, he’s forced to battle the dark forces closing in around him.
“I think that it’s got the best ensemble cast that’s ever been assembled for an Irish movie,” McDonagh says from inside The Carlyan pub where he’s just completed filming a pub scene with Gleeson, Gillen, O’Dowd and Reilly. The rest of the ensemble cast he speaks of include a number of well-known Irish names - from Dylan Moran, David McSavage and Pat Shortt, to Domhnall Gleeson and David Wilmot.
“I wanted it to feel, not only Irish, but sort of international as well,” continues McDonagh as he explains his casting decisions. “So you’ve got Isaach De Bankolé, who’s been in ‘Casino Royale’ and Jim Jarmusch films, and Marie-Josée Croze, who’s been in ‘The Diving Bell & The Butterfly’. So I don’t want it to feel like a small film, or a parochial film. I want it to feel like a film that could play on an international circuit.”
Cutting a relaxed figure, the English-born filmmaker says he always had Gleeson in mind for the lead role. Indeed, the idea for ‘Calvary’ stemmed from a bar room conversation between the two towards the end of shooting ‘The Guard’.
“It was the last night in Galway so there was a lock-in in the pub,” McDonagh remembers. “All the cast were there, and that, and at a certain point in the evening I said ‘I bet that loads of people are planning scripts about bad priests and dealing with the whole subject in a really depressing way’. I thought that it would be good to do the opposite – to do a film about a good priest - because it’s quite difficult to do films about good people. Usually, the hero is flawed in a major way or they’re an anti-hero.
“Brendan just said, drunkenly, ‘I’ve always wanted to play a good priest’. So that’s where the idea hatched. The editing of ‘The Guard’ went on so long that I wrote the script during it. So when that was finished I had the next one ready to go and Brendan really liked it. So then you’ve already got your lead actor.”
For Gleeson, taking on the project was a no-brainer. “Working with this kind of material is fantastic,” he says. “You'd go anywhere to work with this kind of material.” Dressed in character, complete with clerical robes, the bearded Dubliner looks every bit the part. “Myself and John were talking about the notion of being a good man under fire - with some good reason - because of the uniform,” he says, recalling that conversation in a Galway pub. “So that was the basis for it. That's really how the film came about. The whole dynamic of the film is kind of exorcising that.”
Having begun principal photography in mid-September, Gleeson describes the five-week shoot as “intense”. “We're doing this in five weeks,” he says. “It's an insane schedule really. It seems to be the way things are going. There's too much pressure, to be honest. I prefer to be able to absorb and regroup as you go. It's not even a rollercoaster ride really, it's a kind of a bungee jump. You're just hoping that the elastic will not actually snap. That's the way it's felt like really. It's been murder really, in a way.”
If there’s the added pressure of a tight schedule on McDonagh’s shoulders – along with the heightened expectations that come with following-up ‘The Guard’ – then he doesn’t show the strain as overtly as Gleeson. “I don’t really feel pressure,” says McDonagh, “because ‘The Guard’ was so successful I feel that I can sort of do what I want dramatically, in a different way.
“The schedule is a lot tighter but we are shooting on digital and I’ve got access to two cameras this time. That helps with a big ensemble because when you’re shooting two cameras at the same time it helps speed things up. So I don’t feel it too much, but we’ll wait and see what happens tonight when we burn down a church. If it doesn’t burn, then the schedule is too tight!”
Both Gleeson and McDonagh are quick to praise the decision to shoot in Sligo. “It was wonderful really. We got really lucky in Sligo,” says Gleeson. “It's an extraordinary beautiful place and the people are amazingly beautiful in terms of the way that they received us and welcomed us, so that was really great. We're telling a kind of a dark story, so it was a bit like the weather - you get light and dark the whole time. But the weather was kind to us as well. We had to do a few guerrilla raids with rain showers and things like that, but we came away with some stunning stuff. The actual physical landscape was undeniable. It's really, really beautiful.”
McDonagh concurs. “I think that the landscape in Ireland hasn’t been used sufficiently well. We were down in Sligo and I realised that it’s a beautiful place and I don’t remember seeing it on film, not the big widescreen landscapes. I’m a big fan of that location filmmaking in the 1960s and 1970s in America where you use the location as part of a character in the movie and I feel that, basically, Irish cinema seems to be concentrated around specific areas in Dublin, as if the rest of Ireland doesn’t exist.”
Huddled together on bar stools in The Carlyan, both Chris O’Dowd and English actress Kelly Reilly are in agreement with the praise for Sligo. “I’ve been here three or four weeks, pretty much the whole time in Sligo,” says Reilly. “I’ve had a wonderful time. It’s a beautiful country.” O’Dowd, who has become a bit of a fixture on Irish sets following two production shoots this year on ‘Moone Boy’, is also quick to praise McDonagh. “He’s a very bright guy and knows exactly what he wants,” says O’Dowd, who will play a butcher in ‘Calvary’. “He’s very specific, which is kind of rarer than you might think in a director. I’ve really enjoyed it actually.”
Joining them at the bar is Aidan Gillen, who has just come fresh to the shoot to play a “detached, glib doctor”. Of late, Gillen has taken a number of supporting roles – from ‘Game of Thrones’ to ‘Shadow Dancer’ – and enjoys being part of a bigger cast. “I lived abroad for over 20 years,” he says, “and one of the people I met when I was abroad was John Michael McDonagh, so it was nice to be able to work back here with him on this with a really great group of actors. I like being part of an ensemble.”
That ensemble cast, Gleeson says, “has kind of sustained the whole thing”. “There's an amazing kind of new energy that comes in with each cast member,” he adds “It's the best group of actors that you could ever hope, to ever think about. So there are always pluses in all this, with the cast.”
Down by the harbour in Rush, a small crowd has gathered by the aforementioned purpose-built wooden church as darkness descends. Crew members scurry around, preparing the set for the arrival of McDonagh and the cast. Tonight, the church will go up in flames and, McDonagh, hopes the shoot for his second feature will come to an end in a blaze of glory.
‘Calvary’, written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, will be released in Irish cinemas in 2013.