Calm With Horses director Nick Rowland on falling in love with Ireland

In March 2020, Calm With Horses was primed for a wide theatrical run in the UK and Ireland. Then the first lockdown happened as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the Irish drama starring Barry Keoghan and Cosmo Jarvis was quickly shifted onto VOD after just a few days.

In the year since, it’s managed to find its way onto people’s screens through the streaming service Netflix, and other platforms worldwide, allowing it to flourish despite its truncated time on the big screen.  With a number of BAFTA nominations, and director Nick Rowland getting a nod for Breakthrough artist from The Times, it’s safe to say the picture found its audience despite the circumstances.

On the back of his appearance on The South Bank Show on Sky Arts, and the upcoming The South Bank Show Sky Arts Awards, we spoke to Rowland about making the film. We chat about the shock of suddenly having to shift distribution plans, collaborating with his cast, and why a piece of his heart is now forever in Ireland.

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TDF: Hey, I’m Irish, by the way. My editor have mentioned this to me, about doing an interview with the guy who directed camo horses. And I said “Yes, well I am Irish”, and he replied “I didn’t want to bring it up, but…”

Nick Rowland: Well, very lovely to meet you. And very nice to speak to you. Sorry, it’s a bit late.

Pleasure’s all min! To start off – belated congratulations on your several BAFTA nominations. You were featured in The Times, and now you obviously had the South Bank Show. Not the worst ways to kind of cap off your directorial debut, as it were.

No, it’s been great. It’s been a slow burn process with the film because, you know, our cinematic release was just a few days before the original lockdown back in March. So it was kind of like a slow burn journey to find an audience. But we did, and that’s been amazing. So yeah, to get the kind of the BAFTA and BIFF nominations was really, genuinely unexpected and thrilling, and a really, really nice way to cap off the five or six year journey it was making the film.

And then yeah, The Times having the Breakthrough artist nomination, to be in that list among so many other amazing up and coming people in the various disciplines has been a real surprise as well. And I can’t wait to meet everyone at the ceremony, which I think is next month sometime.

Calm With Horses had its premiere in Toronto, and then gradually ended up finding its audience more internationally. Can you remember a point where, and it was probably relatively recent, going by your answer there, where you understood the movie was finding its audience?

When it came out in the cinemas, we had quite a wide release. It was like over 200 screens across the UK and Ireland, and we were thrilled about that. You know, we were going into lockdown pretty much immediately, so a few of my friends sent me selfies of themselves in the cinema, with completely empty cinemas, you know, braving their own health to support the film, which was very nice of them.

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But yeah, once all the cinemas closed down, we pivoted to a VOD release, and at least people were able to see it if they looked for it, but I think it was really when it came out on Netflix in September, October time last year, that’s when, you know, it was trending in the UK. And it was, I think it was like, number number two in Ireland for a while.

So that was probably the biggest indication that, a wider a wider audience are finding it and, and hopefully with the BAFTAs and stuff like that, again, it has encouraged more people to search it out. And, you know, the kind of silver lining of the whole pandemic, I think is, you know, people are watching lots of things and taking chances on smaller projects and seeking out things on streaming services and stuff like that. So in a way, it’s, I think the film’s life has benefited from the situation as much as it was an obstacle to begin with.

I rewatched it this afternoon, as I was preparing for this interview, and something that kind of struck me this time around was that there’s a very particular kind of isolation in how you’ve captured rural Ireland in the movie. Can you tell me about capturing that – it’s almost like they’re on an island within an island, in their community.

Yeah – Calm With Horses is based on the novella of the same name by Colin Barrett, and he’s from Castlebar in Mayo, and I read his collection of short stories, Young Skins, and just thought it was incredible. And I mostly grew up in England, but then for my latter teenage years, I lived on the northeast coast of Scotland in a small fishing town. And I was reading the stories and they felt so similar to growing up there, but I hadn’t really spent much time in Ireland, my dad’s Irish, but I had never really lived there or anything like that.

As soon as we got the rights to the book, I went out to Castlebar to see what it was like, and to kind of soak up where Colin was from and all that kind of stuff. In the book, the town was very edgy and sinister, and there was this sense of isolation, and it almost felt like a frontier town in the western way, like the characters were under siege from the mountains and the sea and the weather, and there’s this isolation, breeding this kind of eccentricity in the characters, from the darkness, and all this kind of stuff. And then I arrived in Castlebar, and I couldn’t find a friendlier place on the planet. There’s just like, you know, postmen waving, and farmers tending to sheep, and very happy families everywhere.

This doesn’t really feel like the place where a sort of a crime thriller takes place, so it was a process of trying to create the feeling that that Colin creates in the book, which is that world of isolation, so it felt important that we film it in the west. It is so specific, but we really tried to stretch out that feeling of isolation by shooting in Connemara, for example, so that you have the epic quality of the mountain ranges. But also, it’s a landscape that isn’t really interfered with too much by people.

There’s not many hedgerows or anything man made, just lots of bog land and things like that. And that helps create this feeling of isolation and, and then shooting in Kilkee, for all the exteriors – beautiful, beautiful seaside resort town, but because we’re shooting off season, I think the population shrinks right down, so it was great.

There were no cars anywhere in the streets, it was really empty, which was just perfect for creating the tone that we were looking for. When you don’t have a lot of money, to be able to be shooting in the west of Ireland, where wherever you point a camera, there’s something beautiful, it was kind of cheating in a way.

Yeah, I would imagine you saw many beautiful sunsets while you were there.

The light, yeah, the light was just incredible. And everyone said we have to be careful in the west because the weather changes every five seconds. So filming continuity, it can be really problematic. But actually, there was a heatwave the whole time we were making it. So we had just sun every day. Apart from the one day we needed rain, and then we had rain. So that was cool, right?

You’re the one person who had a good time with our weather! In the movie, the town is falling apart, but this crime family, the dad and the rest, they’ve remained completely territorial regardless. To them, it’s their patch, and that’s just it. What were some of the things that you felt were crucial to getting that atmosphere of this place falling apart, but it’s theirs regardless, and nothing happens without their say as a crime family?

We just tried to be detailed with it and give the sense that they’re this family that everyone would avoid, if they were to walk in the bar, most people would leave it again, that kind of western vibe to it. And then we tried to make it feel quite lawless or make it feel like there wasn’t a huge presence of police or law.

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The house where they live in the street, when, in one of the early scenes, Barry Keoghan’s character pulls up in his car, we see their house and in the background, you can see there is an old police station, but it’s all boarded up, it’s no longer active. So we tried to give little hints that they’ve been left to rule the roost a little bit and, that question of loyalty and who you’re loyal to and how people demand their loyalty from people and the way people are manipulated. I guess it’s like a central theme to the whole story.

One of my favorite scenes in the film is in the pub, Dymphna (Keoghan) and Arms (Jarvis) are playing pool and somebody laughs at them, and things kind of go a bit pear-shaped. I could tell straight away that it’s an Irish pub, there’s just an air about it, I’ve been in 100 pubs like it. What makes a bar like that feel Irish? What were some of the things that you felt were necessary for that scene, so that people knew this is a small, Irish pub?

Well, I’m thrilled that you say that because that’s one of only a couple of scenes that were actually shot in England.

[Laughter]

That was Damien Kray, our amazing production designer. He’s Irish, he’s from Galway. So he’s been in many an Irish establishment and I think that we actually filmed that scene in a barracks or something, somewhere on the N25. It was completely done on a shoestring budget by Damien, and so things like the wallpaper and the patterns and a lot of the wood paneling and you know, getting the casting right as well. And getting that sort of thick atmosphere and that if you were to walk in everyone kind of knows everyone, and everyone’s business and stuff and who’s friendly and who’s not, and there’s a lot of stuff going unsaid, is what we’re trying to achieve

And yet, there’s some people that laugh that Barry’s character didn’t know. Because a lot of people associate the name Dympna with a female name, it’s a ‘boy named Sue’ sort of idea, and he was named Dympna so he’d have to defend himself. I think that gets lost, I think there was a line in there that got cut that made that more explicit.

I think we shot two days in England and 28 days in Ireland, and most of our interiors are actually in Galway. Which was, in a way, challenging, because a lot of the time the interiors and the exteriors were hours apart from each other. So Damien had his work cut out to sort of blend it all together, but I’m glad to see he’s done a convincing job.

Certainly, I could smell those scenes. Barry’s one of Ireland’s greatest exports as an actor, he’s worked with some of the best and biggest directors in the world. With him in this movie, did you ever find yourself going to him for advice, or looking at him for inspiration in terms of how to approach certain scenes?

In a way it can be intimidating, if you work with, not just Barry, but any actor. I mean, most actors that you work with are on set way more than you are, or cinematographers or, in fact, pretty much everyone on a film set has more on-set experience than the director becaus the director’s on one project for so long, whereas everyone else is kind of hopping from project to project. It’s something you sort of get used to, and I’ve always tried to work with the best and the most talented actors, and it’s my favorite part, that whole process.

You learn so much from everyone. Barry’s worked with literally most of my heroes, I just try not to think about it, to be honest. You know, I think it’d be unhelpful – I have impostor syndrome everyday at the best of times, so I’m very aware that I’m not Christopher Nolan.

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But you know, what’s great about Barry is, what you see is what you get. Obviously, he wants to have good people, and he famously has this list of all these filmmakers that he wants to work with. So he has his heroes, but I think he’s mostly motivated by the story, and the character, and it just felt like we were building the story together, you know, with Barry, and Niamh Algar, and Cosmo and the rest of the cast.

Shaheen Baig, our casting director, just, I’m really, really proud of the whole the whole cast. And I feel like there isn’t really a false note in there. I think everyone does such a great job. And for a first time director like myself, to be working with experienced actors who have an amazing track record, it’s just such a gift, and it makes my job much easier.

The cast is one of the strongest aspects of the film, and I find Cosmo’s performance kind of incredible. Arms feels like such a delicate character, there’s a real innocence to him, and I think that would be easy to lose, or could get lost in the fray sometimes as more goes on in the film. How did you collaborate with him, and with the other actors, on making sure that tenderness always came true?

That was really the key to the character. And that was always the challenge on the page, and in the book. If it wasn’t done right, it could be very easy for an audience to be turned off by Arms, because he does a lot of unsavory things, makes a lot of bad choices, can be very selfish at times, and so on and so forth.

So we needed to find someone that kind of could play this character, but as you say, maintain empathy with the audience and Cosmo really understood the spine of the character in a really specific way. And he understood that this is a character that was, yes, on one hand, he’s sort of this brute, but actually, he’s also someone vulnerable, and someone with a damaged past, someone who has been manipulated and controlled by some pretty nefarious people.

What was very smart, he’d always play on this vulnerability and the sensitivity. A lot of the scenes, if you were to play Arms in a more traditional leading man role, where he’s more active, or he’s trying to take charge of the situation more, you’d kind of be put off by him. The scenes with him and Niamh Algar and Killian, who plays his son Jack. Those scenes, there’s a real tenderness and sensitivity, it almost feels a bit like a nervous first date sort of vibes, and with Niamh as well. You really got a sense of the history between the two characters just through looks and little physical parts of that performance.

A lot of what Cosmo is doing is not with words, because the character doesn’t really say that much. He doesn’t articulate himself very well. Cosmo’s performance is impressive, in so many ways, anyway, but also the fact that he’s really made an audience empathise with this type of character and this type of world. That’s not easy at all.

It really feels like we just couldn’t have made the film without him. He was perfect, and we were just so lucky to work with him. And it’s so exciting to see him now. You know, he’s doing a Netflix film and a bunch of TV work, and he seems to be really sort of taking off. And I’m really, really just so excited to see what he does next, because I think he’s a real shapeshifter, I think he can do anything.

On that note, the son Jack, there’s the specific needs aspect of that character. Can you tell me about the research, and how you cultivated that? Much like Arms, there’s a fine balance in terms of making that feel kind of real and plausible, and not being overdone or not relying on stereotypes or making a depiction that isn’t doing service to what the kid is going through and what the parents are going through.

Absolutely, we wanted to create a three dimensional character that wasn’t defined by anything, that was incredibly important. In terms of directing was the biggest, the thing I was most conscious about wanting it to be authentic and truthful and honest. The whole time we developed the scripts, we were working in conjunction with the National Autistic Aociety. So we would do a draft of the script, they’d feedback on it, we’d get opinions. And it was a constant consultation process. We couldn’t have really made the film without not just their advice and feedback on the script, but also advice in terms of casting, and how we should approach everything.

And also a group called GAP in Galway, another community group that were just so so helpful and generous with us and the actors. It meant the world to us that, you know, the National Autistic Society were so supportive, and were very happy with the end product as well. I you’re working with horses, it’s easy, it can be easy to worry about the car chases, there’s so many filmmaking things to worry about. But actually, yeah, for me the performances across the board, well, that was the kind of stuff that would would give me the biggest challenge.

Obviously, with a low budget, the car chase, we had to shoot in one day. That’s a huge logistical challenge. Across the board, there were just so many challenges, and things that we had to nail, you know, and you’re just so focused on the day to day, everyday you’re climbing a new mountain and trying to make your days and all the rest of it. And I was just so, so thankful we had such an amazing cast, amazing crew, amazing support. As a debut filmmaker, half the time, you’re not even sure if you’re even able to do it. You don’t have the confidence of someone who’s made tons and tons of stuff. So I felt really well supported, and I’m really proud of what we did.

Last year, the trailer for Wild Mountain Thyme came out. I don’t know if you saw the reaction from Ireland on Twitter, but Irish people weren’t too pleased by how the country was depicted. And I’m wondering if you had any thoughts, now that you’ve made a film set in Ireland and it’s gotten international distribution, about what the Hollywood system doesn’t necessarily understand about Ireland in movies?

I’ve not seen Wild Mountain Thyme, so I can’t really comment specifically about that film. But I can just say, I didn’t grow up in Ireland, and I fell in love with this story. And it was an Irish story that really spoke to me, and I felt it was important for the film to be authentic and to feel authentic. I said all the way through making it, it would mean so much to me, if the local audience in Ireland took the film under their wing and took it as their own. I would take that as such a huge, huge success story, and it would mean so much to me.

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It was important that it was authentic, and the way we did that was just, I tried to surround myself with as many authentic people as possible. Most of the crew was Irish, apart from Cosmo, who’s English, everyone else was Irish, and I tried to surround myself with as many people as possible that knew what things should look like and feel like. I lived there for a long time, and Cosmo lived there for a long time, before we started filming, and we fell in with Ireland. It stopped being something that I worried about because there were so many people around me that would tell me how it is.

And I trusted them and they trusted me. The crews out there are so fantastic, and all the people are so warm. Whenever you’re filming anything in London, everything is such a pain because everyone just complains about everything. But being in Ireland, the local community was so supportive, so helpful. It was the most pleasant filming experience I’ve had, and hopefully I can have again, at some point.

Hopefully so! Just one more question before our time is up. Calm With Horse is part of a growing number of great recent Irish films. I’m wondering if there have been any Irish movies that you’ve watched, or have seen over the last couple of years, that you would like people to see more of?

I love Lenny Abrahamson. Everything he does, I just think is so terrific. He gave me a lot of advice when I was making Calm With Horses, and he gave me a lot of advice about directing children and things like that, because he’d just done Room and he’d done such a great job with that. And I really just look forward to anything that he does.

And also I’m so excited about Cathy Brady, she has a movie, Wildfire, that comes out in September, and I’m really excited for that. I think she’s nominated for Rising Star in this year’s Irish Film and TV awards, she’s terrific. I think everyone should check out her work. She’s got really great short films, and I think she’s really exciting just because she very much focuses on performance. And also Phil Sheerin, another young Irish filmmaker, is doing really exciting work.

And just the people I work with. Piers McGrail, my cinematographer. I think he’s such a talent, everything he does, I can’t wait to see. It’s a country of storytellers. Before doing Calm With Horses, I used to direct a TV show called Griffith Street that we shot in Dublin, I’ve worked over in Ireland a lot, and all of my best memories of filmmaking are in Ireland so far.

I don’t know exactly what the next one will be, I know Colin Barrett’s got his novel coming out soon, so I’ll have to ring him up and see if he’s found a filmmaker for that yet. Maybe I can get back over because I’ve heard it’s like a thriller set in Mayo. So maybe there’s more gas in the tank for more Irish stories for me.

Hopefully so – more time in Castlebar, yeah?

Yeah, absolutely.

Thanks very much for your time, best of luck with the continued success, and hopefully we might chat again, whatever your next project is.

Absolutely. Thanks, guys, see you later.

Nick Rowland features in The South Bank Show on Sky Arts, available now on demand and on streaming service NOW. Nick is a nominee for at this year’s South Bank Sky Arts which airs on Sky Arts and NOW on Thursday, July 22 at 20:00 BST.

Calm With Horses is available to watch now on Netflix.

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Anthony McGlynn

Staff writer

Updated: Jul 09, 2021


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