Calm With Horses follows Douglas “Arm” Armstrong as he tries to find the balance between being a good father to his autistic son Jack and being the violent right-hand man of the Devers clan. Filmed in Ireland, Nick Rowland’s film is a remarkably confident debut and features powerful performances from Cosmo Jarvis, Barry Keoghan and Niamh Algar.
The film was one of the many that saw its theatrical run cut short due to the global health crisis. We caught up with Rowland for a socially distanced chat about making his first feature, observing different approaches to acting and working with child actors ahead of its VOD release.
Maria Lattila for The Digital Fix:
Thank you so much for taking the time to chat to me about Calm With Horses.
Nick Rowland: Thanks for talking to me about it.
It’s such a shame the coronavirus got in the way of the cinema release of the film.
Yeah, it’s a real shame but nothing can be done about it, there’s far more serious things going on now. But it was a real shame because we worked on the film for a long time and it was our first film as well. We dreamt a lot about having the movie in cinemas and it was out only for a couple of days before they all shut down.
And how long did the project take? You read the original short story around 2014, 2015?
I guess it must have been 2014.
Why did you want this short story to be your first feature film?
I didn’t think too much about it. First of all, I really enjoyed the story and I really cared about the characters. They felt very rich and real in a way that felt quite uncommon. It’s quite a dark world and quite a dark story but the characters had so much life, fears and energy and humour, and kind of an eccentricity to them as well. I thought it was an interesting world to try and adapt. Arm, as a protagonist, is interesting because he so amoral and violent but actually has a huge amount of heart, especially with his son, so that kind of duality and contradiction pulled me in as a reader. I thought it would probably pull other people in as well.
Did you have to add anything or take anything away from the original story to bring this to the screen?
Yes, there’s quite a few differences. I think overall it was a case of adding rather than taking away because it’s a short story. We had to sort of create a second act and give Arm, as a character, a bit more of an arc. In the book, you have these scenes with his ex-girlfriend and his son but they don’t really form the main plot, they’re just little vignettes of a life he once had. The main thing we tried to do is to bring his son and his ex-girlfriend – who’s played by Niamh Algar – to the fore and make that the heartbeat of the story.
It’s such a great story and so emotional but at the same time, it’s very familiar in some of the story beats. Did you look at any films or texts as influences?
I guess Jacques Audiard’s movies have always had an influence on me and early Danny Boyle work. Although this film is set in rural Ireland, we wanted to treat it as if it was an urban story. So there’s a contrast between this kind of rural setting, a sense of nature and the electronic score for example.
I also reviewed this for TDF, and I compared it to Michael Pearce’s Beast, without knowing you had a working relationship. I believe he was your mentor?
Yeah, it’s (Lighthouse Guiding Lights Feature Focus) a scheme where filmmakers who have just finished their first movie give advice to people in the middle of doing their first film. I knew Michael a little bit anyway, but it’s always good to have like a contractual obligation for someone to have to hang out with you. And he was amazing. He was so generous and helpful. I would ring him up every week, just kind of being like ‘this is happening or that’s happening’, ‘is this is normal or should I be worried about this or how did you do?’ ‘Did you have any similar situations like this?’ It’s really useful to be able to talk somebody that’s just been through what you’re going through. There are so many established filmmakers that are very generous with their knowledge and guidance and you can watch masterclasses and read about what they think. It was really helpful to be able to talk to someone who’s just one step ahead of where you are, because the industry has changed so much in the last 20 years. So to be able to talk to someone who’s just been through a debut feature journey as a very recent experience was very useful.
And obviously, the actors in this are absolutely amazing, especially Cosmo Jarvis, he’s such a find. What did he do specifically that convinced you that he could bring Arm to the screen and be compelling, because he is a very unsympathetic character at times?
What Cosmo did, which was really clever, is he didn’t play Arm as a traditional alpha male way or a traditional leading man kind of way. He played Arm in a very vulnerable way. And he really understood the spine of who the character was which is really important because especially on the page when you read the script, some people can read it like I don’t like this guy, I’m not sure I’m with him. We had to find someone that you’d really be rooting for. And what was great is it’s a very physical performance, but very layered as well, in the sense that he’s been the victim of gaslighting and manipulation. Cosmo’s actually the real deal.
It’s remarkable what he does with his face and with his mouth. It’s, I think, a similar thing that Heath Ledger does in Brokeback Mountain, his lips are constantly pursed, it feels like he’s keeping a lot of things inside and he just doesn’t know how to bring those emotions out.
Yeah, as a character, he doesn’t really say that much. And when he does say things, he’s not very good at articulating how he feels. When you say Cosmo’s is a very physical performance, obviously that includes the fights and he did a full body transformation and all that kind of stuff. But it also includes the tiny little details he does, where he expresses so much emotion or so much history just through a look or a glance. I’ve never worked with an actor who’s done so much work in prep before a project. He was out in Ireland for months doing research. And obviously, he’s not Irish himself. And he was doing a very, very specific West Ireland accent, which even a lot of Irish actors wouldn’t be able to do as convincingly as he did. And we certainly didn’t want to contribute to the many, many examples of bad Irish accents in cinema, so I take my hat off to him.
Barry (Keoghan) who plays Dympna, you already knew him before but did you always know that he was going to be playing Dympna?
We always wanted him to be Dympna. We didn’t always know that would happen. We kind of wrote the part for Barry and had him in mind for a long time. He read the script, and initially he was kind of interested in playing Arm because he’s a boxer himself and he comes from that part of the world. We’d spent years writing this part, thinking of him playing it and when we talked about it, he very graciously accepted the part and he does such a great job with it.
And how did you work on Barry and Cosmo’s chemistry because it’s very dynamic and the film is so interesting, because one of them is very explosive, very unpredictable. And then Arm is obviously very reserved, but also has these violent tendencies.
It was interesting because first and foremost they’re both extremely hardworking and extremely professional. But I would say as an observant, spending time on set with both of them, they approach acting in a quite a different way. Barry’s very spontaneous and he likes to keep things fresh and alive, and he likes to be in the moment. Cosmo does that as well, but I would say Cosmo spends a lot more time rehearsing. I would say Cosmo is more of a method actor. They had quite different energies on set which kind of works, because sometimes it can be tricky. If actors get into the same rhythm with each other, it can actually create a false energy in the scene. So they were actually a really wonderful component, their different styles I think complement each other really, really well.
We have to talk about the music because the score to this film is phenomenal as well. Early on, when you were still developing this, did you already know then that you wanted a score that would be quite heavy on electronic and piano?
I didn’t know exactly what type of score or what the sound would be but it was important to find a sound that would be able to complement both the emotional side of the story and this kind of crime thriller side. What’s great about Ben, Blanck Mass, his sound can very fluidly dip and dance between emotional melancholy and the threat of violence in a way that felt very organic. And I was a big fan of Ben for a long time. When we were developing the script, I used to sometimes listen to Blanck Mass or Fuck Buttons’ albums when I was imagining scenes. I never thought in a million years that I’d actually get the opportunity to work with them. I felt very lucky and the people seem to really love the soundtrack. We wanted it to be a memorable soundtrack, not the kind of soundtrack that sort of just sits in the background, in quite an anonymous way. We wanted it to be one of those soundtracks where you need to sit down and go, I just want to download that straightaway, which people seem to do with it. It’s out at the moment. You can digitally download it but it’ll come out on CD and vinyl next month as well.
This is a very bleak film and very upsetting at times. Does that ever bleed onto the atmosphere on set?
I’m told a lot of people had a lot of fun on set, but I didn’t. I was really stressed most of the time. Everyone around me seemed to be having a really good time. We’re a low budget indie movie. And we were working extremely hard to get it made. So sometimes we’d be tired or exhausted, to be honest. But we kept on going really well. And a lot of the time we had a five-year-old, Kiljan Moroney who plays Jack. And when you have a child there, it’s important that everyone is aware of that and that there’s a clear distinction between the drama, the make-believe world and the real world, which is happy as normal. In a way Kiljan kind of kept us on our best behaviour.
He’s absolutely extraordinary. How do you find working with child actors? How does it work when there’s a child involved as well?
It’s mainly tricky from a practical point of view, because Kiljan was five years old when we shot the film, so he were only allowed on set for five hours a day and he was only allowed on camera for two hours a day, which is a tiny amount of time. It kind of disrupts filming, because you have to focus on any shot that he’s in first. Sometimes we’d shoot them in an inorganic way, I guess, which was more of a challenge for Cosmo and Niamh. We were very worried about those sorts of issues and we were going to bring in a double so we could maybe get around that but, in the end, Kiljan was very professional, very wise, emotionally wise beyond his years. I have to thank Lenny Abrahamson, who gave me some advice about it. Obviously, he did the movie Room with Jacob Tremblay and did such a great job getting an amazing performance out of him in that film. And he spoke to me a few times to give me advice on things he found useful about building that performance. And that came really handy.
And just lastly, what can we expect from you next? What are you working on now?
I’m writing a thriller set in the world of competitive rally driving. I used to be a rally driver before I was a filmmaker and it’s a motor sport that’s never really been seen in cinema that much before. So I’m doing that next!
The Digital Fix would like to thank Nick Rowland for chatting with us.
Calm With Horses is available on VOD April 27.
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