Once upon a time in the west (of Ireland)

Director Nick Rowland tells David Hennessy why it was important for Calm with Horses, adapted from Colin Barrett’s novella, to be authentically Irish, why Barry Keoghan pickpocketed a wallet and why he was so grateful for Lenny Abrahamson’s advice prior to filming.

Tense crime thriller set in rural Ireland Calm with Horses comes to Irish Film London’s St. Patrick’s Film Festival just as it goes on wide release. The story centres around Arm, played by Cosmo Jarvis, the former boxer who is now enforcing the will of a local crime family.

Haunted by the death of a young opponent in the ring, Arm must also try to be a good father to his autistic son.

Director Nick Rowland told The Irish World: “We wanted this film to be very authentically Irish. I’m not Irish myself and nor is Cosmo so we felt a huge amount of responsibility to retain a sense of authenticity. We worked as hard as we could to immerse ourselves in the world.”

The film is adapted from Colin Barrett’s story that featured in his collection, Young Skins: “I actually read the collection of short stories while I was at film school and just fell in love with them. I didn’t grow up in Ireland but I did grow up on the north east coast of Scotland in a small fishing town. That’s a lot of universal emotions and elements to Colin’s world that I identified with. I felt like I’d met a lot of the characters in my own home town so I think there’s an emotional quality to his writing that anyone can connect with. At the same time it has a very specific sense of place and that’s why we insisted we wanted to shoot it in the west of Ireland to honour the source material.

“I like the idea of making a rural Irish film not only as an outsider but also treating it as more of an urban story in a way so you have this contrast of dark gang crime thriller aspects that you usually associate with a film that’s in the city, Dublin or something like that. Contrast it with the beautiful Connemara mountains and the ocean, the mother earth kind of keeping these characters under siege.

“We wanted the town to feel like a frontier town in a western.”

Starring Cosmo Jarvis of Lady Macbeth, Barry Keoghan of films like American Animals and Dunkirk and Niamh Algar who was named as one of BAFTA’s rising stars last year, the film also boasts a strong supporting cast that includes Irish actors like Ned Dennehy and David Wilmot.

“As a debut feature film-maker, to have a cast like that is a real luxury and it made my job a lot easier, I have to say.

“We were talking about Barry and hoping he would do it for a long, long time so we were thrilled when he read the script and responded to it. I did have to go and visit him in Ireland for a couple of Guinness just to seal the deal but I was very happy to do that.”

Barry decided to show he was up for playing a criminal in a most original way when it was first being pitched to him: “At the Sundance Film Festival, Dan (Emmerson, producer) was saying, ‘We’ve got this film, you would be perfect for this criminal mastermind’.

“As he was pitching the film to Barry, Barry had pick pocketed his wallet.

“He’s an amazing talent. We were so lucky to work with him and he’s so surprising every take, it’s a real privilege to watch him.

“Then we found Cosmo through the audition process and it became very clear immediately that he was perfect for the role of Arm because the character on the page isn’t actually the most likeable guy in the world and it was important to find someone that you would still be rooting for despite all the mistakes the character makes.

“His job is as an enforcer. He beats people up for a living and doesn’t show remorse about it to begin with so finding someone who would bring the humanity and the warmth, those endearing qualities was really important.”

Nobody can accuse Cosmo Jarvis of not putting the hours in to perfect his Irish accent as the actor relocated to the west of Ireland months ahead of time to work on getting his accent right.

“He was out with us for a few months and he would just hang out with the locals. We were staying in Loughrea. All the locals just thought he was a local Irish guy that had just cropped up out of the ground or something.”

In fact, some members of the crew got a shock when shooting wrapped and the actor started talking in his Cornish accent.

“The whole crew, a lot of people, didn’t realise he was actually from the south of England. It was a bit of a shock when we wrapped and suddenly he came out of accent.

“Obviously, it was something I was worried about. An Irish movie accent that is not very good can really do a lot of damage and I can’t imagine the pressure Cosmo was feeling.

“He used to be a musician and he has a really good ear for the small stuff. He was absolutely flawless.

“I’m still bumping into people and they’re shocked to hear he’s not Irish. I feel like we’re safe, Cosmo’s passed the accent test with the locals.

“What I love about Irish movies is that there’s always a great sense of humour to them. I’m a huge fan of Lenny Abrahamson.

“I was very lucky. He gave me some advice and was kind enough to have a meeting with me before I filmed Calm with Horses which I really appreciated. It’s amazing to meet one of your heroes. He did such a great job with Room. Garage is one of my favourite Irish films as well.

“He was so generous with me. In Room he got such a marvellous performance out of young Jake Tremblay and he gave me lots of great advice. I feel hugely in his debt.”

Nick had Kiljan Moroney playing the five year old autistic son of Arm. Nick was keen to get this portrayal as close as possible: “We developed the script with The National Autistic Society to make sure that we did everything as authentically as possible. We’re so happy that they’re proud of the film and happy with the way it’s been portrayed. Little Kiljan had never acted in a film before. He did such a marvellous job.”

Similar to the Irish accent, Nick did not want another poor portrayal of the condition to feature in his movie: “That’s very important to me and it means a lot because I didn’t want to add to the problem of misrepresentations in the media. I’m really thankful for all the support they’ve given us.”

Having gone in at such a high level, how can Nick top his debut film? “I don’t know, I feel like I’ve learned so much through the process of making this film. I think that’s probably the curse of film-making:  Every time you finish a film, you wish you could go back and start again with everything that you now know.

“I guess it will be like that with every film so at the moment I’m just excited to grow and improve on the next one.

“Before I was a film-maker, I used to be a rally driver. I’m writing a new film that takes place within the world of competitive rally driving.

“My mum is the only mother that thought film directing was a sensible option. I guess it was compared to racing through forests at 130mph.”

Calm with Horses is on Netflix.