Lorna Buttimer chats to John Michael McDonagh, writer/director of Calvary and its star Brendan Gleeson ahead of the film’s release in Irish cinemas.
John Michael McDonagh and Brendan Gleeson clearly get on well. Calvary is their second feature together, and it sees the two tackle the Sligo landscape to portray the life of Father James, the kindly priest who learns by confession that a parishioner plans to murder him in retribution for the crimes of the Catholic Church in seven days’ time. Not knowing if the threat is real, the priest tries to put right the many problems in his small rural community, and reconnect with his estranged daughter (Kelly Reilly) before his possible murder.
Gleeson, of course, plays Father James, the player upon the Sligo stage. ‘Father Jamo’, in Gleeson’s words, is someone aware of his particular uniform. But what separates him from his peers is the fact that he is a ‘modern creature’. ‘Like when Jesus knocks the hell out of the money guys in the temple and kicks them out, it seems to me that Father James comes from that line. There is a rage in him about the self-serving, petty mindlessness of it all,’ claims Gleeson.
Father James comes to the Catholic Church after a marriage, a child and a troubled life with alcohol. In Gleeson’s view, these experiences make his character stand apart. ‘It gives him a personal life, a personal history. Father James has been in the world; he has had contact with stuff maybe other priests don’t have.”.
As a result of such experience, Father James is able to reach out to his parishioners and through that, maybe discover who wants him dead. ‘John said I was more or less a Samurai in a way. And the funny thing was when I went to get fitted for the vestments I got a real weird goose-bumpy, tingly kind of a thing, where it was like a suit of armour, and you’re the protectorate of all things good. I wasn’t prepared for it or didn’t expect it.
‘And that’s what he does – he goes and he takes on the forces of despair and he’s fighting his own temptation of despair quite a lot too. Rather than someone who went into the church naively, he understands how dark it can be and the temptation to go into despair. He becomes a lightning rod for everyone else’s disillusionment and they try their hardest to break him. But in the end they don’t really want to break him at all; they want their own cynicism to be overturned by his belief.’
The film is marked by its use of location. Shot in Sligo, both are keen to emphasise how the film flourished under Ben Bulben’s deep shadow. ‘The locations are very important, you know, Galway was very important on The Guard and Sligo was very important on this one,’ says McDonagh.
‘It has a real bearing on how everybody interacts,’ elaborates Gleeson, ‘and just the way people carry themselves. It’s only working when you feel part of the place. And you can see that in the film – you really can.’
With smaller budgets, crews and time, sometimes Irish films don’t make it to the actual location. For Gleeson, this is a huge mistake. ‘You’re going to get the counter argument that if you go to a location it’s a day to travel and a day to travel back and if you’re trying to keep to budgets that you’re pushing to the limit. There is always the temptation for people to say “sure Wicklow’s just down the corner”. But it has a huge impact on the film – the whole Ben Bulben thing in this, it’s so iconic.’
Speaking about Ireland’s landscape, McDonagh tells how Ryan’s Daughter ‘was a big influence on this and The Guard – the way it’s shot; just beautiful scenes all the way through, scenes that showed how you could shoot Ireland’. He further muses, ‘With Calvary, if you look at all the scenery, you wonder why hasn’t an Irish film been shot there before?’
To answer this, McDonagh recognises that the Irish film industry is perhaps too centralised in Dublin. When budgets and schedules are tight, Wicklow, ‘down around the corner’, is cheap and easy for outdoor locations. For the director this isn’t palatable any longer. ‘That seems to be the default position but it just leads to this kind of visually claustrophobic set of films that are all or mostly set in the Dublin environment,’ and for McDonagh, that doesn’t cut it. Here is a filmmaker that wants to explore, portray and discover what that the Irish landscape has to offer.
Calvary premiered at Sundance. McDonagh says he was delighted with the reaction. ‘There’s the strain of black humour that lasts throughout the movie. I thought about half way through that the audience were going to go ‘Awh this is gonna’ go really dark’ but what happened was, even in the last third of the film, we were still getting laughs and I think it was because certain scenes were just so dark that people just wanted some kind of relief. I was pleased they got the reactions, the rhythms and everything, and I think they grasped quite quickly that the film wasn’t The Guard Take Two’.
And the question on everyone’s lips – will the two work together again? The answer is yes – it’s already in development. ‘Yeah, we’ve got one more’, reveals McDonagh, ‘I haven’t written it but it’s gonna be about an abusive paraplegic, so Brendan will be in a wheelchair scuttling around South London!’
Calvary is released in cinemas 11th April 2014