Pilgrim Hill tells the story of Jimmy Walsh (Joe Mullins), a middle-aged farmer living in rural Ireland. Unmarried and ill-educated, Jimmy has unquestioningly assumed responsibility for tending to the remote family land and its livestock, and has taken on the care of his ageing father in the same manner. His social life amounts to a couple of pints in the pub when he can get away, and Jimmy is clearly finding his life tough. He’s not prepared for the turn it is about to take.
Niamh Creely talks to Gerard Barrett, winner of this year’s IFTA Rising Star award, about his debut feature which is set in his home county, Kerry.
So where did the inspiration for Pilgrim Hill come from?
I come from a very rural part of Ireland, a little village just outside Listowel called Knockanure. In about a two or three-mile radius around me I have counted 13 bachelor farmers, ranging from 30 all the way up to 80/90 years of age. And in my own family I have bachelor farmers as well. So I always wanted to tell their story, because it was never a story that was told, in my opinion. Everybody knows somebody that is linked to one – either a brother of your mother or father, or a neighbour or a friend, a cousin of a cousin. Now some of them, you know, are very happy to be that way. But more of them were forced into that situation. They are kind of lost souls. Maybe when one parent died very young, one might be caught at home to mind the parents. And the other siblings will go abroad. So it’s an unfortunate situation. So the approach I took was, I just wanted to make a character that I could build all this into. And that was what I came up with for the film. I wanted people to take a moment out to live that life of the character over the 80/90 minutes. Because unfortunately they are the people that we pass on the road. And I just wanted to highlight it. That was my goal.
How did you get into writing scripts, initially?
I finished up my Media Bachelors last year in IT Tralee. And I just sat down and wrote a script. I was very lucky because the script actually got me an agent in London, the Troika Talent Agency. It was a big deal for me, that they appreciated my writing. They said to me this story could easily be set in Yorkshire about a Yorkshire bachelor farmer.
I kind of came up with the plan that I would shoot it independently. I felt I didn’t need to go to the Irish Film Board with this. I felt that it could be done independently, just to give it that rawness and that reality. I thought that if it had too much of a budget it would kill the spontaneity and that realism. So that’s why I gathered up my own money and a budget of €4,500. I got a really great DOP from Cork, Ian Murphy, on board. I wanted to shoot it on the RED camera, because I wanted that width in screen, I wanted to take in the landscape. And he got a really good crew on board, a focus puller, Fergus Long, and a sound guy, Robert O’Halloran. So there was literally just three on the crew and myself. I met the guys and told them, we had eight days, that’s all the money I had. I suppose in reality I could have made it for free. But I wanted to pay everybody that was involved.
So you based the film around the budget.
Sometimes I think people jump too fast into big projects. You have to learn your trade. You have to show that you can make a film and you have to show that you can write a project that is worthy of a film. So for me, I kind of looked at it as an end-of-year college project. I looked at it as a situation where I could go out and prove to people that, yes, look, I can make a feature film. I also wanted to tell this story, because it was just in me. If you had a couple of hundred grand, you would probably be inclined to set up more lights and make it a little bit less real. Whereas what we were doing – every scene, every shot was real, you know. And that’s what people say when they watch it. When I screened it for Mary Mallon in the Light House Cinema they said, ‘Jesus, it’s beyond real.’ People have said, ‘My God, it’s like a documentary more than a film,’ it’s that real. Because you are trying to tell a real story and trying to punch an audience in the stomach to make sure that you know they are taking this in.
You cast a newcomer to the screen, Joe Mullins.
Yes. I didn’t want to cast an actor that had any previous screen credits. I went to a play and found Joe Mullins who played the lead role. I saw him and I just said, ‘Jesus, that’s the guy there.’ He was everything I wanted him to be. I met him afterwards and the weirdest thing was that the story I had written was actually his story in real life. He didn’t marry until he was a bit older. He has had a bit of a tough relationship with his father. And… he just was the character. It was weird. People say, ‘oh, it’s a great film.’ But it’s when they say Joe’s performance is mesmerising, that’s when you know you have something great. Because I would much rather them say his performance was amazing than ‘oh my God, it’s shot so well.’ Because it’s like, you can shoot it on an iPhone if you want to, as long as the performance is real. I had a screening down in Listowel and a group of bachelor farmers came to it. A few of them actually walked out because it was too real, because they could relate too much to the film. One woman brought her brother who was a bachelor farmer. I thought she was probably expecting it was going to be The Riordans. And she said, when she went home in the car with him, they didn’t speak.
You made the short film The Valley of Knockanure in 2009.
Yes, it was part of a college project. It won the Kerry Film Festival and it won awards in the Welsh Film Festival and a few more bits and pieces. I suppose now I have more knowledge of what I could have done with the film, in terms of putting it out there. But I was very reluctant to go near the Film Board, because I just… I felt I wasn’t good enough. I suppose in hindsight I should have probably taken it to the Film Board, because it did capture an audience. But even with Pilgrim Hill, you know when I took it to the Film Board I took it to them in December. I was so nervous because if they say it’s good, mentally, it’s kind of a stamp of approval. It’s a good film if they like it. So I took it to them and Andrew Meehan told me they wanted to get behind it. I just said to him that I had two dreams when I was making the film. One, that the Film Board would acknowledge it as a film and that they would think it was good. And two, that it would premier at the Galway Film Fleadh. So then I just rang Gar O’Brien [programmer of the Fleadh] and said, ‘Look I have this film I shot for €4,500. I know when you hear that, you’ll think it’s probably going to be a ball of shit, but I want you to see it and it’s a dream of mine that it would premier in Galway.’ And he said to me to send it on. I told him that it’s a film you need to see on a big screen and I asked him when he was in Dublin again. He was going to a concert in Dublin at the start of April so I asked him to be at the Light House Cinema at 10 o’clock in the morning. He came with Miriam [Allen, MD of the Fleadh] and Gar and they actually gave me a standing ovation and a clap afterwards. It was a bit weird. Because it was only myself and them in the cinema. But it was just brilliant. After all the hard work and all the tipping and tapping. It all paid off in the end. It was huge for me.
And how did you get your film screened in the Light House?
I just walked in. I work next door in Brown Bag Films. I just walked in, asked to speak to the manager and said I had a film to show to the Galway Film Fleadh committee. He said they’d do it for X amount. And I said I only had half of that and he agreed. They are brilliant. It’s a brilliant facility.
So you chanced your arm.
Well, as my mother says, a dumb priest never got a parish. You’ve got to ask. That’s my approach to everything. The worst they can say is no. Just recently, I was told that the Film Board will be helping with completion of the film. They really love it and are delighted to get behind it. Andrew Meehan, Sarah Dillion, Patrick O’ Neill and Emma Scott have all been fantastic and I have to thank them for all their support.
So what do you do at Brown Bag?
I’m working on a Disney show at the moment. I’ve created an adult animated comedy that they really like. And that has been commissioned for 10 episodes. We hope to go into production in August with that. Brown Bag have been very good to me, Darragh O’ Connell and Cathal Gaffney especially.
Do you have a particular writing style or approach?
I will be honest with you. Pilgrim Hill and that type of film is not my style in one sense. But I had such a personal approach to that. Generally my style would be very much out there in terms of dialogue. I would be a huge fan of Quentin Tarantino’s dialogue and Martin McDonagh’s dialogue. I wanted to make Pilgrim Hill because I wanted to learn. I wanted to do a small project that I knew I could do well. A project that was personal to me. So that’s kind of… Look, that was the approach. I am a farmer’s son from north Kerry on a small farm. I am just somebody who likes to tell stories and that’s it. That’s all.
Pilgrim Hill is screening in selected cinemas now.